Music is ubiquitous and confusing. Twice a month, Eric Spitznagel stares into the bottomless chasm of new (and old) songs, albums and musicians that permeate our lives, and tries to pretend he has any idea what it all means.
I own Rod Stewart's new album, Merry Christmas, Baby. Even more embarrassingly, I paid for it. With money. And now I own it. Listening to Rod sing Christmas standards is a bona fide existential experience. Not because the album is terrible. (It is.) But because it forces you to confront the very real possibility that you, as a musical consumer, are kind of stupid.
Here's another way of looking at it: Let's say, in a parallel universe, the 1981 Men at Work album Business as Usual spawned a cottage industry. The record-buying public is so enamored with the songs that one recording just isn't enough. So every year, artists both popular and past their prime re-record Business as Usual hits. Mariah Carey covers "Underground." Toby Keith does a country version of "Who Can It Be Now?" Michael Bublé and the cast of Glee both release their covers of "Down Under" in the same week, and both shoot to the top of the charts. The songs aren't noticeably different. Every rendering is more or less identical, except done with a singer that isn't Colin Hay. But people keep buying them. Every year it's "Holy shit, Diana Krall did a version of 'Helpless Automaton' that sounds just like Rihanna's version that sounds just like Faith Hill's version that sounds just like the original? I need to own that!"
The Men at Work songs in this parallel universe are the equivalent of Christmas songs in our universe. Except the Men at Work songs are in many ways better. They certainly have more complicated lyrics and key changes.
There's no reason to produce more Christmas music. We have more than enough. And there's definitely no reason to re-record the same Christmas classics that have already been recorded, with more or less the same arrangement, thousands of times. But it keeps happening. Rod Stewart's Christmas album, with standards like "White Christmas" and "Santa Claus Is Coming To Town" (songs that you undoubtedly own in septuplicate by other artists), has already sold 475,000 copies. Almost half a million people said, "I need another-another-another-another version of 'Silent Night.'"
"Silent Night" is probably the best example of this weird phenomenon. The 200-year-old Austrian carol is one of the most recorded Christmas tune of all time. (It's second only to "The Christmas Song.") It's also the least musically complex. It has just three chords -- C major, G major and F major -- played very, veeeeeery slowly. And yet there's apparently something hypnotic about those chords, because musicians can't stop revisiting them. iTunes has exactly 2000 "Silent Night" MP3s for sale, performed by everyone from Bing Crosby to Boyz II Men. And they're all pretty much the same snooze-inducing lullaby. Some are super long (the Temptations recorded a six-minute version) and some are super short (Gene Autry needed just over a minute). Some manage to capture the experience of mixing Benadryl with red wine, and some are vaguely head-banging. But they're all unmistakably, unremarkably, redundantly "Silent Night."
At this point in history, we probably have enough "Silent Night"s. But that hasn't stopped dozens of new "Silent Night" recordings from being unleashed on the public just this year. There may have been more than dozens, that's just what I counted after minimal research. Rod Stewart released a "Silent Night" cover this year, as did Sugarland and Richard Marx and the Polyphonic Spree. The German Eurodance act Cascada did their own take on "Silent Night," and nothing about it sounds remotely German or Eurodance. It sounds like every other "Silent Night" that ever has or will be recorded.
But maybe I'm being cynical. Maybe I haven't listened close enough. Maybe 2012 is the year "Silent Night" gets reinvented and reimagined in ways we never thought possible. Let's find out together.
1. "Silent Night" by Olivia Newton-John and John Travolta (This Christmas)
I like this version almost immediately, because what the hell is that instrument being played in the first 30 seconds? A pan flute? Is this silent night set in Middle Earth, where Hobbits are just trying to get a good night's sleep without being hassled by Dark Riders? In terms of originality, you can't do much better than giving a Christmas tune a Ren faire vibe.
The problem starts with the singing. Olivia holds her own and delivers a non-embarrassing vocal performance that doesn't make me wish I had just watched Xanadu instead. But for some reason, they gave Travolta all the overtly religious lines. "Jesus Lord at thy birth?" Really? The most famous member of a religion that believes people are aliens trapped in human bodies, the guy who recently claimed he used his special powers to heal a car accident victim, is singing "Son of God/ Love's pure light?" I'd be more inclined to believe a zombie Christopher Hitchens belting out lines like "Radiant beams from Thy Holy Face" than I am Travolta.
This was clearly a missed opportunity. Like most people, I mostly know the lyrics to "Silent Night," and I mostly don't care. I can mouth along if I'm in church and don't want to be too obviously disrespectful, but I'm rarely, if ever paying attention. Travolta had the chance to change that. Just by tweaking the occasional lyric with a Scientology twist -- something like, oh I don't know, "Xenu, Lord, at Thy birth" -- he could've transformed "Silent Night" into something polemic and interesting. Suddenly everyone would have strong opinions about "Silent Night." Your grandfather who watches Fox News would tell you how it's a corruptive song and probably Obama's fault. Your old college buddy who lives in Brooklyn would do a cover of Travolta's cover with his folk-punk-electronica four-piece that doesn't have a record contract but once opened for Clap Your Hands Say Yeah.
It'd be entertaining not just for the obvious reasons (i.e. Scientology is inherently funny) but as religious satire. Name-dropping Xenu in a Christmas song just highlights how most religious mythologies are more or less the same. Humanity is the result of botched alien genocide, Jesus was born of a virgin mom, it's tomato/tomahto in terms of batshit crazy religious theories. And that's how "Silent Night" could finally get its groove back. That's how it'd go from being the song you skip on a Christmas mix to the song you get into a screaming fit with your uncle about because "Don't play that sacrilegious shit in my house!"
Instead, Travolta made a "Silent Night" where he's outshined by a pan flute.
Have you ever been to a birthday party where they start singing the "Happy Birthday" song and some wiseass decides to ad-lib? He'll scat and improvise his own lyrics, thinking he's being fun and creative. But really, he's just ruining an otherwise fine arrangement. You know why the Happy Birthday song has survived for over a century? Because the first draft was fine. It doesn't need a script polish or a punch-up, Joe Hollywood. Just sing the song the way it's written so we can eat our cake and get the hell out of here.
That's what I was reminded of while listening to Lady Antebellum's cover of "Silent Night," which for some reason has new lyrics. And to add insult to injury, the new lyrics are all extraneous bullshit. Like the guy who peppers the Happy Birthday song with "we're talkin' 'bout crazy ol' you," the extra "Silent Night" lyrics don't add any new information or surprises. The silent night isn't interrupted by deadly ninjas sent to assassinate the new born King of Kings. It's just one of the bearded Antebellum dudes muddying up the melody with Jesus ass-kissing. Listen, the blessed baby gets the message. You want him to have a good night's sleep. No need to throw in "praising your birth" and "to save the world." Even the three kings think you sounds like an asshole.
This may seem hypocritical, given that I previously suggested revamping "Silent Night" as a Scientology sing-along. But I wasn't messing with the song's structure. I was merely substituting one fictional religious figure for another. Also, have you heard the Jingle Cats cover of "Silent Night"? The entire thing was meowed, but it was obvious they were singing the lyrics as written, just in an indecipherable kitten language.
Lady Antebellum, you could learn a few things about respect from the Jingle Cats.
Sometimes the worst thing a Christmas song can do is remind you of church. In general, Sufjan Stevens reminds me of church. I used to like him, when he was making albums about Midwestern states. But then I listened to Seven Swans, which combines banjo picking and unironic lyrics about Jesus. It's not like Stevens would be the guy who does a reggae cover of "Silent Night" in 7/8 time. But even so, I didn't think it'd evoke such a strong sense memory of church. Listening to Steven's "Silent Night," I can almost smell church. It smells like the birch wood of the pews, and I'm eight-years-old and it's Christmas Eve and I can't sit still, and every time they finish a prayer or a bible reading or a song, I cross it off the program with the tiny pencils they leave next to the hymnals. When we start singing "Silent Night," I'm hoping we just do the one verse. Because come on, we don't need the whole song, right? We get the idea. A baby's sleeping and it's quiet and we should all sing quiet so the baby can sleep. But then the organ keeps going and I'm like, "Aw Jesus, we're doing the glorious streaming and heav'nly host part? Gaaaaawd." And I roll my shoulders the way only an impatient prepubescent does when it's 11:30 on Christmas Eve and he's stuck in church.
Sufjan Stevens evokes that feeling in just two and a half minutes. That's some serious church-evoking mojo.
Writing those last few paragraphs made me feel guilty. I should clarify, I'm not opposed to the baby Jesus. The story about the homeless couple and the shepherds and frankincense, it's good stuff. And I guess it's arguable that it's part of the reason the holiday exists -- although that's like arguing that Thanksgiving is really about pilgrims or Columbus Day is just about bringing syphilis to Europe. Personally, I don't want religion mixed up in my Christmas music. Which admittedly is tough with a song like "Silent Night." "Jingle Bell Rock" is easy to divorce from virgin births. But "Silent Night" is about the baby Jesus. He's the star of the show. Demanding a secular "Silent Night" is like asking a boy band to stop using the word "baby" so much.
So what do I want from Sufjan exactly? Take out anything biblical in "Silent Night"'s lyrics? No more "holy infant" or "heavenly peace" or "radiant beams"? Or is just the choir-like quality in his production, which makes me feel itchy in my church clothes and eager to get the hell out of there so I can go home and watch a claymation special instead?
I am so high maintenance with "Silent Night." I'm starting to irritate myself.
4. "Silent Night" by the cast of Glee (The Christmas Album Volume 3)
I heard this version about a month ago in Target. Now admittedly, this was well before Thanksgiving, and maybe a little premature to be piping in Christmas music. But whatever, I was at Target. But then another shopper, after making eye contact with me and grimacing, loudly announced, "Can you believe this? Christmas music already?" I smiled back at her, as if I shared her dismay. But honestly, I couldn't have cared less. What did she expect to hear at Target? Was she accustomed to a soundtrack of Godspeed You! Black Emperor and Skrillex while shopping for discount pharmaceuticals? It's Target. You're in the wrong venue to be demanding musical integrity.
That's literally all I can think about when I hear this cover. It's a pretty enough version, I guess. But I have a Pavlovian response to it. Naya Rivera starts getting melodramatic about sleeping babies, and I visualize a smug Target shopper rolling her eyes, sneering at the ceiling and shouting "Too soon!" Does that make it good or bad? I don't know. I have a similar problem with the new Mormon Tabernacle rendering of "Silent Night." It immediately reminds me of when I lived in Salt Lake City (my wife was working for Sundance) and my mom came to visit. I took her to Temple Square, and a pleasant Mormon lady told us all about the history of her church and asked if we had any questions. My mom tore her a new asshole, scolding her for being part of a religion that my mom considered "sexist claptrap. Do you have any self-respect at all? You know that the Mormon Church thinks you have roughly the same value as dining room furniture?" The Mormon lady tried to respond politely, but my mom wouldn't let up, and continued hammering her until the Mormon lady finally pretended she had another appointment. As she hurried away, my mom called out, "Sorry! I think your tabernacle choir is lovely!"
I'm wondering now if every recording of "Silent Night" is connected to some specific memory for me. And if so, how far down does that rabbit hole go? If you've ever smoked weed or taken a philosophy class in college, you know that memories beget memories beget memories. It's all connected in some way. So is my pre-Christmas Target association with Glee's "Silent Night" just a reflection of the "Silent Night" I heard in Salt Lake, which is a reflection of the "Silent Night" I heard in my 20s, which is a reflection of a "Silent Night" I hear in my teens, and my pre-teens, and on and on? Do I need regression therapy before I finally figure out my emotional relationship with "Silent Night"?
Do you care about any of this? If you're the kind of person who would spend money to buy a Glee soundtrack, I'm almost positive you don't.
5. "Silent Night" by Cee-Lo Green (Cee Lo's Magic Moment)
So here's what I've learned. For me, the perfect version of "Silent Night" is something that's original and potentially controversial, allowing me an excuse to get into screaming arguments about theology with relatives, but not straying too far from familiar territory, because I want every Christmas song to be exactly how I remember it, but different. It should respect my treasured childhood memories, unless those memories involve church. I don't want to be reminded of church, or the baby Jesus, and definitely not shopping at Target pre-Thanksgiving or my mom yelling at Mormons. It should be secular and nostalgic but not the wrong kind of secular and nostalgic, and true to the spirit of the song without being all Jesus-y about it.
If that's the criteria, then Cee Lo Green may have very well recorded the definitive "Silent Night."
This is the "Silent Night" I remember without being the "Silent Night" I remember. It's got the same notes, and the same general chord progressions and time signature. But it's got way more soul and gut-busting vocal theatrics than anything I've ever witnessed at a Christmas Eve church service. (If it's not obvious, I went to church with white people.) It reminds me of nothing, because I've only listened to it once, while researching this story.
But what really sells this song is the video. The video is ridiculous, and depending on how seriously you take Christmas, borderline offensive. It's just a bunch of women in skimpy Santa outfits running in slow motion for no apparent reason. The YouTube comments alone make me unreasonably happy. "I love the song but the video belongs in the trash," one fan complained. "Your voice deserves more, as does Christ," another grumbled. And my favorite comment: "Does anyone else find it incongruous to hear 'Christ the Savior is born' and 'He is holy' juxtaposed against scantily clad Santa's girls?" I do. And that's what makes it nothing short of a Christmas miracle.
Cee Lo wins. He made the perfect "Silent Night." Let's all have some egg nog and celebrate. Mission accomplished. Now ... can we stop please? No more "Silent Night" covers? We're good, right?