Tuesday, December 23, 2008

A Question I'm Sure We're All Pondering

As the holidays arrive and 2008 draws to a close, I'm sure that most of us, at least in North America and Europe, are all pondering the same eternal question: Which is the dumbest Christmas song?

Now, I'm not asking myself which is the most annoying. That's a matter of taste, and my feelings shift each time we venture out into public places. (At the moment, I'd have to say that I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus, with its smarmy faux-naive kid voice and sappy tune is the most annoying...but that's because I was recently exposed to it in a store.) But dumbest seems as is it ought to be quantifiable.

Any song (and there are quite a few) that requires the chorus to sing "Ding" "Dong" "Ding" "Dong" is a clear contender for dumb. But that's a rather pedestrian form of dumbness. I'm looking for something more preposterous.

Do You Hear What I Hear? is a serious contender. I have problems with this song first because the meter and beats of the chorus:

Do you hear what I hear?
aaaaa(Do you hear what I hear...?)
Ringing through the sky, shepherd boy?

fit so perfectly with the annoying late 1800s Polly Wolly Doodle:

Polly Wolly Doodle--
aaaaa(Polly Wolly Doodle...)
Polly Wolly Doodle all the day...

(Try singing it to the melody of Do You Hear What I Hear? Fits like an epidermis.)

This oddity doesn't necessarily make it dumb (though it does make it annoying, as it leaves me humming Polly Wolly Doodle all the day--at least until some other brain-worm forces it from skull). What makes Do You Hear What I Hear? genuinely stupid is the lines:

A Child, a Child, shivers in the cold;
Let us bring him silver and gold,
Let us bring him silver and gold.

Uh-huh. Good thinking. Makes sense the same way that if you heard about a baby starving, you'd rush to bring him a skateboard and a philodendron. Silver and gold? Something in the way of a blanket or little footie pajamas or a hot water bottle might be nice. Furs, even, if you need to engage in conspicuous consumption. Ice-cold metal isn't going to do anybody any immediate good. Dumb.

But in my estimation, the dumbest song has to be The Little Drummer Boy. Just think about it for a minute. First of all, we have to accept the idea of some impoverished urchin wandering the streets of Bethlehem beating on a drum. This doesn't sound charming to me; it sounds deranged. Pa-rum-pum-pum-pum? No. Drums go BOOM-DA-BOOM-DA WHAM WHAM WHAM! or, in the case of snare drums, RATTATTA-TATTATTA-TAT-TAT-TAT! This kid would have been nabbed long before by the residents and taken out and fed to the wolves. You can't have both Silent Night (which I rather like) and The Little Drummer Boy, not in the same universe.

And then we have an exhausted Joseph and Mary, who've been forced to bed down in a stable because there's no room at the inn (be sure to make reservations over the holidays). Mary, without the benefits of modern medicine or happy pills, has just given birth, a process I am given to understand is a bit trying under the best of circumstances.

Mary and Joseph might make allowances for Three Magi bearing expensive gifts, even if they'd really rather not have visitors. (What happened to all those valuable gifts, by the way? The gospels than mention the Nativity--giving rather conflicting accounts--don't say what happened to the loot. I mean, did it go into his college fund, or what?)

Magi bearing gifts? Fine. But there has never been a mother anywhere who would have tolerated some kid banging a drum near the fragile pink ears of a newborn. I'm aware Mary is supposed to be a Saint and all, but I know Moms. That's just ridiculous. (And so is the idea that the ox and lambs kept time.)

There may be a dumber song, but I'm voting for Little Drummer Boy.

Oh, well. Happy Holidays.


Jen Ster said...

Oh, I disagree. "Sleigh Ride" is the dumbest song ever. The instrumental is bad enough, but throw in Karen Carpenter's insipid lyrics and you start wishing the bimbo could have starved herself to death a few years earlier. I've got a petition circulating to amend the California constitution to limit the number of times any radio station can play this piece of drek in a given Christmas season. Once you reach your limit your link gets deleted from your broadcast company's Web page.

(Like how I came full circle on that one?)

David Isaak said...

I have no objection to such an amendment. But those insipid lyrics aren't from either of the the Carpenters; the lyrics date back to 1950 or so. I do admit that "Giddy-up, Giddy-up, Giddy-up, Let's go!" is world-class sappy, but in my estimation it's kind of "Ding...Dong" lame rather than truly dumb. (You work at a law firm, right? Is there a legal distinction betweem lame and dumb?)

So although she has much to answer for, you can't blame Karen for those lyrics. (You can blame her for singing them--but so did Bing Crosby and Mitch Miller and lord knows who else--for all I know Metallica did a cover of the song.)

On the other hand, the truly icky (the only appropriate word) "Merry Christmas, Darling" IS a full-up Carpenters tune (in this case perpetrated on an unsuspecting public by Richard).

Have you ever heard the "If I Were a Carpenter" album, with Sonic Youth, Cracker, Shonen Knife, and others doing Carpenter covers? Cracker's so-depressed-I-can-hardly-sing version of "Rainy Days and Mondays" had me rolling on the floor, and Shonen Knife's punk-with-Japanese-accents "Top of the World" is wonderful. A must for anyone who loathes the Carpenters.

Jen Ster said...

Dammit!! I hate it when I can't blame something on Karen Carpenter.

I think technically, "lame" is can't walk, and "dumb" is can't speak. I'm not sure about the legal definitions, but I'd argue that "dumb" refers to something so insipid you can't even talk about it, whereas "lame" refers to something so insipid you can't even get up to change the radio station. Both of these, by the way, are distinct from "vomit-inducing, hair-pullingly awful", which by definition is reserved for "Jingle Bell Rock."

Tim Stretton said...

If I wanted to explain "pleonasm" to a Person of Restricted Vocabulary, "dumbest Christmas song" might very well be my starting point...

David Isaak said...

Hi, Jen--

Oh, come now. (Or did I mean, Oh, come, all ye faithful?) "Jingle Bell Rock" can't begin to compete with "Santa, Baby"...

David Isaak said...

Hi, Tim--

But there are distinctions, aren't there?

Sort of like Dante's nine infernal circles?

Tim Stretton said...

Well, kind of...I've never heard a Christmas song which doesn't make me want to fly into a homicidal rage. While there may be graduations within this, I doubt that they're profitably explored.

Not helped today by the fact that there are Christmas songs playing on our office today when I'm trying to finish a budget report and waste time on other people's blogs...

Alis said...

Merry Christmas, David!

David Isaak said...

Hi, Tim--

In your OFFICE?

Isn't that forbidden under the Geneva Convention?

David Isaak said...

And a Happy New Year, Alis!

Janet said...

Ah, but the Magi didn't turn up until later, when Joseph and Mary had found themselves a house. And the loot undoubtedly went toward financing the stay in Egypt.

Dumbest lyrics? That's hard. I heard some really awful song in a shopping mall once that had some boyband type complaining without a trace of irony that he didn't have enough presents. I almost gagged. But that was offensive more than dumb.

There is good Christmas music out there, and I am unashamedly addicted to it. I just did a whole series on it, if such things interest you.

David Isaak said...

Hi, Janet--

Hi, Janet--

I found your main blog (I'd seen your gardening spot before).

Yes, those are better. And I note that some of your nominees are in a foreign language. In my opinion most lyrics of most sorts of music are helped by being in foreign languages. (I'm one of those people who enjoys opera as long as I can't understand what they are singing.)

Many of the songs you prefer have some years on them. As I mentioned, I rather like "Silent Night," and " O Holy Night" is a fine piece of music. "God rest ye merry, Gentlemen," is a nice piece of music, too, although the minor key gives it a weirdly ominous quality.

Most of the songs I truly loathe--including "Drummer Boy" and "Do You Hear What I Hear?" (and, yes, Jen Ster's fave, "Sleigh Ride") are of comparatively recent vintage...and written, I suspect, with the cash register in mind.

Wasn't the protagonist in "About a Boy" living off the royalties from his father's awful Christmas song (something about "Santa's jet powered sleigh?")

Some to think of it, the presence of Santa in any song sets off warning bells.

Janet said...

David, I tend to be on your side there. Any mention of Santa usually means a dreadful song. Or a cutesie one, which is something like pecan pie: excessively sweet. One piece a year is enjoyable, but enough.

Once a song has been around for a few centuries, chances are it's got something strong going for it. Nostalgia has kept too many Christmas songs going past their expiration date unfortunately, which explains the aversion some people have developed. If I worked in retail, I would probably share it, but the ones I posted are the ones they don't play in shopping malls anymore.

Anyway, belated Merry Christmas and a not so belated Happy New Year.

David Isaak said...

Hi, Janet--

Truth be told, I dislike recorded music of any sort being piped at me in public places. I knew the world had finally lost it when I head an instrumental muzak version of Dylan's "Blowin' in the Wind" in an elevator.

And don't get me going on the horrific spread of televisions in restaurants.

Oh, well. Happy Holidays to you, too.

Janet said...

Muzak is diabolical. But I remember one particularly vicious winter, when I had been through enough stress to do me for three lifetimes. Frazzled is a miracle of understatement to describe how I felt at that time. Traumatized is getting closer, but not yet there. I stumbled into some store or another in Canada's second largest shopping centre (or it was then) at the height of the Christmas shopping frenzy, to be greeted by Pachelbel's Canon. That was a gift from heaven. I stayed there, not buying anything, just to make sure I squeezed the last note out of it. It was balm to a severely battered soul. If I could remember which store it was, I'd go back and buy something, just as a thank-you.

Those moments are rare, but they make up for muzaked Dylan.

David Isaak said...

Hi, Janet--

If the shopping season were All Baroque All the Time, that would be a vast improvement.

I do like Canon in D.

And, although some cry blasphemy, I like the Korean teenager's guitar version, too, which shows the true durability of the music (at http://uk.youtube.com/watch?v=QjA5faZF1A8 ).

Janet said...

That was fun. :o)

Janet said...

In humble gratitude, I offer this:


David Isaak said...

That was a lovely Christmas present! By the time we got to the medley we were both in tears with laughter!