Posted by: poet kate hutchinson | November 23, 2014

Holiday Music Blues

grinch03It’s finally happened. I’ve reached the point where I don’t want to hear Christmas music at all, not any of it, not even at holiday time. My poor son, who loves listening to it beginning in mid-November when his favorite radio station goes all-Christmas-all-the-time, has strict orders each year to not let a note of it reach my ears until December 1st. This year, I fear I will have to limit it even then.

I hate being a grinch about it, but it’s just the way I’m wired.  Most people can tune out what they don’t enjoy listening to, or they have some level of tolerance for it. Not me. I’ve even experienced nausea when forced to listen to bad music at weddings – like the Chicken Dance – and it’s not caused by the champagne. Having a bad song in my head can drive me nuts. I’ll work for several minutes to expel an ear worm.

vince guaraldiEven the most beautiful song loses its luster when we are subjected to hearing it 6 times a day for 6 weeks out of the year. The few holiday songs I can still endure are some of the oldest – like “Ave Maria,” “Silent Night” or O Holy Night” – sung by well-trained choirs and produced with professional orchestras. No one’s writing new songs like that, it seems. Dan Fogelberg and Kenny Loggins wrote a few soulful tunes back in the 80s, and Vince Guaraldi’s piano music is still tolerable, but most of the new holiday songs do nothing for my holiday spirit.

Most of the cheap, secular tunes written since the 50s are downright awful — those tied to TV shows or with grating accordians, nasal voices, 3-note melodies, bad guitars, or chipmunks. “Jingle Bell Rock,” “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus,” “Frosty the Snowman,” “Rudolph,” “Feliz Navidad,” “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree,” and the worst of all, “Grandma Got Run Over By a Reindeer,” seriously make me want to hurt someone. Or myself. This is not the way I want to feel during the holidays.

firestone5651Part of the problem with Christmas music, I think, is that it is perennial and unchanging. The songs play year after year and can’t be tied to a particular time in our lives. They are like a thin film spread across all of time, one that falls over us and smothers us again and again. Looking back on my entire childhood, I find very few carols that I can associate with a particular year or experience or that would evoke a special memory.  My family was very fond of one Julie Andrews Christmas album, so hearing any of those songs takes me back to our little living room in Elk Grove. Even her version of “Jingle Bells” can still make me smile.  But none of the other carols does that for me. On the other hand, much of the non-Christmas music I feel most strongly about is tied to a certain moment or time.

tapestryLike many music lovers, I can mark certain periods of my life by the albums I was obsessing over: Carole King, the Rolling Stones, Joni Mitchell, early Elton John, Roxy Music, Bonnie Raitt, Melissa Etheridge, U2. I firmly believe that certain albums have shaped my soul. I lived and breathed each of them for a few weeks or months. They’ve stayed important in my memory, and I can re-play them almost in their entirety in my head, should I choose to. I don’t let myself listen to them very often so as to keep them special.

justkidspsmith_1In Patti Smith’s memoir, “Just Kids,” which I’m currently reading, she mentions that in the late 60s, when she and Robert Mapplethorpe were dirt poor and sharing a 2-room apartment, they’d forgo a meal in order to buy the latest Bob Dylan or Stones or Janis Joplin album. They’d prop the cover up on the mantel and listen to it over and over again for hours, soaking in the tunes and lyrics as they sat on the floor and created their art. I can see that scene so clearly – hear the wails of “Jigsaw Puzzle” from “Beggar’s Banquet,” watch Robert cut out ghostly figures from books, see Patti with her eyes closed, writing poetry in her head. Good music is art; good music inspires art. For Patti Smith, those albums are forever linked with that apartment and with the work she created in it.

Beck-Morning-PhaseA powerful song or album can move me to tears; a gorgeous chord progression can make me swoon. If I stumble upon a CD that catches my fancy, I’ll listen to it over and over for 4 or 5 weeks, wallowing in its beautiful melodies and harmonies. Right now I’m awed by Beck’s “Morning Phase” – the hauntingly lush and soulful “oooohs” are just knocking me out. Last winter, Arcade Fire’s double set “Reflektor” helped keep me going through all those weeks of below-zero temps. Before that, it was Allison Krause’s “Paper Airplane” that I was hooked on for a couple of months. These albums will always be tied to these times in my life.

The-Smiths-How-Soon-Is-Now-436901I’m always a little sad when I reach that inevitable moment when the magic of a CD begins to wane, and I know I have to stop listening right then and there to avoid becoming sick of it. I even have to prevent myself from keeping songs in my head, where their incessant looping can ruin them forever. The Smiths’ “How Soon is Now” from 1985 is one song I consider sacred – so much so that until last year I didn’t even own it. I wanted to keep it special. Now I only let myself listen to it every few months. I know I can never let myself get sick of it, or something inside of me will die.

Rudolph_SamPowerful music inspires the artist in us, connects us to each other, deepens our sense of being alive. It can put us into a buoyant and joyful mood or intensify our sadness or longing. Unfortunately, bad music can irritate or infuriate some of us, especially when we hear it again and again. When I’m exhausted from a long day at school and have to stop at Jewel to grab a few groceries for dinner, having to listen to Burl Ives singing “Holly Jolly Christmas” is, frankly, a form of torture. I know I am not alone in feeling this way.

mel torme christmasHowever, I know the majority of people still enjoy constant holiday music, or retailers wouldn’t start playing it on Halloween. I can understand how children, especially, who have only heard the songs for a few years, would find it exciting to start hearing the songs again every fall. I know I once did. Mel Torme’s velvety “Chestnuts roasting on an open fire…” used to make me inexplicably weepy. And I loved singing “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year” in choir in high school, that cheery old waltz tune that seemed perfect for ice skating. If I only heard it once or twice each year, maybe I’d still enjoy it.

Many have scolded me on Facebook for being a curmudgeon about the issue, telling me I’m over sensitive and lacking in esprit de corps. Apparently, lots of people still find joy in hearing “Santa Baby” 50 times every year, and some are interested in learning which 15 pop stars will release a new version of “Silver Bells.” Not me. I maxed out at about age 35 and would be content to go through the entire month of December without Bing Crosby and Shania Twain.

bananaramaTonight, I’ve got a great old Bananarama song in my head that I hadn’t thought about in a few years – the one about it being a cruel summer. It takes me back to my first solo apartment, the top floor of an old, rickety house in Elgin overlooking the Fox River. I danced in the living room, so happy to be starting my life as an adult.

So let it snow this week, but I guarantee I won’t be singing along.


  1. I’ll do you one better (meaning worse): Country Christmas. Ultra-sentimental and saccharine even by Christmas standards. And often depressing — little girls getting dollies from daddies who had deserted them but returned home for this one very special Christmas.

    Our family, like yours, had the Julie Andrews Christmas album, produced by Firestone. I still enjoy listening to the majestic “The Bells of Christmas” from that album, but, like you, can’t tolerate hearing it until December.

    As for “How Soon is Now,” if it’s in my head for three minutes it’s in my head for weeks, and I’m bothered that the lyrics that loop most in my brain are “see I’ve already waited too long and all my hope is gone.” Not exactly affirmation material!

    Thanks for another great post!

  2. Oh, that Country Christmas sounds awful, Paul. Glad I’ve not known about it all these years! It’s funny, we had 3 or 4 of the Firestone albums, but the Julie Andrews one is the only one I remember. They’re on CD now, so I got a copy. I think it’s all about her gorgeous voice more than the tunes themselves — and yes, “The Bells of Christmas” is spectacular! Even the “ting-a-ling-a-ling” sounds majestic behind her.

    I didn’t realize how universally admired the Smiths song is. Nearly everyone I know who is middle aged and into music considers it as one of their all-time favorites. That guitar!! And that immortal line, “I am human and I need to be loved, just like everybody else does.” Such a raw and heartbreaking whine.

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