Wednesday, December 9, 2009

In Offense of Christmas Music

At the risk of being labeled the world's biggest Scrooge, I will come right out and say that I don't like Christmas music.* Sure, Trans-Siberian Orchestra is good, and anything Frank Sinatra ever touched turned to gold, but that's about as far as I'll take it. It's not the repetition or mass appeal of Christmas music that bothers me. It annoys me, but I fancy myself enough a populist to not make a value judgement about the music in that way.

My problem with the music is the way that I typically consume it- unwillingly. Starting at Thanksgiving (and earlier every year, it seems), the airwaves and shopping centers play Christmas music constantly. I know that when I go "home for the holidays" (which was on the N*SYNC Christmas album, I believe), it will be a ubiquitous fixture of the house, almost as much as the trees or lights. My objection finally got a voice yesterday, when we were discussing the music and ideas of Canadian environmental composer R. Murray Schafer. His philosophy is that music can be any sound, but that sound/music become "noise" when they are unwanted, like the sound of someone opening a candy at a "classical" concert, or the sound of an airplane in the woods. To me, who genuinely does not want to listen to Christmas music, the genre becomes noise. While I agree with Brian that serious study can occur about the subject (and while I am equally surprised that it hasn't, perhaps because of its pervasive nature in our culture today?), it won't be undertaken by me.

* As much as I would like to make a distinction between Christmas carols, popular Christmas songs, and newly composed songs with Christmas themes, I don't often see such a distinction being made by those who play or sell or program Christmas music.


  1. So you dislike Christmas music because you typically consume it unwillingly. And yes, some of that you cannot control (if it is background music in a store). But you could still choose to consume it. So does that mean you would like it if you chose to consume it, but you do not choose to consume it because you dislike it. This seems very circular. Also, the rest of the year, popular music of some kind or another is background music-music you are, by your own definitions, forced to consume- and even sometimes, gasp, classical music. Does that mean you dislike all popular music and all classical music because you are unwillingly forced to consume it as well, since you dislike all Christmas music for this reason? I do not see how one could be disliked and one could still be liked if your reasoning for disliking the first is that it is forced upon you, when that reason does not change for other genres.. Following the line of reasoning, that seems to be a logical next step. So what is the difference? Is that really the reason you dislike Christmas music? Are emotions held to the same logical standards that reason and intellect are?

  2. Dear Anonymous -
    You claim that John's reasoning here is circular: "So does that mean you would like it if you chose to consume it, but you do not choose to consume it because you dislike it. This seems very circular." I simply do not see where the circularity in his statement is. If John's definition of noise is that which is unwanted and there are sounds, like Christmas music, which are unwanted, Christmas music unwillingly consumed must be considered "noise."

    My issue with the argument is actually not with the content or logic of John's post (though I'm far too sentimental ever make a similar claim!) but rather with Schafer's philosophy of music/sound. If we accept the idea that any sound presently unwanted is "noise" then our definition of music must be in constant flux. At one moment Mozart could be considered glorious and at another simply "noise." Don't get me wrong -- I've most certainly been in situations where even my most favorite pieces just don't do it for me. ANY musicology student who has written a thesis (or any extended academic work) on a single piece has surely experienced this. There are simply days when that about which we are passionate loses its magic. But aren't those days really based more on your level of exhaustion, your hours in the library, seminars debating with frustrating colleagues, and paper deadlines? Who am I, then, to define the dichotomy between music and noise based on that which is wanted and that which isn't. That is to say, do you really feel comfortable having the distinction between music and noise based on your level of exhaustion, irritability and mood?

    Further -- what does this mean for other forms of art...specifically public art? Don't public artists seek to create art in unexpected, or perhaps even, unwanted spaces? Are we to consider this not art but "stuff"?

    I'm not sure I have a good answer here, but I'm finding Schafer's definition highly problematic.