Monday, 22 December 2008

Let's not even mention "The Little Drummer Boy"...

It's almost Christmas, so I have now left London for two weeks back at home, which are likely to involve more cups of tea and mince pies than anyone can reasonably be expected to consume, a bit of rampant commercialism, a few moments of old-timey feeling as the Queen makes her annual TV performance, and of course, Christmas music.

It will surprise absolutely nobody to learn that I get more than a little Grinchy around Christmas, and nothing brings that to the fore more than the appalling musical rubbish that gets wheeled out every year. (Well, except for Christmas movies and Christmas specials of TV shows, all of which aim for "heartwarming" and usually hit "vomit-inducing".) Record producers are consumed by a kind of madness, which causes them to add sleighbells to everything and inexplicably extend Noddy Holder's career. And lyricists, never the most stable bunch, decide that no-one's really listening to the words anyway, so they stick in a few references to love, peace and family and leave it at that.

One of the worst offenders in this regard is Johnny Mathis's 1976 #1 hit, "When A Child Is Born". This song was the only time Mathis reached the top of the UK charts, and frankly I'm amazed that it got there in the first place. It's not all bad, of course. Indeed, it starts out so promisingly with the portentous line "A ray of hope flickers in the sky". Despite the fact that scientists are yet to discover the precise form of radiation that transmits hope, it's still a great way to open a song.

The problem is that this line does rather set the rest of the song up for failure. If we're already staring hopefully up into the dark sky, our hearts filled with anticipation, there's not really anywhere else to go. And, as the rest of the verse unfolds, we begin our slow and inevitable descent.

The second line is "A tiny star lights up way up high" – OK, fine, but if it's so tiny, what distinguishes it from all of the other stars that are in this particular night sky, and why should we particularly care? Even more confusingly, the very next line is "all across the land dawns a brand new morn". Now, my physics knowledge is admittedly pretty shaky, but don't stars tend to appear just after dark? If Mathis has just spotted this tiny star lighting up immediately before dawn, this suggests that he has in fact either witnessed a far-off and rather short-lived supernova, or a satellite has just exploded.

The last line of the verse – and of every verse – is "this comes to pass when a child is born", which just puts several layers of incomprehensible icing on the proverbial cake. This being a Christmas song, the immediate conclusion to jump to is that Mathis is referring to Jesus. That said, nothing in that first verse has had even the slightest connection to anything Christian, which sends us off to the other conclusion, that it's just about children in general and how wonderful they are. However, this conclusion doesn't have a lot of support either, given that if it was referring to events that happen every single time a child is born, then (according to the global birth rate) approximately two tiny stars would be lighting up way up high every second, and there would be so many brand new morns dawning all across the land that there wouldn't be time for any other part of the day.

The next two verses continue in the same "hope in some non-specific child-related event" theme, mixing metaphors as fast as humanly possible as silent wishes sail the seven seas, walls of doubt crumble, rosy hues settle all around (understandably, given the brand new morns that seem to be constantly dawning) and no-one feels forlorn. By the end of them, listeners are going to be pretty convinced that Mathis is not, in fact, suggesting that this huge litany of events occurs at every single birth world-wide. And if he's actually talking about just one birth, then we start to swing back towards him talking about Jesus again, despite the complete lack of any explicitly Christian references.

And then we get the spoken-word section.

And all of this happens because the world is waiting
Waiting for one child
Black, white, yellow, no-one knows
But a child that will grow up and turn tears to laughter
Hate to love, war to peace and everyone to everyone's neighbour
And misery and suffering will be words to be forgotten, forever

Now, even if we ignore the fact that it has been horrendously insensitive to refer to Asian people as "yellow" for the past fifty years or so (did I mention that this was a hit in 1976? I did? Good), this just makes no sense whatsoever. It's pretty Messianic stuff, but suggests that the Messiah figure in question has not yet appeared, and in fact could come from anywhere. The last verse then gives us exactly the same thing ("It's all a dream, an illusion now / It must come true, sometime soon somehow").

The overall impression you get out of the song is that Mathis got about halfway through writing it with a Christian message in mind before suddenly getting cold feet and bailing out into "vaguely hopeful about nothing in particular" territory. In the end, what could have been a fairly powerful (if schmaltzy) song about the Saviour coming at Christmas fizzles out into a completely meaningless jumble of good intentions that doesn't actually go anywhere.

If you're after some good meaty Christmas music that not only sounds good but packs a bit of a dark punch, may I suggest either the Coventry Carol, which combines a frankly haunting tune with lyrics about the massacre of the children in Bethlehem, or What Child Is This?, which goes to the tune of Greensleeves and has the most graphically Crucifixion-related words of pretty much any carol ever? Perfect for a cold night, as you huddle round a fire and shut out the darkness.

Oh, and by the way – merry Christmas!

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