Wednesday, November 7, 2007

All I want for Christmas...

Very soon the annual dilemma will rear its head once again: what is the difference between tradition and obligation? I've begun to see holiday commercials on TV, so I suspect that the next time I find myself in a shopping mall (black day...) I will hear holiday music. The radio stations will follow suit. Shall we run down the permutations?

- Instrumental Holidays: possibly soundtrack music, possibly new age, possibly an orchestra on crystal meth; at least no one's singing.
- Heart On Sleeve Holidays: songs from a number of decades, taking the holidays as an opportunity to exhort that we end war, end hunger, end oppression.
- New Wave Holidays: all those eighties artists who cashed in with a holiday song, or album.
- Vintage, So Supposedly Sophisticated Holidays: great standards vocalists singing classic secular (and occasionally religious) holiday songs. Popular with home decor stores, who would also like to sell you a compilation of this music.
- Bad Covers Holidays: current artists doing questionable new versions of songs from all the previous categories.

Somehow it's a huge recipe for failure, with too many conflicting ingredients. Is it possible to balance an altruistic season against a commercial one? What, if anything, really changes if part of the proceeds from some of these records is going to a charity? (In other words, why didn't any of your summer singles benefit a charity?) If it's actually a good song, how many seasons of hearing it on heavy rotation before you'll hate it just like the rest of them? There's no denying that the holiday season is a season of traditions, across the board. And tradition implies repetition, hopefully ritual. But what portion of our holiday seasons feel that meaningful, and what portion feel more like obligations?

Yet no one has the guts to buck the system; I feel like there's a significant portion of the public that would appreciate a store that didn't oppress them with holiday music. (Or am I just projecting, here?) Not because of any political correctness, but just because they're sick of it.

At heart, retail culture is about as conformist and scared of change as any culture we have. When is the last time you have been genuinely surprised by anything that goes on in a store? From the way you were greeted, to the way the store was organized and merchandised, to the credit card or loyalty program at the register. Holiday music is no different; the only possible difference in a given year is how early it is rolled out.

I would love to see a retail store step up and take off the blinders with this. On one of your weekend holiday shopping trips, when you've been through a dozen stores and already heard six different versions of the Wham! standby 'Last Christmas' (as of this writing there are more than 30) would it be refreshing to walk into a store and just hear the Hot 100? (Which most of the radio stations have similarly abandoned, it should be mentioned.)

Or would someone like to step up to the programming plate and select music that evokes the holiday season without falling back on any of the cliches? Is such a thing possible? Is there music that addresses the spirit of the holiday season in ways that feel fresher, more genuine, more meaningful? I think that's a provocative challenge, and I will be thinking about it seriously as the next few months unfold.