For the past week my wife has been listening to Christmas songs on Pandora, and she’s merciless with the skip song button. Bing Crosby, Rosemary Clooney, and Nat King Cole are spared. Harry Connick Jr.’s arch conservatism saves him, and a bluesed-up “Frosty the Snowman” from Ray Charles gets a pass because Ray can do no wrong, but some contemporary country or pop singer takes a whack at a classic and it’s “Next!” before they can even get a verse out. When no less a luminary than Dean Martin has the temerity to refer to Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer as “Rudy” she cries “Oh no you didn’t!” and cuts him off posthaste. After awhile Pandora won’t let us skip any more, so we mute the laptop and then often forget about it for a half hour or so, banking compliance as the site broadcasts whatever it wants into the void.
I’m not as vocal in my displeasure as she is, but I find myself making the same choices, and when I think about it the rule is pretty simple: the older the better. The best are carols from the 19th century and standards like “White Christmas” and “The Christmas Song”. With the exception of numbers from the Rankin/Bass stop-action TV specials, there is little from the 1960s onwards. To immerse yourself in Christmas music is to enter a parallel science fiction universe in which the warm glow of the radio dial still diffuses through a cloud of cigarette smoke, World War Two veterans sip gin as they settle into middle age, and rock and roll is a passing fad to be parodied in “Jingle Bell Rock” and then forgotten.
Of course the borders of a genre can be policed: that’s what a genre is. But there’s a particular delight in doing so for a semiotically dense medium like music because it takes just the tiniest variation–a synthesizer’s telltale timber, or R&B singer’s showy melisma–to move a song into a completely different category. And with Christmas songs the ritual surrounding the music is as important as the music itself, which makes the act of selection all the more satisfying. It’s a game, and like Name that Tune, you can Condemn that Tune in suprisingly few notes.