Category Archives: Christmas

On the Subject of “Baby It’s Cold Outside”

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This blog has long held the opinion that “Baby It’s Cold Outside,” first heard in 1944, is a terrible song, and here’s the receipt from 2012 to prove it. We have officially abominated all versions except for the one by Ray Charles and Betty Carter because it’s Ray Charles, but even that one isn’t good. While we are in favor of sweet winter lovin’ in front of the fireplace, “Baby It’s Cold Outside” comes off as insufferably coy and stupid, and we hated it first for purely aesthetic reasons. Only later did it start coming off as predatory, given the man’s unwillingness to let the woman go home when she says she wants to, and her line, “Say, what’s in this drink?”

Last year at the start of the Christmas season, I e-mailed the program director of my radio station with the suggestion that, in the #MeToo Era, perhaps we should consider dropping the song, although I never followed up to see if he did it. This year, after WDOK in Cleveland got a call complaining about it, they did a listener poll, and based on the result, dropped the song.

This they might have done quietly, but they posted about it on their website early last week. It stayed under the radar until word got out, and over the weekend a good old-fashioned social media shitstorm developed. On one side of said storm are people who are saying basically what I said above: today we believe that when a woman says “no” she means “no,” and the proper response from a man upon hearing “no” is not to slip her a roofie and keep trying to get her shirt off. Further, we should probably move past a time in which that scenario is one of the Christmas decorations. On another side are arguments including “You have to consider the times in which the song was written” and “man up, libtard snowflake.” A detailed defense of the song by comic book artist and writer Howard Chaykin is making the rounds on social media, but it’s an astoundingly weak one, buttressing “you have to consider the times in which the song was written” with the far more specious “Frank Loesser was one of the great songwriting geniuses of the 20th century and those of you criticizing his song are not,” and the incredible nonsequitur “it’s not even a Christmas song.”

Change is hard. We’re wired to dislike it. But it happens as we move through time. During the Pioneer Era of Recording (1880-1920), coon songs were extremely popular. They portrayed black people as cowardly, libidinous, violent, thieving, and stupid, among other stereotypes. (Sample title: “Nigger Love a Watermelon.”) They were frequently performed in dialect by white singers in blackface, to parody the behavior of black people. But the popularity of coon songs began to fade eventually, and today, their content is utterly beyond the boundaries of acceptability. You can still talk that way if you want to, but you shouldn’t expect people to accept it, or to sit idly by while you do it.

There’s a more contemporary example of how time changes boundaries. Dire Straits hit #1 in 1985 with “Money for Nothing,” the full-length version of which contains the following verse:

See the little faggot with the earring and the makeup 
Yeah buddy that’s his own hair 
That little faggot got his own jet airplane
That little faggot he’s a millionaire

For years, few of us thought much about that verse. In 2011, a Canadian group called for a blanket broadcast ban on “Money for Nothing” based on a single listener complaint that it was “propagating hate.” At the time, I was critical of the ban. Four years later, I heard a radio station blank the word “faggot,” and it occurred to me that my opinion had changed. At that time I wrote, “[P]erhaps, just as greater acceptance of African Americans took ‘nigger’ out of polite discourse, ‘faggot’ has become another word that can no longer be casually thrown around, and for similar reasons.”

We are at precisely the same cultural place today with “Baby It’s Cold Outside.” We can no longer casually throw around the idea that it’s cute for a man to break down a woman’s romantic resistance with drink or drugs, or even that he’s merely being charmingly persistent in the face of a turn-down. By dropping the song, WDOK in Cleveland is on the right side of history, and other radio stations should follow their example.

Or they could just drop it because it sucks. That’d be good too.

(Programming note: there’s a new post at One Day in Your Life today. It was an interesting day.)

Jingle Bell Time Is a Swell Time . . . Again

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P1 Media Group has published its list of the 40 top-testing Christmas records for 2018. The document, which you can see here, is pretty interesting. Records were tested for familiarity and love it-or-hate-it across various age groups and both genders to yield “appeal scores.” Radio stations can use the data to tweak their Christmas libraries for the season. The most appealing for 2018 is . . . “Jingle Bell Rock” by Bobby Helms, a record first heard 61 years ago.

We can safely say that “Jingle Bell Rock” is one of the most incredible success stories in pop music history. In 1957, it made #6 in Billboard and #13 country, and it returned to the Hot 100 in 1958, 1960, 1961, and 1962. It appeared on Billboard‘s Christmas chart fron 1963 through 1973, with the exception of 1971. It hit #1 on that chart only once, in 1969, a year in which there were two versions of it in stores, the 1957 original and a 1965 re-recording. When Billboard briefly revived the Christmas chart in the mid 80s, it never missed. After it was featured in the 1996 movie Jingle All the Way, it returned to the Hot 100, country, and AC charts. As recently as 2016, it made the Hot 100 again.

On the local charts at ARSA, “Jingle Bell Rock” was #1 in Baltimore, Toronto, and Springfield, Massachusetts in 1957, and it appears on a handful of local charts in 1958, ’59, ’60 and ’61. (A station in Spokane, Washington, charted it at #1 in 1961.) It disappears from local charts after 1963, except for one listing in 1968, 1971, and 1974. By then, its place in the holiday pantheon was secure.

Why Bobby Helms? It’s not like he was as big as Elvis. He was a 24-year-old Indiana native whose first two hits, “Fraulein” and “My Special Angel,” had each topped the country charts for a month earlier in 1957. “My Special Angel” had crossed to the pop Top 10, peaking in November just as “Jingle Bell Rock” was getting traction. So it’s easy to figure why it became a significant hit in 1957. That success brought it back the next year, and the year after that, and after a few years, it apparently became impossible for listeners to imagine the holiday season without it.

A second version of “Jingle Bell Rock” appears in P1 Media Group’s Top 10: the one by Hall and Oates. It was first released in 1983, although P1 Media Group shows its debut year as 1984. On the original single, Daryl Hall sang it on one side and John Oates on the other. And although I was doing pop-music radio in the 80s, I don’t remember hearing it until sometime in the new millennium. H&O did a version on their 2006 album Home for Christmas, and I think that’s the version you hear most often today, but I could be wrong about that. It’s pleasant enough, although it lacks the indefinable something that puts the Bobby Helms original into a completely different league.

As for the rest of the P1 Media Group list, you can look it over and see for yourself. The newest record on it is Taylor Swift’s cover of “Last Christmas,” which came out in 2007. It is one of only four records on the list to be released in the new millennium. The oldest is Bing Crosby’s “White Christmas” from 1942. And so it confirms what we already know: the American Christmas canon is largely set in stone and has been for a long damn time.

Some radio stations won’t dip into the Christmas library even a little bit until today, but across the country, others have been flipping to all-Christmas since approximately Halloween. Such early flips are traditional now, a tradition that is accompanied by people bitching about it. I have seen people online confidently proclaiming that such stations have no idea what they’re doing and that nobody wants to hear Christmas music so early. Which is wrong. Stations going all-Christmas often see huge ratings jumps for the fall ratings period—double, triple, even quadruple their numbers during the other three quarters of the year. That’s why they do it. A station in the Philippines went all-Christmas in September, and I suspect that if it weren’t for the presence of Halloween, many American stations would flip even earlier.

The enduring popularity of Christmas music on the radio—and the same music year after year besides—is a good reminder of how regular people (as opposed to music nerds or radio nerds) listen to the radio. They’re looking for something familiar to enhance or elevate their mood in the moment. For many, Christmas music does it, even the same old warhorses, even if it’s not Thanksgiving yet.

Remember

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Here’s another Christmas post from the past, specifically 2009, slightly edited.

There’s no time of the year when the shades of the past crowd around us like they do on Christmas. People we’ve loved and lost, memorable days spent with the people who still share our lives with us, moments we can’t forget—they’re all coming back this weekend, if they haven’t come back already.

I remember . . . when I learned the truth about Santa Claus. In our town, Santa met his public in a lovely double-wide donated by the local mobile home dealer and parked on the town square. One night my brother and me, maybe aged six and four at the time, shyly walked in with our parents. Santa took one look at us and then called us by name: “Well, it’s Jim and Dan Bartlett!” Since then, I have never doubted the jolly elf’s existence.

I remember . . . that first magical radio Christmas, the one that changed everything.

I remember . . . when I sent a half-dozen roses to a girl I was trying to lure away from another guy, making sure they’d arrive on Christmas Eve. It worked. Three years later she moved in with me just before Christmas, and we went to the local discount store to buy Christmas decorations for the apartment. We bought a “first Christmas together” ornament that we still have, 35 years later.

I remember . . . the year I picked up my brother and his girlfriend at the airport on Christmas Eve. When I arrived, there was a crisis. When the luggage came off the plane, one piece was missing: the carrier with her dog. It turned out that instead of running him through the baggage carousel, they put him out at a different door nearby. He wasn’t missing for more than a few minutes, but they were some long and upsetting minutes.

I remember . . . waking up with the flu one Christmas morning. That was the year my grandfather was in the hospital, and my grandmother was staying at our house. So in my misery on that day, I was ministered to not only by The Mrs., but also by my mother and my grandmother. If you have to get sick, that’s definitely the way to go.

That Christmas was the last one with my grandfather, who died the next summer. The rest of my grandparents have followed him now. They were always such an important part of the holiday, Christmas Eve with my father’s parents and Christmas Day with my mother’s, that in certain ways the holidays have never felt right without them. But life requires us to adjust, and so we have. Year by year, we’ve made new memories. They may not seem as vivid as the memories from earlier years, but give ’em time.

To bring this discussion back to the ostensible subject of this blog: “Remember (Christmas)” by Nilsson made the Billboard and Cash Box charts in late December 1972 and stuck around well into January ’73. It lasted that long partly because the lyrics don’t mention the word “Christmas” or contain any sort of holiday imagery. But it’s a Christmas song nevertheless, because it’s all about calling up the shades that crowd around. The people we’ve loved and lost. Memorable days spent with the people who still share our lives with us. Moments we can’t forget.

They’re all coming back this weekend.

Listen . . . they’re here now.

(Note to patrons: I’ll be on Magic 98 for a little slice of “98 Hours of Christmas Magic” on Sunday between 9AM and noon. This feature will be on hiatus until the New Year unless somebody important dies (rest well, Dick Enberg, one of the voices that will forever echo in the ears of sports fans my age). New posts will appear at One Day in Your Life tomorrow, on Christmas Day, and on New Year’s Day, so be sure to stop over there.

Someday at Christmas

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I don’t know which of the thousands of posts that have appeared here since 2004 is my favorite. If forced to choose, I might pick this one, which first appeared in 2011. It’s appropriate to repeat this year, the 50th anniversary of the release of the song that provides the title.

On December 24, 1969, the Capital Times, the afternoon newspaper in Madison, Wisconsin, hit the streets with the words “Merry Christmas” emblazoned above the masthead. Its front page, however, was not so merry. Headlines included “Children’s Doctor Shortage Becomes Acute in Madison,” “Arab Summit Breaks Apart in Disarray,” and “Plane, Missile Firms Get ‘Christmas Gifts.’” Its page-one feature story began with the following lede: “Bringing up a retarded child is a challenge to love, to care, and to sacrifice. At Central Colony, there are six children waiting for someone willing to meet that challenge.” The story was headlined, “‘Have You Found a Family For Me?,’” and included pictures of Brenda, Pauncho, Jeffrey, Tom, Jerry, and Wally, all under the age of 12, all of whom would be spending another Christmas at the state home for the developmentally disabled.

I was reading that paper in my office the other day, in the deepening dark of winter twilight, thinking about what a remarkably depressing picture it paints of the world on Christmas Eve 1969, a day of loneliness and want, failure and war. And at that precise moment, the laptop music stash shuffled up Stevie Wonder’s “Someday at Christmas”: “Someday at Christmas men won’t be boys / Playing with bombs like kids play with toys” and “Someday at Christmas there’ll be no wars / When we have learned what Christmas is for” and “Someday at Christmas we’ll see a land / With no hungry children and no empty hands.”

Stevie, you son of a bitch.

I had to stop reading, turn off the computer, and go do something else. I couldn’t take any more.

The next morning, I looked up the same day’s edition of the Wisconsin State Journal, Madison’s other daily paper. Its front page bannered an article about the success of the paper’s annual Empty Stocking campaign to benefit the needy, and it included items about gifts being airlifted to POWs in North Vietnam and poor families in Mississippi, plus a photo of an Amish man driving a horse-drawn sleigh in Kalona, Iowa, which received six inches of snow the day before. Also on the front page was the King James version of the Christmas story.

Why was this front page so different from the one on the Capital Times the same day? The answer was under the headline “On This Day, All the News Is Good.” “In keeping with a long Christmas tradition, The Wisconsin State Journal today carries no stories of disaster, crime, or violence on this front page.”

On December 24, 1969, which front page was more truthful? Was it the Capital Times, with its stories of the challenges faced by individuals, the Madison community, and the world, challenges that pay no attention to the calendar? Or was it the State Journal, telling of children who get what they need, of kindness in the midst of hardship and war, and of the birth of Jesus?

I don’t know. Surely the State Journal describes the world as we would like it to be, fitting on Christmas, when we are closer to being the people we imagine ourselves to be than on any other day of the year: filled with love for our fellow creatures, warm and secure in our traditions, caring and generous toward the whole world. And it feels so good and so right that we start thinking that maybe we can learn to live in that light the other 364 days of the year.

Stevie feels it, too: “Someday all our dreams will come to be / Someday in a world where men are free.” But just as the Capital Times’ editors understood that our challenges don’t cease to challenge us just because it’s Christmas Eve, Stevie Wonder knows it too. And he knows that on December 26th, we’ll be back in a place that’s a long way from where we wish we were. Sure, it could happen: Someday all our dreams could come to be. Sure, the world could be made free from loneliness and want, failure and war. But not on a happy timetable: “Maybe not in time for you and me.”

“But someday at Christmastime.” Because as sure as Christmas comes again, we never stop dreaming of the things that could be.

Doin’ the Christmas Shuffle, Vol. 17 (Really)

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(Pictured: Sharon Jones in 2015.)

It has been brought to my attention that my recent Christmas shuffle post, which I labeled Volume 18, should have been labeled Volume 17. So I am posting an extra shuffle here, which I am numbering Volume 17, even though it increases the likelihood that we’ll repeat Volume 18 next year, because this is not a very good blog, really.

“Silent Night”/Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings. From the 2015 album It’s A Holiday Soul Party, which all good people should own. Listening to it will make you grieve for Miss Jones all over again while making you damn grateful she was here in the first place. (Just-published-today retrospective with photos here.)

“Dear Mr. Claus”/Paul Revere and the Raiders. Fifty years ago this Christmas, smack in the middle of the golden age of Christmas music, the Raiders dropped the album A Christmas Present … and Past (which you can hear in its entirety here). It did not become part of the canon, however, because a lot of influential people hated it, including Columbia Records and prominent DJs; when he first listened to it, legendary radio programmer Bill Drake yanked it from a turntable and threw it against a wall. In 2010, Mark Lindsay told Goldmine, “Most of our singles weren’t political, but the Christmas album totally was. It was a disaster, but it reflected what we were feeling at the time. It was a good time for flower power and protest.”

“Sleigh Ride”/Leroy Anderson. The tale is told that Mel Torme and Robert Wells wrote “The Christmas Song” during a heat wave; Leroy Anderson did the same thing at about the same time. Arthur Fiedler and the Boston Pops released the first recording of “Sleigh Ride” in 1949; Anderson’s came out in 1950. He didn’t intend it as a Christmas song, but it’s become one of the most popular of them all.

“Merry Christmas From a Bar”/Mike Ireland. Ireland was a member of Kansas City country bands the Starkweathers and Holler, if that helps you at all. “Merry Christmas From a Bar” dates back to 1997.

“Greensleeves”/Vince Guaraldi Trio. From the 2006 remastered edition of A Charlie Brown Christmas, which added five tracks to the original release. Two are titled “Greensleeves,” in addition to the version of “What Child Is This” on the original album. By the time I get that far into the remastered CD, I’m feeling the vibe more than I’m hearing the music, so I don’t much mind the repetition.

“Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas”/Freedy Johnston. Johnston, who first got noticed in the early 90s with the albums Can You Fly and This Perfect World, divides his time between New York City and Madison, occasionally performing here with the Steely Dan cover band Steely Dane.

“Mary’s Boy Child”/Matt Monro. An Englishman with a beautiful voice whose biggest American hit was “My Kind of Girl” in 1961. He was a bit more successful on the UK chart, scoring with versions of “Softly As I Leave You,” “Yesterday,” and the James Bond theme “From Russia With Love,” among others. He does not seem to have made an entire album of Christmas songs, which is a shame, because “Mary’s Boy Child” is really good. Monro died in 1985 at age 54.

“Twinkle Twinkle Little Me”/Stevie Wonder. This year marks the 50th anniversary of Stevie Wonder’s Christmas album. Like other Motown Christmas originals, “Twinkle Twinkle Little Me” is pretty cheesy on the page, but as he frequently does on his Christmas album, Stevie’s performance keeps cheese from smelling like it.

“The Nutcracker Suite”/Wynton Marsalis. Last year, the bootleg site ROIO came up with a Christmas concert performed by the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra, conducted by Marsalis, for a 1989 TV broadcast. It includes a full performance of the Duke Ellington/Billy Strayhorn arrangement of the Tchaikovsky piece, sacred and secular Christmas songs, and Marsalis reading “The Night Before Christmas” to musical accompaniment. It’s pretty great, and you can download the whole thing (or individual tracks) right here.

“The Man With the Bag”/Kay Starr. If I didn’t have the attention span of a goldfish and the work ethic of a hobo, I might undertake some kind of formal history of Christmas pop, covering the 40 years between the end of World War II and the middle of the 1980, when listening audiences started to fragment and it became difficult for new songs to get traction. It would involve figuring out why some recordings endure and some do not, and how it’s hard to tell which ones will be which. “The Man With the Bag” dates back to 1950, and Kay Starr’s recording remains popular today, despite all the fashions that have come and gone from that day to this.

Christmas on the Radio

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It’s been a few years since I wrote about the WLS Holiday Festival of Music, a program the Chicago AM radio giant ran from the late 60s into the 80s on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. I first heard it in 1970, and I’m pretty sure there’s never been another radio program so perfectly crafted for its purpose. I have several hours of the 1980 broadcast in my library, and it’s a pleasure to hear it every year.

Although WLS was a Top 40 station, it was never monolithically aimed at kids. At various points in the 70s, it was downright housewifey during middays, even giving away household appliances. In the 80s, it was practically an album-rock station at night. The Holiday Festival of Music was similarly broad. It included Bruce Springsteen’s “Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town” and “Happy Xmas (War Is Over),” but also made room for Andy Williams and the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. It all fit together, and that’s because it was made to fit. The Holiday Festival of Music did not merely aim to fill airtime—it set out to create a mood, and it did so in unexpected ways. Segments on the history of various Christmas traditions sat side-by-side with Bible passages and even prayers. One particularly powerful segment from my 1980 recordings is a long reading from the works of Catholic monk, writer, and philosopher Thomas Merton.

Thomas Merton, people.

(A segment of the Holiday Festival of Music is here. It aired at midnight, as Christmas Eve turned to Christmas Day, Thursday, December 25, 1980.)

Lots of radio stations fail on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day because they don’t take the time to do what WLS did so well—to curate their Christmas programming. They just rotate the same songs they’ve been playing since Halloween (or whenever), with production elements in between that don’t differ much from the rest of the year. The argument in favor of this is as follows: as long as it’s plausibly Christmassy, nobody will care. But that’s not true. Radio listenership actually spikes on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day—or at least it did in the days before streaming. People want no-fuss aural wallpaper, and what you play matters. A couple of Christmases ago, at my parents’ house, we turned on the DirecTV holiday music channel, and it was painful. The music selection was ridiculous: playing Justin Bieber and Ella Fitzgerald in the same quarter-hour is a crime against humanity. After a while, we turned it off. Over the years, I’ve heard other radio stations in other places get turned off for the same reason. It takes more than shuffle to set a mood.

When I was a program director, I did my best to curate the holiday programming, although it was a challenge when I was at the mercy of a program supplier. In Macomb, our Christmas library would contain bog-standard Top 40 stuff until Christmas Eve, when we’d bust out some ancient tapes that contained more traditional carols and chorales, Andy Williams and the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. In small-town Iowa, we carried a satellite-delivered format that generally went wall-to-wall Christmas for a period on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. As I recall, it was decently done, although at least one year we replaced part of it with a syndicated Christmas show. Another year, the service announced that it would drop Christmas music entirely and go back to the regular format at 4:00 in the afternoon on Christmas Day. I immediately got on the phone to complain: “I’m a small-town station. If I stop playing Christmas music that early, people are going to burn my building down.” Mine must not have been the only call they got; by the end of the day they decided they’d play four Christmas songs an hour from 4:00 through midnight. Not ideal, but good enough.

I have said many times that one of the stations I work for, Magic 98 in Madison, comes as close to the spirit of the Holiday Festival of Music as we are likely to get in a world such as this. The show, “98 Hours of Christmas Magic,” starts at 10PM on Thursday night and runs through Christmas night at midnight. You can stream it right here.

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