The Most Miserable Time of the Year: Sad Christmas Songs

Christmas is a happy time, right? Okay, I know there are people who immediately groaned when they read that. Some of my friends turn into Ebeneezer Scrooges immediately after Thanksgiving (though I won’t name any names). In general, though, Christmas is a time of joy and celebration, a time for televising the umpty-umpth rerun of every Rankin-Bass Christmas cartoon ever animated, for getting drunk on spiked eggnog and mulled wine, and for listening to Christmas music on the radio, your iPod or your favorite streaming music service. And Christmas music must be the happiest music ever written. Right?

Blue Christmas

Elvis may be smiling on this album cover, but it’s a sad smile.

Not necessarily. It took Amy, who being Jewish has a somewhat different perspective on Christmas music than I do, to point out what should have been obvious to me years ago: A lot of modern Christmas songs, maybe more Christmas songs than not, are real downers.

I’m not talking about religious Christmas music, which is mostly about how thrilled the singers are over the birth of their savior. And I’m not counting Greg Lake’s “I Believe in Father Christmas,” which isn’t really a Christmas song so much as it’s a “bitter-rejection-of-Christmas” song.

When you get into secular Christmas music, though, the landscape starts to change. Sure, songs like “It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas” and “Let It Snow” are so upbeat that they make you want to dance. “The Christmas Waltz” even tells you what dance you’re supposed to dance to it. But a surprising number of pop Christmas songs are about how depressing a time of year this can be, especially if you want to be someplace that you’re not or with somebody you can’t be with.

I don’t know if it was the first depressing Christmas song, but Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas,” at one time the most popular Christmas song in the Great American Songbook, is definitely a sad song. As the rarely used intro says, “It’s December the 24th and I’m longing to be up north.” It’s about a person (probably Irving Berlin himself, stuck in Los Angeles writing songs like “White Christmas” for the movies) having a somber Christmas because it’s not “like the ones [he] used to know.”

During World War II, there were thousands of GIs who wouldn’t be home for Christmas because they had a war to fight in Europe and Japan. The 1943 song “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” acknowledged this by painting a picture of a perfect Christmas homecoming — “We’ll have snow and mistletoe and presents under the tree” — then blowing it apart with what may be the most heartbreaking punchline of any song from that era: “I’ll be home for Christmas…if only in my dreams.”

By the 1960s, Elvis Presley was singing about having a “Blue Christmas” (a song actually written in the late 1940s), lamenting that the object of his affections would “be doing all right with [her] Christmas of white, but I’ll have a blue, blue, blue Christmas.” (Three “blues” in a row. Can’t get much bluer than that.) The song was a huge hit and still gets played, in versions by Elvis and dozens of others, every Christmas. And note how it neatly references the Irving Berlin song, not only in its title but in that line about “in your Christmas of white.”

It may have been Karen Carpenter, though, who really started the sad Christmas ball rolling with 1970’s “Merry Christmas, Darling,” a song written by her brother Richard in collaboration with Frank Pooler and not made any happier by the fact that Karen died a much-too-early death a little more than a decade later. It’s a sweet but heartbreaking song about a woman separated from her beloved for unspecified reasons and remains one of the greatest Christmas songs to come out of the 1970s.

The Karen and Richard Carpenter Center for the Performing Arts

The Karen and Richard Carpenter Center for the Performing Arts, made relevant only by the fact that we saw David Benoit and his trio perform a tribute to A Charlie Brown Christmas there a few nights ago

Dan Fogelberg must have been drinking from the same pain-spiked bowl of eggnog when he wrote and sang 1980’s admittedly rather sappy “Same Old Lang Syne,” a song that’s often played as a New Year’s song, but that takes place on Christmas Eve. In it, the singer meets an old girlfriend who apparently broke his heart long ago and who is now in a loveless marriage with an architect. (Honestly, Dan, I don’t know how you got through the song without gloating — unless the whole song is one big gloat.)

It’s hard to say if Mariah Carey’s 1995 Christmas hit “All I Want for Christmas Is You,” released again in 2011 as a duet with Justin Bieber, is a happy song or a sad song, given that she leaves us hanging in the end as to whether the person she loves leaves her standing, kissless, under the mistletoe. The uptempo arrangement suggests that this is really a happy Christmas song, but we don’t know for sure. Come on, Mariah. End the suspense and tell us if Mr. Right finally showed up! (Given that formfitting Santa suit you’re wearing on the album cover, I’m guessing he did.) And feel free to give me one of those presents under the tree that you seem so uninterested in. I’m guessing there’s some pretty expensive stuff in there.

Mariah Carey

Yeah, I’m sure the guy never showed up, maybe because her then-husband Tommy Mottola would have had his fingers broken.

When talking about sad Christmas songs, though, there’s one that leaves all the others in the dust (or snow) and you certainly wouldn’t guess it from the song’s name: “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” As sung by Judy Garland in the 1944 film Meet Me in St. Louis, it’s about a family being torn apart from friends and relatives, not to mention having to miss the 1904 World’s Fair, because of their father’s job in New York. Garland sings the song to comfort her little sister, played by Margaret O’Brien, but that didn’t prevent lyricist Hugh Martin (who had written the song many years earlier) from having to change lyrics like “Have yourself a merry little Christmas./It may be your last./Next year we may all be living in the past” to their marginally more cheerful versions in the film. And when Frank Sinatra recorded the song, he asked Martin to “jolly up” the lyric “Until then we’ll have to muddle through somehow.” It became “Hang a shining star upon the highest bough.” Ironically, when Judy Garland sang the song to her daughters on television in the 1960s, she sang the Sinatra version rather than the one she had sung in the film.

The truth is, Christmas music is like all other types of pop music. There are sad songs, like the ones we’ve discussed. There are upbeat songs, like “Sleigh Ride.” And there are dance songs, like “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree.” Christmas may be a happy occasion — although we’ve been told many times that suicides soar around the holidays, Snopes.com says that’s just an urban legend — but the truth is that we’d eventually get sick of hearing nothing but cheerful music.

I say bring on the heartbreak songs, if only because sometimes it brightens your day to learn that someone else’s life is going even worse than yours is.

UPDATE: After I posted the column above, Amy and I discussed some other downbeat Christmas songs. The most obvious was Wham’s 1984 “Last Christmas,” which earns its sadness rather cheaply: The singer apparently had a one-night stand last Christmas and expected it to outlast the holiday. It didn’t. Another Christmas song that could conceivably be seen as a downer is “My Grown-Up Christmas List,” a much-covered Amy Grant hit from 1990. Although the song is hopeful — it’s about an adult who asks Santa Claus to cure everything that’s wrong with the world — it requires the singer to list all of those things and that’s the downer part. “What,” the singer asks, “is this illusion called the innocence of youth? Maybe only in our blind belief can we ever find the truth.” Upper or downer? Your call.

My vote for most suicide-inducing Christmas song of all time, though, goes to “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day,” which has lyrics taken from an 1863 poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow called “Christmas Bells.” Depressed by the death of his wife and the even more recent death of his son in the American Civil War, the poet wrote:

And in despair I bowed my head
“There is no peace on earth,” I said
“For hate is strong and mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good will to men!”

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
“God is not dead, nor doth He sleep
The Wrong shall fail, the Right prevail
With peace on earth, good will to men.”

I suppose Longfellow was trying to find hope and meaning in the tragedies he had been through, but there’s a sense that he doesn’t believe a word of it. If “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” is about a family falling apart, “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day” is about a world falling apart. It makes “Merry Christmas, Darling,” where the missing lover is at least alive and presumably coming back some day soon, sound positively cheerful.

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Snark with Weight: The Music of Steely Dan

As I grow older, I find myself thinking more and more about what it is that I like about music, why certain songs appeal to me, why a very few songs go beyond appeal and into a zone that I can’t describe. And the older I get, the more I realize that I really don’t want to know.

I have a Spotify playlist called “Chris’s Writing Soundtrack” — I’m listening to it now and would link to it if I had the foggiest idea how to do that — which contains mostly songs that have to meet a very specific and (I think) unusual criterion: They have to touch someplace inside me that I can’t identify. They have to create an emotion in me that I have no name for. There aren’t many songs like this, at least when counted as a fraction of all the songs that have ever been recorded and gained some sort of reputation, however small. (I have “Voices” by Russ Ballard on the list. Remember that? No, I didn’t think you would. It never even hit the Billboard Hot 100 and I only know it from hearing it on the jukebox at a strip joint I would occasionally visit in the 1980s, but it has a small following, probably because it was once used in an episode of Miami Vice.) I use this playlist for writing because it helps me to tap into emotions that I’d have more trouble accessing without it. Okay, I’ll confess that not every song on the list meets this criterion. A few are just there because I think they’re excellent songs, like Rodgers & Hart’s delightful “I Wish I Were in Love Again.” But most of the songs on it go to that unidentified place.

The performers who belong on it most are Walter Becker and Donald Fagen, otherwise known as Steely Dan, because they hit that mysterious spot or spots more often than any other singer-songwriters I know. I can’t tell you what I love about them because I don’t know. And I think it would destroy my love of them if I ever figured it out. Fortunately, I don’t think that’ll happen.

Becker and Fagen as young men

Becker & Fagen in younger days

Not that there aren’t some overtly likeable things about their music. For instance, individually and collectively, they write some of the cleverest lyrics ever used in pop music. Since I regard Becker as slightly the better of the two lyrically when they work apart, I’ll just throw in a verse from his first solo album, the 1994 11 Tracks of Whack, from the song “Book of Liars”:

Time exploding, the long night passing
Electrons dancing in the frozen crystal dawn
Here’s one left stranded at the zero crossing
With the whole of his half-life left to carry on

This is actually the slightly variant version Becker sings on Steely Dan’s 1995 live album, Alive in America. In either version, this verse just leaves me breathless (as do all the others, come to think of it). Anyone who can create a gorgeous metaphor for heartbreak based on particle physics (and that term “the whole of his half-life” just rips me up) is a god to me. If he dies before I do, and he didn’t look too healthy at the concert two years ago, I’ll create a religion devoted to him. Fagen’s almost as good lyrically and better than Becker, I think, with melody, if not quite as edgy, which is why their talents complement one another so perfectly.

I also love their harmonies. Harmonies are the most reliable way of creating an emotion in me and once again I don’t fully understand why.  (The song “All Day Music” by War is also on that Spotify playlist and I think it may have the most gorgeous harmonies ever used in a pop song.) If you’re familiar with Steely Dan’s work, consider the song “Turn That Heartbeat Over Again” from their first album, Can’t Buy a Thrill. It’s sort of silly and trivial, yet there are moments in that song that send thrills up my spine and it’s mostly done with harmonies. For instance, the couplet:

This highway runs from Paraguay
And I’ve just come all the way

where the italics represent the sudden burst of harmony. I have no idea what that couplet means. I have no idea what the song means. (Either Becker or Fagen once said that all their Steely Dan songs are based on something real, possibly something that happened to them, but they won’t always tell you what it is.) It doesn’t matter, though. For me, the harmony, and perhaps even the cryptic lyrics that leave so much room for my imagination, are what cause that indefinable emotion to occur in me on those lines. I used to go weak in the knees, hyperbolically speaking, when I’d hear them.

What I love most, though, about Becker and Fagen’s Steely Dan work is the snark. One of them has said (I can’t remember where I saw this or which one it was) that all of their songs are essentially comedy songs and I think that’s true, if you regard relentlessly snarky, sardonic lyrics that rarely make you laugh out loud to be comedy. Yet it’s not the comedy aspects of the snark that interest me; it’s the deeper level of emotion hidden beneath the comedy that gets to me. I call this kind of comedy “snark with weight,” because it could easily be taken as simple sarcasm and yet it’s not. It has an emotional heft, an emotional punch. At it’s best, which is most of the time, Becker and Fagen’s sarcasm conceals something emotionally deeper and more serious, and the fact that it’s hidden by the snark and therefore is able to sneak up on me, catching me off guard, lets it hit that unknown button just that much harder. Take the song “Black Cow” from Aja, about a man who knows his girlfriend or wife is cheating on him and actually sees her with other men in a bar, something she makes no attempt to hide from him. It has fairly humorous snark like:

Down to Greene Street
There you go
Lookin’ so outrageous
And they tell you so

But it also has lyrics like this:

On the counter,  by your keys
Was a book of numbers and your remedies
One of these
Surely will screen out the sorrow.
But where are you tomorrow?

The use of the word “remedies” is funny, I think, but when you realize this woman has a serious alcohol and drug problem, and is probably suffering from deep depression and low self esteem as well, and that the guy singing the song keeps telling her to get out of his life and then comes looking for him, or that she seems to need him desperately for one thing — a shoulder to cry on — and he needs her desperately for everything, it’s not funny anymore. It’s not remotely funny. It’s about a complex and tragic emotional situation and that fact doesn’t come over you all at once. It may take several listenings. But you can feel it emotionally, in part from that burst of harmony on “But where are you tomorrow?,” the first time you listen to it, and to me that’s what makes it such a great song, one that touches that magic button.

Of course, I could reel off a lengthy list of Steely Dan songs that do the same thing, like what may be my favorite song by them, “Dr. Wu” (“Are you with me, Doctor Wu?/Are you really just a shadow/Of the man that I once knew?”) from Katy Lied or “Jack of Speed”  (“Don’t stop/When you hear him plead”) from Two Against Nature, or the last and title song of the last album they’ve done to date, 2003’s “Everything Must Go,” which is the most openly comic of all their songs I’ve mentioned, yet still has a sense of sadness, and even a hint of farewell, underneath it:

We gave it our best shot
But keep in mind we got a lot
The sky, the moon, good food and the weather
First-run movies
Does anybody get lucky twice?
Wouldn’t it be nice?

Becker and Fagen have both released solo albums (one, Circus Money, by Becker, and two, Morph the Cat and Sunken Condos, by Fagen) since Everything Must Go came out, but I want them to release another album as a duo before they call it quits, either musically or physically. I want to see if, together, they can still keep hitting that oh-so-mysterious button inside me. Maybe they won’t and I’ll be disappointed.

But at least I’ll know they gave it their best shot.