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By Ron Scopelliti
Sounds of the season
I’ve been saying it for years, and now I’ve finally got science to back me up. Christmas music is evil. As evil as the Red Lectroids from Planet 10 who invaded Earth in “The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai.”
OK, so maybe it’s not that evil. But I’ve been digging up evidence to prove I’m not alone in my disdain for musical yuletide drivel.
In 2011, for instance, Consumer Reports conducted a survey asking 1,013 adults what they dreaded most about the holidays. Seasonal music was cited by 23 percent of the respondents.
More recently, a bunch of publications and websites have latched onto one psychologist’s assertion that Christmas music is not good for us in large doses. The Independent, The Observer (UK), the BBC, CBS, and NPR have all cited psychologist Linda Blair’s concerns about holiday music.
I’ve always thought it must be sheer hell to have to work in a store that constantly plays Christmas songs, but Blair put it much more articulately in a quote from Business Insider. She said that people in shops have to tune the music out because “if they don’t it really does stop you from being able to focus on anything else.” She went on to say: “You’re simply spending all your energy trying not to hear what you’re hearing.”
In an interview with NBC, researcher Victoria Williamson from the University of London noted how repeated doses of holiday music make us susceptible to the “mere exposure effect,’ where we like the music at first, but when we’ve heard the same songs over and over again they becomes an annoyance. And if we’re already under psychological stress, that stress is exacerbated.
So now, when I complain about the onslaught of holiday music, I can say “This is not just me being cynical. This is genuine, honest-to-blog, Thomas-Dolby-style science.”
I’m not claiming that all Christmas music is bad. I like John and Yoko’s Christmas song, and “The Fairy Tale of New York” by The Pogues, and “Oi to the World” by The Vandals. Also, even though it’s not technically a Christmas song, I used to like it when WBCN would play “Land of the Glass Pinecones” by Human Sexual Response around Christmas.
But those are all atypical holiday songs that aren’t played over and over. They also don’t try to force you into a state of false holiday cheer.
Other songs try to beat you over the head with it, as if, if you hear “Jingle Bells” or “Sleigh Ride” or “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” enough times you’ll become cheerful through their sheer, relentless pressure. You will be happy. You will be gleeful. You will exhibit good will towards man, even as you’re elbowing your way past him to get that last pack of Lindt balls for a stocking stuffer. Listening to the Pogues sing about rocky relationships and dreams that were put on hold offers none of this pressure to be of good cheer.
I think this attitude goes all the way back to my childhood, when I had a Three Stooges Christmas record. Even then, I felt that the sheer chaos of Larry, Moe, and Curly-Joe singing “Wreck the Halls with Boughs of Holly” as they inadvertently tipped over Christmas trees and sent chandeliers crashing to the floor offered a valid comment on the stress and disorder that the holidays bring.
When I’m in a more low-key, holiday-season slump, I always find comfort in Vince Guaraldi. His version of “Oh Christmas Tree” from “A Charlie Brown Christmas” has just enough wistfulness and melancholy in it to capture the sadness that underlies that allegedly celebratory symbol. When you think about it, there’s nothing really cheerful about Christmas trees, especially the so-called “live” Christmas trees. I say “so-called” because they’re only “live” until you cut them down and drag them into your house. Face it folks – that’s not a “live” Christmas tree you have in your living room – it’s a dead conifer on life-support.
If anything, Guaraldi’s interpretation of “Oh Christmas Tree” is a little too lively. But he makes up for it with the sadder-sounding “Christmastime is Here.”
So this month, if I sit down to write at my favorite Barnes and Noble table and the holiday music begins to get to me, I’ll just take comfort in my coffee, plug in my headphones, and avoid “mere exposure effect” by cuing up the soundtrack to “A Charlie Brown Christmas.” And if the table’s a bit wobbly, I’ll steady it by wrapping the base with a trusty blue blanket.