Indie-rocker Sufjan Stevens is akin to the bell-ringing charity man you sidestep while entering the neighborhood drugstore: holiday perennial, purveyor of a sound that's an exercise in patience, and effervescent with so much Christmas cheer you want to poke him in the mug.
What started in 2001 as a DIY–inspired, heartfelt tradition by Stevens, recording holiday songs and mailing them to loved ones as gifts, became grossly commercialized last December when the material was released as the five-disc Songs for Christmas. Packaged with stickers, an animated music video, a Stevens-penned short story, and a novelty Santa boot mug (okay, we wish), the collection was pimped for the price of $22.98.
Now the Michigan artist is plugging The Great Sufjan Song Xmas Xchange. The gist: Write and record an original Christmas song, e-mail it to Asthmatic Kitty Records, and the individual with the best composition wins the rights to a Stevens ditty. The victor is then free to do whatever he or she wishes with the tune.
Stevens' latest ploy confirms what we long suspected: Pop music's Christmas gimmicks make the Baby Jesus cry. Preying on holiday shoppers ever on the lookout for more seasonal touchpoints, this music is pudding-skin-thin and rarely penetrating. Artists know we'll eventually wrap their Christmas jingles in Sunday's newspaper and ignore them until next December.
Some offenders are more egregious than others, their Yuletide-inspired posturing and faux merriment so blatant it puts garlic in your soul. Television holiday specials are often the weapon of choice, from the Bay City Rollers in 1975 to the somniferous Donny and Marie Osmond in 1978, launching a thousand "gives new meaning to the term 'white Christmas'" quips; to the ever-milquetoast Clay Aiken in 2004, an elfin product (we think) of the same stop-motion animation that presented us with 1987's Will Vinton's Claymation Christmas Celebration, where the California Raisins' raison d'être is confirmed as purpley Motown epigones.
Pop fandom's underage population is particularly vulnerable to the holiday gimmick, perhaps because they're less adept at sniffing out a devilish cash-grab. In 1965, Louis Benjamin, head of England's Pye label, looked to build on the monumental popularity of the Beatles among teens by issuing a Christmastime single from John Lennon's father, Freddie. "That's My Life (My Love and My Home)" went over like a party bowl of eggnog spiked with turpentine.
Irish satirist George Bernard Shaw once muttered, "Christmas is forced upon a reluctant and disgusted nation by the shopkeepers and the press." And Tony Wilson — don't forget that bugger. The Factory Records head was a whiz at conducting marketing effrontery under the guise of holiday fêting: A Factory Sample, featuring traditional Christmas fare like "Hitler's Liver" by John Dowie and "Sex in Secret" by Cabaret Voltaire; and a New Order flexidisc packaged with celebratory accessories such as a party hat and streamers. Regrettably, Rudolph-emblazoned Ecstasy tabs weren't included.
But Wilson understood: Seasonal gimmicks feast on the bizarre holiday caprice that has us congesting our yards with kitschy, illuminated lawn figures (Half Man Half Biscuit's "All I Want for Christmas is a Dukla Prague Away Kit"; anarchist punk band Crass and its "Merry Crassmas" flexi) or becoming zombie spendthrifts (1999's Latino Christmas, cashing in on that year's Latin music craze; two years later, Destiny's Child's "Platinum Bells" unabashedly plugged the group's line of toy dolls).
Some do get it right, however. In 1977, the Sex Pistols held a Christmas Day benefit in Huddersfield for children of the city's firefighters and dole-earning unemployed. Johnny Rotten was pushed into the gazebo-sized Christmas cake by a gaggle of six-year-old girls. Sid Vicious, embarrassed by all the twinkling kiddies' eyes staring at him, left his shirt on. It was all good, clean holiday fun: peace, charity, soda pop, and sticks of cinnamon. Imagine that — the Sex Pistols playing the role of blanket-toting Linuses and teaching all the true meaning of Christmas.