Merry Kitschmas

by Dr. Norman Stanfield ~ January 2nd, 2013. Filed under: Pop Music Studies.

As I mentioned in an earlier posting, editors Sheila Whiteley and Brian Miller have produced thought-provoking collections of essays that revel in the myriad contradictions of Christmas in our global village. But the articles are academic and demanding. A fast track to the reality of Christmas in the 21st century is found in the books and blogs that explore Kitschmas. “Kitsch” is a favourite topic of mine, and also figures into one of my lectures on popular music (week 7: High and Low).

For those very, very few of you unfamiliar with the term kitsch, Wikipedia and then the internet can be your guide. You will discover that irony and nostalgia are its fundamental attributes, and garden gnomes are its poster child. For one person, the doll-like statue is a highlight that contrasts the beauty of a floral bed display with a dash of whimsy and memories of childhood fantasies. For another, it is a vacuous icon that trivializes nature and bastardizes sculpture. Ibid black velvet paintings, naugahyde upholstery, Spanish Colonial decor, the Carpenters, North Korea, etc. Rather than express outrage, the ironist simply shrugs his or her shoulders and smiles the smile of pomo scorn. The ironic shrug is the default mode in Canada’s current environment of cultural relativism.

If your particular pleasure is the target of the kitsch cognoscenti, you can defend your taste vigorously, open your eyes for the first time, or ignore the slings and arrows.  “Ignore” seems to be the reaction of choice. Vancouver’s most famous, if not notorious example of kitsch is the domestic architecture known as the Vancouver Special, a genre of  house construction built in the last 40 years that is optimal in its use of space, while being remarkably, if not mind-boggling cheesy in its architectural façade.  The more budget-conscious the neighbourhood; the more frequently it is seen.  Despite the scorn that is heaped on the Specials, they and their successive variations sell like hot-cakes.

Christmas music is a feast for culture-vultures with a penchant for kitsch. The musical high ground is occupied by the lofty likes of Handel’s Messiah and the Ceremony of Carols heard in King’s College, Cambridge.  However, the mainstay repertoire consists of classics like Away in a Manger, Silent Night, and a host of similar titles first brought together in 1871 and entitled Christmas Carols Old and New.

The low ground is where you find the kitsch – crooners from the 50s, Mel Torme and Bing Crosby, all the way to Jingle Bell Rock and Phil Spector’s LP A Christmas Gift to You. (Wait. I’m just now listening to Schubert’s Ave Maria sung by Luciano Pavarotti, which goes to show that musical cheese can indeed be found on the high ground.) Kitschmas music consists of sentimental lyrics set to every imaginable genre of popular music, including blues and funk. Listen to James Brown’s Merry Christmas Baby. Ironically (there, I said it!), the rock and soul music versions are often first rate in their musical settings and painfully tacky in their lyrics. So much so, in fact, that they may very well be an unspoken parody. However, the Christmas music fodder heard in the mall and you parent’s radio is overwhelmingly soft adult and soft pop.

The Catch

The conversation about Kitschmas music would normally consist of a bottomless pit of “my taste versus your taste” argument with no conclusion in sight, except for two difficult problems that demand a resolution.

First up is the high ground of Christmas music, including the vast carol repertoire, which hangs on a singular thread – Christianity. Anybody associated with intense multicultural communities like grade schools, public service, and governments knows that the observance of Christmas celebrations can no longer privilege Christianity or any other religion for that matter, and even atheism. So the safe Plan B is to program secular, non-Christian musical fare like Jingle Bells and Chestnuts Roasting o’er the Open Fire. Enter in, Kitschmas.

The second problem is found in the modern-day family. Traditional Christmas sets out to celebrate a concept of family that is largely derived from the Victorian twin cults of domesticity and the child. The former defined women as consumers, home-makers and subservient, and the latter replaced childhood’s original sin and primal wildness with inherent innocence. Both understandings are still with us today, albeit highly contested, unlike the past. Enter in, nostalgia.

Kitschmas occupies a neutral zone where multicultural sensibilities are not offended and nostalgia functions unfettered. It is also the Lowest Common Denominator, or so say the ironists and culture vultures. But, like everything from the 80s and 90s, irony is now viewed with suspicion. Signs that point to this re-assessment are seen in articles about the death of irony, beginning with an article in Vanity Fair dated September 18, 2001. X-gen and Y-gen (millennials) wonder if irony is actually a peculiar cultural trait of the boomer generation, now hoary and incongruous.

Many traditional cultures, especially from South and East Asia, do not recognize irony, as evidenced by their unalloyed devotion to melodrama. Also, the aural transmission of their traditions and customs is not a wistful memory, but an ever-present fact of life. The sanctity and cohesion of the traditional family, called Family Honour, may suffer the usual strains of generational differences, but rarely fractures, unlike the West. For them, and their diaspora cousins living in Canada, Western Kitschmas is benign, seemingly genuine, and easily enculturated. Further, immigrants newly arrived in Canada will have memories of Western Kitschmas exported long ago to their homelands, along with other forms of soft adult and soft rock. Its inherent nostalgia has even been “melodramatized” into a sentimental vehicle for young lovers. For example, in Lee-hom Wang’s music video Kiss Goodbye, the protagonist laments a lost love while singing at the piano with a Christmas tree as a backdrop. These expressions of sentiment do not function in binary opposition to irony, as they do in the West, so their appearance is strangely vacuous to outsiders like critical theorists. The opposite pole is seemingly occupied by their own, imperilled vernacular culture.

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The Future?

As the millennials and the zeros arrive at their moment in history, they will likely be served almost exclusively by popular music’s secular messages while (Christian-based) carols and soft-adult seasonal music will move inexorably into a specialized niche populated by rapidly shrinking audiences. The soft pop music fare fueled by nostalgia will likely be challenged by new Christmas popular music that adopts more meaningful lyrics, stripped of clichés. In the process, Kitschmas will evaporate. But will Christmas survive? If we accept the evidence of Western May Day, which evolved from the most celebratory day of the year to an empty long week-end holiday, the prognosis is not good.

For those who just can’t wait for the evolutionary change from Kitschmas to Christmas music, I recommend Fairy Tale of New York by the Pogues.

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Melodrama and Asian Cinema, edited by Wimal Dissanayake (1993)

Irony, by Claire Colebrook (2003)

The Way We Never Were: American Families and the Nostalgia Trap, by Stephanie Coontz (2000, second edition)

It’s a Wonderful Christmas: The Best of the Holidays 1940-1965, by Susan Waggoner (2004)

The Innocent Child and Other Modern Myths” by Henry Jenkins , in The Children’s Culture Reader, edited by Henry Jenkins (1999)

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