TRYING TO RESTORe THE VALUE OF SOCIETY’S FAVORITE ART FORM
Tis the season to be listening to Christmas music! And if holiday tunes are on your playlist, there is no shortage of options to choose from. In fact, there are so many choices, that I can’t help but wonder, just why are there so many Christmas albums?
To get a feel for numbers and variety, I went to Tidal, and simply did a search for “Christmas.” I scrolled through the list of hits for over 30 minutes, and didn’t even scratch the surface. I’m sure I saw at least a thousand distinct albums of Christmas music, in virtually every style, instrumental combination, and recommended venue you can imagine.
Some of the styles that stood out as intriguing to me included dubstep, Motown, bluegrass, reggae, rap, 80s pop, and K-Pop. Artists like Boney M., Earth Wind and Fire, Bad Religion, The Ventures, Snoop Dogg, Twisted Sister, and Afroman stood out as artists who seemed to think making Christmas albums was a good idea.
Other compilations were designed to appeal to fans of specific instruments and ensembles. Naturally, there was plenty of orchestral, choral, and solo piano music. Some of the instruments that struck me a little odd included ukulele, pan flute, Moog synthesizer, and (my personal favorite) “sexy saxophone.”
There were collections assembled for specific occasions and settings as well. Need music for Christmas dinner, an office party, “party dance” events (whatever that means), for gatherings of hipsters, or to play at the spa? We gotchya covered.
What initially intrigued me in this topic is the sheer number of successful Christmas albums released by non-Christians. Barbra Streisand, Neil Diamond, Barry Manilow, India.Arie, Zooey Deschanel, Snoop Dogg, and Leonard Bernstein represent Judaism, Rastafarianism, and Atheism.
In fact, interfaithfamily.com noted that in 2012, 12 of the 25 most popular Christmas songs (based on ASCAP records of sales data) were composed by Jewish songwriters. “Winter Wonderland,” “The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire),” “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” “Sleigh Ride,” “Let it Snow, Let it Snow, Let it Snow!,” “White Christmas,” “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer,” “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year,” “Silver Bells,” “I’ll Be Home for Christmas,” and “There’s No Place Like Home for the Holidays” number among these songs. Most of these songs were created as part of the Tin Pan Alley tradition, the birthplace of much of the American popular music tradition.
So, the question comes back to: why? Why is recording a Christmas album (or several) such a common occurrence that this music spans so many stylistic boundaries and is even written and recorded by people who don’t celebrate the holiday? Well, I suspect the answer is obvious, if a bit cynical, money.
Much of the music we hear at this time of year has passed into what is called public domain. Stanford University Library defines public domain as “creative materials that are not protected by intellectual property laws such as copyright, trademark, or patent laws. The public owns these works, not an individual author or artist. Anyone can use a public domain work without obtaining permission.” (fairuse.stanford.edu) In other words, any artist can record a song in public domain, and they do not have to pay for the rights or give up any portion of the profits to a songwriter or publisher. As Jason deftly put it, “It’s like printing money.”
Art works fall into public domain after the copyright has expired. This can happen in several ways: a given period has passed since the death of the copyright holder (that number has changed several times over the decades, making the specifics more complex that we need to worry about), the copyright holder has deliberately placed the work in public domain, or the copyright holder has failed to follow copyright rules.
Another factor in the vast number and variety of Christmas albums, I suspect, stems from listeners’ desire to hear how their favorite artists translate familiar tunes into a modern, stylistic language. Much like comparing cover songs to the original, we take a certain degree of pleasure in noting the unique features of different artists’ interpretations of songs we know well. There’s less “newness” that we need to process during the listening process, so we can focus our attention on what makes version X distinct from all of the other recordings we’ve heard over the course of our lives.
The familiarity of the music itself likely also makes the process of recording a Christmas album quicker, and therefore less expensive. If all of the musicians already know the song, creating a variation on familiar theme is easy to do.
So, ultimately, Christmas albums are inexpensive to make, fun to listen to, and tap into our sense of nostalgia. These works create a perfect reflection of modern American society.
There was one specific Christmas album that I had been searching for. I spent years combing through bins of $5 Walmart CDs, dug through racks at Best Buy, record stores all over, without success. I was only able to obtain a copy of this album when we got Tidal, and I downloaded it to my phone for offline listening.
The Christmas Song by Nat King Cole features 18 distinct tracks, 15 of classic Christmas favorites, and three songs that strike me as last minute additions needed to fill the time, along with a spoken holiday greeting from the singer. Cole’s voice makes me melt!
Given the choices of songs, largely being those in the public domain, it seems pretty safe to surmise that this album was made as a holiday cash grab (though with slightly more credibility than something like the Grumpy Cat Christmas Album released in 2014). But, nonetheless, Cole sings with such sincerity and warmth that familiar songs like “O Holy Night” and “O Little Town of Bethlehem” come off as the soundtrack of a happy childhood holiday. The dedication to technique demonstrated by Cole becomes slightly problematic in “All I Want For Christmas (Is My Two Front Teeth),” which sort of loses its charm when song without the requisite lisp.
Suffice it to say, my Christmas has been made much more merry now that I have Nat in my collection. Hopefully, he’ll have the same effect for you. In the meantime, I wish you all the happiest of holidays, and I look forward to continuing to talk about music with you in 2016.
So I recently heard an album that I had been curious about for quite a while: Blurryface by twenty one pilots. While I have enjoyed the two singles from that album, “Tear in My Heart” and “Stressed Out,” the songs themselves were not really what had me curious about the album. What intrigued me was the fact that band were calling their recent release a concept album.
Concept albums have been around since the late 1960s. The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band is often considered the first concept album, the premise of such a project being an entire album with a unifying theme, such as a consistent narrative story that is carried from one song to the next or a dominant idea that is explored throughout. The psychedelia movement brought several early classics in the genre, such as Sgt. Pepper and the Moody Blues’ Days of Future Passed. And concept albums really hit their stride with the Prog Rock movement in the 1970s with groups like Yes (Fragile), The Who (Tommy and Quadrophenia), Pink Floyd (Dark Side of the Moon, Wish You Were Here, and The Wall), and Jethro Tull (Aqualung). The vast majority of these albums tell stories with a discrete beginning, middle, and end, and one might contend that this temporal kind of format is the best known for these types of projects. This was the sticking point that confused me with the twenty one pilots album. How can one tell a story with a specific narrative trajectory, using a medium where the typical listener plays music on a randomized setting?
I’ve done a lot of research on the process of story telling in other musical contexts, and one consistent factor of narrative, whether in a novel, a play, a movie, or an album is that the events occur in a specific order. The story teller, or in this case, song writer, can present that events out of their natural order (like a flashback in a TV show or movie that provides background or a flash forward meant to tease the audience), but this must be intentional and done with a design so that information is conveyed in the most compelling way. By the time we, the audience, get to the end of the story, we should be surprised, or relieved, or sad, but somehow, we must feel different when we’re finished.
Modern albums are rarely consumed in the order in which they are intended. Even if we listen from a CD, players often shuffle the contents, and if we are streaming or playing mp3s, this randomizing process is almost always in effect. So, with all that in mind, what does it mean for a group in the digital age to release a concept album? How do you tell a story if all of your components are likely to be received in a random order?
I suppose the most likely solution to the problem is to reexamine the notion of a concept album from its beginnings. Of all of the albums I listed above, one in particular stands out: Yes’s Fragile. What makes this work a concept album has little to do with an extra-musical storyline, but more of a song writing technique and performance constant. The drummer of the band, Bill Bruford, pitched the idea, “Why don’t we do some individual things, whereby we all use the group for our own musical fantasy?” Keyboardist Rick Wakeman expanded on the notion, “[We] could find out where each individual player’s contribution lay.” In other words, the concept that unifies the Yes album is the individual members’ own creative direction, their virtuosity, and their willingness to work together to envision one another’s ideas. Truthfully, I don’t know if such a project would even be considered a concept album if it were made today.
Anyway, back to twenty one pilots. A similar notion unifies this album: the insecurities of the lead singer and primary songwriter, Tyler Joseph. Music, its creation and performance, serve as the unifying theme for this new album, both conceptually and lyrically. The title of the album, Blurryface, refers to a fictional character of the same name, who represents Joseph’s struggle to come to terms with his work in the music industry. Lyrics on the album refer to a lack of confidence in his own song writing ability: “I wish I had some better sounds no one’s ever heard. I wish I had a better voice to sing some better words. I wish I found some chords in an order that is new. I wish I didn’t have to rhyme every time I sang.”
As a way to combat his fears of being on stage, Tyler began to create a stage persona. To embody this fictional character, which he called Blurryface, he took to wearing ski masks and black makeup on his neck and hands on stage. The album, named after his alter ego, also deals with the duality that began to emerge in his professional life, as his own personality began to merge in certain aspects with the artificial one that he had created. This battle comes to the forefront in the final song on the album, “Goner,” with the lyric, “I’ve got two faces, Blurry’s the one I’m not. I need your help to take him out.”
What makes this album compelling is the fact that it holds up, not only to the conceptual unity that is the hallmark of a concept album, but as a product of the twenty-first century. The songs relay different facets of a single theme, but they do not require a sequential hearing in order to convey their story. It’s more like a sitcom, comprised of discrete episodes that relate to a theme, but don’t require that the viewer watch them in order, rather than a drama, where missing a single airing can potentially ruin an entire season.
To me, this album almost negates its own reason for existing - but in a good way. I would be hard-pressed to compare it to any of the classic concept albums I mentioned about, but the lyrics are clever, the songs are catchy, and the premise behind the work as a whole is relatable. To explicitly identify Blurryface as a concept album automatically raises comparisons with some truly magnificent music, but taken of its own accord, I found this album to be quite enjoyable.
Let me know what you think of twenty one pilots and their album Blurryface. Does the theme benefit from listening to the songs in order, or does it matter? How does changing the order of the songs alter the listening experience? What do you think of the music itself? Does Joseph Tyler have reason to be self-conscious about him music?
 Hedges, Dan. Yes: An Authorized Biography (London: Sidgwick & Jackson, 1982), 62.
 Welch, Chris. Close to the Edge: The Story of Yes (London: Omnibus Press, 2008), 117.
 Lyrics from the song “Stressed Out.”
So, as I mentioned recently, Jason and I signed up for a trial account with Tidal, the full-resolution music streaming service that offers millions of songs that can be heard at the click of a mouse. As we enter into the second week of the trial, I’m saddened to say that we haven’t used it all that much.
Now, before making any harsh judgments, my fair reader, I think it only reasonable that I take a moment to explain our reasons for not using Tidal over the past week. It all boils down to one simple factor: time.
Listening is a process. I’ve said this many times, but listening to music and hearing music are two very different activities. We did not want to abuse the enormous catalog that Tidal offers on music that would only be heard. We want to listen. And listening takes time, effort, concentration, and focus.
This week has seen a major holiday, complete with a visit from my parents; the last week of classes at the university where I teach, and the accompanying avalanche of grading, meetings, and special projects; the approach of a major deadline for a course Jason is taking for work; and the approach of Christmas and all that entails.
We were pretty excited to show Tidal off to my parents during their visit. It was kind of fun to say, “Name a band you haven’t heard in forever,” and to be able to pull up their complete discography with a few clicks. I wasn’t even manning the controls, and I felt a little like a musical magician, pulling musical memories out of thin air. Plus, we got to hear Spooky Tooth, so win-win!
After the folks left, Jason and I settled in for a sigh and some cocktails. That’s when we did our only listening of the week (in between catching up on TV shows and Youtube subscriptions). We listened to something Jason had heard about from a friend (at least I think that’s where it came from – I could ask, but he’s studying, and I don’t want to interrupt). A songwriter, guitarist, and DJ from England who calls himself Fink performed a concert in Amsterdam with the Royal Concertgebouw. He had heard one song from the album on Youtube, a stunning fusion of a folk-rock like song with a swelling orchestral accompaniment. We wanted to hear the rest. So we did.
The concert, and as such, the album, contains several orchestral arrangements of Fink’s songs, which the artist describes as being in a style of “indie folk,” “pounding blues,” and “atmospheric trippery.” Now add to that one of the most well-respected orchestras in Europe, and the result is quite stunning! In addition to Fink originals, the album also contains his performance of Henry Purcell’s “What Power Art Thou” (from the 1691 semi-opera King Arthur) and moderns instrumental compositions by Christopher Rouse (The Infernal Machine) and Charles Ives (The Unanswered Question). All in all, it’s very modernistic (yes, even with music that is over 300 years old) and powerful.
So, here’s the thing. I think I’m getting over my apprehension about letting go of the physical artifacts that I have always associated with listening. As it turns out, I haven’t really used them for their intended purpose in a long time. And even though we haven’t had a chance to use it as much as we’d hoped, I have a feeling we will be making the transition from trial users to Tidal subscribers once our 30 days is up.
Why? Practicality more than anything. As much as I love the hunting and gathering nature if our exploration in used CD shops, the fact of the matter is that there just aren’t that many of them any more. As far as we can tell, the nearest one to us is in Atlanta – a forty-five minute drive away. I’ll probably still want to take a peek whenever I’m in the neighborhood, but the practice we had of buying a few CDs a month has simply become unsustainable from where we’re living.
Also, from a purely financial standpoint, Tidal is a really good deal. Sure, Spotify is cheaper (truthfully, I’ve used Spotify for years, and I’ve never paid for it), but the sound quality is lacking. If I want background music while I clean the house, cook, or drive, Spotify is fine. It’s particularly good for pulling up listening examples in the classroom, where sound quality is not an issue. But for intensive, critical listening, full resolution sound is totally worth $20 a month. We’d spend that much on our used CD excursions, and this way, we don’t have to worry about whether or not we can find most things (there are a few things I’ve noticed aren’t available, but that is for another day, after I’ve had more time to play “Stump Tidal”), and we get a lot more for our money.
Now, all we need is the ever elusive time to listen…
Seriously, check out this live recording. Fink Meets the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra (2012). It’s really diverse in terms as styles and moods, but it’s cool. I’ve heard it two or three times now, and I find myself wondering about the audience for such a performance.
Just what kind of person is a fan of “indie folk,” “pounding blues,” “atmospheric trippery,” Henry Purcell, Christopher Rouse, AND Charles Ives???? I guess I am…
Molly M. Breckling holds a Ph.D. in Historical Musicology from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Her areas of research interest are the songs of Gustav Mahler, popular music, and music history pedagogy. Her goal is to help others listen to music more actively and to develop a greater appreciation for the music that surrounds us every day.