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.
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.