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The View from My Kitchen

Benvenuti! I hope you enjoy il panorama dalla mia cucina Italiana -- "the view from my Italian kitchen,"-- where I indulge my passion for Italian food and cooking. From here, I share some thoughts and ideas on food, as well as recipes and restaurant reviews, notes on travel, and a few garnishes from a lifetime in the entertainment industry.

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Saturday, December 21, 2013

Stop Screwing With My Christmas Music!


This is an open letter to radio station music directors, school administrators, pop music “artists,” and wrongheaded carol singers in general: stop screwing with my Christmas music!

First off, believe me, I am the farthest thing from a Bible-thumper that you could possibly imagine. But this whole thing about Christmas music “offending” people is illogical and insane. I know Jewish people who sing Christmas songs just because they like the music.

Some things are meant to be traditional. So what is “traditional?” The dictionary defines it as relating to the passing down of elements of a culture from generation to generation; a time-honored practice or set of practices. Synonyms include customary, established, classic, and standard. “Christmas comes but once a year,” so the saying goes. Admittedly, these days it comes in September and lingers until January, but the traditional trappings of Christmas are just that; traditional. Oh, I suppose there's room for new traditions now and then, like Rudolph and Frosty. And it just wouldn't be Christmas without Charlie Brown and the gang or the Grinch. Or Bing Crosby. But we have to be careful when adopting new traditions not to neglect the old ones or relegate them to inferior positions. After all, Christmas is a commemoration of the birth of Jesus Christ and whether or not you believe in his divinity, you can't deny that he is “the reason for the season,” as the religious folks like to say.

Don't start with me. I know Jesus wasn't actually born on December 25 and I know all about the pagan holidays that were co-opted by the church in order to make the transition more palatable to the people who were being more or less forcibly converted to Christianity. As I said, I'm not a Bible-thumper. But, c'mon. A traditional Christmas carol is a traditional Christmas carol. Like it or not, it's a song about Jesus. Live with it. I'm not Jewish either, but I don't get all bent out of shape about people singing “Hanukkah, Oh Hannukah” as part of their tradition. You feel like singing “The Kwanzaa Song?” Go for it. You won't offend me in the least. And if secular tunes about snowflakes and Santa Claus are your bag, sing 'em long and loud. They're all part of the season and nobody should be offended by any of them. 

What really offends me are people who are afraid of offending me. Like public school administrators. I must have read twenty stories this season about schools booting traditional Christmas music from their “holiday” concerts for fear of “offending” someone. The latest such idiocy comes out of a middle school in Long Island where they changed up the words to “Silent Night,” eliminating references to “holy infant” and “savior.” Let me see if I remember, now; “Silent Night” was written by a priest in an Austrian church and first performed in that church on Christmas Eve in 1818. I do believe that kind of qualifies it as a religious song. It has since become one of the best-known and best-loved examples of its genre, to the extent that it has actually been declared by UNESCO to be an “intangible cultural heritage.” And this gives some moron music teacher in Long Island license to screw with it in what way? “Oh, but we must not be offensive.” I'm sorry, but the ridiculously specious nature of your silly argument is highly offensive to me or to anybody with any common sense.

The only people who really seem to be offended are the virulently anti-religious fringe who would like to see all traces of any faith removed from our culture. “Jesus is a myth,” these people say. Like Santa Claus isn't? Why is it okay to sing about one myth and not another. So you don't believe in gods and saviors and holy infants. Fine. Your prerogative. I don't believe in dancing, singing snowmen, but I like singing about them. It's music and it's pretty and it's fun.

The folks at the Freedom From Religion Foundation believe that there are plenty of secular songs out there and that “holiday” music with religious overtones should be abolished. You let me know how your campaign to reverse Constantine and the Edict of Milan and undo seventeen centuries of Christian culture goes. Until it's successful, stop screwing with my Christmas music.

If you're going to start censoring music programs to eliminate “offensive” religious references, you'd better be prepared to usher Bach with his “Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring and Handel and his “Messiah” right out the door along with Beethoven and Brahms and the rest and replace them with secular neo-classicists like Madonna, Lady Gaga and Justin Bieber. Religious music has a valuable place in our culture, and since Christmas is, at its core, a “religious” occasion, one celebrating the birth of a major “religious” figure, how can any right-minded person be offended by Christmas music presented in its traditional context?

Next, I have a bone to pick with radio station music directors. “Happy Holidays from WZZZ, where we play your favorite Christmas songs twenty-four hours a day starting in mid-November and continuing until you're thoroughly sick of it.” Except they don't. Not really. My favorite Christmas songs include the songs I grew up with. The “traditional” songs. “Oh, Little Town of Bethlehem,” “Hark, The Herald Angels Sing,” “Joy to the World,” “O Come All Ye Faithful.” No offense to Mariah Carey, but if I hear “All I Want for Christmas is You” one more time this season, I'm going to spit up. Same goes for Bruce Springsteen's off-key warbling of “Santa Claus is Coming to Town.” Listen carefully and you'll find that these “Christmas stations” are all playing the same ten songs done by twenty different artists.

And I'm terribly, terribly sorry, but just because a tune mentions the word “Christmas” somewhere doesn't make it a Christmas song. Case in point: Dan Fogelberg's “Same Old Lang Syne.” “Met my old lover in the grocery store; the snow was falling Christmas Eve.......” And from there, the song is all about lost loves and lamenting missed opportunities and drinking a six-pack in her car. This belongs in a Christmas rotation? Really?

But at least it mentions Christmas. Unlike “My Favorite Things,” a lovely song from “The Sound of Music” that has absolutely, positively nothing to do with Christmas. In the stage play, Maria sings it to overcome her fears of her impending new placement with the von Trapps. In the movie, she sings it during a storm to assuage the fears of the children. In any case, other than references to mittens, sleigh bells, and snowflakes, it's not a Christmas song! Okay, I guess that puts it in the same category as “Jingle Bells” and “Sleigh Ride,” so I'm willing to overlook it. Of course, I can't overlook the dreadful Barbara Streisand over-performance of the song that dominates the airwaves. Please, radio guys, limit it to versions by Julie Andrews, Jack Jones, Kenny Rogers, Rod Stewart, Herb Alpert, Andy Williams, Johnny Mathis, Lorrie Morgan, Tony Bennett, Kenny G, Barry Manilow, or any of a dozen other artists who have covered it.

Years ago, I volunteered to do a live Christmas Eve show on radio. My program director said we could just do a “canned” show like everybody else so I could be home with my family. But I insisted because I knew there were people out there who had to work on Christmas Eve or maybe some who were alone with only the radio for companionship, and I wanted to be there for those people, playing their requests and being a real person to whom they could relate. So I brought my family into the studio with me and we spent the hours between six and midnight taking phone calls and playing what people wanted to hear on Christmas Eve. Yes, I had to limit the playing of “Grandma Got Run Over By a Reindeer” to once an hour and I had to restrict Alvin and the Chipmunks and Seymour Swine as well. (You know......the “Porky Pig” version of “Blue Christmas.”) But you know what people wanted to hear most? Carols. Good old-fashioned, traditional Christmas carols. Not one request came in for John Lennon's “So This Is Christmas” with it's repetitive “war is over” background refrain. Nor did they want to hear Bob Geldof's Band Aid exhort them to “feed the world” with “Do They Know It's Christmas?” Listeners wanted “Do You Hear What I Hear?” and “The Little Drummer Boy” and “Silent Night.” They didn't ring the phones off the hook for pop/rock artists like Elton John and “Step Into Christmas” or Wham! singing “Last Christmas.” They requested “The Carol of the Bells” and “What Child Is This.” They called in for “The First Nowell” and “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear.” The didn't want political message songs. They wanted the songs they sang in church; the songs with the real message of Christmas that was important to them and that they carried in their hearts and passed on to their families. Not the “inoffensive” secular dreck that the so-called “Christmas stations” play today. There's a slick plastic automated computer operated Clear Channel station in my area that plays the “modern” Christmas songs and there's a little local “mom and pop” station with real DJs that plays the old stuff. Guess which one I listen to.

I was working around the house and wanted some background Christmas music. I tuned to DirecTV's alleged “holiday music” station. Yikes! I don't know what the hell that was, but it surely wasn't Christmas music. Instead, I brought up Pandora's “Classical Christmas” station on my computer. Much better. Like washing my ears out.

You know what else offends me? People who screw around with those traditional classics. I'll hear some good old song come on the radio and I'll warm up the pipes and start to sing along and.......Whammo!........somebody changes the words! Or the tempo. Or the overall arrangement. Why? We've been singing some of these songs the same way every December since medieval days. Why do they need changing now? I don't know who the guy was that I heard singing “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” today, but the song goes, “God rest ye merry, gentlemen, let nothing you dismay. Remember Christ our savior was born on Christmas Day.” It doesn't go, “Remember Jesus Christ our lord was born on Christmas Day.” Where did that come from? And the fifth line of the second verse starts, “How that in Bethlehem was born” not “Now that in Bethlehem was born.” Doofus. Way to wreck a song. If you're really clueless and don't know the words, learn them before you attempt to sing them.

(Kind of reminds me of the amateur redneck band I once heard attempting to perform the Randy Travis hit “1982” and mangling the verse by singing, “They say eyesight's 20/20 and I'm nearly going blind.” You country fans will know difference.)

I heard Carrie Underwood the other day singing “Oh Holy Night.” She did a fine job and I was ready to go with her to the second verse. And then she just repeated the first over again. Why, Carrie? The song has three lovely verses. What's wrong with the other two?

Maybe it's my musical theater background. Trust me, when you're performing Rodgers and Hammerstein or Lerner and Lowe, you don't screw with the words. Or the melodies. Or anything else about the song. There's no room for “stylizing” in musical theater. You sing 'em like they wrote 'em. Same thing applies to Christmas music. Leave the songs everybody knows and loves alone. And if you want to be the next Frank Sinatra and do it your way, fine. Write your own song and do it any way you want to. Maybe in a hundred years or so, your idea of a Christmas song will be considered a classic. But for now, stop screwing with the real classics, okay?

Again, I'm not saying a Christmas song has to be five hundred years old to be traditional and I'm not discounting newer secular classics like Mel Torme's “The Christmas Song” as performed by Nat King Cole or Bing Crosby's rendition of Irving Berlin's “White Christmas.” But for goodness' sake, sing them straight. Nat and Bing and Andy Williams and Perry Como and Johnny Mathis all did pretty well just singing 'em the way they were written, you know?

Some years back I did a Christmas show at a nursing home. It was just a bunch of us from the cast of a musical who put together a little show to entertain some folks who needed it. I remember singing “I'll Be Home for Christmas” and having an old gent come up and shake my hand and thank me. “That song helped me a lot back in the war,” he said, “and you did it just like I remember it.” Wow. We closed another show with “White Christmas” and I almost didn't make it through because there was this little old lady sitting on the front row smiling at me with tears running down her cheeks as her memories played out in her mind.

That's why you don't screw with Christmas songs. For every thin-skinned idiot who finds them offensive, there are a thousand people who cherish them. And for all you “song stylists” who think that your trills and yodels and crescendos and vocal gymnastics and new arrangements are making you a superior “artist,” remember that you're messing with people's memories. Consider your audience. You ain't up there singing for yourself, Jack. You get up and screech and holler your way through some dusty old Christmas song, doing it your way and making it yours and you might see some tears in the audience, but not for the same reason I saw them. For a lot of people, Christmas songs are part of Christmas memories that you don't have a right to screw with because you want to stroke your oversized ego. It's really kind of sad when you think about it. Don't give me crap about “art” being “subjective.” I'm an artist, too and you can BS about it all you want but you can't “improve” or “stylize” the Mona Lisa with a mustache and you can't make traditional carols, hymns, or even secular classics better by screwing with the lyrics or the arrangements.

Does anybody remember the story a couple of years ago wherein a painting of Christ in a Spanish church was utterly ruined by an amateurish attempt to “restore” it? The original work dated back to around 1930 and it was getting a little flaky around the edges. But before a proper restoration could be funded, some ham-handed local “artist” with more hubris than talent totally and irrevocably screwed it up by painting over it and replacing and old but still beautiful image with something so indescribably horrid that it was ridiculed the world over. Exactly as has been done to some of the world's most treasured music by alleged “artists” who don't know when to leave well enough alone.

Okay. I'm done. If it's true that a picture is worth a thousand words, well........I've churned out more than two thousand words here, so I hope you get the picture. Christmas music should not “offend” anyone and it should not be trifled with for trifling reasons.

Stop screwing with my Christmas music! And, by the way, have a Merry Christmas.

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