December 09, 2010

Troll the ancient yuletide carol

I'm a Christmas album aficionado, and my favorite entry so far this season—and I can't see anything else topping it, certainly not in a way that engenders a thousand-word blog post—is A Christmas Cornucopia, by the Scottish pop diva Annie Lennox. This is a really interesting album—but to understand why it's so interesting, we must first acknowledge that Christmas, particularly (but not exclusively) in its secular manifestations, is one of the more fake, manufactured holidays there is. I'm not talking about the commercialism (although there is that, too), but rather, that most of what we think of as Ye Olde Christmas Traditions are not, in fact, all that old. More precisely: there is a significant and distorting lag between the claim to authenticity of most Christmas traditions and the historical actuality that would back up such claims.

Christmas as we know it here in the Anglo-American world is largely a creation of the 19th century—the Victorian era in Britain, the Gilded Age in the United States. Now, there are a lot of factors that went into the 19th-century Christmas revival: the rise of consumerist, commodity-based economies, the sacralization of childhood, the increasing importance of cheap, print-based media to the culture as a whole. But most important, I think, is nostalgia. In the wake of both the Industrial Revolution and the American Civil War, anything that asserted an unbroken connection to an unchanging tradition became appealing, and Christmas thus became a fount of nostalgia. The trees, the caroling, the pageants, the mistletoe, Santa: people started celebrating the holiday as it had been celebrated back in the day. Except that it hadn't—Christmas was never that big a deal until the Victorians made it that big a deal. Puritans in both England and New England had actually banned Christmas back in what was supposedly the good old days. In other words, the modern Christmas emerged out of a nostalgia for something that never really was in the first place.

This is hardly unique to Christmas. Nostalgia—especially this kind of illusory nostalgia—is so common in the industrial world that it's a trope of its own in more radical critiques of modern society. Guy Debord, in his Situationist classic The Society of the Spectacle, talked about the difference between ancient, "cyclical" time—"the really lived time of unchanging illusions"—and modern, "spectacular" time—"the illusorily lived time of a constantly changing reality":
The pseudo-events that vie for attention in spectacular dramatizations have not been lived by those who are informed about them; and in any case they are soon forgotten due to their increasingly frenetic replacement at every pulsation of the spectacular machinery. Conversely, what is really lived has no relation to the society's official version of irreversible time, and conflicts with the pseudocyclical rhythm of that time's consumable byproducts. This individual experience of a disconnected everyday life remains without language, without concepts, and without critical access to its own past, which has nowhere been recorded. Uncommunicated, misunderstood and forgotten, it is smothered by the spectacle's false memory of the unmemorable.
That reads like a cynic's description of the Christmas season. But what I think is so fascinating about Christmas is that the sheer amount of cultural stuff that has been produced around it has conditioned us to approach that stuff with a higher tolerance for a kind of pseudo-authenticity that's unique to the category—which is why Christmas albums are so much fun. The shotgun marriage of every style and genre imaginable with Christmas repertoire doesn't cause the cognitive dissonance it might, because, in a weird way, the incongruity echoes the incongruity of Christmas itself. Because, deep down, we know that the "traditional" Christmas we've been inculcated with so much nostalgia for is largely bunk, an R&B/doo-wop rendition of "Veni Emmanuel" or a disco version of "O Holy Night" is able to work on its own terms.

But what makes A Christmas Cornucopia better than your average Christmas album is that it charts the authenticity/inauthenticity divide of Christmas nostalgia with such precision that it ends up creating a convincing illusion of authenticity all its own. This is an album about authenticity. The songs are, for the most part, the "traditional" carols, the ones collected and codified in the Victorian era as the baseline of Christmas heritage. (Even the exceptions reference other traditions: "Universal Child" is an original entry in the long line of UK Christmas charity pop singles, and a cheerfully brash version of the French carol "Il est né" is, perhaps, at least a partial homage to Siouxsie and the Banshees.) Do you remember the last verse of "God Rest Ye Merry Gentleman"? Annie Lennox does:

That gives a pretty good indication of the musical style that Lennox and producer Mike Stevens use for the entire album, which turns out to be another referential layer of the nostalgia in play: it's what might be called the Gothic pastoral strain in British psychedelica. Like-this-combined-with-that descriptions are always a little shallow, but if ca. 1974 Queen and Jethro Tull had teamed up on a Christmas album, this is what it might have sounded like. The Gothic pastoral is another nostalgic style—forever conjuring images of maypole bacchanals and slightly menacing Morris dancers—but what's crucial for A Christmas Cornucopia is that it was a piggybacked nostalgia: it was as much about how the Victorians imagined that long-lost England to be as how it actually was (or wasn't). It was equally referencing Jolly Old England and the Victorian hankering after Jolly Old England.

Think about that for a minute: the album is recasting carols in a style that is nostalgic for the very nostalgia that created the carols in the first place. It's not just a compounding of nostalgia, it's a direct lineage of nostalgia. That's important because, the more precisely targeted nostalgia gets, the less sentimental it seems. It's the difference between the amorphous sappiness of "childhood" and the knife-edge focus of Proust's madeleine.

Christmas is, in general, pretty sentimental, mainly because its nostalgia is both manufactured and only vaguely defined. It's the sort of thing that inspired one of the Situationist International's more pointed scolds:
The entire socioeconomic structure tends to make the past dominate the present, to freeze living persons, to reify them as commodities. A sentimental world in which the same sorts of tastes and relations are constantly repeated is the direct product of the economic and social world in which gestures must be repeated every day in the slavery of capitalist production. The taste for false novelty reflects its unhappy nostalgia.
A Christmas Cornucopia sidesteps that by both leveraging the manufactured nature of Christmas nostalgia and doing so with such stylistic efficiency that the sentimentality falls away. It traffics in only those strains of nostalgia that created the modern conception of Christmas, and nothing else. It is exactly as authentic as Christmas is, which is to say, it is inauthentic in exactly the same way. It is, in an enchanting way, that touchstone of holiday shopping: a genuine fake.


Daniel Wolf said...


You might enjoy this post and links at Crooked Timber:

Our anglophone Christmas seems to be just slightly older than Ninjas... "Classical" music seems to have an older continuous tradition, but only back to the last decade or so of the 18th century, with anything earlier than that only recovered, later, and often with great creative invention and amendment.

Matthew said...

That's fantastic. (Doubly so since I love kung fu movies.)

It's fascinating how some invented traditions, which, when unacknowledged, feel kind of dishonest, when acknowledged, can actually be more interesting than the real traditions. It's fun, for instance, to think of Sha Na Na as a quintessential example of an early-music group.