Tuesday, December 23, 2008
Christmas Number Ones: A Measure of Christmas's True Meaning
So, I was watching the news a few nights ago and this year it seems the Canadian news has bothered to report on the UK Christmas number one. Apparently, it's newsworthy this time because three versions of Hallelujah are competing for the top spot: the original by Leonard Cohen, the cover by Jeff Buckley and the cover by Alexandra Burke, some woman from X-Factor. The saddest part of the story was the fact that the X-Factor version was winning. To be clear, I don't ever really care what the Christmas number one is, especially when that type of thing is usually dominated by transitive pop acts and/or Cliff Richards, but this time I feel the vitriol rising in me. Maybe it's a combination of how much I see Christmas as a hypocritical commercial sham, how much I despise music "talent" shows, and how much I loathe the popular music industry right now.
I've never seen X-Factor despite having lived a total of at least a year in the UK over the past eight years of various trips, but I gather that it's like Pop Idol and all its nefarious, ubiquitous versions. To attempt a fair assessment, I did bother to listen to the X-Factor version. It boggled my mind how a song that can nearly bring me to tears when done by Jeff Buckley could make me feel so utterly devoid of feeling when sung by Alexandra Burke. I had always thought that Cohen's song was so incredible for the very fact that its composition, lyrical and musical, made it a song that will always swell and break your heart. I thought that minor fall and the major lift was guaranteed to tap into your soul. I was wrong. Though I've never been hugely fond of Cohen singing the song himself, especially when compared to Buckley, Burke manages to miss the point of the song entirely. The fragility is gone. In it's place is an overdone mess filled with so many unneccessary runs that it's like a cheap, shredded nylon stocking. And the choir backing her just compounds the ham-fisted approach of plastic spirituality.
This musical sacrilige shouldn't bother me as much as it does when these are the same people who bought enough singles to force that Band Aid song into the number one spot three times. Real music fans don't care about Christmas number ones, nor about participating them, so it shouldn't matter. The Black Arts' wonderful mockery of the whole stupidity of the Christmas number one, which I included in my Christmas mix, was rather predictably beaten by a long shot by another X-Factor winner last year. Perhaps equally depressing was the fact that the Christmas classic from The Pogues and Kirsty MacColl was also beaten by X-Factor. And Burke's win this year means singles from the X-Factor have been Christmas number ones for four consecutive times. That's abhorrent. It's also evidence that the general public isn't composed of music fans, which I also shouldn't find surprising.
In the same news report about the Christmas number one, there was story about how music sold this year - apparently, in times of economic crisis, people stick with what they know, thus putting Coldplay, AC/DC and Metallica into the top album slots for this year. I don't think this kind of consumer behaviour is restricted to economic recession - it's what most people do on a regular basis in every facet of their life. People like to be comfortable; they don't want to think too much or be inconvenienced for the sake of truth or multiple versions of truth. It makes me grieve a little for those who never take a chance on something new or who always desire the utterly artless and artificial, which they deem "reality." These are the people driving the world, let alone the music industry. It only proves that the music industry as it stands is a rotting corpse for a necrophiliac public, and that music that actually is innovative art needs to find new channels and keep going if only to keep real music fans from losing their minds.
It's now official that Burke's version of Hallelujah trumped Buckley's, whose version came in second. I suppose in the end it's fitting that the musical equivalent of tinsel or a blow-up Santa on the roof won such a silly contest for a holiday that has seemingly lost all its beauty and meaning. But so as not to leave everyone on such a sour note for this Christmas, I will give you a couple of gifts that actually speak to the beauty that humans are capable of creating, a beauty that is simpler and more wonderful than the manufacturing blitz of the holiday season. Enjoy Jeff Buckley's Hallelujah and IAMX's spine-tingling French rendition of Silent Night. No matter what you believe or don't believe for the holiday season, these songs will at the very least remind you that real music conveys something beyond comfort and joy.
Hallelujah - Jeff Buckley
Douce Nuit - IAMX