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Things I Have Learned

Silent Night, Miserable Night - Tracey Thorn On Christmas Songs
The Quietus , December 17th, 2012 10:28

When she recorded her seasonal album, Tracey Thorn discovered that all Christmas songs are essentially about misery and suffering. Photograph by Edward Bishop

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There is one thing I have recently learned about Christmas, and it is this: all Christmas songs are essentially miserable.

I have just made a Christmas record - or, "a record ABOUT Christmas," as someone put it rather nicely - and a few people have remarked that it is a little sad. I’m not offended by this, in fact I agree with them; it is a little sad.

But having listened to a lot of Christmas and winter-themed songs in the run-up to recording it, I think I can safely say that this is absolutely the norm, and that Christmas songs are all either overtly sad, or contain within them covert elements of sadness which are disguised by the surface trappings of fun and merriment. Let’s have a look at a few of our seasonal favourites...

The Pogues - 'Fairytale of New York'

Obviously and overtly sad, despite being largely jaunty and uptempo in arrangement. Lyrical hooks include being in the drunk tank, expecting imminent death, hoping for imminent death, blaming another for the shattering and neglect of your dreams. Any balancing optimism is presented as being almost certainly delusional, if not downright hallucinatory. Entire song is steeped in nostalgia and regret for what might have been, but now never will be. It’s many people’s favourite ever Christmas record.

Wham! - 'Last Christmas'

Again, obviously sad lyrics nestling within a deceptively sweet, shimmery mid-tempo pop production. Contains nostalgia, suggesting that not so long ago, in fact as recently as this time last year, 'I was happy - and regret - I was happy, but then like a fool I gave you my heart, and I regret that enormously as you turned out to be shallow and treacherous'. Second verse adopts tone of vitriolic bitterness towards the former loved one, 'God, you’re so shallow you probably don’t even recognise me a whole year later.' Third verse admits that the singer has learned nothing from this experience and would almost certainly behave just as foolishly again if given the chance. And while the song tries to end by implying that real love has now been found, it’s not convincing and just sounds like showing off. We know this heartbreak is for ever, and that every Christmas will just be a reminder of that one, over and over again. Again, many people’s favourite Christmas song.

Various - 'Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas'

Written during wartime it was always essentially a song about separation and the heightened awareness of this at Christmas time. But the original lyrics were considered so depressing that they have been tinkered with not once, but twice through their history, in an attempt to remove some of the more wrist-slashingly gloomy lines.

For instance, did you know that the first version has the song opening like this - "Have yourself a merry little Christmas / It may be your last"? That’s right. In your face Santa! By the time Judy Garland sang it in Meet Me In St Louis that line had become "let your heart be light", which is somewhat perkier. Later still, Frank Sinatra requested that a little more melancholy be edited out, so "until then we’ll have to muddle through somehow" became "hang a shining star upon the highest bough". Nice try Frank. It still sounds sad.

When I recorded it recently I reverted to the "muddling through" lyric, which sounds warm and human to me. Still, even I shied away from the clanging chimes of doom implied by the "it may be your last" lyric. I like the sadness in Christmas songs, but there’s no need to rub it in.

Wizzard - 'I Wish It Could Be Christmas Every Day'

Sounds cheerful enough, doesn’t it? But look closer at those lyrics: you love Christmas so much you wish life could be like this every day, but it can't. It’s just one day a year, over so soon. The overwhelming emotion of the song is regret. You’re laughing and dancing, yes, but not for long.

Slade - 'So Here It Is Merry Christmas'

Not particularly sad, I grant you, but there is anxiety here: "Are you waiting for the family to arrive / Are you sure you got the room to spare inside?" It’s a rare realistic glimpse into what Christmas is actually like for those organising it. It’s not all fun, fun, fun, it’s all logistics, lists and excruciatingly uncomfortable camp beds in the front room.

John Lennon - 'Happy Xmas (War Is Over)'

Ostensibly happy, it is an optimistic song about Christmas representing the beginning of a period of peace, but oh, it’s a weary, fatalistic-sounding optimism: "And so this is Christmas / and what have you done?" It sounds accusatory, and the follow-up line, "I hope you have fun", even more so. It’s as though it is saying: 'Look at you partying and enjoying yourself when you’ve done nothing this past year, nothing, to advance the cause of peace and stop all the fights. War could be over, "if you want it", but do you want it? Or do you just want another snowball and a chocolate orange? You sicken me, with your insistence on having fun. I’m John Lennon, and I’m here to remind you of the true meaning of Christmas. Enjoy!'

Mariah Carey - 'All I Want For Christmas Is You'

Sung by Mariah Carey, it’s the epitome of festive effervescence, as bubbly as that Bucks Fizz you’re ill-advisedly having at 9:30am, but lyrically the mood is one of regret - I want to get you for Christmas because, by implication, I don’t currently have you, you’re not here. Possibly nostalgia too, maybe you were here last Christmas. Oh god, that’s even sadder.

Various - I’m Dreaming Of A White Christmas

“... just like the ones I used to know”. See? Nostalgia. Nothing’s the same any more, not even snow.

The Carpenters - 'Merry Christmas Darling'

Wishing a loved one a merry Christmas should be uplifting and joyous, but once again it’s all about absence - "we’re apart, that’s true" and "I wish I were with you". Welcome back our old friend regret. Plus, it’s sung by the Carpenters, for goodness sake, the group of ultimate sadness.

Cristina - 'Things Fall Apart'

Let’s finish with another proper misery-fest. The whole song is just a catalogue of woe, with a desperate mother and daughter pair trying to make something meaningful out of the shambles of their lives - "once a year let’s have the past". The details include a tawdry angel with no wings, a forlorn cactus for a tree, an unceremonious break-up, a nightmareishly doomed party - "I started to feel queasy in the crowd" - and finally the song descends into bathos - "I grabbed a cab back to my flat / And wept a bit, and fed the cat". It’s full of a longing for things to be otherwise, with the sense that even this hopefulness is a kind of prison, as if the desire for Christmas to be wonderful condemns you to eternal disappointment. "Things fall apart, but they never leave my heart" - the cycle of hope and disillusionment grinding on, year after year.

I love it. I find the despair beautiful and entrancing, and meaningful. I’m like Mrs Doyle, who was horrified by the gift of a teasmade which promised to "take the misery out of making tea". Her response being, "BUT WHAT IF I LIKE THE MISERY?"

Exactly. What if we like the misery. And I think we all do, really. It’s the barely acknowledged undertone to all the fun - we all know it’s there, but at this time of year we don’t like to talk about it. These songs do it for us. And I love them, I love all of them.

(Except the John Lennon one. I can’t bear that.)

Track listing:
'Joy' (written by Tracey Thorn)
'Hard Candy Christmas' (originally performed by Dolly Parton)
'Like a Snowman' (written by Stephin Merritt)
'Maybe This Christmas' (written by Ron Sexsmith)
'In the Cold, Cold Night' (written by Jack White)
'Snow' (written by Randy Newman)
'Snow in Sun' (written by Green Gartside of Scritti Politti)
'Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas' (holiday classic)
'Tinsel and Lights' (written by Tracey Thorn)
'River' (written by Joni Mitchell)
'Taking Down the Tree' (feat. Green Gartside) (written by Low)
'Sister Winter' (written by Sufjan Stevens)

Tinsel And Lights is out now on Strange Feeling

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Dec 17, 2012 8:30pm

Thank you Ms. Thorn, a fun list and entertaining read. Indeed, Sintra's Xmas album (there are few) and Andy William's (also a few to choose from) are my favorites and yet I get half way through and am mired in a beautiful melancholia.

To add to your list:
'My Favorite Things' - for cryin' in the night, they're singing about their favorite things in the world but you wouldn't know it by the sad-sack melody it's surrounded by. Lyrics should be changed to "...I simply remember my favorite things, and think of this song, and I'm miserable as hell again and wanna go kick the dog that just bit me".

'Baby Please Come Home' - one of my favorites and yet another sad song full of yearning.

'Frosty the Snowman' - literally hate this one, but again, for cryin' in the night, the fat jolly snowman fookin' melts at the end.

'Little Drummer Boy' - poor-ass kid doesn't have a pot to piss in but he's gotta lug around a drum. Can't the Magi hook a brother up? Forget the frankincense, give the kid a sandwich.

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Dec 17, 2012 9:12pm

Great list. Another addition could be How To Make Gravy by Paul Kelly.

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Michael E.
Dec 18, 2012 9:05am

When I have a radio show at Christmas, I have a rule: never play some happy-go-lucky Christmas song, just do the best you can to play some really melancolic songs... Years ago, on Christmas I started with It's raining today, by Scott Walker, and I knew everything would end fine - in wonderful misery!:)

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Andrew M
Dec 18, 2012 10:24am

Elvis; 'Blue Christmas'.
You are right, Tracey. Merry Xmas!

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Lord Lew
Dec 18, 2012 10:58am

"I'm so sorry for that laddie, he doesn't have a daddy. He's the little boy that Santa Claus forgot...." (Nat King Cole & others. I didn't have a daddy. Gets me every time.

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Raoul Chee Kee
Dec 18, 2012 4:29pm

Hi Tracey. There's a really popular Filipino Xmas song, Pasko na Sinta Ko (It's Xmas, My Love), where the protagonist pines for -- wait for it -- his dead wife/lover.
If that's not misery, I dunno what is.

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Dec 18, 2012 4:32pm

I've heard Ms. Thorn sing for years but had little to no idea she was also a funny writer. Really fun article (in a miserable way).

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Dec 18, 2012 5:59pm

She had me until that last line. That Lennon track is great.

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Dec 18, 2012 8:11pm

I want to say that the Waitresses' Christmas Wrapping is genuinely fun. She gets fed and she gets stuffed. But a station in Buffalo ruined it for me one Christmas Eve. The DJ (on WBLK) played it and then, sarcastically, said something to the effect of, Yeah, Merry Christmas my ass. He spoke with gravitas, of despondency. So you remain right perhaps.

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Dec 18, 2012 9:46pm

Two of my favorite songs, Christmas or not: 'Sister Winter' and 'Things Fall Apart'.

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Mark Gilbert
Dec 20, 2012 9:49am

Apop, check out the Cocteau Twins version of Frost the Snowman. Might change your mind...
And, dear Quietus, please hire Ms. Thorn asap as a regular columnist.

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Dec 21, 2012 1:58pm

Tracey Thorn amazes me. I found myself giggling here and there, joyful to read, Lord, this woman is talented, agree with Mark Gilbert's comment: we want TT as a Quietus regular columnist, can't wait for her book Bedsit Disco Queen in Feb 2013, can't help daily checking out her über-creative and entertaining advent calendar promoting her Tinsel & Lights LP, an instant Xmas classic IMO p.s. Ben's comment = <3>

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