Posts Tagged ‘pop culture’
I have been feeling a little down in the dumps the past few days. Part of it is panic over my complete lack of progress with purchasing holiday gifts. Part of it is how quickly yet another holiday season is advancing. Part of it is confronting the passing of another year and allowing my mind to wander to those aspects of my life in which I feel blocked, unappreciated, and discouraged.
I didn’t want the gloomy mood to fester, so I tried to pick a song that would elevate my spirits. My tune for today absolutely does, though it shouldn’t. It’s a breakup song. It’s a song about being done wrong, deceived, and heartbroken.
But love of and for songs is complicated. Sometimes, I cling to the lyrics, swearing that whoever wrote them either somehow has lived my life in step with me or should at least be my best friend. Sometimes it’s the music behind the words that takes hold–haven’t we all had those beats and arrangements that, try as we might, we can’t get out of our heads? Sometimes, it’s the combined words and instrumentation, and the artists who manage often enough to consistently capture us with both become our favorites.
Then there are songs I treasure because, when I hear them, regardless of the year on the calendar and candles on my most recent birthday cake, I am instantly once again the age I was when I first heard them. I don’t mean that I become nostalgic or simply let my mind drift to the past. I mean that I actually feel the exact way I did at that age. In the case of Wham’s “Last Christmas,” this is 13. And as George sings, the bells chime, and the synthesizers synth (or whatever they do), I am consumed by the same adolescent drama, angst, exuberance, and goofiness that dominated my life and personality then. (And if I’m being honest, somewhat still do.)
This is another one of those holiday songs that I really don’t want to hear anyone else sing. Interestingly, most of the songs I feel that way about are modern songs. I wonder if my distaste for remakes in these instances has more to do with my emotional investments in the original versions than with superior executions?
In any event, I have time today at my disposal. So I am going to listen a few times to George pine for his lost love from last Christmas. And feel better.
And then get some things accomplished!
Today is 12-12-12, the last in a sequence of triple-number years that began with the fateful 2001, and the likes of which I will not see again in my lifetime. When I think back to 1-1-1, so much has changed, obviously for the world overall, but also in my life.
I was, at that time, a newlywed. I did not own a home. I still had a living grandparent, and was in many ways barely recovered from the death of another. I had yet to turn 30, let alone 40. My stepdaughter was only slightly older than my son is now; my son and niece and friends of many children and relatives had yet to enter the world. I was still close with people whom, through time and circumstance, I have become distant and, in at least one case, sadly estranged. I had yet to meet others who would become pivotal players.
And I was very much me but still becoming me, having yet to experience some of my own best and worst times, all within a little more than a decade.
“Long ago, far away
Life was clear
Close your eyes”
I first heard today’s song in the movie You’ve Got Mail. It plays behind a scene in which the female protagonist, Kathleen (Meg Ryan), is decorating her Christmas tree. Kathleen is just going through the motions, trying to keep up joyful appearances and a festive atmosphere, even though her heart is not in it. Her beloved children’s bookstore, inherited from her deceased mother, is being driven out of business. She’s in an unfulfilling relationship. Kathleen is at one of those points we’ve all experienced, a phase that I myself went through slowly over several years during this 12-year cycle—a time when you know things are changing, that they have to change, and you can do nothing to stop it.
You don’t know if things will improve or get worse. All you can do is understand that they will be different and hope for the best.
At such times, like Kathleen, our default is to look to the past and wish we could just return to easier, more certain circumstances. When people we loved and depended on were still there and available to us. When less was demanded or expected. When we understood our role and place and felt secure and stable.
“Remember is a place from long ago
Remember, filled with everything you know
Remember when you’re sad and feeling down
Even a soul as troubled as the unredeemed Ebenezer Scrooge, upon first returning to the past against his will, is initially moved and filled with delight—to see the town of his youth, his old schoolhouse, friends from yesteryear, his own boyhood self. In fact, in the written A Christmas Carol, at least as much of his return to the past is as happy as it is sad–he remembers a joyous incident with his sister and an exceptionally festive time with his former employer and coworkers.
The sadness Scrooge experiences in the novella heavily involves his broken relationship with Belle and a scene that usually is not included in adaptations of the story. In that oft-neglected scene, Belle now has several children and a grown daughter who greatly resembles Belle in her youth. Scrooge watches the family boisterously enjoying one another and celebrating Christmas the same year that he buried Jacob Marley. Belle laughs dismissively when her husband mentions having seen Scrooge earlier that morning, “quite alone in the world.” This is the last vision that the Ghost of Christmas Past shows the distraught Scrooge, emphasizing “These were shadows of the things that have been . . . That they are what they are, do not blame me!”
But Scrooge isn’t simply mourning what has been. Or even what is. What tortures him most is what might have been.
“Remember life is just a memory
Remember, close your eyes and you can see
Remember, think of all that life can be
It’s so tempting to say that if I could go back in time, I would do certain things differently. Over the past several years, after a series of challenging events, I’ve had many moments when I’ve second-guessed decisions, longed for another chance to appreciate friends and loved ones with whom I’ve either lost touch or just don’t spend enough time, and yes, wished for do-overs, to rectify wrongs and, in a few cases, mend fences. But just like how the past I remember is likely illusory, so is the idea that I’d really significantly alter my path. For everything new obtained, something treasured would have to be relinquished. The option to fix one of yesterday’s missteps could actually lead to a less pleasing and suitable life than the one I have now.
This does not mean just blindly swallowing today as it is, confusing acceptance with complacency, and taking no action to remedy or improve things that I can. But to once again combine ideas from two of my most favorite influences (Mr. E.M. Forster and my all-time most beloved television show, LOST), I cannot look at my moments of flashing back to the past, flashing forward to an undesired possible future, or flashing sideways to alternative realities as anything but finding signposts, and not arriving at destinations.
The message I take from Dickens’ story as it evolves, from You’ve Got Mail and the changes that Kathleen experiences to arrive at an ultimately happy place, and of today’s song by Nilsson is this: Use the past as a helpful refuge, but do not let it become an anchor. The past can help us understand how we got to where we are. It can bring us pleasure and happiness and a sense of reassurance when our todays are unsteady and our tomorrows filled with foreboding.
But we cannot become so frozen with anxiety, consumed with regret, or preoccupied with minor or major alterations of our lives in progress that we squander the present and whatever future remains. To do so certainly means being continually haunted. But the specter is simply oneself.
“Dream—love is only a dream
Remember—life is never as it seems”
The last words for today, as for many of these posts, are from that masterful genius who brilliantly portrayed the human condition across all seasons of the year, and especially at Christmas, Mr. Charles Dickens:
“Spirit!” he cried, tight clutching at its robe, “hear me. I am not the man I was. I will not be the man I must have been but for this intercourse. Why show me this, if I am past all hope?” For the first time the hand appeared to shake.
“Good Spirit,” he pursued, as down upon the ground he fell before it: “Your nature intercedes for me, and pities me. Assure me that I yet may change these shadows you have shown me, by an altered life.”
The kind hand trembled.
“I will honour Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year. I will live in the Past, the Present, and the Future. The Spirits of all Three shall strive within me. I will not shut out the lessons that they teach.”
Dear Santa Claus:
This letter is a request to help make my Christmas very special.
I listen to the radio, both traditional and satellite, a lot during the holidays. I know that I have the option of turning to my own music collection, and I sometimes do, but I have always enjoyed the random nature of radio–the anticipation of wondering what the next tune will be and the hope that I’ll hear one of my favorites when I need it most. I know I can always play a great song 100 times in a row if I want to, and sure, I enjoy that. But there still is nothing like listening to the radio and hearing that same song pop on after waiting patiently through seemingly endless commercials and jingles, smiling silently as I know that timing and fate conspired to ensure that my ears were in the right place at the right time.
For fans of the holiday music genre, this time of year requires a certain tolerance of repetition. There are only so many holiday songs, and most stations rely on a small selection of well-known favorites. Stations try to minimize the repetition by trotting out the same songs, but spicing things up by including different versions by assorted artists. I don’t mind this–in fact, in several cases, I welcome it. Even with some of my most preferred songs, by some of my most beloved artists, I am happy to hear alternative interpretations. The best example of this would involve “Wonderful Christmastime.” I really always want to hear My Sir Paul alone sing it. But I can grant that The Shins just released a decent, listenable cover, and about five years ago, Jars of Clay did an awesome version for which I give them eternal props.
But some songs really should be played only in one version. And for me that’s true of “This Christmas” by Donny Hathaway.
Why would I want to look at a fifth-grader’s attempt to mimic Starry Night by Vincent Van Gogh? Why would I watch Gus Van Sant’s lame attempt at Psycho with Vince Vaughn when Alfred Hitchcock got it perfect the first time with Anthony Perkins? And why would I ever, ever want to hear anyone else sing this song, rendered in perfect voice by the original artist, at the right tempo, with an awesome band behind him?
Could you consider working a little Christmas magic over the radio stations and, when it’s time for this song to be in rotation, for them to play it only in Donny’s incarnation? Even the late Amy Winehouse knew there was nothing anyone could teach that she couldn’t learn from Mr. Hathaway.
As I said earlier, I know that when it comes to Christmas music there’s not a ton of variety with which to work. So if we can’t strike a deal to limit “This Christmas” to my preferred version only, can I at least ask to somehow be spared the following:
- Chris Brown’s version, because I don’t want to think of him luring any young woman to spend a very special Christmas with him
- Christina (or should I say Xtina) Aguilera’s version, because she sounds like she’s having indigestion, Tourette’s syndrome, a stroke, or maybe all three through most of it, and I can’t take it
- Above all, Gloria Estefan’s misguided and headache-inducing version, which includes cheesy, dated synthesizers, a cutesy children’s choir (never, in my opinion, the right backup group for a sexy, romantic number in which the lead singer pleads to “hang all the mistletoe, I want to get to know you better”), and strained vocals way outside her narrow and limited range
I’ve been really good this year. You already knew this, being Santa and all.
Merry Christmas. XO. Shake a hand, shake a hand now.
A Lifelong Fan and True Believer
I discovered today’s song only a few years ago, hearing a school chorus rendition of it on the radio. It is from the 1982 short film The Snowman, which tells the tale of a young boy whose eponymous creation comes alive for a day. The Snowman learns about the boy’s world, the boy learns about The Snowman’s world. At the end, the snow melts, as does the viewer’s heart. This animated film, based on the book of the same name, is entirely wordless, except for an interlude where the boy and The Snowman fly from the child’s village to the North Pole, a sequence set to the beautiful and haunting “Walking in the Air.”
With age and time, we lose many things, and part of successful maturity is learning to accept those losses with grace. I frequently dwell on aspects of my appearance that certainly are not improving as the years pass, because I must immediately confront them every time I look in the mirror–the extra pounds, the gray hairs, the deepening lines in my forehead and around my eyes. Even when I am not thinking about how I look, my body reminds me that I am not quite as young as I default to thinking myself to be. My perfect eyesight has been troubling me the last few weeks. Muscles ache for two days after a weekend of housework and holiday decorating. A skinned and bruised knee still hurts after a silly fall almost a month ago.
“Be young at heart.” “You’re only as old as you feel.” “Age is just a number.” These phrases are easy to speak, and, like most oft-repeated sayings, hold grains of truth. No matter how much we do to preserve our physical youth, it will disappear, and this lies beyond our control. But internally, can we cling to the child within? Can we keep a spirit of imagination and curiosity alive inside? Why is it so difficult to do?
Like most children, I had an overactive imagination. I didn’t watch favorite televisions shows—I was part of those shows as they aired. In my mind, I was Fonzie’s sister, Barbarino’s girlfriend, the third host of The Magic Garden. When my friends and I played, we made up crazy, elaborate stories, both for ourselves and our dolls, for which the plots seemed entirely plausible. No effort was required on my part to believe in Santa’ s North Pole as a real place—in fact, I think it was harder for me to accept the opposite. Even in my teen years, though my preoccupations began to shift to more practical and tangible issues, I still would dream of what my life would be like in years to come and never run out of options—where I would live, whom I would marry, if I would marry, what I would be when I grew up . . .
The practical, nagging details of life—those broken relationships, failed projects, sad farewells to loved ones, dashed expectations, not to mention the tedious, endless repetition of chores and tasks that accompany adulthood—they amalgamate every day, threatening to overtake and eventually completely replace wonder and hope.
My army to fight the emotional, psychological, and spiritual battle against Father Time is better equipped and more strongly fortified than the physical one. It has been reinforced through years of reading, contemplation, discussion, exposure to film, art, and music. It has been supported by sympathetic family, loved ones, and friends of similar inclinations, some of whom are further along in their own fights, others who have yet to engage, and still others directly alongside me, digging their own trenches.
When I see a Pixar film, or watch Downton Abbey, or walk through downtown Haddonfield, or make a visit to the Byer’s Choice shop, or put up lights and decorations, or sit on a couch eating Halloween candy and listening to Pandora, or look through magazines and catalogs for updates to my wardrobe or my home, or send silly and ridiculous messages to parents, friends, or my husband, or sit down to write blog posts, or listen to “Walking in the Air,” I use as much as I can of whatever remains of my childhood imagination, my creative spirit, my heart filled with eager expectation.
When I hear this song, I actually feel like I am floating in a marvelous winter wonderland—a cold, silver sky; the earth engulfed in blue and white; wind and chill whipping around me as the world I know is transformed into a magical, even if ephemeral, place.
“Happy, happy Christmas, that can win us back to the delusions of our childhood days, recall to the old man the pleasures of his youth, and transport the traveler back to his own fireside and quiet home!” Charles Dickens
My favorite song from Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, which I watched last night, is “Silver and Gold.” The song seems almost tacked on to the whole program, and I had no interest in it whatsoever as a child. In fact, the entire Yukon Cornelius subplot of Rudolph (which provides the song with its tenuous incorporation) bored me to tears.
But as time moved on and I began to take more notice of lyrics, it was this tune that began appealing to me most, with its simple and beautiful message:
“Everyone wishes for silver and gold
How do you measure its worth?
Just by the pleasure it gives here on earth
Silver and gold means so much more when I see
Silver and gold decorations on every Christmas tree”
I started to treasure “Silver and Gold” as I began to face some harsh realities about adult life. No matter how much you have, it is never enough. You can be making $500, $5,000, or $50,000,000 a month, but always something will be out of reach of your pocketbook. And no matter how much you have, how much you buy, you’ll still be yearning for something more.
Things, more things, better things–they serve as distractions. They are ways to pass time, to externalize internal dissatisfactions. At the holidays, consumption can become all-consuming. Kids worry over what they will get from Santa. Adults agonize over what to buy one another. I myself fall victim to the excesses and pressures of holiday gift-giving. There have been times I’ve felt resentful that I am obligated to spend more money when my budget is already stretched. Other times I’ve wondered whether others will ever really appreciate the effort and energy spent on finding unique or special presents. And as soon as Christmas is over, I am being urged to splurge on New Year’s events, Valentine gifts, and President Day sales . . .
The tradition of exchanging gifts is an imitation of the Magi giving gifts to the newborn Jesus. When I was younger and would read the Christmas story, I would sometimes wonder what happened to those items of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Mary and Joseph were poor. I’m sure they could have made desperate and understandable use of the Wise Men’s offerings. Did they trade them for food and necessities? Did they use them to help Joseph improve his carpentry business? Or maybe to help educate the boy Jesus when they took note of his prodigious gifts for preaching and teaching?
At some point I accepted that what happened to those gifts had no relevance. Jesus’s teachings were based on the idea of salvation being attained by separating ourselves from material things, by placing no emphasis whatsoever on earthly goods.
So why is the story of the Wise Men included at all? Maybe we need to consider it from a different angle. Here’s some perspective offered by one of my literary heroes, Mr. T.S. Eliot:
“And the night-fires going out, and the lack of shelters,
And the cities hostile and the towns unfriendly
And the villages dirty and charging high prices:
A hard time we had of it.
At the end we preferred to travel all night,
Sleeping in snatches,
With the voices singing in our ears, saying
That this was all folly.” (From The Journey of the Magi, http://www.poetryarchive.org/poetryarchive/singlePoem.do?poemId=7070)
Three men saw a sign. They accepted it as true. Despite being men of learning, comfort, and occupation, they put aside everything to embark on an arduous journey. At that time, in that place, their beliefs led them to prioritize acknowledging a birth and paying homage to a child. Nothing mattered more than showing outwardly their wonder and great happiness over this event.
Upon their arrival, they found a child lying in a manger–a newborn human, who had no comprehension of their appearance, no appreciation of their efforts, let alone their actual presents. But somehow they intuited that in and from this little baby, gifts existed that neither they, nor any of us who would attempt to mimic their path, could ever fully return.
So, this season, as I hand over parts of my own earnings to but gifts for loved ones, I will try to remember the importance of what lies behind the outward gesture, and perhaps the message, the ongoing present, that the Story of the Magi offers to me:
- That I care for these people enough to put money aside for them
- That they mean enough for me to sacrifice not only my money but my time
- That, even if only for a few minutes, they are important enough to occupy more room than usual in my mental space, so often focused exclusively on my own wants and needs
- That, yes, these other people would be worth, to me, a journey similar to that made by the Wise Men
- That people I love always, without question, are worth more than all the world’s silver and gold
Tonight is the annual airing of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, and today is the first of two posts of songs from the program.
Most people recognize the 1960s as turbulent. I never really expected this to be reflected in the holiday specials of that decade, but if you do a quick time line of its four shows that have endured, you can discern the overall mood of the era. Rudolph came first, in 1964, and it doesn’t take a genius to recognize the program as a plea for tolerance and pluralism. The following year, A Charlie Brown Christmas cast the spotlight on spiritual and neurotic angst, which Lucy and Charlie recognize as the “fear of everything.” Then came How the Grinch Stole Christmas in 1966, in which the holiday is rescued at the last second from just plain and outright meanness. By 1968, writers didn’t even bother to develop much of a plot for Frosty the Snowman. A bunch of hippy-ish kids and a magic bunny dance around with Frosty until a weirdo magician steals back his own hat. This is all a prelude to Frosty melting before our very eyes, damaging the psyches of generations to come.
I realize that the writers of Rudolph were trying to illustrate certain points, and that, for children of all times, such points are easier to understand if the terms are well defined and clearly demarcated. In other words, no nuance necessary. But every time I watch Rudolph, I am struck by just how narrow-minded and unpleasant so many of the characters are. Even though the message behind the show is one of learning to accept others, the society of the time obviously tolerated behaviors and attitudes that wouldn’t even be considered watchable if proposed in a children’s show today. This program would never pass muster with 2012’s network executives. I can just picture a meeting among them about it and the many reasons Rudolph would be rejected as unfit programming:
- You have the oppressive Elf-in-Charge who harasses Hermey into trying to be someone he’s not (vetoed for blatant and unpunished bullying).
- There’s Donner, who forces his son to wear a fake nose to hide his perceived defect and basically sends Rudolph the message that he’ll never amount to anything (vetoed as an example of borderline child abuse).
- Then there’s the sports coach (Comet) who bans Rudolph from Reindeer Games and Santa’s Flight Squad simply on the basis of appearance, despite Rudolph’s superior athletic skills (vetoed for obvious and unchecked discrimination).
- There’s all the misfit toys with their clearly identifiable flaws, save for the weepy doll, whom the producer of the show identified in 2007 as having been exiled to Misfit Island because she was depressed (thank God for Wikipedia!, and vetoed for mocking those with physical challenges and mental illnesses).
- One would think you could rely on Santa to behave sympathetically, but even he shows no pity for Rudolph, nor for the elves who work hard but fail to impress him with their song, nor for the misfit toys that he’s been ignoring for Lord knows how long before Rudolph finds them (vetoed for overall misanthropy, which goes against every other depiction of Santa in history).
We often idealize the past. Particularly at Christmas, we can fall victim to a nostalgic desire to return to an earlier time, when life appeared simpler, people seemed kinder, and the pace of life was deemed less hectic. But if we consider Rudolph as an artifact of its time, it becomes a little more difficult to continue to believe in yesterday.
I fully recognize that social progress never ends and, as many recent events have underscored (at least for me), there is still a long way for our country to go. Despite what some people truly and earnestly believe, our society still contains marginalized and oppressed groups. We still have people treated like outcasts and misfits because of how they look and how they want to live. Gaps continue to exist between young and old, bosses and workers, parents and children.
Certainly, it is possible to err too far in the other direction. A society in which everything is tolerated and no one ever is criticized may cause its citizens to be too soft. And maybe in our attempts to correct past excesses, we now overcompensate and, almost like Charlie Brown, live in constant fear, although now the fear is of unintentionally causing offense over everything.
Despite this, in how we consider those who are “different,” some progress has been made since the 1960s.
And if one believes that such consideration is directly related to portrayals in the media and popular culture, part of that progress may be, even in a small way, thanks to the influence of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.
No philosophical or theological musings today. Instead I have chosen to honor Mr. Christmas, Howard Andrew Williams, on what would have been his 85th birthday.
One of the many reasons I like listening to the radio during “the holiday season” (to use a phrase Andy himself was familiar with) is because you get to hear so many great artists whom mainstream radio has abandoned as hopelessly passé. If you want to hear Bing Crosby, Dean Martin, The Carpenters, Nat King Cole, Johnny Mathis, even Frank Sinatra or Barbra Streisand, it’s up to you to find a satellite station devoted to Easy Listening or to create your own playlist with your CDs and iTunes.
And what sad neglect, because these people, and of course one of my personal favorites, Andy Williams, were consummate professionals. They knew how to interpret music. Now, the woman obsessed with the likes of The Beatles and The Smiths certainly appreciates the importance of the revolution that was the singer-songwriter. And the diversification of music genres is a good thing, widening the scope of music and enabling mainstream radio to incorporate the traditions and essential influences of country, jazz, soul, urban/rap music, alternative, hard rock, new wave, and punk rock.
Still, there was something special about those artists of the 1930s through the 1970s who may not have been primarily lyricists or songwriters themselves but nonetheless possessed talents and capabilities that seemingly have disappeared. They understood that the delivery of a song could be powerful without rendering the listener powerless. They knew that vocal strength and style didn’t have to rely on screeching, hooting, turning every syllable into a trill contest, and basically shocking the listener into submission. While I love music from all times, including many of today’s artists, I don’t regard the American-Idolization of singing to be a good thing. I never feel like many of the vocalists of the last 15 to 20 years are intent on doing anything but impressing the audience with acrobatics and pyrotechnics.
People like Andy Williams didn’t employ stunts—they sang simply but earnestly and convincingly. And beautifully. And the Christmas season is the one time of the year that music offered by him and his likes is resurrected for all to enjoy.
On the occasion of his birthday, I am posting not my personal favorite (reserved for a future post) but his best known holiday tune. In fact, our local radio station begins its annual “nothing but holiday music” tradition with “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year.” So what kind of fan if holiday music and Andy Williams would I be not to include this song in my overall blog?
A personal anecdote–over the past few years, I had mentioned intermittently to my husband and son that I hoped to visit the Moon River Theater in Branson, Missouri, where Andy continued to perform in shows up until last year, when he was diagnosed with cancer. I came home from work a few months ago and told my 8-year-old son, William that, regrettably, Andy had passed away. William said first, “That’s terrible. Well, I guess Christmas will never be quite the same.” Then he paused and said, “Mommy, I am really sorry that one of your dreams will never come true.”
In those two sentences, despite feeling sad to say farewell to Andy, I thought how lucky I was to have a kid who even knows who Andy Williams is, and who actually listens to his mom and knows and values what some of her dreams, however goofy they may be, are.
And in that instance, I knew my husband and I must be doing something right, oh what the heck, something most wonderful, as parents.