Saturday, December 23, 2006

And a Partridge in a pop song

Sometimes you don't know how ignorant you are while thinking you are informed until you look into it.

Last month while shopping for shoes in an outlet mall (and what else does one buy in an outlet mall but shoes?) in Smitheville, North Carolina, I heard amidst the slew of holiday music playing softly in the store the track "Thanks for Christmas". It's a more or less straightforward expression of gratitude for the spirit of the holiday (at least, I don't recall detecting irony in its tone when listening to it, but I could be missing that).

I knew the song from a album of b-sides (Rag 'N' Bone Buffet) by XTC. That's all I knew of it, because I tend to avoid the holiday music cavalcade as much as possible, and the Christmas songs I prefer are the "classics" (Bing Crosby, etc.). Thus, at the time I was in the store I was somewhat impressed to hear what I perceived to be a relatively obscure song by an English band that was never a household name in the U.S., especially in a semi-rural area of the South. However, I didn't find it that suprising that when trying to fill more than a month of continuous Christmas tunes, the programmers of the station were open to digging deeper to find material.

From what I heard played on the radio here in L.A. (and I listened to the station that played it a lot when the song came out in 1986), probably the biggest "hit" XTC had in the States was the acerbic deconstruction of the Almighty, "Dear God" (with the closing lines: "There's one thing I don't believe in/It's you, dear God"). At first glance, the sentiment of that song seems incongruous with a paean to the observation of the birthday of the Big Guy's son. However, a Christmas song is always a prudent career boost for any musician, so that's not so difficult to grasp.

[We've had well over a century of Christ's role in Christmas being reduced, and to a great extent (regarding the marketing) being completely excoriated. Thus, it's not out of the question that one could be an atheist but still celebrate December 25th—everyone else is.

Heck, it's tricky to get out of being involved, whether one has never so much as set foot in a building with a cross in front of it. It doesn't seem malicious on the part of those who seek to involve everyone—I'm sure their intentions are completely benevolent, and to be non-exclusory is in its own way admirable—but choosing to refrain from taking part in the celebrations turns one into a Dickensian villain; there is no taking "no" for an answer from these people.

I digress.]

Whatever the artistic motivation, one would think releasting a song not only critical of God but questioning His existence as well would get one banned from the radio in an area where there's more churches than convenience stores. However, clearly that was not the case, as "Thanks For Christmas" was definitely played while I was looking at loafers.

Again, at that moment of still relative ignorance, I figured it wasn't good ol' forgiveness of their "Dear God" to explain the inclusion of what I knew as the XTC holiday track in the mix, nor even that the people in charge didn't recognize the two songs as being by the same artist, but the real explanation of how "Thanks for Christmas" got in there has more to do with the nature of radio these days.

That concoction went along these lines: The signal was likely a satellite station piped in to the store because the corporate owners decreed that's what gets played in all their stores, regardless of location. Someone in New York programmed the songs, without concern for the religious associations of the listeners and how they may not jibe with the whole of the artist's catalog. There the only issue is whether the track in question is potentially offensive, and despite the so-called "war on Christmas" it seems unlikely the pro-"Happy Holidays in lieu of Merry Christmas" crowd is going to protest over this particular song.

Then when finally I did a bit of research, it turned out that the "Thanks For Christmas" song on the XTC b-sides album was originally recorded under the name The Three Wise Men, with songwriting credited to the names of the three kings. It was recorded as a single, in 1983, well before "Dear God". Apparently it got included on holiday sampler CDs throughout the '90s, and it gets played on those radio stations playing more "contemporary" songs during the holidays (the ones I don't listen to) with some regularity.

And somehow I completely missed that.

So, uh, nevermind. Stupid me.

I never did find an explanation for the lingering incongruity of having both a song in (at least ostensibly) honor of the big Christian holiday and one critical of their creator. However, it's somewhat easier to understand why those who would play it on the radio during the holidays would not notice that connection, once some research is done.

Don't hold your breath on me doing that again.

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