Christmas Can Be Cool – “All I Want for Christmas Is You”

11 Dec

Christmas is a time when we can throw caution to the wind. A time when we don’t have to be rational. We can cast aside worry and be joyful without reservation – or even reason.

Christmas is a time when we can unabashedly and unironically love a Mariah Carey song.

If “All I Want for Christmas Is You” were a new 2012 release, would I still love it? I don’t know how to answer that question. Although I like to think I’m not a cynical person, there’s a very real possibility I would see it as a shallow, soulless exemplification of crass Christmas commercialism. But my past selves still reside in some special place within me, and while they’ve willingly allowed me to let go of so many embarrassing former obsessions, my six year-old self, who listens to this song with his mom in her minivan often (sometimes in the middle of August), demands I recognize its greatness. He refuses to let me consider it objectively. The best I can do on the critical thinking front is halfheartedly suggest that this song really isn’t that far off from those on Phil Spector’s Christmas album, but I don’t really expect anyone to buy that argument. Suffice it to say that this song strikes some deep, indefinable chord with me, and I love it more than I can say. You can’t fault me for that, can you? It’s Christmas!

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Christmas Can Be Cool – “Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas”

10 Dec

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“Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas” is one of my top 5 episodes of Community, a perfect example of how the show blends ambition and character, refusing to sacrifice either for the sake of the other. Its detractors would say it’s all style and no substance, pointing to episodes like this one – a stop-motion animated Christmas special – as evidence of its gimmickry. However, if Community were the show they claim it is, the animation itself would be the episode’s focal point, the plot would be as sweet and fluffy as a Christmas cookie, and character development would be altogether nonexistent. Instead, the episode takes a dark, sad journey through the mind of its arguably most intriguing character, resulting in what amounts to a moving, heartfelt love letter to Christmas.

Christmas Can Be Cool – “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas”

9 Dec

“Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” is a sad Christmas song that almost nobody realizes is a sad Christmas song. This is mainly because its saddest lyric (“Until then we’ll have to muddle through somehow”) has been altered to a happy one (“Hang a shining star upon the highest bough”) in most versions. But the definitive version – the one Judy Garland sings in Meet Me in St. Louis – is a sad song sung by a sad person to a sad child in a sad scene. In the film, the central family is spending one last Christmas in St. Louis before they move to New York, far away from the city they know and love. The song itself is an attempt of Garland’s character to cheer her sister up by painting a picture of happy future Christmases, but Garland’s own, more grown-up melancholy bleeds through anyway. It’s about how we pin our hopes and dreams on the future, especially at Christmas, a time for joy and self-reflection: even if this Christmas isn’t a good one, next year’s will be. It’s an idea reflected in many Christmas specials/movies/music, but it’s still heartrending when done well, and here’s one of its best displays.

Christmas Can Be Cool – A Charlie Brown Christmas soundtrack

8 Dec

I know next-to-nothing about jazz and could not begin to speak of it with any semblance of critical legitimacy. Nevertheless, I’d be remiss not to include Vince Guaraldi Trio’s soundtrack to A Charlie Brown Christmas in my Christmas feature. What is it about this album that makes it so special, so revered, so lovely? Did it create the warm, fuzzy, content place it reaches down and touches in the depths of my Christmas-loving heart, or has that place always been there, waiting for those opening chords of “O Tannenbaum” to awaken it? I  recently posted to Facebook that this music could quell a riot. I was only half joking.

Christmas Can Be Cool – Bad Santa

7 Dec

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I was fourteen years old the first time I saw the Terry Zwigoff-directed, Coen Brothers-produced Bad Santa, and I disliked it so much I didn’t even finish it. It wasn’t the irreverence that bothered me (although I didn’t go in for that kind of thing the way teenagers typically do) – it was just that Billy Bob Thornton’s Willie T. Stokes was such a jerk. Why bother with a character beyond redemption? I didn’t understand. A year or so later, I fell in love with Zwigoff’s adaptation of Ghost World and then, a little after that, the entirety of the Coens’ output. I realized I needed to give Bad Santa another shot. So I did, appreciating it a lot more the second time around. The film is crude, hysterical, hard-hitting, and a little depressing, with no Apatowian sweetness to smooth out the rough edges. Zwigoff serves what little sentimentality he has to offer in extremely small doses, which in turn makes it all the more effective. I’m still repulsed by Willie T. Stokes, but that’s largely the point; Zwigoff is simply not interested in the “lovable old drunk with a heart of gold” archetype. Is Stokes beyond redemption? Maybe. But after all, it is Christmas…

Christmas Can Be Cool – “Lumberjack Christmas/No One Can Save You from Christmases Past”

6 Dec

Instead of taking on the near-impossible task of adequately writing about Sufjan Steven’s 4+ hours of Christmas music in its entirety, I’ve chosen one of my favorites from the new box set he released this year. Some dismiss Stevens as some kind of twee manchild, but “Lumberjack Christmas/No One Can Save You from Christmases Past” illustrates exactly what appeals to so many about his best Christmas music – it balances unironic yuletide joy (the “specials on the TV” lyric), a sort of desperate faux-cheeriness (the background chorus singing “ho ho ho ho ho ho”), and genuine holiday sadness (the “no one can save you” coda). While he isn’t the first to use this kind of approach, he has created his very own distinct and beautiful variation of it. The song is catchy, cheerful, and achingly poignant all at once.

Christmas Can Be Cool – Regular Show’s “Christmas Special”

5 Dec

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Regular Show is an animated show airing on Cartoon Network. I started watching it over the summer and have kind of fallen in love with both it and its Monday-night partner Adventure Time. Content-wise, it falls somewhere between SpongeBob SquarePants and The Simpsons, not quite as innocent as the former or as irreverent as the latter – it’s subversive to a certain degree, but never aggressively so. Although its primary audience is probably discerning preteens and teens, it seems to have also drawn a lot of pop culture-obsessed nerds in their 20s (i.e., me). Their 30-minute (most episodes are half that) Christmas special just aired on Monday, but it impressed me so much I wanted to say a few words about it.

One of the strongest episodes of the series to date, bar none, it finds a way to satisfyingly incorporate all of its major characters as they go on an epic quest to destroy a magical present with the power to destroy Christmas forever. One thing that intrigues me about Regular Show is the way it handles pop culture references. While the plot is an obvious nod to Lord of the Rings, it also refreshingly distances itself from LotR just enough that one could say it resembles any archetypal Hero’s Journey. Additionally, its creators avoid the typical “see-what-we-did-there” winking-and-nudging that shows like Family Guy fall prey to all the time. If anything, Lord of the Rings functions more as an influence than the kind of meta-joke it would be on some other, “edgier” show. The special somehow manages to check off all of the expected plot points and thematic resonances we expect of our Christmas specials while remaining true to its characters and its own slacker spirit. It relies a little too much on novelty and audience familiarity to be a proper introduction to Regular Show for newcomers, but it’s still a massive achievement.