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As the sun sets over Potomac Mills and Christmastide good cheer fades, it’s time to talk about hate. Not hate of peoplehate of music. Aversion makes the pop-music carousel go round, as a kid turns up Limp Bizkit to drown out his little sister’s ‘N Sync or blasts DMX to terrify his parents. But there’s no more hateful moment in the American musical yearnot even the ritual TV performance of the five drippy compositions nominated for the Best Original Song Academy Awardas detestable as Christmas.
That’s not because of Christmas carols, most of which are quite pretty but are seldom heard these days outside of church. It’s those dreadful secular Christmas songswhich is to say Christmas-shopping-season songs, because they’re seldom heard outside of retail establishments. (If you know someone who actually listens to “Little Drummer Boy” of his or her own volition, I don’t want to know about it.) These tunes, many of them products of a period of cultural pacification also known as the ’40s and ’50s, are the tattered remnants of a (largely fraudulent) attempt to portray the United States as a middle-class utopia. Plus, they’re insipid.
Nothing could be worse, you might think, but during the festive season just past, shoppers were assaulted with funky, jazzy, or otherwise updated versions of such classic horrors as “Jingle Bells,” “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” and “White Christmas.” These are both awful and pernicious: They make you wish you were listening to the icky originals instead.
Everybody hates some kind of music. Hiphop and heavy metal are particularly reviled, and most people don’t actually like jazz. (This is heresy, because jazz is “America’s classical music” and all that. But the fact is, on CD, it sells about as well as that other classical music, the kind composed by dead, white European males.) Most listeners will also withdraw from any music that sounds alien, whether played on unusual instruments or employing non-Western scales. (Rock critics have the opposite reactionor at least they should.)
Personally, I hate what I call “insect music”trebly, buzzing styles that include bluegrass and the twitchiest varieties of baroque music. My principal distaste, however, is for certain styles of vocalese. No doubt because I grew up on plain-spoken folk-rock, I can’t abide operatic singing and other heavily mannered vocal techniques. I also try to avoid Betty Boop-ish singers such as Bernadette Peters and the dagger-gargling growls and shrieks of death metal.
Of course, most sensible people recoil from death-metalthat’s the whole point. Far more insidious is the sort of pap that insinuates itself into some involuntary-memory quadrant of the brain, those sugary jingles that drive higher thoughts from your mind. It always hurts to admit that you’ve grown to lovewell, sort of like, on some uncontrollable level”Little Drummer Boy.” Or “You Light Up My Life,” “I Want It That Way,” or some other musical placebo.
One interesting development is that such unconscious musical assimilation is getting less likely these days; teenypop and other mass-market genres depend more on rhythms and visuals than catchy melodies to attract their audiences. As I write, I’m listening to LaFace Records’ The Platinum Collectionwhich is packed with hits by TLC, Usher, and Toni Braxtonand have yet to encounter a tune that I need worry will become a lingering annoyance.
And I know the contours of Britney Spears’ tummy very well indeed, but I can’t hum one of her tunes.
Some day, of course, Spears will be one of the most hated women in America. Not by the parents who currently despise seeing their preteen daughters emulate the virginal girl’s hootchie-cootchie moves, but by her former fans. Although some pap-pop fans never outgrow their first musical crushwitness the active fan clubs for the likes of Neil Diamond and Barry Manilowothers come to vehemently deny their early enthusiasms. Hating music you loved in your youth is an essential part of growing up. (Interestingly, I didn’t end up abhorring the mid-’60s pop-rock that was my first nonkiddie music. But I did lose much of my onetime enthusiasm for the psychedelic rock that followed it.)
Perhaps the most celebrated case of this is Nietzsche’s break with Wagner. An early disciple of the bombastic composer, Nietzsche began to withdraw from Wagner for a variety or reasons, including the latter’s embrace of anti-Semitism, German nationalism, and a sort of idealized pagan Christianity, all of which were repugnant to his former follower. It’s easy, though, to reject the ideological crimes of music you don’t like. I’m not an Eminem fan, so it’s no sacrifice for me to ban his homophobic raps from my stereo.
It’s another thing altogether to rejectas Nietzsche did in The Case of Wagnermusic that has a profound appeal. “[B]rutal, artificial, and ‘innocent’ at the same time,” he wrote. “[H]ow harmful for me is this Wagnerian orchestral tone! I call it sirocco. I break out into a disagreeable sweat. My good weather is gone.”
Few people react so strongly to bad music today, and not just because they don’t share Nietzsche’s heightened sensitivity. Music is now both ubiquitous and mostly banal, so the stakes just aren’t as high. Still, a quick spin through Mazza Gallerie in mid-December is enough to remind anyone of the power of even banal ditties. No matter how you steel yourself, the hated melodies come slipping in, until there’s nothing to do but hasten to the exit paraphrasing Quentin Compson: “I do hate ‘White Christmas.’ I do! I do! I do hate it!” Mark Jenkins
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