Cashing in for Christmas


Indie-rocker Sufjan Stevens is akin to the bell-ringing charity man you sidestep while entering the neighborhood drugstore: holiday perennial, purveyor of a sound that's an exercise in patience, and effervescent with so much Christmas cheer you want to poke him in the mug.

What started in 2001 as a DIY-inspired, heartfelt tradition by Stevens (recording holiday songs and mailing them to loved ones as gifts) became grossly commercialized last December when the material was released as the five-disc Songs for Christmas. Packaged with stickers, an animated music video, a Stevens-penned short story, and a novelty Santa boot mug (okay, we wish), the release was pimped for the price of $22.98.

Now the Michigan artist is plugging The Great Sufjan Song Xmas Xchange. The gist: Write and record an original Christmas song, email it to Asthmatic Kitty Records, and the individual with the best composition wins the rights to a Stevens ditty. The victor is then free to do whatever they wish with the tune, whether it's sell high to Boost Mobile or transform into a teeth-grinding ringtone.

Stevens's latest ploy confirms what we long suspected: Pop music's Christmas gimmicks make Baby Jesus cry. Preying on holiday shoppers ever on the prowl for more seasonal touchpoints, this music is pudding-skin-thin and rarely penetrating. Artists know we'll eventually wrap their Christmas jingles in Sunday's newspaper and ignore them until next December.

Some offenders are more egregious than others, their Yuletide-inspired posturing and faux merriment so blatant it puts garlic in your soul. Television holiday specials are often the weapon of choice: from the Bay City Rollers in 1975; to the somniferous Donny and Marie Osmond in 1978, launching a thousand "gives new meaning to the term 'white Christmas'" quips; to the ever-milquetoast Clay Aiken in 2004, an elfin product (we think) of the same stop-motion animation that presented us 1987's "A Claymation Christmas Celebration," where the California Raisins' raison d'etre is confirmed as purpley Motown epigones.

Young pop fans are particularly vulnerable to the holiday gimmick, perhaps because they're less apt at sniffing out a devilish cash-grab. In 1965, Louis Benjamin, head of England's Pye Records, looked to build on the monumental popularity of the Beatles among teens by issuing a Christmastime single from John Lennon's father, Alfred "Freddie" Lennon. "That's My Life (My Love And My Home)" went over like a party bowl of eggnog spiked with turpentine.

Irish satirist George Bernard Shaw once muttered, "Christmas is forced upon a reluctant and disgusted nation by the shopkeepers and the press." And Tony Wilson—don't forget that bugger. The Factory Records head was a whiz at conducting marketing effrontery under the guise of holiday feting: "A Factory Sampler," featuring traditional Christmas fare like "Hitler's Lover" (by John Dowie) and "Sex in Secret" (by Cabaret Voltaire); and a New Order flexi disc packaged with celebratory accessories such as a party hat and streamers. Regrettably, Rudolph-emblazoned Ecstasy tabs weren't included.

But Wilson understood: Seasonal gimmicks feast on the bizarre holiday caprice that has us congesting our yards with kitschy, illuminated lawn figures (Half Man Half Biscuit's "All I Want for Christmas Is a Dukla Prague Away Kit"; anarchist punk band Crass and its "Merry Crassmas" flexi) or becoming zombie spendthrifts (1999's Latino Christmas, cashing in on that year's Latin music craze; two years later, Destiny Child's "Platinum Bells," which unabashedly plugged their line of toy dolls).

Some do get it right, however. In 1977, the Sex Pistols held a free Christmas Day benefit in Huddersfield for children of the town's firemen and dole-earning unemployed from the nearby Brown's Park Works. Johnny Rotten was pushed into the gazebo-sized Christmas cake by a gaggle of six-year-old girls. Sid Vicious, embarrassed by all the twinkling, kiddy eyes staring at him, left his shirt on. It was all good, clean holiday fun: peace, charity, soda pop, and sticks of cinnamon. Imagine that—the Sex Pistols playing the role of blanket-toting Linuses and teaching all the true meaning of Christmas.