Talkhouse Contributing Writer Rick Moody is a member of the Wingdale Community Singers. He is also the author of five novels, three collections of stories, a memoir, and, most recently, a collection of essays called On Celestial Music. Since 2009, he has written music criticism at the Rumpus.
Here’s a thought: Simon Cowell is to contemporary music what antibiotic-resistant gonorrhea is to the ecstasy of romantic love. Or: Simon Cowell is to contemporary music what Ray Kroc was to sustainable agriculture. Or: Simon Cowell is to the glory of music what the cane toad is to the continent of Australia. It is true that I say these things having only seen a mere few minutes of any of the alleged talent programs with which Simon Cowell was once or is now occupied. I once watched a couple episodes of The Voice because I admire the complexity that is Cee Lo Green. I’m pretty sure that Simon Cowell is not involved with The Voice in any capacity. I understand Simon Cowell was once noted for his bilious remarks on American Idol and apparently Leona Lewis, the artist at hand, once a contestant on a show called The X Factor and an especial ward of Simon Cowell, where she flattened with her leaden obviousness one of the greatest American gospel ballads ever written and, in the process, retroactively made Clay Aitken seem like he had an abundance of street cred. None of these talent programs, it is self-evident, has anything to do with what is interesting about music. None of these programs, it seems to me, is ever marked by the signs of music that distinguish music from other cultural phenomena. Why are these shows not taxonomically exactly the same as the rollout of a new treatment for erectile dysfunction, or the cross-marketing of antipsychotic medication to persons with transient symptoms of depression?
Leona Lewis may once have been of some interest as a songwriter, in her youth, or an opera singer (as indicated on this album’s Enya-ish and treacly reading of “Ave Maria”), who knows, but she elected instead to become a fetish-object on television, in which her mixed parentage and her very attractive girl-next-door persona (filched almost entirely from the young Whitney Houston) suddenly became something that might be marketed and tamed and shoehorned into the kind of totally ersatz, completely simulated American r&b that Britain so delights in exporting back to the States as though it were new or as though they had any insight into it. This music has about as much soul as a shoebox full of boy bands does. I’d rather be hit repeatedly with a blunt instrument than listen to this subgenre.
It would be easy, in this regard, to speak to the totally simulated quality of Leona Lewis, the entire career of Leona Lewis (“Happy” sounds exactly like Sinéad O’Connor’s recording of “Nothing Compares 2 U,” and how can this not be clear to every listener), but I think that would be to waste time that should be spent on the horror that is Christmas, With Love, the new album, which is released this week for the big holiday merchandising season. Let us instead bear down on the horror of Christmas, With Love. The sleeve, it should be noted, imitates a mid-’60s album cover, and from appearances you might be tempted to think it’s A Christmas Gift for You by Phil Spector (1963) or The Beach Boys’ Christmas Album (1964), or, say, The Vivacious One, by Ann-Margret (1963), or even A Hard Day’s Night (1964) by the Beatles, which likewise features the sort of Cubist approach that adorns this album jacket. And that mid-’60s simulation, that bid for a simulacrum of the organic and classic feel of the old LP extends to the sound of Christmas, With Love, too, which tries to soften the slavish reiterations of Whitney and Mariah, in favor of a classic Phil Spector sound, with a dash of Motown. Or, more accurately, it tries to graft a nervous, trebly affectation of Whitney and Mariah onto Phil Spector’s wall of sound. The baritone saxes, the celestes, the sleigh bells, a hint of the Funk Brothers snare sound, all there, as well as some wholly deracinated gospel backing vocal stylings that are probably intended to approximate a pair of Ronettes. The simulation of this production is so expertly hybridized and computerized and click-tracked (as brought to you by Biff Stannard and Ash Howe) that its completely artificial qualities do, at the same time, resemble the historical present. That is, this album is both robotic and imitative of the past. A curious paradox! And: the three originals have the written-by-committee total absence of individual expressive power that the popular song of the present seems to require. I don’t blame Leona Lewis for being totally used by Simon Cowell and Clive Davis, for being reconstructed, like a singer built from a harvest of uncontaminated portions of Whitney Houston’s wasted post-mortem physique, by the likes of Simon Cowell and/or Clive Davis. I don’t blame her for handing over all the decision-making. But I cannot bear another recording of “O Holy Night.” I just cannot. (“O Holy Night” exists on record solely so that a singer can traffic in that ultimate “o night… divine!” in the same oversung way that the shameless stadium singers reach for the end of “The Star-Spangled Banner.”) Leona grew up in Islington, and she tried to make it big as a singer, and did nothing of the kind, did not make it big, until her boyfriend suggested she audition for that program entitled The X Factor, where she could be schooled up in the excesses of that form. Look, it’s the British economy — it makes the American economy seem sound. Leona Lewis is trying to insure that she has a pension in her later years. I don’t blame her, the rudder of her ship is not hers to control. But still. Another attempt to record “Silent Night?” And “Ave Maria?”
I do in fact have some opinions about Christmas music. (As you probably do too.) I feel that Christmas music, as performed by pop musicians, ought to exhibit, in some measure, actual feelings about the Christmas holiday. Otherwise, why bother? And what are the features of Christmas feeling? Why is The Beach Boys’ Christmas Album kind of great (and far better, it should be said, than the Brian Wilson Christmas album What I Really Want for Christmas, from 2005)? Because the songs feel a little bit dashed off, as though the guys had a couple of weekends available during a heavy season of touring, and they just whipped some shit out, and that is not far from the truth, in that Brian didn’t have time to do all the arranging on the Christmas album and farmed out most of it, so that the band just came in to do the vocals and that was that. The same is true of a lot of the Beatles’ Christmas offerings, especially the ones made for the fan club (e.g., “Christmas Time (Is Here Again),” from 1967, which is so hilarious and moving). That dashed-off quality of the fan club recordings is part of the charm of the Christmas idiom. Suddenly, at Christmastime, songs might be understood as gifts. Not so much as part of the relentless merchandising, but as relief from the relentless merchandising. Christmas could amount to a cessation of business as routinely understood, in which performer and band are conjoined more intimately, in the gift economy, more humanely than hitherto.
Some other good examples of Christmas songs? Keith Richards’s “Run Rudolph Run” is looser and more shambolic than Chuck Berry’s version, less uptight, and seems to benefit from his dire legal situation at the time of recording. “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town,” by Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band has the live vibe that makes it feel more like a gift to the audience than a reverential cover; “2000 Miles,” by the Pretenders, has to be one of the greatest originals ever on the subject of missing someone at Christmas, and maybe it’s about Ray Davies, which might be why it sounds so genuine, so felt, and it has that guitar riff which is very good indeed. And then there is the greatest Christmas song ever written, “Fairytale of New York,” by the Pogues, with Kirsty MacColl. And I’m not going to go on at length on this subject (I have already done so elsewhere) except to point out that a singer who can barely sing manages to sing the line “an old slut on junk” and manages to make it sound completely appropriate, in the process reaching the very top of the British charts during the season not once, but several times. What does “Fairytale” tell us about Christmas songs? It tells us that disenfranchisement, failure, poverty, and regret in a Christmas song make this song more believable than that traditional fluff. If you follow the demos of “Fairytale of New York” through its development, it takes months to finish that song, to find the right assortment of parts and scraps and melodies and lyrical ideas, and that’s before you get that perfect drum sound, and the amazing string arrangement (which Shane MacGowan persists in saying he wrote himself). But it’s the regret and wide-open realism that causes us to attend. Without a little regret a Christmas song means nothing, without the cloud of disenfranchised witnesses, huddled and yearning, a Christmas song is nothing, and without a little generosity, a little selflessness, a little observational acuity, a Christmas song is nothing.
It would be easy to be cynical about Leona Lewis’ album, and with good reason. It reeks of calculation. They tried a Christmas album with Clay Aitken, too, early on, and this, therefore, appears to part of the playbook for the pop star of television manufacture. (Carrie Underwood was on A Very Country Christmas, Ruben Studdard has recorded several Christmas songs, and Kelly Clarkson is at work on a Christmas special as we speak, despite her morning sickness.) But before I dismiss it entirely, I have to say that Leona Lewis’s recording of “White Christmas” is kind of moving, completely recasts the original, and it recalls more Otis Redding, and more Aretha, and less Whitney, which is to say, it has more soul, or what passes for soul these days; in fact, I kinda like that one. The horn chart is pretty great on “White Christmas,” even if the same vocal gestures, the same neurological tics, continue to figure in the proceedings. Still: let us not blame Leona Lewis for Leona Lewis, let us blame Simon Cowell and/or Clive Davis, and the whole bloodless machinery of the Spotify Age, the whole groaning to an end of the music busisness.
I have a friend (she’s in a band, actually, Les Chaud Lapins, that does really great French music of the early 20th century) who mounts a one-day holiday recording party every year about this time. (It’s this Sunday, in fact.) You write a song, you record it with all the other musicians hanging around eating chile in Meg’s kitchen, waiting to record their own songs, a fairly august bunch of Brooklyn musicians, in fact, and everyone plays along, pulls together, for the fun of it, and all the recordings are free, and no one makes any money off of it, least of all Meg, who spends a solid week on the thing, setting it up and mixing it afterward, and often the songs are really funny, really organic, rather genuine, and they mean more to me, a lot of the time, than any other Christmas songs I hear in a given calendar year. Gift economy. Totally free. If you are so inclined, you can hear the holiday recording party here. The recording party represents a model of the Christmas song that is not completely corrupted by the large record labels, and in which the participants do what they do totally for the love of fellow man and for the joy of the season. You might start one of these parties yourself. Or you could go caroling down your street. Just open up and sing! As you know, the guy said, it is better to give than to receive.