Sunday, December 28, 2014

David Bowie, Bing Crosby, and the Curious Case of Popular Artists Recording Christmas Music

In recent years I have truly come to appreciate the strange effect that Christmas has on people of all stripes. Yes, I know some folks take this idea too far, and frankly it annoys me too (i.e. playing Christmas music in October). Nevertheless, this still begs the question: what is it about the Christmas season that inspires so many people to take it "too far"? No doubt nostalgia plays a powerful role in all this, not to mention rank commercialism, but why are so many people nostalgic (and thus commercial) about it in the first place? To put it another way, there really is no cultural equivalent to Christmas Day; no annual festival capable of inspiring so much collective merry-making, so many glad traditions the world over.

If you are looking for clear evidence of the fact that Christmas is a truly a universal cause for celebration, simply consider the curious phenomenon whereby largely secular pop artists declare (without a hint of irony) that "Christ our savior is born…" Indeed, when St. Paul proclaimed that "at the name of Jesus every knee shall bend", who could have known that this might be the strange manner in which it would come about? Yet there you have it- some of the most unexpected heralds of all; a bunch of secular troubadours, belting out the praises of Jesus with unadulterated enthusiasm.

From proud punk artists, to those of hair metal and glam rock, to just of about every genre imaginable, we receive this surprising testimony; this temporary (if brief) conversion of Faith, this "George Bailey" of popular music who miraculously decides to make a "joyful noise", only to return just as quickly to his former ways. Take, for instance, the Sarah McLachlan and Barenaked Ladies rendition of  We Three Kings. I have no clue what the Barenaked Ladies think about the Christian Faith, but I do know that Ms. McLachlan, who was one of the co-foundresses of Lilith Fair (the "├╝ber" feminist concert tour based on an apocryphal Biblical figure who is anything but obedient to God), is perhaps one of the last people to espouse the Christian worldview. Hence, when she sings any lyrics like the following; "King forever, ceasing never, worship him God most high", it may strike us as a little odd, especially when you consider this alongside her disturbing rendition of XTC's, "Dear God", which is anything but an endorsement of the King of Kings. And this could be dismissed as some kind of artistic flourish, were it not repeated by various artists of all genres time and time again.

There are obviously many more examples of this odd relationship between secular musicians and Christmas carols, but there is one example in particular that I think sums up this unusual courtship. Back in the heyday of MTV, when they used to actually devote a day (on Christmas) to artists performing Christmas songs, there was one specific performance that remains with me to this day.

In 1977,  Bing Crosby and David Bowie performed a duet of the "Little Drummer Boy" for a Christmas special that later became a Christmas classic on MTV. Not since I discovered that Neil Young and Rick James were in a band together back in the 1960's have I been so taken aback by such an odd couple. Yet I think in some strange way this atypical duet speaks volumes about the remarkable power that Christmas has to unite. The fact that you could inspire such polar personalities to get into the same room together based on the mutual appreciation of some idea tells you, not simply about the universality of music (for music alone may not have accomplished this), but about the universality of music in the context of Christmas.

Some may cynically point out that this little get together was a calculated effort on the part of both to remain relevant and reach a broader audience. But whatever their motivation for being there, what makes this gathering even remotely possible (some at the time described it as "surreal") is the universality of Christmas.

Not since Matthew the tax collector (i.e. a Roman collaborator) and Simon the Zealot (i.e. a Jewish nationalist) put their differences aside have we seen such strange bedfellows working together for such beneficent ends. And once again- it bears mentioning- Christmas was at the root of this get together.

So what is it about Christmas (or Christ) that is capable of accomplishing this remarkable feat? What is it about this great feast day that inspires even soldiers in the grip of war to lay down their firearms and sing carols from their trenches with their enemy? (This actually happened, and was beautifully depicted in the stirring WWI drama Joyeux Noel).

Perhaps Bing, Bowie, and "the little drummer boy" can help provide further insight on these matters. The traditional lyrics of the song describe a poor little boy who travels far and wide to adore this "New Born King", but apparently has nothing to give him when he arrives, save his ability to play his drums with all his might. Paradoxically, this "great king", according to the narrative, has even less than he to give.

Adding to the traditional lyrics, Bowie chimes in with these words; "Peace on earth/ Can it be/ Years from now, perhaps we'll see/ See the day of glory/ the day when men of good will/ Live in peace again… live in peace again"

Along with the obvious attraction of the song's melody- is its equally poignant message (i.e. the notion that "Peace on Earth" might some day be attainable). Yet a desire for peace alone is not the fundamental power of this song. As appealing as such a dream might be, it is just that- a dream. What has the potential to change humanity (and thus unite him) is the reality of the Incarnation; the stupefying notion that while this "little drummer boy" may be poor in many respects, he is apparently not the poorest boy in this room. In this strange ballad of awe and wonder, it is actually the King of Kings and the Lord of Lords who finds himself experiencing the greatest amount of abject squalor, a detail that in some respects inspires an even greater degree of gratitude and devotion on the part of the little boy, as well as us.

Yes, this idea of the omnipotent God becoming impotent is quite literally "disarming". For in this extraordinary tale, God has become both helpless and homeless, both tiny and dependent, or as Jesus so  heart-wrenchingly describes it; "Foxes have dens, birds have the air, but the Son of Man has no where to lay his head". Thus, if even God "disarms" himself and his justice for our sake, then how much more should I do it for others?

As another Christmas classic describes it; "Chains will he break, for the slave is our brother/ And in his name all oppression shall cease". How could such words even begin to become a reality were it not for the dumbfounding notion (and reality) that not only is the slave "our brother", which would be stunning enough, but that the "slave", in this instance, is in fact our God? "For though he was in the form of God, he did not deem equality with God a thing to be grasped. Rather, he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave…" (Philippians 2:6:7)

This is the only idea that is really capable of breaking the chains of oppression (both literal and figurative). This is the only idea that is really capable of crushing pride and making people weep at songs like O Holy Night, even when they claim to deny the main premise of the song (i.e. that Jesus Christ is the Lord).          

Twisted Sister, Josh Groban, Billy Idol, and Nat King Cole walk into a bar, and Josh Groban turns to Billy Idol and says; "This has gotta be a joke… but since we're all here we may as well make a Christmas album" (insert laugh track). And that is in the end the real "joke" of the Gospel. No one expects any of these folks from all walks of life, and all ideological persuasions, to be anywhere near one another... at least not on purpose. And yet there you have it, this zany "barroom" of unconventional characters coming together to celebrate the same ideal, an extraordinary sign (if ever there was one) that Christmas is really what it claims to be; a bright morning star of hope, a unifying message delivered on behalf of men of "good will"; a prophecy strongly suggested in that Bing and Bowie classic; "I pray my wish will come true/ for my child and your child too/ He'll see the day of glory/ The day when men of good will live in peace again, live in peace again."

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