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It hardly seems possible that the Big Three Christmas specials of my youth – “Dr. Seuss’ How The Grinch Who Stole Christmas”, “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” and “A Charlie Brown Christmas” – still attract such large audiences nearly fifty years after their first airing.  They all won their time slots again this year, with “Grinch” attracting 5.5 million viewers, “Charlie Brown” getting 7.1 million and “Rudolph” leading the bunch with 11.4 million.  And these numbers are surely much higher with timeshifted ratings added in.

According to all conventional wisdom, these shows should not do so well.  They are not broadcast live, have no major stars, are not edgy or ironic, and have no sex appeal.  Moreover, most of the audience has seen the shows multiple times.

Obviously these classics benefit from being part of the Holiday Tradition.  Many families reflexively do the same thing every year, hanging the same stockings in the same place, making the same cookies and watching the same TV specials.  Still, there must be something profound about these shows to make generations watch them again and again.

Certainly the fact that all three specials are animated makes them seem timeless, with no weird haircuts or fashion choices to date them.  Curiously, even with their rudimentary production values they all feel retro-modern, as if they they had been produced last year.

Of the three, my favorite is “A Charlie Brown Christmas.”  Over the years, I have owned this in every format, from Betamax tape to VHS tape to DVR to DVD.  I have the story in book form.  Overall, I’ve watched this program at least 25-35 times, far more than any other TV program.

For me, nostalgia is definitely part of the appeal. I grew up in the Northeast in the 1960s and when I see “A Charlie Brown Christmas” now I think, “Yes, that’s just what it was like”: the snow, the chain link fences, that school auditorium, the absence of adults, the skating on the pond.  I even had a hat with ear flaps just like Charlie Brown.

Vince Guaraldi’s music is also essential to the appeal of the show. Christmastime is Here” is clearly the best Christmas song of the past 50 years and the rest of the soundtrack helps evoke the innocence, hope and joy of the Christmas season.  And in a show that’s already slow-moving and peaceful, the music supports the mellow vibe.

But the enduring appeal of the show lies within the melancholy many of us feel at some point during the run-up to December 25.  Christmas actually does feel commercialized (even more now than then!) and too many people do approach the holiday as a time of gift-getting rather than gift-giving.  We all feel like Charlie Brown sometime and wonder if we understand the true meaning of Christmas.

To that end, the climax of the show – Linus’ recitation from the Gospel of Luke Chapter 2, verses 8 through 14 – remains one of the most extraordinary and subversive moments in television history.    To have an animated character spend two-and-a-half minutes of primetime network television reading from the Bible – and from the original King James version itself, no less – was a daring act of defiance on the part of Peanuts creator Charles Schulz. Contrary to myth, CBS did not object to the passage, but Schulz’ co-producers worried it would turn off the audience.

The epiphany is a literary device identified and popularized by James Joyce in “The Dubliners” and “The Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man,” in which characters come to sudden recognitions that change their view of themselves or their social condition, which often spark a reversal or change of heart.  This is exactly what happens to Charlie Brown and the other characters in “A Charlie Brown Christmas” – Linus’ version of the Nativity story catalyzes a new understanding of Christmas, not only in the characters, but in anyone who watches the show.

I think that’s why we continue to watch – to have our own epiphanies.  The deliberate pacing, combined with the mild jokes and the smooth jazz soundtrack, lowers our blood pressure, lulls us into a state of emotional vulnerability and opens us up to Linus’ revolutionary message.   Merry Christmas Charlie Brown indeed!

Phil Spector Christmas Photo

I recently wrote about my least favorite Christmas songs, and lest some think me a Scrooge, a Grinch or any another fictional crab, let me quickly pronounce myself a lover of almost all things Christmas. I especially love Christmas music, including carols, mid-Century pop classics, 14-Century Benedictine chants, ballet soundtracks, oratorios and mellow jazz versions of “Let It Snow.”

I even like rock n’ roll Christmas songs. Rock musicians have been producing Christmas songs almost from the birth of Rock ‘n Roll itself, including Elvis (“Blue Christmas”) and Chuck Berry (“Run Rudolph Run”). Even Brenda Lee, not exactly a rock icon, came up with “Rock Around the Christmas Tree.”

With its exuberance and hard-driving energy, rock ‘n roll is better-suited for the Dionysian side of the Christmas festivities than many other music genres such as Country, which delivers Christmas offerings that are often mawkish.  For me, a great Christmas rock ‘n roll song should make you happy, as in “damn right, screw all the whining and complaining, this is a great time of year.” And the best rock Christmas songs do exactly that.

With that in mind, here are six great rocking Christmas songs

6. Santa Claus is Coming to Town – Bruce Springsteen. In some ways this is the quintessential rock n’ roll Christmas song because it puts some major energy into a pretty mediocre tune. I would rank this higher except that I get the impression that great Bruce Springsteen feels like he’s slumming when he plays something so frivolous.

5. Sleigh Ride – The Ventures. The Ventures were a great surf band from the 1960s, who are probably best-known now for the theme song from “Hawaii 5-0”. The band consists of a drummer, three guitarists and no vocalists, so “Sleigh Ride,” which was so famously performed by the Boston Pop without vocals, is perfect for them.

4. Here Comes Santa Claus – Los Straightjackets. Los Straightjackets are the modern heirs of the drums/guitars/no vocalist tradition, albeit now with a rockabilly flavor. As you can tell from their name, the band’s calling card is humor, and the way they perform “Here Comes Santa Claus” always makes me smile.

3. Christmas Wrapping – The Waitresses. It’s ironic. The Waitresses were a short-lived new wave group from the 1980s and their best-known song is a Christmas song, almost a novelty song. I’m sure they had hoped to go down in history for something edgier. The title “Christmas Wrapping” is a modest pun on “rapping,” which was just becoming popular when the song was produced in 1981. This is one of those songs that was little-appreciated when it came out, but came to fame gradually — and now it’s considered one of the best holiday songs of the past fifty years

2. Elf’s Lament — Bare Naked Ladies. This is the cleverest Christmas song ever. Considering the plight of the elf, this song describes the attempts of Santa’s helpers to unionize (“Toiling through the ages, making toys on garnished wages/There’s no union/We’re only through when we outdo the competition,” etc.) Ha ha.

1. Christmas (Baby Please Come Home) – Darlene Love. In 1986, Dave Letterman asked Darlene Love to sing this great Phil Spector-produced song and it was such a hit that he’s asked her to come back every year since. Watching Darlene Love on Dave Letterman has become – along with “A Charlie Brown Christmas” and the Schweddy Balls skit on SNL – one of the great TV traditions, but this video shows the original performance from 27 years ago. Worth watching all the way through to the end of the video for nostalgia’s sake.

Christmas Shoes

The older I get, the more that Christmas becomes a mix bag. The food makes me fat, I get anxious about buying presents, and I never get enough Christmas cards. But I do love Christmas music. I even grudgingly tolerate the songs that others abhor (Paul McCartney’s “A Wonderful Christmas Now”, Wham’s “Last Christmas”, and “The Little Drummer Boy.”)

There are, however, a small group of Christmas songs that drive me up a wall, either because they’re not really “Christmas songs” or are contrary to the spirit of Christmas. To that end, here’s my take on the five worst Christmas songs.

     5. My Favorite Things – I know that hardly anyone has seen “The Sound of Music” so let me set the stage for this song: when the Von Trapp kids are scared by a summer thunderstorm Maria distracts them with a ditty that consists primarily of unimaginative rhymes (poodles/noodles, mittens/kittens) that have nothing to do with Christmas.  Can we posit that merely mentioning sleigh bells in one verse and snowflakes in another doesn’t make a song seasonal? I’m sure the estate of Rogers & Hammerstein is thrilled that this continues to appear on Christmas albums, but it does nothing to raise my Christmas spirit. While we’re at it, check out this video by Lorrie Morgan in which she portrays a homeless woman who breaks into magnificent mansion that she apparently lived in as a child. She’s soon channeling her inner Julie Andrews, fantasizing about dancing with a handsome dude while flashing back to memories of being a scared girl upstairs in her old bedroom. It’s all pretty creepy and sad and inappropriate for a Christmas album.

     4. River – This is a great Joni Mitchell song from her massively depressing album “Blue.” The thrust of the piece is that the unstable narrator has dumped her nice boyfriend, regrets it and wishes there was a river she “could skate away on.” How this ended up as a Christmas song is inexplicable. Presumably it’s because the opening lyrics are: “It’s coming on Christmas/They’re cutting down trees/They’re putting up reindeer /And singing songs of joy and peace/Oh I wish I had a river I could skate away on.” You don’t need to be a Nobel Prize winning music critic to understand that the point of that verse is to contrast the happiness she should be feeling at Christmas with her inner sadness at losing “the best baby I ever had.” Don’t people even listen to the lyrics of songs before they put them on Christmas albums? This reminds me of how Leonard Cohen’s despairing “Hallelujah” has been appropriated as an all purpose memorial dirge, although it’s anything but. As for “River”, here’s Lea Michele from “Glee” trying to turn it into something as memorably morose as “ Have Yourself a Memory Little Christmas.”

     3. Santa Baby – The anthem for sluts and gold-diggers everywhere. The song itself is mildly witty and at least it’s completely honest in its advocacy for the transactional nature of Christmas. You can’t complain about the subtext of the song since it’s all text: the dame wants a sable, a convertible, a diamond ring, decorations from Tiffany’s, etc. She claims to deserve it because she didn’t hop into bed with anyone except her main sugar daddy for an entire year. This version by Madonna is particularly wrong because she’s imitating Marilyn Monroe, who had a sly knowingness about her own manipulativeness, something that Madonna lacks completely, kewpie doll singing notwithstanding.

     2. Baby It’s Cold Outside – If you type “Christmas rape” into Google, this song comes up. Once again, I don’t understand how this particular tune came to be associated with Christmas. The holiday isn’t mentioned at all – just snow and freezing temperatures. I’m hardly an advocate for politically correctness but any song about a man trying to coerce a woman into sex doesn’t really capture the Christmas spirit. The song apparently originates from the movie Neptune’s Daughter, a 1949 MGM musical comedy starring Esther Williams, Red Skelton, Ricardo Montalbán, Betty Garrett. The clip below is from the movie and what’s interesting about it is that there’s a second “seduction” scene in which the woman forces herself on the man. This is an interesting twist, to be sure, but it only amplifies the coercive nature of the interaction.

Need more convincing? Check out this funny video (“Baby, It’s Date Rape Time.”)

     1. Christmas Shoes – This is probably more famous for being the worst Christmas song of all time than it is for being a Christmas song on its own. It describes how a guy goes shopping on Christmas Eve and comes across an impoverished boy who wants to buy shoes for his dying mother — because when you’re dying the thing you really want is for your kid to blow all his money on some shoes you can be buried in. In any event, as noted, I’m not the first person to have identified the particular horror of this song, the whole point of which is to make your feel guilty about every minor complaint you might make at any time during the holiday season. The comedian Patton Oswalt did a hilarious riff on this song, so we’ll close with that. Season’s greetings everyone!

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If you admit to liking country music you’ll get those looks.  It’s like people are discovering an unknown but strange side of your personality. This is the same look you’d get for joining the Rand Paul presidential campaign or going on a reality show.   But that’s a better reaction than you’d get from roots aficionados.  They’ll say they too like country music — but only the non-commercial, authentic stuff.  Hardly anyone will admit to being a fan of big hat and big hair country music — the kind portrayed on the TV show Nashville.

Country has always had a disreputable, low-rent reputation; the cliché is that country fans are rural, gap-toothed hicks with gun racks on their pick-up trucks.  Even my friends from the South are defensive about it, making sure I know that “not everyone in the South listens to country music.”    But half the time these critics don’t really know what it is they don’t like. They’re reacting to the corny “Hee Haw” stereotype of the 60’s and 70’s, without appreciating that the country genre crosses many types of music.  This ignorance is especially high in the New York metro area, where they are no country radio stations and few honky-tonk clubs.

Part of the problem is that there’s no real agreement on what constitutes “real” country, and in some cases artists who call themselves “country” don’t seem that different from mainstream pop (I’m talking to you Taylor Swift.)  For me, country music should have a particular sound – something with a steel guitar, fiddle or twanging vocalist.  But even more important is the song itself.  Country music is always about something; it’s a short story in rhyme.   In fact, what I like about country music is exactly what brands it as an unsophisticated, simplistic art form:  the songs can be happy, angry, melancholy, fun, sarcastic, or patriotic, but you don’t have to work hard to understand their point.

In this respect, country is the opposite of rock, where the lyrics are the least important part of the song.  Half the time you can’t understand the words because they are slurred or overwhelmed by the music, and then, even when you can hear them, the meaning is opaque.  Even my beloved Beatles wrote elliptically, in confusing symbols and images.  Who exactly was Lucy in the sky with diamonds?  I am the eggman AND the walrus?  Huh?  You would never sit around a dorm room spinning theories on the deeper meaning of a country song.  Country music is too down-to-earth and unpretentious for that.

But what I like best about country music is that it addresses the full range of cares and concerns that occur in a human life.  Rock and pop are almost always about love – new love, old love, failed love.  Country music certainly covers this area (especially the realm of someone’s cheatin’ heart), but it also understands that a meaningful life is about more than the state of your romantic attachments.

Some of the staples of country music include:

1.  Accepting fate. Country music is very clear that people are not really in charge of their own destinies. As Darius Rucker and Kenny Chesney point out respectively in “This,” and “There goes my Life” (see videos below) you don’t have to achieve your dreams to have a happy life. In fact, sometimes not reaching your dreams is the best thing.

2. Female empowerment and a celebration of women. Women give as good as they get in country music. No one pushes them around. There are countless country songs about women getting by on their own, like George Strait’s “She Let Herself Go,”  or songs about women acting an awful lot like men, as in Terri Clark’s hilarious “Girls Lie Too” . But my favorite song celebrating women is Martina McBride’s “This One’s For Girls.”

3.  Patriotism. More than anything else, the overt my-country-right-or-wrong patriotism of country music sticks in the craw of those who like complexity in their music. There’s nothing subtle about Toby Keith’s controversial “Courtesy of the Red White and Blue”  which warns terrorists that the Uncle Sam is “going to put a boot in your ass.” Myself, I find this un-PC approach as exhilarating today as it was right after September 11. Same with Alan Jackson’s “Where Were You When the World Stopped Turning.”

4  Religion.  Of all the major country themes, I enjoy the God songs the least. They tend to be overly sentimental, mawkish or downright theologically suspect. However, “I Saw God Today,” by George Strait  is so simple and direct that it makes a better case for God’s existence than many sermons.

5  Drinking songs. Country music has a love/hate relationship with the bottle. Mostly love, as in Toby Keith’s “I Love this Bar  and Alan Jackson’s “It’s Five O’clock Somewhere” ). But sometimes there are cautionary tales, as in Brad Paisley’s “Alcohol”

6 Family: There are country songs about every family relationship you can think of, including sisters, brothers, grandparents and of course parents. These tend to be tearjerkers, as in Bucky Covington’s “A Father’s Love,”  Sometimes they are more rueful. What parent, for example, hasn’t felt like Martina McBride in “Teenage Daughters”

7  The heroism of everyday life. Country music shows that every life has value, not just the most celebrated ones. Jamie O’Neal makes this explicit in “Somebody’s Hero”  as do Brooks and Dun in “Red Dirt Road.”

8  Dreams of Escape: Country music gives voice to the frustrations that people have in their daily lives, as in Sugarland’s “Something more” or their fantasies of escape, as in Kenny Cheney’s “No Shoes No Shirt No Problem”  and Blake Shelton’s “Some Beach”.

9 Small towns: Country music’s core audience is rural America and the genre is always ready to pay back some love and celebrate small town values – to a certain extent. In Miranda Lambert’s “Famous in a Small Town” , you never get lonely, but you also have no privacy. In Rodney Atkins’ “These Are My People”  life a small town isn’t perfect, but it’s “real.”

10  Humor: What a lot of people don’t appreciate is how funny country music is. Half of country songs takes life very seriously, but the rest seems to imply that life is essentially a cosmic joke and that you’re better off playing it for laughs. The humor can be dry or it can be played for pure slapstick. Two of my favorite humorous numbers are “What was I thinking?” by Dirks Bentley , and “Online” by Brad Paisley

When our family goes on vacation, the first thing we do is find the local country music station – because there always is a local country music station outside New York City. This makes the trip seem more strange and exotic. We are reminded that not every country song a classic. There’s a lot of country schlock and there are plenty of country artists I don’t really like (e.g., Tim McGraw, Faith Hill, Carrie Underwood). And I really wouldn’t want an exclusive diet of country music. But I actually feel sorry for people who have never dipped into country music. There’s no quicker way to get an emotional rush. These simple songs of nostalgia, longing, regret, acceptance, and hope can bring a tear or a smile in three minutes or less. It’s nice to feel alive again.

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You can tell that television retains its cultural importance by the number of online communications platforms it helps keep afloat. 

Social media, for example, was supposed to undermine television’s dominance — but Twitter, Facebook, etc., would be considerably less active if users didn’t have television to talk about. Twitter mentioned television 42 times in its IPO prospectus, demonstrating how much it depends on TV for content.

Similarly, there would be considerably less for bloggers and recappers to write about if television didn’t exist.   You know there’s a power imbalance when one party obsesses constantly about the other (e.g., a teenage girl mooning over the high school quarterback) — but the other side barely acknowledges its existence. 

And then we have podcasts. According to the entity formerly known as Arbitron, about a quarter of Americans listen to podcasts.  This doesn’t seem like a lot compared to the near-universal reach of television and radio, but it’s about twice as many who have Twitter accounts, and usage will presumably grow as companies like Stitcher make it easier to access online audio.

There are no statistics on the number of TV-based podcasts, but pop culture figures heavily in the podcast universe.  Like other fan-based platforms, podcasts range from the extremely granular and specific to the broad and thematic.  It is not surprising, therefore, that there are multiple podcasts that minutely dissect the ins and outs of “Mad Men.” Less well-known, perhaps, there are also podcasts specifically focused on “Survivor,” “American Idol,” “How I met Your Mother,” “Revenge,” and many others.

Some of these podcasts are network-sponsored shows that exist solely to promote a specific show, while others are little more than the video equivalent of fan magazines, with a mission to extol how awesome each episode is.

The better podcasts are the ones that deepen your understanding of a particular show or of television in general.  Many of them feature the most intelligent and articulate TV critics, who are both independent and knowledgeable; podcasting gives them another outlet to elaborate on their reviews and defend them if necessary.  Five that I would recommend are:

1.     Hollywood Prospectus: The best podcasts make you feel as if you’re part of a smart, fun conversation, the kind you’d have at a party where everyone is just a little bit more interesting than you are.  Grantland has a number of good TV-oriented podcasts, including The Right Reasons, which focuses on reality TV, but my favorite is Hollywood Prospectus, featuring Chris Ryan and Andy Greenwald, who demonstrate the casual rapport of two dudes who grew up in the same hometown (Philadelphia) and went to college together (Brown).  They are super into “Mad Men,” “Breaking Bad,” “Game of Thrones,” and “Homeland,” so this is the place to go when those shows are airing.

2.     Pop Culture Happy Hour: This is another fizzy, jokey, very smart show featuring a bevy of idiosyncratic NPR writers and editors.  Television is not the sole focus of the show, but it does cover all the major TV developments. There are also interesting themed discussions, including the best Thanksgiving TV episodes, the role of moms on TV, and the ethics of spoilers. This is where I first heard about “Dr. Who” and learned to appreciate the TV accomplishments of Joss Whedon.

3.     Talking TV with Ryan and Ryan: The hosts are Maureen Ryan, The Huffington Post’s TV critic, and HitFix’s Ryan McGee.  They really know their TV, but are less jokey and a little more formal with each other than I generally prefer.  Mo does most of the talking and is an enthusiast for the kind of quality TV that evokes real feelings and passion.  Listening to these two, you sometimes have to wonder how anyone could watch this much TV – but then you remember that it’s their JOB to watch TV.

4.     The Nerdist Writer’s Panel:  This is a deep drive into the nuts and bolts of writing, with a heavy emphasis on TV screenwriting.  All the major showrunners drop in eventually to explain how they got into TV writing and what they were trying to accomplish on their shows.  It really is nerdy, but if you are into the mechanics of TV production, this podcast is for you.

5.     The Slate Culture Gabfest:  This podcast manages to be both highly intellectual and down-to-earth.  Again, the podcast covers a wide variety of cultural trends, with a heavy dose of television commentary.  I was surprised, for example, by how much the women on this podcast like “Sandal,” but I wasn’t surprised by the degree to which they all hated Miley Cyrus’ performance at the VMAs.  (The title of that particular podcast, which also discussed roller coasters, was the “Flirting with Vomit” edition.)

In the end, podcasts are good for television because they take the medium seriously, perhaps more seriously than newspaper and magazine culture sections do.  The only problem is trying to find time to listen to them — because time that can be spent listening to podcasts is also time that could be spent watching TV itself.