The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

December 14, 2012

Jeremiah Tucker: 'Grease' video proof that artists don't care about Christmas

By Jeremiah Tucker
Globe Columnist

JOPLIN, Mo. — It's easy to bemoan the commercialization of Christmas.

Even if the holiday doesn't have any particular religious resonance for you, the entire annual production can seem crass, from the overwhelming advertising to the constant holiday sales stories on the news.

Are we buying more crap than last year? Less? What do the numbers portend for us as a people? Is salvation at hand? Can we see that bar graph again showing the correlation between the amount of Christmas paper in our nation's landfills and the vigor of America?

However, not much about the holiday is more crudely mercantile than its music.

We all understand pop music's primary purpose is to entertain and is by definition commercial, but it's generally one instance where the free market works in our favor, forcing -- in theory -- innovation, or at least more aggressive, louder production values.

Christmas music, however, is what stars turn to when they think their Gulfstream IV is starting to look a little shabby. The genre is specifically resistant to taking any risks, because its brick and mortar is sentiment and nostalgia.

Ninety percent of any new Christmas album is going to be covers -- many of them in the public domain -- and 99.9 percent of which are unnecessary. Really, at this point, who is going to improve Otis Redding's version of "White Christmas"?

I was looking at my dad's Christmas playlist on Spotify recently, and it begins with about 30 versions of "Little Drummer Boy." While I'm assuming he listens to the 700-plus songs in shuffle mode, that's pretty much how I think of Christmas music -- just 1,000 versions of "Little Drummer Boy."

Even worse are the Christmas-format radio stations that try to get around playing different iterations of the same handful of songs by shoehorning in tangentially related material, such as Dan Fogelberg's wretched "Same Old Lang Syne."

The song tells the story of a middle-aged man's depressing erection in a parking lot after bumping into an old girlfriend. Honestly, I suspect if you called the radio station and requested "the Christmas song about the sad old boner," the DJ would know what you're talking about.

I understand the story that suicide increases around Christmastime is a myth, but I still think any business that plays Christmas music in common areas for more than two days is playing with fire.

After working at The Gap as a teenager and hearing Paul McCartney's "Wonderful Christmastime" multiple times a day for weeks, I can no longer hear its synths and sleigh bells without going to a very dark place full of the retailer's signature 1969 denim.

All of this is to say that if you're feeling emotionally vulnerable this holiday season, please stay away from the new album "This Christmas" by John Travolta and Olivia Newton John.

The stars of "Grease" have made what is possibly the most unintentionally depressing holiday music of all time. Last week the extremely low-budget video for the album's lead single "I Think You Might Like It" became a viral sensation on the Internet.

Online, people ridiculed the video because:

¥ Travolta's hair looks as if it were drawn on his obviously bald head with a black Sharpie.

¥ His attempts at machismo implied overcompensation for the spate of recent stories about his closeted homosexuality.

¥ Of the utter lack of chemistry between the two stars, including the sad way they moved like zombies through their simple line-dancing steps.

¥ Olivia Newton John drove 5 miles per hour in the convertible as if the camera guys couldn't figure know how to film a car moving at normal speeds.

¥ Of the awkward interactions between the extras, who seemed to have no idea what they were doing there.

But if you take away that filter of ridicule and try to sincerely enjoy the video, the frank emptiness of the song -- a cheap country novelty tune with a dash of Broadway -- becomes deeply disturbing. Watching the video is like seeing a mask slip to reveal a black void underneath it, much like how when someone tries, and fails, to be cheerful is infinitely more depressing than just showing up to Christmas dinner drunk and belligerent.

All this said, I should note there are many Christmas songs I can enjoy in moderation, and I love vacations and reasons to drink seasonal alcoholic beverages.

So, Merry Christmas!