If news came down the line that, say, Taylor Swift, or Tracy Chapman, or Bruce Springsteen, or Eminem were releasing an album of Christmas music this winter, their fans would enjoy little flurries of speculation, and the media would make the announcement with different degrees of curiosity. But poor Bob Dylan’s decision to follow in the tradition of The Partridge Family and Mariah Carey will provoke urgent and contentious palaver about the state of the man’s soul. Is he walking with Jesus again? And if so, how far are they going this time? Is this the very last straw in his cynical mercenary commercialism? What the hell is he up to now?
True enough, Christmas music is a special case. It’s more assimilated than gospel music, and it blurs the lines between spiritual and secular like no other type of music. It’s hypocritical and vacuous: the Christmas carol in the shopping center. It’s sentimental and vacuous: the Christmas carol playing behind the tearful climactic scene of a melodrama. It’s an affected reminder of the power of spirituality and community: picture the same climactic scene in a more pretentious and middlebrow melodrama. It’s an essential and unambiguous pleasure in one of the most sacred days in the Christian calendar.
A good singer has to negotiate their relationship to this music, to its ubiquity, its connotations, and to the peculiar range of cynicism, curiosity or attachment their audience will bring.
Somehow Bob Dylan was able to turn a straight reading of ‘Twas The Night Before Christmas into a stark and severe domestic drama in which Santa Claus appears as a kind of deus ex machina rather than a child’s fantasy. He may bring a little something to O Little Town of Bethlehem that even Elvis missed. So all us merry little elves will just do what we do, and wait in our own little contentious patience for this new release, and palaver and predict purposelessly like I’m doing here, and as Bob says, we can go hang ourselves.