It’s past the midway point of December, and in some areas, the Christmas season has already been going on for almost two months (seriously, I thought it only started after Thanksgiving?). We’ve heard carols in the mall, and even here at Modern Mystery, we’ve passed on the holiday cheer with a little selection of the prime indie odes to Santa, his little helpers and the season’s spirit of giving.
Speaking of which, would we have been able to compile such a varied and long list of indie holiday songs a few years ago, in addition to our daily “Christmas Song of the Day” posts? Seeing unsigned YouTube sensations Pomplamousse appear on the TV commercial for a famous car brand covering “Jingle Bells” or finding that Bishop Allen, Best Coast and Wavves appear on a free Target christmas compilation has made me deeply aware and surprised that indie artists have been filling some of their songs with images of snowflakes and mistletoe much more frequently.
I asked Chris Richards, pop music critic of The Washington Post, about what he thought and he seemed to agree with me. “It’s an increasing trend. It signifies in my eyes that indie rock is becoming standardized,” he said. “Everyone, from pop artists to country artists are putting Christmas albums out. They’re money makers. The industry is finding new revenue streams with indie artists.”
So are indie artists “selling out” by treading the Rockefeller Christmas Tree Lighting’s ground? No, and in fact, it may be a well-appreciated breeze of fresh air. “Mariah Carey’s” ‘All I Want For Christmas Is You” is really the only recent stand out holiday classic, so it’s great that indie artists are injecting in new material. If it’s just Arcade Fire covering “Jingle Bell Rock,” it’s not that interesting.”
In the same spirit, Noel Kelly of The Hush Now, who have now released a Christmas single two years in a row, wrote jokingly in an e-mail interview, “I have all the reverence in the world for the classics, but it’s high time we stepped up and stopped hi-jacking another generation’s memories.”
Jof Owen of The Boy Least Likely To, who just released an entire album of holiday songs – covers and originals – called Christmas Special, sees the appeal of writing Christmas music elsewhere. “I suppose indie pop has always been built on an awareness of classic pop traditions, even if they recontextualize them,” he said. “so it’s only natural that the idea of a Christmas record would appeal.”
Not only is writing Christmas songs a new exercise because of how far it stands from the stereotype of the indie artist, it involves a complex songwriting exercise that consists in making your way through the conventions that surround them. Behind the holiday song’s light facade, “It still has to be a strong song. There’s no room for fat,” Kelly said. “You have to get in fast, establish yourself and get people singing along by the end of the first listen. That’s what the classics do. And that’s not the easiest thing to do sometimes.”
In the end, even if you’re an indie artist, Christmas is a fascinating time that allows for reminiscence and reflection, which translates perfectly into song. “I like writing lyrics about Christmas because it seems to be a really magical time but at the same time there’s a lot of sadness in it too,” Owen said. “I often write about the way things change as you grow up and grow out of things, and it seems to be something that I’m always much more aware of at Christmas.”
What looking into this has made me think was that more than a “normalization” of indie rock, the weird element in this discussion is mostly my own surprise at seeing indie artists coming up with Christmas tunes. After all, it’s not because the genre is commercially popular that there is no room for originality. No musician should restrict themselves from touching on any subject in their music. And it seems The Hush Now are on that same wave length.
“We’re even throwing around the idea of doing a holidays album. A different song for 10 different holidays. That would be such a blast,” Kelly said. “ We have the Christmas and Halloween tunes down. What’s next…Secretaries’ day?”