Click the link above to hear Ann Powers and Frannie Kelley talk to Morning Edition host Steve Inskeep about the business and variety of Christmas music this year.
"START A TRADITION!" scream the ads for various holiday goods at the local big box emporium — "Elf on the Shelf," McCormick's prepackaged gingerbread houses, the latest calorie-packed Starbucks cup of cheer. The overwhelmed shopper, stepping out the doors of any establishment from which Justin Bieber's mistletoe carol booms, might wonder: are these meaningful practices, or just acts of relatively careless consumerism?
I'm not here to tell you to go out and buy a stuffed Santa surveillance kit. But only the most stringent anti-shopping crusaders believe that the winter holidays should take place wholly outside the realm of the coin. Most American family customs are of the semi-homemade variety — gathering with loved ones to watch A Charlie Brown Christmas or even to decorate a tree according to widely shared rituals that involve personalizing what's been marketed to us. I'd argue that this commercial side of the holidays has a positive effect, allowing people of different faiths to unite in a much-needed moment of shared comfort and joy.
Music is one thing that's taken us to that place of harmony in difference, time and time again. Jody Rosen's book White Christmas: The Story of An American Song explains how Irving Berlin and other Jewish songwriters helped make the season sharable for everyone in our First Amendment-grounded nation. In the nearly 70 years since Bing Crosby immortalized Berlin's ditty, holiday music has diversified so much that now you can ring in your festivities to reggae, rockabilly, avant-jazz, metal, Chipmunks or chip-tunes. People bent on starting a tradition have plenty of help with the soundtrack.
Now that pop is an Internet-borne virus, its role in making semi-homemade traditions continues to grow. Take the story of The Maccabeats' "Candlelight": a 2010 phenomenon that took the Yeshiva University a capella choir international and took the eight days of the Jewish winter holiday to a new level of cool.
That's what the song did for my interfaith family, anyway. We've never lacked for Christmas tunes, but our Hannukah jams have always been on the weak side. (All due respect to Adam Sandler for at least trying, but you can't dance to his rhymes.)
That all changed one day last November when a now-forgotten Facebook friend posted the video for "Candelight," the Maccabeats' reworking of Taio Cruz's hit "Dynamite," on her wall. My first grader, who was going through a heavy Bob Fosse phase, quickly became obsessed with the clip and worked out her own choreography to it. She debuted it at our giant Thanksgiving potluck. A week later, a friend who's active in our local temple brought a boombox to Hebrew school and played the song as a treat at the end. The kids went wild.
Soon enough, you couldn't go to a holiday party in our small college town without hearing "Candlelight." Jews and goyim alike joined in the chorus: "Ey-yo, spin the dreidel!" Hanukkah's aura was refreshed. Temple gatherings gained a few extra moments of fun, and non-Jews became more curious about the holiday. Everybody wanted to try throwing a latke in the air.
For the Maccabeats, recording "Candlelight" was a great career move. For my family (and, I suspect, many others) the song has already become indispensable: a pop product transformed by our engagement with it into a gift we share. In a couple of weeks, the Maccabeats are coming to play a concert nearby. I plan to bring my daughter. We'll shout for "Candlelight," and we'll sing along.
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
We are now well into the Christmas music season. Yesterday on this program, we heard how more and more radio stations have taken to playing all Christmas music, all the time, during the holiday season, and doing it longer. This morning, we'll dig more deeply into the business of producing the music that so many Americans come to know by heart; sometimes in newer versions, sometimes in old.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHITE CHRISTMAS")
BING CROSBY: (Singing) I'm dreaming of a white Christmas...
INSKEEP: Bing Crosby's hit is the best-selling single of all time. And plenty of other artists look for holiday sales, as we're going to hear from NPR music producer Frannie Kelley, who's in our studios.
Welcome to the program.
FRANNIE KELLEY, BYLINE: Thank you very much.
INSKEEP: And NPR music critic Ann Powers. Hello to you, Ann.
ANN POWERS, BYLINE: Happy holidays.
INSKEEP: Thank you very much. There's an incredible variety of people who put out Christmas albums, isn't there?
POWERS: Oh, yes. This year we have two big Christmas releases. One is from Canadian crooner Michael Buble who gives us "Christmas," a kind of a "Mad Men" style revisiting of classic Christmas caroling.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SANTA BABY")
MICHAEL BUBLE: (Singing) Santa baby, slip a Rolex under the tree for me. I've been an awful good guy. Santa buddy, and hurry up, down the chimney tonight.
INSKEEP: I'm sorry, Santa buddy? I don't know. I don't know.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
POWERS: I love it. Are you kidding? It's so Don Draper.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
INSKEEP: Oh, gosh. Now I'm trying to remember who did the - who is the woman who does the very sexy "Santa Baby"?
KELLEY: Eartha Kitt.
POWERS: Eartha Kitt.
INSKEEP: Oh, but that's the thing. People update these traditional songs, but Michael Buble, anyway, is in this vein of that Bing Crosby kind of singer. There are other kinds of songs out there, as well, right?
POWERS: Well, we hear from a very popular young man, Justin Bieber, who has a new album called "Under the Mistletoe." And this cut, I think it's going to blow your mind. It's called "Drummer Boy."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DRUMMER BOY")
JUSTIN BIEBER: (Singing) I am a poor boy too, pah-rum-pah pom-pom.
BUSTA RHYMES: (Rapping) Gather around the mistletoe real quick.
BIEBER: (Singing) I have no gifts to bring pah- rum, pa, pum, pum.
RHYMES: A matter of a fact, let's gather around the fireplace. It's about to get hot in here.
INSKEEP: Oh, my goodness. And I guess we should clarify for people who may be searching for it online. It's not "Drummer Boy." It's "Drumma Boy," with an A on the end of the word.
POWERS: Yes, and that's the rapper Busta Rhymes joining him for a little holiday throw-down.
INSKEEP: OK, Frannie Kelley, who's been listening in, what are the economics here? What motivates so many people to spend that time to do that Christmas album?
KELLEY: Well, what's crazy about this is, that's a totally new arrangement of "Drummer Boy." But in most cases, if you rearrange a song with enough creative originality, then you're going to get a cut of the publishing on that song. So in this case, Justin Bieber, and probably Busta Rhymes, are going to get money from the actual song. So if anybody, God forbid, you know, wants the rerecord their own version of "Drumma Boy," they'd continue to make money.
They'll also make money off the sales of the single, when it gets played on the radio, when they buy the album. So you just continue to sell.
INSKEEP: So we're talking here about remaking the classics. But of course, people also throw original songs into the mix.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FELIZ NAVIDAD")
JOSE FELICIANO: (Singing) Feliz Navidad. Feliz Navidad...
INSKEEP: Jose Feliciano with a song from a couple of decades ago that has ended up sticking around.
POWERS: Absolutely, I'd call it a standard now. And similarly, Run-D.M.C. created a Christmas standard in hip-hop form with "Christmastime in Hollis Queens."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CHRISTMAS IN HOLLIS QUEENS")
RUN-D.M.C.: (Rapping) ...yo reindeer. But then I was illin' 'cause the man had a beard and a bag full of goodies, 12 o'clock had neared. So I turned my head a second and the man was gone. But he must have dropped his wallet smack down on the lawn. I picked the wallet up and then I took a pause. Took out the license and it cold said, Santa Claus. A million dollars...
KELLEY: If you write a Christmas song and it becomes sort of a pop hit, you make what any pop hit would make in any sort of four- to six- month period, which can be from $80,000 to $400,000. And then, once you have a hit, if it continues to stick around - if it does become a new standard - your money starts growing exponentially.
POWERS: And there are certain artists who have made Christmas sort of a cottage industry. I think the greatest example of that in contemporary times is Mariah Carey. She has recorded some classic new Christmas songs, and is doing another one this year with John Legend. She is a Christmas artist almost as much as she is a pop artist these days.
INSKEEP: Let's hear one of her songs. It's practically become a standard.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ALL I WANT FOR CHRISTMAS")
MARIAH CAREY: (Singing) I just want you for my own. More than you could ever know. Make my wish come true. All I want for Christmas is you.
INSKEEP: I want to talk about a couple of the effects of having such a great variety of Christmas music here. And one of them is that everybody can get their own little niche kind of music served, even people who aren't necessarily celebrating Christmas.
POWERS: Absolutely. Well, my family is an interfaith family, Steve, and we celebrate Christmas and Hanukkah. And last year, we finally got the Hanukkah song we really deserved. The Maccabeats, who are an a cappella choir out of Yeshiva University, remade the hit song by Taio Cruz called "Dynamite," as "Candlelight."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CANDLELIGHT")
THE MACCABEATS: (Singing) I flip my latkes in the air sometimes, saying ay oh, spin the dreidel...
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
KELLEY: The best thing that's ever happened.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CANDLELIGHT")
THE MACCABEATS: (Singing) ...singing ay, oh, light the candle. We say...
INSKEEP: So has the Christmas music industry become atomized the way that the rest of the pop music industry has, Frannie?
KELLEY: I think the way it's working is, it's mimicking the pop industry. I mean, so now we have the Maccabeats giving that song away for free. And what they're getting out of it is a tour, where they're going to make more money and support to, you know, to make some more songs. What happens during Christmas is the radio starts playing less pop, more Christmas music. And so these artists that have fallen off the radio get to get back on by playing songs that put them right in the homes and on the computers of their fans.
POWERS: It's also a way that we can listen to music that wasn't made this year. It takes us back in time a little bit. Holiday traditions are about connecting with family history, with the history of the holidays, and also with the musical past that perhaps we all tend to overlook during the rest of the year.
INSKEEP: OK. NPR music critic Ann Powers, thanks very much.
POWERS: Thank you so much.
INSKEEP: And Frannie Kelley of NPRMusic, thanks to you.
KELLEY: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.