Jingling bells hanging from hats and dog collars collided with the airy chanting of the Hare Krishnas. Even though I was walking down the crowded New York City street, their steady voices conjured up private childhood memories of bedside murmurs. They sounded like the kind of whispers that would urge me to sleep when I was too excited for the day ahead.
Remembering this moment was quite fitting, since, after all, it was Christmas Eve. But in 2015, I did not hear those whispers from my parents nor did gifts greet me the following day. Instead I spent the night listening to similarly jaded adults singing about their slow, dragging holiday experiences — which, weirdly enough, became a genre in and of itself in the last few days of 2015.
On Christmas Eve, Miley Cyrus and LCD Soundsystem each released holiday tunes that were utterly devoid of traditional holiday spirit, replaced instead with the loneliness of time passing both quietly and uneventfully. These whiny anthems of 2015 might come to serve as the go-to tunes for adults too busy or too alone to celebrate the holiday the way Hallmark intended. As for me, they’re the tunes I need to validate my Grinch ways.
Miley Cyrus croons in her self-aware sad Christmas song — aptly titled “My Sad Christmas Song” — that “this year feels kind of lame / but the last one was the same.” While the lyrics to LCD Soundsystem’s new “Christmas Will Break Your Heart” had been mulling around in lead singer James Murphy’s head for 8 years— which means that each winter for nearly a decade, Murphy thought of Christmas as a battle, not a holiday. The two songs subvert the warmth of the holidays, describing trudging along in time spent apart from loved ones. Miley binge watches television while LCD Soundsystem speaks of laying in bed and “get[ting] depressed when no one checks.”
The absence of meaning becomes clearer in juxtaposition to what one expects to happen. Traditional holiday elements are present in the two songs — Miley puts up a tree and Murphy sings of snow. But these are empty gestures. No one sees Miley’s tree, the mistletoe does not bring her lover back, and laying in the winter snow is a gesture born of desperation, not mirth. Musically, despite the underlying jingle bells, their dejected voices could never be confused with cheery carolers.
They sing of being alone but they also mostly sing alone. The famous duets of the holidays like “Baby It’s Cold Outside” and the converging voices of caroling songs are absent. Christmas songs — which often bring people together during the holidays over pianos for eggnog-fueled renditions of the classics — are here used to lament their loneliness.
Voices coming together in music seems to mirror what the holidays are supposed to be about — family, friends, and the home. LCD Soundsystem might have some back-up vocalists, but they sound distant. Miley might be in her home, but it’s just her and her bong. They hope to be with others, but people have failed them. Miley laments, “why did you have to go?” while Murphy, exasperated, implores, “Can you see me? / Can you still see me?” Going through the holiday motions has not brought back people or made their time merry.
And perhaps this is a natural consequence of moving past childhood. Murphy believes that Christmas will do a variety of things to you: crush your soul, wreck your head, break your heart, shove you down, and drown your love. As evidenced by these tracks, the passing of time is on their minds: Murphy sings “your body’s getting old” and Miley’s spirit lives in the future when she plans to be with her man again. But the awareness of moments to come and the ticking of moments passed is a self-conscious act of time-keeping, which is perhaps why adults whine during the holidays, where “The Holidays” stands for the nebulous, incredibly long period of time marked by winter and Hallmark.
The magic of “The Holidays” lies in the suspension of time that allows children to float effortlessly from the day they shop for trees to the moment when they discover scattered pine needles buried in the couch just before Easter. For children, the holiday spirit transcends the Gregorian calendar dates and work breaks, manifesting itself in the people they get to see and the gifts they play with. Christmas lasts as long as interest in newly-received toys.
With age, the holiday spirit becomes regulated, confined to be celebrated during a few days and only within a few venues. The mall is now a place to buy gifts for an ever-expanding list of people, not a place to meet Santa. The home similarly loses its magic as the tasks of cleaning and decorating fall to you. And amidst all of this flurry of movement, you only have finite days off. Time is always ticking, measured (comically?) in bong rips for Miley.
Perhaps that’s why there is a discontent with the season, and the songs that have come to define its ever-expansive boundaries. For me, the holidays are the period of time when Mariah Carey is relevant and still heard over loud speakers as I look for Nutella at my CVS. But that period of time isn’t just when I have winter break or when I’m able to celebrate, but perversely lasts almost the entirety of fall quarter and beyond. Miley and LCD Soundsystem may be marking a new type of anthem with these whiny tunes — challenging the way Christmas songs should be sung, speaking instead to a monotonous reality of the season and thereby redefining the holidays themselves.
Dismantling the mythologies of Christmas might allow time to be better spent — or allow how it’s now being spent to be valued more. After all, binge watching television and lighting another bong are often escapist practices during finals weeks, right? These activities are only made to be sad in juxtaposition to the holiday story and the expectation of being with loved ones.
And even when these expectations aren’t necessarily met, the real-life Miley didn’t seem down during the holidays. “My Sad Christmas Song” becomes more upbeat in the second verse. There, she perverts the innocence of the Santa story, calling him cute and acknowledging the pained, grown up truth that Santa — in all likelihood — “might appreciate a few beers,” too. Miley sings that this is her sad Christmas song, but perhaps that’s intentionally egregious; perhaps she’s actually reveling in being whiny and complaining on Christmas. After all, her Instagram showed some fun gifts.
So why create a whiny anthem? It was stuck in her head and now it’s stuck in ours too. Holiday songs have a habit of doing that as we often bring back songs from the mall, however frustrating that may be. Hell, Murphy’s sad song was stuck in his head for eight years.
Maybe these new whiny Christmas songs are counter-anthems, recipes to drown out the pressure of cheery holiday tunes that blast everywhere we turn on days when we have work, when we’re too stressed to relax, or when we’re feeling lonely. Singing along to the classics is miserable when I’m a coffee-fueled mess, but singing along with Miley lighting another bong makes me seem alright in comparison. And maybe that’s what the holidays need — songs that aren’t about being perfect, but being just…alright.