‘Tis the Season: John Waters, Spotify and More

Listen to “An OffBeat Christmas 2011″ playlist on Spotify

In 2004, filmmaker/artist/writer John Waters extended his exploration of taste to Christmas music when he released A John Waters Christmas. Unfortunately, the tape of my interview with Waters when the album came out was a Katrina casualty, though a few quotes survive in a story I wrote at the time. Christmas songs, he said, “have to be joyous, even if for all the wrong reasons. They have to be amazing.” The album ranges from obscure R&B to a theremin-led instrumental to “Little Mary Christmas,” the melodramatic tale of an orphan who’s repeatedly passed over for adoption until one Christmas Eve.

Waters will be in Baton Rouge Friday, December 9 at the Manship Theatre to deliver a talk titled “A John Waters Christmas”—a dissection of the holiday through his darkly humored point of view. Tickets are on sale now.

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Yesterday, Irvin Mayfield was in the office, and I asked him if he had recorded any Christmas music. He has plans, but he hasn’t cut any yet. “Christmas music is hard,” he said, and that’s part of how I’ve thought about Christmas music—as a musician’s test. The Christmas canon is one that people have known all their lives, so musicians have to think about how to give their versions musical reasons to exist. They have to consider how their versions connect to the season, which means thinking about an occasion that is spiritual and profanely commercial, joyous and rife with anxieties, and emotionally uplifting and devastating at the same time. What in that does an artist focus on? How does he or she deal with listeners’ taste issues? Today, Justin Bieber’s Mistletoe is an easy punchline just as the New Kids on the Block’s Christmas album once was, but time has made “Funky Funky Christmas” goofy, perhaps nostalgic fun.

Judith Owen (who along with husband Harry Shearer will lead their annual Christmas Sing-A-Long at the CAC December 18) focuses on the social nature of Christmas music. It’s music made to be shared, preferably by singing it together. I’ve assembled a Spotify playlist to share Christmas music from my point of view, which touches on all the thoughts above. Songs embrace the season while others kick it in the junk. Some tracks shamelessly exploit the season (“This is an entire genre of almost exploitation,” John Waters says. “They’re exploiting the time of year. It’s only a short time you can really sell this album.”) while others touch into something sublime. And thankfully, Christmas music still surprises me. I never expected to find a Bruce Haack Christmas song.

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Finally, the great Voodoo Funk blog has posted downloadable mp3s of the A and B side of a Ghanaian funk Christmas song by Pee Pee Dynamite. The country of origin isn’t obvious on either side, but both sides are great funk Christmas tracks.

Listen to “An OffBeat Christmas 2011″ playlist on Spotify