Shake a Christmas tree and a Christmas carol falls out. You’ve got to work a little harder, but there are also anti-Christmas songs as well. Indie folk artist Erin McKeown announced her feelings about the holiday when she released her most recent album, F*ck That! – an anti-Christmas album. She blows the lid off the whole Santa racket in “Santa Is an A**hole”:
Santa promises the children
What their parents can’t afford
And in this day of age of stagnant wage
Who can buy the hottest toy?
He perpetuates a Capitalist System
He’s an icon of the right
And he only visits Christians?
Why, he’s an anti-Semite!
You really don’t like Christmas?
I’m surprised by how much I don’t like Christmas. I really hated it much more than I thought I did.
When did you discover that you hated Christmas?
It’s been a long, festering wound, I think. As a teenager there was certainly the teenage angst around spending time with family, how everything seems fake when you’re a teenager. But as a more clearheaded adult self, I’m just not into it. What makes it worse is how much other people are into it. There doesn’t seem to be a lot of room to opt out.
Does the way Christmas has been co-opted by Bill O’Reilly and Christian conservatives that play into your hostility?
Not necessarily; it’s purely personal. And again, this feeling of being pretty suffocated. You tell someone you’re doing something different for Christmas and people look at you like there’s something wrong. There isn’t much room for someone to want to do something else. I would imagine it’s how someone who doesn’t care about baseball must feel during the World Series – those moments where culturally 99.9 percent of people are pointed in the same direction, and if it doesn’t resonate with you, that just sucks.
So what do you do?
I’ve gone through the motions for years. Slowly I’ve been able to extricate myself. It’s a long process, a little bit each year. It also depended on whether or not I’m in a relationship. I’m in a relationship right now with someone who feels the same as me, which is fantastic, so I think we’re just going to go away. I think this year I’d love to go to another country where maybe there’s a little bit less Christmas.
How did these songs come about?
I wasn’t aware of the “War on Christmas” before this record. I tend to ignore Bill O’Reilly wholesale. Two friends of mine wrote a play called Santacide – it’s a really sweet, slapstick, whodunit bit of froth about some elves who kill Santa, making fun of Christmas. It’s softly anti-Christmas. They asked me if I would write a few dark Christmas carols to start the evening with. They wanted three or four, and of course I left it until the last minute, so the first couple of weeks of July I’m trying to crank out these anti-Christmas carols and they just flew. I think I wrote all four in less than a week. I couldn’t believe how fun it was and how good it felt. I’m not necessarily a fast writer, so it was a real pleasure to all of a sudden have four songs. I played them for a fundraiser, and people really loved it. A number of people said to me that night, “You should make this into a whole record,” and I thought why not? So I did it really fast. I wrote the other six in the next month or so. I played all the instruments except for a few things. It was really a fast genesis.
What were the four songs from the musical?
“The Christmas Waltz” was the first one. It had nothing to do with the play. It just happened. Maybe I always wanted to write a song that — I enjoy the rub between something that might sound sweet but has darker lyrical content. [The chorus to the waltz starts, “Fuck that! Fuck that!”] I’ve always liked that. It was like a pressure valve popped. “Santa is an Asshole,” which is related to the play, and “It’s a Very Queer Christmas” and “Fa La La.” Three of those four are completely original songs. I think my friends expected me to rewrite lyrics to things, but I found it necessary and more pleasurable to start from scratch.
I imagine “Fuck That” is a wonderful sing-along.
I did it at this fundraiser, and I’ve played it at a couple of shows. It is endlessly pleasurable to me to hear a room full of people singing “Fuck That.”
I’ve only played that for an audience once, and people didn’t know who Rickey Henderson is.
I told my wife about this song, and I had to explain who Rickey Henderson was.
They also didn’t know who Barbara Mandrell is, and I find that more understandable. But that’s also part of the point of the song – there are plenty of other people who get obscured when the birth of Jesus Christ is so celebrated. I actually am worried about Rickey Henderson suing me. It seems like something Rickey Henderson might do, like, “Wait, you’re making 79 cents off of something that has my name on it? I’m gonna sue you.” And then I played it out in my head and decided I would let Rickey Henderson sue me because that would just be awesome.
It would be a great story. “I got sued by Rickey Henderson.”
I love him. I appreciate his focus, and certainly his ego. [At this point, the conversation digressed into a discussion of Henderson, Peter Buck and Scott McCaughey and the Baseball Project, the Boston Red Sox, the Yankees and the Blue Jays before returning to Christmas.] I don’t hate Christmas per se. I more just hate Christmas. I had a wonderful time making this record and delving into the world of Christmas music. I went deep into the Christian rock world. I’m not Christian, but I love it when people talk about things that they’re really passionate about, especially when they sing about it. I love gospel music old and new, and I tend to enjoy Christmas music. I definitely explored the ’50s kitsch Christmas music world.
One aspect of Christmas music that you captured here is that it’s essentially social music. Most of these songs were written to be sung by a group.
I think getting the chorus was the most important thing on the record; getting them to sing. I don’t think the record would be as funny without them. One of the early ones was “Frozen Smiles;” after that, I tried to be careful after that to use things in the public domain. If you google “Christmas songs public domain,” there are a couple of sites that come right up that have long lists of songs. I used them as idea generators.
I have a complicated situation with “Frozen Smiles.” I don’t want to leave it to fair use or parody, so I’m working on getting permission to have a new song with 50/50 split composition.
I’m always looking for a song, a more contemporary song, that will enter the canon. Every year someone does NRBQ’s “Christmas Wish,” which makes me happy. Every year you hear more people doing [Vince Guaraldi’s] “Christmastime Is Here” from A Charlie Brown Christmas . I realized hearing this that these songs aren’t those, but they aren’t so personal to you and your sense of melody/phrasing that you’re the only one who could sing them. These are songs that others could sing.
That’s fantastic. I hadn’t thought of them that way.
Although McKeown hadn’t, she nonetheless made it possible by also selling the F*ck That! Hymnal – lyrics to the songs with the chord changes, perfect for anti-Christmas sing-a-longs. It also includes such anti-Christmas aphorisms as “She who buys no presents, is richer” and “A holiday wish sent, is another dead tree.”
For more information and F*ck That! merchandise and tour dates (none of which are near New Orleans), go to ErinMcKeown.com.