No sooner were the turkey leftovers stored in the fridge than the sound of sleigh bells and other things that should not be on the radio were, in fact, on the radio. Some stations didn’t even wait for us to carve the bird: New York City’s staple of waiting rooms, Lite-FM (a/k/a WLTW), made the switch to holiday music on November 18, according to the holiday-format-flip watchdog site 100000watts.com—a relatively early shift, though not the earliest in the nation. (The first station to make the shift was Cape May’s Easy 93.1, which went jingle-all-the-way back on October 17.)
So prevalent is Audio Christmas Creep that one enterprising Facebook user has launched The Little Drummer Boy Challenge, a sort of variation on Frogger, in which you’re the titular amphibian, and the cars and trucks whizzing by you are holiday-themed songs—well, one in particular, anyway. The rules for the contest, which officially began as the clock struck midnight early Friday morning: “It’s very easy: So long as you don’t hear ‘The Little Drummer Boy,’ you’re a contender. As soon as you hear it on the radio, on TV, in a store, wherever, you’re out. And you record your loss on the wall, along with the time and place of your demise.” That the contest chose “Drummer Boy” as its foil is a sort of protest not just against the enforced celebration of holidays, but also the idea of religiosity creeping into the public sphere as well. Because it isn’t about Santa or a particularly romantic snowstorm but about visiting the just-born Jesus in his manger, it’s one of the less-secular tunes to dominate radio stations during the year’s waning months. Also, even among Christmas tunes, this one might be the most cloying. (Except for Bowie and Bing, of course.)
Complicating the efforts to elude the song this year is the recent release of Justin Bieber’s “Drummer Boy,” a 2011 variation on the track in which the teen idol (and not-all-that-bad skinsman) adds dashes of braggadocio and charity-encouraging rapping to the normal slate of “rum pa pum pum”s while slightly downplaying the original track’s farm milieu. Busta Rhymes is also there, laying down a verse about getting a Twitter message. (One of Bieber’s more philanthropic rhymes: “It’s crazy how some people say, say they don’t care/When there’s people on the street with no food, it’s not fair/It’s about time for you to act merrily/It’s about time for you to give to charity.”)
The “Drummer” flip comes from Bieber’s holiday-themed album Under the Mistletoe (Island), which is only his second studio full-length and which also contains his versions of staples like Mariah Carey’s recently minted Yuletide classic “All I Want for Christmas Is You” and “Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire.” The one thing protecting Drummer Boy Challenge participants from hearing Bieber’s “Drummer Boy”? The album’s lead single, “Mistletoe,” in which the now-17-year-old Bieber shows off his slightly deeper voice over a beat that sounds heavily inspired by Jason Mraz’s island-inspired love song “I’m Yours.” It’s easy to see why Bieber chose to emulate the lazy-day rhythms of that track over, say, the jingle-jangle pep of “Sleigh Bells.” Mraz’s song spent 76 weeks on the Hot 100 spanning 2008 and 2009, and it’s still a staple on the same adult-contemporary stations that give their Novembers and Decembers over to holiday-themed programming. A spin or two an hour of “Mistletoe” could remind those dial-flipping listeners that despite the copious references to snow and merriment, they’ve landed in the right spot.
Bieber is hardly the only popular musician to cash in this holiday season. Indeed, the 2011 holiday rush seems particularly crowded, which the more cynical could see as a last race for the exits before the very last gasp of the CD and the more generous could view as a rallying cry for unity in troubled times. (I come down somewhere in the middle. After all, bringing the masses together usually does result in some money being spent somewhere.) Some of this year’s seasonally festive releases are by people who could be grouped under the heading of The Usual Holiday Suspects: The Charming Standards-Bearer. Michael Bublé’s Christmas (Reprise) has a swaggering version of “Blue Christmas” and a cameo from Shania Twain on its laid-back “White Christmas” cover, while the increasingly overexposed Zooey Deschanel has returned in spirit to her sing-songy Elf role with A Very She & Him Christmas (Merge), a collection of standards performed with her partner in twee, M. Ward, and soaked in retro pastiche from the tastefully yellowed album cover on down. (Neither record has a “Drummer Boy” cover, making them safe listening for challenge participants.)
Then there are the unexpected entrants. The Scott Weiland holiday record, The Most Wonderful Time of the Year (Rhino), has the Stone Temple Pilots frontman lending his tempered snarl to “What Child Is This?” and other seasonal standards. It’s worth listening to once, if only to further appreciate the best moments of his former band. The idea that John Zorn, the downtown icon behind Radical Jewish Culture, would craft a Christmas record of his own should almost seem as absurd as Weiland’s entrance into the game. But A Dreamers Christmas (Tzadik) is a lovely collection of standards, as well as two Zorn originals, that harnesses the immense talents of its players like guitarist Marc Ribot—that the record also has the vocally adept Mike Patton taking lead on a laid-back version of “The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire)” is as much a bonus as the fact that it, too, is Drummer Boy Challenge safe.