Saturday, December 27, 2008

Little conundrummer boy

This year I banned Christmas music from the household. However, I have ventured outside these past few weeks and into stores, where the only song that ever seemed to be playing was "Little Drummer Boy." It was never the same version twice--at least I don't think so--and I see on Wikipedia that there are over 200 recorded versions of this exceedingly virulent earworm.

So here's what I've been wondering:

Does the playing of "Little Drummer Boy" in stores over and over and over subtly undermine the capitalist enterprise? The song, as you will recall, is about a "poor boy" who visits the baby Jesus, but has "no gifts to bring"--at least none "fit to give a king." In desperation (?) he plays a little number on his drum and the baby Jesus smiles at him. So this could suggest that material gifts are not necessary, and never were necessary, at Christmas. The wise men weren't so wise to haul that gold and frankincense and myrrh across the sands after all. The boy gives of himself by sharing his special (and perhaps only) talent, which is all Jesus really asks.

On the other hand, perhaps the drummer boy only gets a pass because, as he explains to the linguistically adept newborn, he is a "poor boy too." If he weren't poor, he would have been expected to cough up something nice in a gold or a myrrh. Each according to his means, in other words, which could be a nod to either communism or pre-easy-credit capitalism. But if he hadn't pleaded poverty, would Jesus have been pissed at getting a drum solo when he expected something he could melt down and sell later on?

So what's the message of this song, and how is the message affected by hearing it on a Muzak program amid the glare of fluorescent lights and the whir of hysterical consumption? As we shop along to its insidious thrum, do we think, wow, I'm glad I'm not so poor as to be reduced to playing a drum. I can offer the finest gifts--or I ought to, anyway. Maybe I haven't spent enough on Aunt Martha. OR--what the hell am I doing here? All this junk I'm buying just reifies, and further complicates, the family psychodrama that blows into town like a storm system every year. By god, we need to simplify our lives! I'm putting this chafing dish back! Aunt Martha will understand, if I just explain it in exactly the right words...

Certainly if the song is meant to be subversive, it isn't working. Merchants see it as no threat. Or perhaps the constant repetition is what robs it of its power.

1 comment:

Elizabeth Wahl said...

I think it's the relentless "pum pumity pum" that's supposed to lull you into a state of mindless consumption. I always feel as if that particular song is trying to hypnotize me.

By the way, this year, my son Alejandro and I had a contest on who had to listen to the worst Christmas music while shopping. The Jackson 5 singing "Frosty the Snowman" won hands down.