Excepting a few pop geniuses who have approached the production of Christmas recordings as occasions for bringing their artistry to bear on a challenging subject (think Brian Wilson or Phil Spector), Christmas albums have mainly proven tawdry little commercial affairs, or tasteful little commercial affairs. Which is worse, crassness or seasonal niceness disorder, is up for grabs; either can be just the thing to send you around the bend this December, depending on how much brandy is in the egg nog and whether you or your weepy Uncle Stan has drunk more of it.
As ephemeral as Christmas albums almost always are, there is weirdly a good solid reason for listening to them. And I mean really listening, not just letting them occupy the background at the office get-together you’ve been dreading since last year. Forget that they’re about Christmas in the first place (that is, forget about the only decent reason for giving them a listen) and you’ll hear that each betrays the time in which it was made (like Star Trek telling you more about the sixties than about the distant future).
The reason has to do with intertextuality, re-vision, and that kind of thing. It’s like Paul Davis says in his not-for-Yuletide-only study of Dickens reconfigurations, The Lives and Times of Ebenezer Scrooge: each age re-creates Old Eb in its own image. (In that way he’s just like God, or Hamlet.) So you can start stacking versions of “White Christmas” on your turntable right now and get class credit for listening next spring (at least in my class): the song may remain the same, but it’s the singing and how it changes that’re important. (Cf. the “mythical method” by way of Modernism, Inc., by the way, for the canonized theoretical basis for telling the same story / painting the same picture / singing the same song over ‘n’ over ‘n’ over.)
So what does Paul Brandt, a bland pop-country crooner tell us about the current state of affairs in music? That it’s a good time for bland, pop-country crooning, that’s what. Do I have to tell you that he wears a big black hat? In the future, after the Dixie Chicks have killed off this sort of “country,” we will look back to such Garthlings as Brandt as no better, no worse than what the market allowed. And, listened to in the proper archeological spirit, Shall I Play For You? (nice title: I mean really a nice, safe, bland, so-fussily-expressed-it’s-questionably-grammatical title) will serve to help us reclaim these big black hat times.
One concern here, and it has nothing to do with theorizing. Brandt’s big attempt to lodge a classic in the collective Christmas consciousness is called “A Star is Born.” I understand that the phrase “a child is born” is useful around December 25, and that we often look to the stars on that Holiest of Nights. But I don’t think that Paul Brandt’s personal savior was born so that he could sing a song with a title that makes us think of Mrs. Norman Maine holding up bravely on Oscars night. This is just a guess.