[14 December 2004]
Multi-colored lights festooned across balconies, softly falling snow, and a concert by the Trans-Siberian Orchestra. All offer clear signs that the holidays are upon us.
As I walked into the cavernous concert hall where Paul O’Neill’s merry band of yuletide yowlers were set to play, it was easy to get caught up in the Christmas spirit. Warm strains of Christmas music were piped in over the loudspeakers. Parents accompanied their children through the turnstiles as security guards smiled, showing them the way. A longhaired, leather-jacketed rocker stepped aside to let an elderly couple pass. Couples walked arm-in-arm, laughing, to their seats.
Like a child listening for the sound of sleigh bells and footsteps on the roof, the venue was alive with joyful anticipation. After all the TSO, like a certain jolly fat man, comes but once a year. What gifts we were to receive!
But this audience must have been on the naughty list. TSO delivered a lump of coal. The whole production seemed like a Christmas pageant organized in 1978 by two 14-year-old boys with money to burn. It’s easy to imagine their thought process:
“Hey, why don’t we get a metal band to do Christmas songs?”
“Cool, and let’s add a storyline about an angel who saves the spirit of Christmas. That’d be wild.”
“And get someone who sounds like Darth Vader to narrate it!”
“Yeah, and a sexy, red-headed singer—in a short skirt!”
Undoubtedly there were some in the audience who enjoyed the show, but looking around at the faces in the crowd, the predominant mood seemed one of obligation. Like spending time with family members you don’t really like or attending holiday mass, many in the crowd were there out of a sense of duty. It was hard to see any smiles or hear anything other than the sounds of polite respect coming from the audience. Even in the front rows everyone remained firmly planted in their seats.
The band, featuring a standard twin-guitar, heavy metal line-up augmented with a string section, powered through bombastic versions of Christmas favorites, interspersing their own original contributions—songs that are unlikely to become part of any self-respecting caroller’s repertoire.
The songs and performances were often heavy-handed and overwrought. It crossed my mind that perhaps the whole thing was supposed to be satire. It’s hard to think of a pre-1990 pop music cliché that TSO didn’t shamelessly exploit. Acoustic power ballads, vocal histrionics that Xtina would call tasteless, foot-on-the monitor over-emoting, and solo guitar wanking all were delivered with the bland sweetness of un-spiked eggnog.
It’s true, many left feeling entertained, but few left feeling moved. Ultimately the whole thing seemed sad, because no time is better than the holidays, when the days are cold and the nights are long, for believing in the possibilities of redemption, giving, and humanity.
That sense of possibility is what Christmas is about. It’s not about writing mock-Meatloaf songs and dropping two tons of fake snow on people who each paid thirty bucks to see you. The Trans-Siberian Orchestra are like gift givers who woo you with flashy wrapping paper, but because they’re too lazy to find out what you really want. All that you find inside is a used leotard from David Lee Roth’s closet.
If you like lasers, strobe lights, and emotional force-feeding, then check out the TSO. If that’s not your bag then I’d suggest renting A Charlie Brown Christmas. It doesn’t have any guitar solos or explosions. But it does have heart.