Some songs are begging to be Yule-raped. They put sleigh bells in, reference snow and presents, allow themselves to be judged 35/1 for the Xmas Number One spot, just behind whoever was knocked out of the X Factor finals in September. These are the songs, under the disguise of ‘tradition’, that throw themselves at the seasonal market in crotchless elf pants, desperate to be picked up by some sleazy, schmaltzy TV advert – y’know, those ones for which high street conglomerate chains genetically engineer children with unnaturally wide eyes so they can reflect more fairy lights – and financially abused to within an inch of its limited annual shelf-life. Sufjan usually does one. And The Killers.
Then there is music that exists in a higher realm than Christmas, that should never be dragged into its sordid commercialist sewer. The new MBV album, for example. Death Grips, probably. The Smiths, you might think. But there are TV Xmas ad companies that are trying to reach beyond the tired Chrimbo song lexicon, think outside the (selection) box. And they want to ruin otherwise immaculate songs by burying everything that made them great under an avalanche of tinsel, snow and hordes of kiddies gnawing each other’s legs off in a scramble for the last iPad mini.
We’re looking at you, John Lewis. Back in 2008 the middle-class pot-pushers hit on the idea that the true spirit of Christmas actually sounded like classic rock’n’roll tunes played slowly on a piano and whispered by a croaky/kooky female singer. First they did it to The Beatles’ ‘From Me To You’, the following year they did the same to Guns’n’Roses’ ‘Sweet Child O’ Mine’, utterly destroying both songs, unless you’re a big Fiona Apple fan. Come 2010 we were half expecting them to tinkle-up ‘Killing In The Name’ to cash in on its Number One Xmas hit the previous year, but instead they got Ellie Goulding to do an even twinklier version of Elton’s ‘Your Song’ – a tune hardly unfamiliar with the mouldy scent of soppy kitsch, but now made so soggy and wet it dissolved like a sheet of shit-soaked Andrex.
Come 2011, however, a line was crossed. By some Machiavellian pact they secured permission to numb-down The Smiths’ ‘Please, Please, Please Let Me Get What I Want’, taking a song of intense, yearning torment and desperation and turning it into a wonky Jazz Café whimper about some kid giving his parents a toaster. As festive travesties go, we’d rather have seen a ground-based mortar attack on the Coca-Cola Christmas truck.
And this year, uproar. Frankie Goes To Hollywood’s ‘The Power Of Love’ is the closest John Lewis have come in recent years to an actual Christmas song – it was originally a Number One just before Xmas in 1984 and had a Nativity-themed video. But it’s held in high enough regard that the soporific rendering by Gabrielle Aplin – a version that soundtracks the ad’s story of a snowman trekking across perilous terrain to buy his snowgirlfriend a hat, scarf and gloves that will MELT HER TO DEATH, YOU THOUGHTLESS BASTARD – has met with riotous indignation online, and rightfully so.
It’s not so much the Christmas link that’s so galling – we’re not hating on Christmas here, we’re banking on a Frankie Boyle DVD – it’s the sucking out of all passion, depth and meaning from the classics and the forcing in of the cheap paper hat of vapidity and manipulative, heart-tugging schmaltz. There’s no difference between John Lewis stripping down The Smiths or Frankie and X Factor lobbing bombastic string swells at ‘Hallelujah’ or Biffy Clyro. It’s the shameless homogenization of music that doesn’t want or need it, a dragging of culture down to the dreariest, mushiest, most mawkish and sentimental common denominator. It’s like all of us raiding every branch of John Lewis at once and spraying every item of kitchenware and lounge furniture grey because ‘it’s Christmas!’ You’re not being ‘edgy’, ‘credible’ or – heaven forbid – ‘cool’, John Lewis, you are killing music one gift-wrapped spatula at a time.