Monday, December 25, 2017

‘Tis the Season to be Melancholy: Sia’s Everyday Christmas

Justin aDams Burton

Critics haven’t really loved Sia’s album of Christmas originals, Everyday is Christmas. For that matter, neither have listeners, as Everyday’s metacritic score is lagging significantly behind her other albums. Katherine St. Asaph at Pitchfork describes the listening experience as being “like opening a gift where someone’s forgotten to remove the tags.” Rachel Aroesti of The Guardian finds Sia’s vocals “mewling, monotonous,” while at Huffington Post, Sara Boboltz wonders why there wasn’t a copyeditor somewhere who could have spotted the grammatical error in the title (it should be Every Day is Christmas). All of these reviews foreground the speed with which Sia and collaborator Greg Kurstin pumped out Everyday; the singer told Zane Lowe that the album was a two-week project. For these reviewers, it’s not just that the music is disappointing, it’s also that the process was half-baked. They’re disappointed with the album, and they can’t even fall back on the idea that it’s the thought that counts, as Sia admits—brags?—that it was a slapdash job. Though all of these critiques are couched in terms of aesthetics or process, I argue here that the response to Everyday is Christmas is conditioned more by what Christmas does and doesn’t allow us to hear than by the album’s aesthetics.

There’s one more recurring theme in these critical reviews, and the positive ones, too. In each case, Everyday is received as an earnest expression of seasonal joy. And why wouldn’t it be? “Christmas” is, among other things, a tightly-structured system that affords a very narrow range of acceptable emotional output. Joy, wonder, joyous wonder—these all pass Christmas emotional muster. While we pay lip service to the idea that the holidays can be a trying time for people, holiday depression is typically considered deviant, a pathology that needs to be overcome. A recent Huffington Post article offers a few answers to “Why We Get Depressed at the Holidays,” and those answers all ultimately lay the blame on the person who is depressed. You have “unrealistic expectations,” you’re “trying to do too much,” you’re “comparing your insides to someone else’s outsides,” or you’re “slacking on self care.” Yup, you know why you feel shitty during the holidays? Because you’re a lazy good-for-nothing who isn’t taking care of yourself well enough, misering away your self-care energy like some Scrooge. And it’s ruining Christmas for the rest of us.

Our broad social acknowledgement of holiday depression boils down to the idea that Christmas is for happiness, and if you don’t feel happy, well, you’re doing it wrong. In a post on Cyborgology, Jenny Davis describes Facebook’s public analysis of the emotional pitfalls of social media in similar terms, and I think a parallel reading of Facebook alongside Christmas can be a useful way to hear what’s going on in Sia’s album. Davis is unimpressed with Facebook’s conclusion that one’s emotional response to social media platforms is the result of how you use it: “‘It’s how you use it’ is wholly unsatisfying, philosophically misguided, and a total corporate cop-out that places disproportionate responsibility on individual users while ignoring the politics and power of design.” Davis describes these “politics and power of design” as technological affordances, what a user is or isn’t able to do as a result of the way the social platform is designed. An example that Davis offers involves Facebook’s algorithmic bias toward popular content, which pushes users to engage posts and profiles that are already receiving attention and discourages interaction with posts and profiles that don’t already have attention—it’s like a regressive tax for your social media world. Christmas isn’t a technology in the way Facebook is, but it is a multimedia institution that structures the US social world for a solid six weeks each year. And part of Christmas’s structure involves compulsory happiness, that overarching sense that the only emotions afforded us during the season are the joyful ones.

Davis has theorized Facebook’s own methods for enforcing compulsory happiness, and this is where Facebook-as-system and Christmas-as-system diverge: there’s no centralized power center, no Santa CEO who determines Christmas algorithms and rolls out updates that directly shape our interactions with the holiday. Rather, it’s a much looser social negotiation that we all (regardless of whether and how we celebrate Christmas) participate in to some degree. One part of that participation is the listening praxis that surrounds Christmas music: when and where we listen, and how we create meaning through the act of listening. The reviews of Everyday that I opened with demonstrate some of what happens when our listening praxis is conditioned by Christmas’s compulsory happiness. The usual range of possibility that we’d expect—and probably laud—from Sia is cordoned off so that her Christmas album only registers within that narrow band of seasonal joy that compulsory happiness affords. In this context, Sia’s hastily produced offering strikes music critics and listeners alike as something of a failure.

Listening outside Christmas constraints, however, I hear Everyday is Christmas as an album that is about the failure to meet Christmas’s emotional affordances. The failure is a feature, not a bug; it’s the kind of performance one must undertake during the holidays to appear and sound acceptable. To listen in this context is to shift what we can hear. If the vocals are “mewling, monotonous,” it’s because they’re trying to convince us that everything’s totally fine. They add a compensatory “seasonal twinkle,” as Rolling Stone Australia’s Annabel Ross describes it, that provides just enough cover for what is otherwise a more emotionally turbulent collection of songs. I think it’s this tension between the surface-level joy cranked to sometimes ridiculous levels—“Puppies are foreveeeeerrrrrrr!!”—and other visual and aural signifiers which let slip the lie of joy that makes Everyday tricky for listeners and critics. It sounds like a Christmas album full of holiday cheer, fueling our shopping sprees when it blasts through department store speakers, but there’s something just a bit off about it.

Sia released a video trilogy for “Candy Cane Lane,” “Ho Ho Ho,” and “Underneath the Mistletoe” that pulls this tension nearly to its breaking point. A holiday jaunt, a yuletide drinking song, and a Christmas love ballad, respectively, the three tunes hit all of the Christmas emotional affordance marks, and the claymation visuals featuring a smiling little girl with green and red hair tap into a nostalgic aesthetic indebted to seasonal television fixtures like Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. The narrative begins whimsically enough, with a girl and her mother decorating their house—presumably on Candy Cane Lane—but things quickly veer into something far darker and more traumatic. The girl spots a snowman stuffing himself uninvited into chimney holes, then follows him into the woods. They play together in the snowman’s house, a tableau that features the snowman turning himself into a shark’s fin and circling the girl as she repeatedly forces smiles to the sounds of Sia’s unhinged drinking song. Finally, the girl makes her way home, and the departure takes on a “Baby It’s Cold Outside” vibe as the snowman encourages her to stay. The return’s soundtrack is “Underneath the Mistletoe,” a grown-person love song that carries none of the innocence of “Candy Cane Lane.” The girl finally emerges from the woods to hug her worried mother, even as the snowman appears the next morning to continue his pursuit.

The visuals do what the album as a whole does: all the surface markers of Christmas joy—snow, candy canes, snowmen, magical houses tucked away in the woods, smiling children—are right there so that a casual viewing or passive listening allows Everyday to register within Christmas’s emotional affordances. Once we listen past the edges of what Christmas affords, though, we can hear a melancholia permeating the album, whether it’s in lyrics like “Santa is Coming for Us” or the vocal performance of “Everyday is Christmas”’s chorus, a slurred repetition of “Everyday is Christmas with you by my side” that sounds more like lament than celebration.

Even that grammatical error in the title makes a little more sense. If one’s everyday existence lacks joy, then Christmas doesn’t afford the ability to feel any differently; instead, it papers over melancholia with shiny bows and the enforcement of compulsory happiness. In this context, Every Day is Christmas would be nothing short of a horror story. The grammar of Everyday is Christmas—in the title and in the album’s sonic aesthetic—captures the mundanity of the everyday, the reality that Christmas is just another time of year to fake a smile and sing about joy at the top of your lungs and vocal range so as not to ruin it for everyone else. Everyday is Christmas is a failure to hold the façade, a rumination on the fact that Christmas is just more of the everyday.

Justin aDams Burton specializes in popular music, race, and gender and is the author of Posthuman Rap (Oxford University Press, 2017).

No comments:

Post a Comment