Wednesday, December 23, 2009
Christmas is here, the most capitalist of all our holidays, and with it comes a host of Christmas carols that often seem designed solely to drive shopping mall employees insane. These carols are part of our collective cultural DNA—somehow all of us, even the non-Christians, have the lyrics to “Frosty the Snowman” clogging up a corner of our brains. We hardly ever stop to analyze these carols, or even think about them for more than a second. Whether the carol is a thinly veiled warning to the followers of a vengeful and angry God (“Santa Claus is Coming to Town”), a litany of pagan nature-love (“O Christmas Tree”), or an incomprehensible story-song that no one knows the words to (“Good King Wenceslas”), Christmas carols are nothing more than background to our frenzied last-minute shopping trips.
One song that is a little more than background is “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer.” Written by an advertising executive in 1939 to appeal to children (seriously), it became so popular that it spawned several ubiquitous TV specials and a feature-length film. The song itself if the heartwarming story of a reindeer who learns that we are all special and can be helpful in different ways.
Ha ha! No, the song is actually about abusing those who stand out in any way until they become useful to the capitalist enterprise, then praising them and hoping they'll forget that you taunted them. Rudolph is only accepted by the other reindeer once he guides Santa's sleigh, and only then—if the “foggy Christmas eve” never happened, Rudolph would still be mistreated and no one would give a sack of coal. Luckily for him, his deformity turned out to be one that Santa could make use of.
It's an ugly story, and one that gets repeated over and over again outside of the North Pole. Just like Rudolph, the typical artist is usually abused and cast out by society, only to be praised by that same public once his art has become famous. From Van Gogh to Edgar Allen Poe to Kurt Cobain, the song remains the same: nobody likes you until everybody does (sometimes this process doesn't happen until you're already dead). Then, when everybody likes you, your suffering and years of ostracism are explained away. “Oh, sure we called you names, but that was because we didn't know how important you be!” say the public, or the other reindeer. “Now, how much for that painting? I just love your work!”
The ugliness of this cliched tale is that the artist (Rudolph) is expected to be fine with everyone who used to torture him. At the end of the song, when Rudolph is surrounded by his admirers—former enemies—how does he feel? Angry at them for being utterly two-faced? Is he secretly plotting his revenge against the worst of them? Or is he afraid that some day they won't like his nose anymore and he'll be cast out again?
One thing's for sure—unless Rudolph is a naive, gibbering idiot, he won't accept their shouts of glee at face value. He's saved Christmas, sure, but how long are these reindeer going to remember that for? Or someone else will save Christmas, and they'll tell that savior he'll go down in history too, abandoning Rudolph. But that sequel is not recorded in the song—maybe next Christmas will be foggy too, and Rudolph will remain in the limelight. Merry Christmas Rudolph. Remember: as long as you're useful, everyone will love you.