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Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree (Free Jazz Remix)

1st of December, 2020

The piece was first left as a review on the website RateYourMusic. I was reviewing Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree, the single by Brenda Lee.

If you're the sort of person whose music listening doesn't primarily consist of pop music made this century, then when you do listen to that stuff you're probably annoyed at the way the vocals are mixed. They are routinely about twice as loud as every other part of the mix, which at best is uncomfortable to listen to and at worst sounds like total shit. There is a good reason for this: the vast majority of people who listen to this stuff don't have access to good quality speakers or headphones and so the sound engineers need to have one part cut through everything else. Otherwise, what would be a well balanced mix in a studio just sounds muffled and muddy coming from a low bitrate YouTube stream casted to a smart TV. One of the interesting results of this trend is that when you hear music in supermarkets, the little speakers that play it have been intentionally designed to respond to the frequency range that best corresponds to the female voice, and the result is that quite a lot of the time the music is basically a capella with hi hats.

The Christmas songs started fairly late at work this year, only in the final few days of November. I asked over the wireless headset, who sings this song? The security guard looked it up on his phone and told me it was Brenda Lee, who was apparently only thirteen? It's disorienting that a voice like this—a husky cigarette aged honk from a 40s swing singer decades out of her prime—actually came from a child. The world has become stranger. In the first minute or so she muddles her way through the song, with all of her flourishes getting lost as her vocal chords quickly oscillate between sounding and falling silent, consonants only implied as the vowels are wobbled out. And then, the saxophone comes in. The experience of hearing the introduction of this instrument on the shop speakers is somewhere between Coltrane furiously rushing back into his soloing after Flannagan's coy little tinkling on Giant Steps, and this video which is completely silent for a few seconds before erupting into face melting silliness. Lee's voice is almost entirely out of the frequency range that one would expect a thirteen year old's voice to occupy, and the saxophone appears out of nowhere in an explosion of noise.

In fact, there is nothing explosive about the saxophone in this song. The solo is firmly in the easy listening tradition, and only in this specific context is able to adopt an affect of vitality, but Christmas Music is of course already entirely ruled by its circumstances. Its capacity as art capable of moving us depends on its ubiquity, on how it has been mythologised, on its periodic resurfacing in our lives inducing by Pavlovian response the feeling of festivity.