“They call him Mister Christmas,” the man said, smoking and leaning on a mixing board installed in his one-bedroom apartment. “We recorded most of the demos right here.”
He indicated a closet outfitted with foam soundproofing, a little window and a microphone.
I bet landlords in Nashville have to deal with this sort of re-carpentering all the time.
“You can have that CD,” he said. It was in a thin case with a peel ’n stick label. The typeface was that “Invented For Dot Matrix Printers” font.
I said, “Ah, hm! Huh… yeah,” hoping I sounded appreciative as I read the song titles: “Forever Christmas Eve,” “Christmas in New York,” “The Season For Romance,” “All I Want For Christmas Is The Saints To Win.” There were, like, twenty Christmas songs.
“He just has this ability to write a new Christmas song, and it sounds like a classic,” said the man, taking another drag on his cigarette.
“Mister Christmas,” I said, showing that I had been listening.
The man stubbed out his cigarette as he exhaled slowly, drawing it out so I could look at the CD and reflect on Mister Christmas’s talent.
It was a hot Southern summer day as we sat in the little apartment studio. Mister Christmas’s friend wanted to talk about my attempt to crack Nashville’s code and, more importantly, my job as creative director at an advertising agency.
He was a jingle writer.
He co-writes advertising jingles with Mister Christmas.
He was hoping to sell me a jingle.
In general, those of us in advertising who sit next to smart, funny, eye-rolling wives as our commercials air don’t like to use the word “jingle.” If we write a song for an advertisement, we call it “custom music” or “an original track” or “a song.” The term “jingle” has the stink of an old-fashioned huckster ploy.
“If you have nothing to say, sing it,” is an old ad agency joke from years ago.
Straight-up actual capital-M Music, of course, is as important as ever. It’s in the execution: you can make it seem like you know what year it is, or you can make it sound like Casey’s got a long-distance dedication all cued up.
Once we had a client whose phone number was 444-4444. My friends Evan, Bill, Chris and I wrote a song for them making fun of having such an easy phone number. Evan wrote a lot of the best lines: “444-4444/Just dial four till someone answers.” “444-4444/It even works if you dial it backwards.” “444-4444/Coincidentally spells hi-hi-hig.”
We did a version with a Cuban band that I wrote a special lyric for: “444-4444/En español, son muchos quatros.”
I thought our song was pretty hip. Sounded good. Atypical. I’d tell people, “See? We wrote an actual song. Just because it’s an ad, it doesn’t have to be a jingle.”
“Charlie,” said Bill the co-writer one day when I was straining to make my point. “Charlie—if you sing the phone number, it’s a jingle.”
He was right. It still hurts.
I’ll never be ready to admit that I co-wrote a “jingle.”
And now smoking guy wanted to sell my agency a whole jingle package (full sing :30 and :60, :30 w/announcer bed, :60 w/announcer bed). I’m sure he knew from years of cold-calling that I would politely promise to keep him in mind.
We both knew this was simply a chance to talk a little Nashville shop. And so it was, on a summer afternoon, that the conversation turned to Mister Christmas.
I don’t know. There’s something unsettling about being able to pump out Christmas stuff.
It feels jingly.
And so what? Why am I so sensitive? What exactly is the difference between a jingle and a song, and my objection to the former?
Well, a jingle wouldn’t exist unless someone was willing to pay for it. A song might.
A jingle efficiently touches on all its sales points. A song seems interested in finding something out for itself, pursuing an idea wherever it might go.
A jingle wraps up a little too neatly in favor of an argument it was rigged to win. A song might end with a satisfying conclusion, but the singer experiences a little friction on the way.
A jingle has no friction.
All the things I enjoy watching or hearing or singing to myself in the car contain friction.
Maybe that’s what I have against modern Christmas songs. Mostly they’re too pat. They touch all their snowy, candle-lit bases without any trouble, as if those bases were “quality, value, and service from a name you can trust.”
Most of the well-known, overplayed, standard Christmas songs contain an unusual idea and a touch of friction, expressed crisply.
So does Mr. Christmas deploy friction crisply? Good question. (Thanks.) (You’re welcome.) I took a listen to “The Season For Romance,” performed by Lee Ann Womack. It has a deft opening heavy with specific imagery:
She smiles at him, he says ‘Hello’
They stand beneath the mistletoe
Embarrassed by the awkward circumstance
He asks her if she’d like a drink
She says, ‘I better not, I think
Oh, what the heck, maybe just one glass’
It all goes down easy, and obeys Nashville’s recommended formula. But the reason you haven’t heard of it, in my opinion, is it doesn’t contain any new ideas. Are you surprised that these two fall in love? That happens in a lot of the standards. But here there’s no facing unafraid the plans that they made, no corn for popping.
There’s no date rapist spiking her drink and wheedling, “It’s up to your knees out there.”
And as far as “complicated but intriguing ideas,” I couldn’t find anything in Mister Christmas’s oeuvre comparable to a lonely person writing Christmas cards from a place where it doesn’t snow. By the way, I counted: the convoluted premise of “White Christmas” comes across in 53 words.
Of course, you can over steer. In a quest for crispy friction, you can just be sad or obscure (like a lot of rock bands who write Christmas songs). Sometimes it works beautifully (“2,000 Miles” by Chrissie Hynde).
I wrote Christmas songs one time for our rock band’s Christmas album. It was the guitar player’s idea to do a Christmas album, and a great idea at that. I’m proud of the songs both of us wrote.
But this was before my Nashville classes; my songs are way too oblique:
Taper, taper, burning down
Faint Nat King the only sound
Neighbor’s mini-window lights blinking a-rhythmically
Apartments around mine have emptied out
It’s still and silent, inside out
Waiting in the candlelight, nobody knows about me…
Or fast-talking but low-confidence:
Well, I woke up in the morning and I knew it wasn’t autumn
The leaves had disappeared someone’d come along and got ’em
And obviously the season of giving was here…
I’m sitting at my desk and I’m getting nothing done
Drawing faces in the margins, a grin on every one
Obviously this is not a brilliant career…
Or just dissatisfied and self-defeated:
Relatives in from out of town
Big naked flakes sticking to the ground
People in sweaters gather around
To talk and talk and talk
Talk and talk and talk
Have another glass of whatever that is
Maybe I should just shut up…
Why are the flakes naked? I don’t know. I like saying it. I sort of know what it means.
Nashville smiles, clicks the CD player off before the second verse, and wishes me a merry little etc., as they prepare to record another album of worn-out standards.
Probably recording a lot of them the wrong way.
Yes, there’s right ways and wrong ways.
It’s true: I have a lot of opinions about Christmas music.
We all do, don’t we? Some from our musical taste and preferences, some from simple sentiment or childhood associations.
Into it all wades Mister Christmas.
A jingle writer.
Who knows? There was a day no one knew anything about the reindeer whose nose lit up.
That “modern classic” was written by Johnny Marks, based on a Montgomery Ward Christmas promotion. As it happens, after Rudolph and “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree,” Marks was known in the songwriting biz of the fifties as “Mister Christmas.”
Is smoking man’s jingle buddy the heir to Johnny Marks’ title? Sure. Why not? Let’s give it to him.
It’s the season of that, you know.