By Paul Farhi
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 14, 2007
A little advice: When friends and relatives come visiting around Christmas, don't haul out those old CDs with Madonna's rendition of "Santa Baby" or Barbra Streisand's "Jingle Bells?" And by all means, avoid "Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer."
Unless, that is, you want to drive people away.
In the vast songbook of seasonal music, those recordings are Christmas poison, the sonic equivalent of a chorus of screeching cats. They are among the most-hated Christmas songs of all time.
This isn't just our frankly subjective opinion. It's the frankly subjective opinion of representative samplings of radio listeners, which makes it sort of, kind of scientific. Not one, but two research companies -- Edison Media Research and Pinnacle Media Worldwide -- independently surveyed listeners to divine their most loved and loathed holiday songs. (Both companies asked review panels -- consisting primarily of women -- to rate hundreds of Christmas-themed tunes, sorting them into such categories as "love," "like," "dislike" and "hate.")
There's big money riding on these surveys, which were released last week. Knowing what listeners love and hate, Christmas-wise, is critical to 366 radio stations across the country that play nothing but Christmas music for a few weeks this time of year.
The most beloved songs in both surveys were often standards: Bing Crosby's "White Christmas" (he first recorded it in 1942); Nat King Cole's "The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire)" (1946) and Burl Ives's "A Holly Jolly Christmas" (1965) turned up at the top of each company's lists of favorites.
Three other staples, "Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree" (Brenda Lee, recorded in 1958), "Jingle Bell Rock" (Bobby Helms, 1957) and John Lennon and Yoko Ono's "Happy Xmas (War Is Over)" from 1971, scored consistently well in research conducted by California-based Pinnacle.
Which leads to Christmas Music Observation No. 1: Despite all the new holiday music that is released each year, people prefer hearing the "classics."
The newest song to crack the top 10 on Pinnacle's "adult contemporary" and "adult top 40" panels was Mariah Carey's "All I Want for Christmas Is You," released 13 years ago. The most recent for Edison was the Lennon/Ono tune.
Music analysts Sean Ross and Mark Carlson say adults have strong psychological ties to the Christmas music of their childhoods. "It's the season of nostalgia," says Pinnacle's Carlson. Ross, of the New Jersey-based Edison, says that some of these songs have stayed in popular consciousness because they're part of holiday TV specials and movies that reappear year after year.
Among the most-hated Christmas songs, according to Edison's research, are Streisand's "Jingle Bells?" (too "acrobatic," Ross ventures); the Jackson 5's "Santa Claus Is Coming to Town" (Ross: "I wonder if it's a vote about Michael Jackson"); Elmo & Patsy's "Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer"; and "O Holy Night," as butchered by the cartoon character Eric Cartman (voiced by Trey Parker) from Comedy Central's "South Park."
And the No. 1 most-hated Christmastime recording? That would be "Jingle Bells," as "performed" by the Singing Dogs. This 1955 Danish record (reedited and rereleased in 1970) is just what the name and group say it is: a bunch of dogs woofing out the familiar tune, one bark at a time.
Christmas Music Observation No. 2: People aren't crazy about singing dogs.
Pinnacle has a much different list of "most hateds," reflecting differing survey methods. (Whereas Edison played 10-second snippets of 579 seasonal songs and asked respondents for their reactions, Pinnacle culled lists of the 30 most-played songs on stations with all-Christmas formats and ran those songs past sample groups. Pinnacle's respondents were subdivided by musical preference, meaning country fans judged one set of songs, "adult contemporary" listeners another list, etc.)
"Santa Baby" by Madonna, "Merry Christmas, Darling" by the Carpenters and "Santa Claus Is Coming to Town" by Bruce Springsteen popped up repeatedly among the despised (Springsteen? Despised?).
The only song that bobbed to the top of both most-disliked lists is "Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer."
Actually, "Grandma" is sort of like eggnog -- people either love it or hate it. It got relatively solid "loved" ratings in both the Edison and Pinnacle polls (47 percent and 32 percent, respectively) but also relatively high "hate" or "dislike" ratings (17 percent and 22 percent).
Local radio station WASH (97.1 FM), which plays Christmas music during the season, found something similar in its research, prompting it to drop the song from its playlist. "It was too polarizing," says Bill Hess, WASH's program director. "It wasn't strong, except with a few people, and it had a lot of negatives."
All of which comes as shocking news to one Elmo Shropshire, a.k.a. Dr. Elmo, a.k.a. Elmo. Back in 1979, the bluegrass musician was half of Elmo & Patsy, the duo that recorded "Grandma." Well, actually, Elmo claims Patsy, his ex-wife, never really sang on the record but was credited nevertheless. But that's another story.
Anyway, Shropshire, now 71 and living in the Bay Area, claims "Grandma" is a beloved holiday favorite. And by several measures he's right. Inspired by a tipsy relative of songwriter Randy Brooks's, "Grandma" has sold "well over" 10 million copies since a San Francisco radio station, KSFO, first put it on the air as a lark 28 years ago, he says.
Christmas Music Observation No. 3: Who knew?
The video of the song (made by Shropshire in his living room) was a holiday staple on MTV for many seasons. The recording has also been used on the soundtrack of the movies "Jarhead" and "Deck the Halls," and more recently has been incorporated into talking toys and a musical greeting card. "My royalties are four or five times what they were" 20 years ago, says a delighted Elmo.
Since retiring from his veterinary practice 10 years ago, Shropshire has devoted much of his time to tending the burgeoning "Grandma" empire. He performs the song with his bluegrass group year-round, even in the dead of July "if someone recognizes me" and requests it.
"A lot of younger people say it's not really Christmas until they hear it," he says.
On the other hand, Elmo reflects: "There must be a lot of people who think it's not a good, sentimental song."