CSOTD 12/18/2015: Christmas in El Lay

Once upon a time, when radio stations switched their format to Christmas music for more than the several days before and after December 25, it was a stunt or a space-filler before a new format went into place around the first of the new year. The first time I encountered such a stunt was in either 1989 or 1990, when a radio station in Baltimore used Christmas music in such a manner from Thanksgiving to New Year’s Eve.

But some of these stations got an unexpected surprise: Their December ratings went up. Waup. And the earlier they switched, the larger the ratings spike. Thus the Christmas radio format was born.

In the early years of Christmas radio, I loved it. You had to play Bing’s “White Christmas,” Nat’s “The Christmas Song” and a few others, but otherwise, programmers and music directors dug up whatever they could find. Today, alas, Christmas radio is as tightly programmed as classic rock or any other similarly ossified format. Unless you live near a truly local station, almost always in small towns, you’re stuck hearing the same 75-100 versions of the same 40 or so songs, day after day, from shortly after Halloween until December 25.

Back in the early days of Christmas radio, one of the stations I listened to in Wisconsin occasionally played my Christmas Song of the Day for December 18. Only rarely have I heard it on the radio since.

In 1971, UCLA had a visiting professor of English who held a master’s from the University of Oregon and was on track to earn his Ph.D. But he also was a jazz singer, guitarist and composer on the side. Eventually, Michael Franks (born 1944) gave up academia and went into music full-time. It’s hard to say what his best-known song is; perhaps it’s his 1976 song “Popsicle Toes,” which has been recorded by Diana Krall on one of her best-selling albums.

Apparently, today’s song had been part of Franks’ repertoire before he recorded it. When it was first released on 1997’s various-artists CD Warner Bros. Jazz Christmas Party, it was met with a “Finally” from Franks’ own web site. In the years since, it has been memorably covered by Minnesota a cappella group The Blenders, and Franks re-recorded it in 2003, but the original is my favorite.

The song is a sardonic look at Christmas in Los Angeles. Right from the start, the narrator complains how “cold” it is because it’s 60 degrees at night. And it only goes on from there, with its knowing evocation of everything from seasonal depression to Santas with acrylic beards, not to mention the rampant consumerism. What makes the song work so well is that it’s sung entirely straight. And it’s more or less summed up by its title: “I Bought You a Plastic Star for Your Aluminum Tree.” Here is the original 1997 recording.

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