Tuesday, February 6, 2007

All I Want for Christmas is Cognitive Dissonance

cognitive dissonance
n. Psychology
A condition of conflict or anxiety resulting from simultaneously holding contradictory or otherwise incompatible attitudes, beliefs, or the like.

So I’m starting a list of songs that use Christmas carols as the backdrop (or spinal structure) of a song about pain, lonliness, disillusionment, etc. These tend to be some of my favorite songs. Not that I experience Christmas as depressing: much the opposite. But it speaks into my love of the reinterpretation of familiar things. It’s like a poetic version of adaptive reuse: “I’ll use Good King Wenceslas to sing about how much I miss my ex-girlfriend” etc.

Here are three to start with. Let me know if you’ve got some to add.

Artist: Harry Chapin
Song title: “Mr. Tanner”
Christmas Carol used: “O Holy Night”
What is evoked? A story-song about a small town guy who’s a gifted singer. Pushed by his friends, he tries to make it as a concert singer and is trashed by the critics. He returns home and never sings again. As Harry Chapin sing-narrates, we hear “Mr. Tanner” singing “O Holy Night” in counterpoint. It’s incredible. One of my all-time favorite songs ever.

Artist: Joni Mitchell
Song title: “River”
Christmas Carol used: “Jingle Bells”
What is evoked? A minor key version of jingle bells serves as the piano chords of a song about wanting to escape one’s loneliness and hurt. “I wish I had a river I could skate away on”.

Artist: Simon & Garfunkel
Song title: “7 O’clock News/Silent Night”
Christmas Carol used: “Silent Night”
What is evoked? Paul and Art winsomely sing "Silent Night" while a 1966 news broadcaster reads the depressing headlines and almost overtakes the singing altogether.

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