Editor’s Note: This piece was originally supposed to run before the holidays, but I screwed up. Fortunately, it’s a damned good piece and since Christmas music seems to start earlier and earlier, this should become applicable again sometime in mid-March.
Christmastime is here. Happiness and cheer, and all that.
This also means that we’re ever close to the end of 2018. And for this, I am glad. Not that I think 2019 will be any better, but this year has been … a lot.
As we continue to slog through the Trump presidency, the daily deluge of chaos and lying has done True Detective and Interstellar-style tricks with time. I can’t keep track of time when my brain is unraveled with anxiety and outrage.
This one year has felt like eight. How can I prove this, you may ask? Here goes:
Do you remember that we had an Olympics just 10 months ago?
That Black Panther came out in February?
That Infinity War broke your heart, all of eight months ago?
That Ariana Grande and Pete Davidson were together for only five months, he got to sit front row at Aretha Franklin’s funeral, and they broke up two months ago already?
So if I can have a little bit of time to meditate on joy amid fear, light amid darkness, and the hope of a new day at this here Christmas, I’ll take what I can get.
And one of the things that knocks me out at this time of year is how, thanks to all the Christmas music made in the mid-20th century, I’m flooded with the sounds of mature male pop singers. That is, men singing popular music, and they sound like grown-ass men.
Of course, in the 1940s, ‘50s and even a lot of the ‘60s, grown-ass men was what we had for pop stars. They were such in appearance, sound and attitude, with all that big-voiced crooning that could go clean and wholesome (Andy Williams), worldly and shark tooth-sharp (Frank Sinatra), or boozy and swinging (Dean Martin).
In the past 50 years, rock came into focus, warred with pop, and then fused with it. Born in 1980, I have seen the male pop star, as a category, emerge out of teenaged and teen-idol years, and basically remain a kid forever.
Mick Jagger is still a kid. Simon Le Bon gets to be a kid. The Backstreet Boys are still asking us rhetorically whether they are sexual. (Yeahhhh.) Boy George remains boyish. Justin Timberlake may spend the rest of his music career chasing the ghost of his 15- to 23-year-old self.
Paul McCartney, now in his 70s, has maintained his boyish face and is still going for boyish energy on his latest album. Did you know he put out an album this year?
The songs remain tales of infatuation or over-the-top feeling, and the pop star men largely get to remain kids forever, even when they’ve aged out of it. Adam Levine is 39 and married with two kids. He’s way long past Maroon 5’s song “Girls Like You,” about an on-again, off-again relationship that sounds like a 25-year-old’s stage of life. But apparently we don’t care, because that song was No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 for seven weeks.
What about the male pop stars who aren’t cool anymore, but try to hang on with today’s hot trends? We say they’re old! We say they look like Dad out there! That’s what we called Chris Martin when Coldplay played the Super Bowl 50 halftime, and let Bruno Mars and Beyoncé blow them out of the water. Martin slinked back into frame between Bruno and Bey on “Uptown Funk” doing the Dr. Evil “I’m hip! I’m with it!” routine.
What’s gonna happen to Jason Derulo? As much as I enjoy “Swalla” and “Want To Want Me,” can he keep that same youthful energy going in his 30s? Those high notes fade over time. Bruno Mars already has undergone a few transformations, and his now years-long journey through the 1980s and ‘90s R&B, funk and New Jack Swing of his childhood speak to an I’m-grown lothario.
I wonder how Shawn Mendes and Charlie Puth will develop. They’re still very young and coming into their adulthood. After reading the latest Mendes profile in Rolling Stone, I wonder whether he undergo a self-immolation and rebirth of his image and artistic persona, similar to George Michael when he shed the boy and affirmed the man he became?
After the shelving of One Direction, Harry Styles appears bent on leaving behind the so-called kid’s stuff by worshiping 1970s rock gods in his solo work. It’s not a bad path, when you consider how men such as Robert Plant and Roger Daltrey have gone on through the decades.
The major pitfall, of course, would be for Styles to do so in adherence to the same race, gender and sexuality overtones of the cultural mass that pits rock against pop. The rockists pose rock and pop as serious versus silly, manly versus not, keeping straight white men front and center. That attitude drove Disco Sucks, and continues to be heard in classic rock radio ads tooting their horns about how you’ll never hear Beyoncé on there. (They do the record-scratch sound effect over “Single Ladies” and everything. Haters.)
So part of the charm of Christmas music is that, at this time of year, we return to the middle of the 20th century and hear a plethora of mature male pop voices. Those were the days of big bands, and those big voices can dance beside those drums and horns and strings. Those voices further promulgated the great pop music machines of their generation: Tin Pan Alley, Irving Berlin, Cole Porter.
Michael Bublé may be the only younger (he’s 43 now?!?) popular male singer who’s still crooning. Men such as Bing Crosby, Mel Tormé, Tony Bennett, Johnny Mathis and Nat “King Cole” laid down the Christmas pop music tradition on which he makes a mint, year in and out.
But I’m here just for the smooth voices, either. A fair amount of those grown-ass men singing at Christmastime kept it crusty, too.
When “Have A Holly Jolly Christmas” by Burl Ives comes on the radio, my ears are met with his hearty, reedy tones. There’s a charm to Ives’ cadence-march delivery of the lyrics. Or how, in our age of tuning out imperfections, Ives at times goes a bit flat at the end of lines, and comes in real hot singing “HAVE a holly jolly Christmas.” Or how hollow his O’s sound on “say hello to friends you know.”
In his mid-50s when he recorded the song, Ives sounds like the best-singing dad at church at Christmas Eve service. I say that with love and respect. I love it all.
This sense of grown-ass manhood, and the content that comes with it, is a challenge for me when it’s time to perform. Professor M, which in many ways is an outsized version of myself, traffics in hefty amounts of daddy energy. Daddy steaze is my steaze. And daddy is, without a doubt, a grown-ass man.
It’s been fun using that energy in songs against type, as I often like to sing pop divas and rock with a big, masculine voice going up and down the scales. Give me Britney, give me Lady Gaga, give me Sia, give me Robyn!
Christmas music presents that time when I can really let that daddy steaze fly naturally, in songs absolutely built for it, such as “That Christmas Feeling.”
I’m performing at a drag show two days before Christmas Day, and I’m still picking music. So many songs, and so many versions!
However, I already know that my personal goals in playing a grown-ass man voice against itself have been set by a drag queen.
Picture it: late November at Troupe 429 bar in Norwalk, Connecticut. Jasmine Rice, a queen dressed in a green plaid dress with the biggest flare imaginable, just finished up a lip-sync to Mariah Carey’s “All I Want For Christmas Is You.”
She then sings “O Holy Night” live. Jasmine, festooned in most convincing high-femme accoutrements, sings the first two verses in the deepest bass. It’s hilarious in this celebration of cartoonish extremes.
And then, as the song approaches its centerpiece she blows the doors of the place by unleashing a startlingly high, operatic, giant-voiced tenor:
A thrill of hope the weary world rejoices
For yonder breaks a new glorious morn
Fall on your knees
O hear the angels’ voices
O night divine
O night when Christ was born
O night divine o night
O night divine
Our laughter turns to ecstatic applause and cheering. I was awestruck, like those Three Wise Men entering that cave stable and finding baby Jesus in the swaddling clothes.
I’ve never heard Frank Sinatra do that.