“Why? You ask but it beats me. I feel it done to me, and ache.”

Thursday 24 May 2007

Something has been bugging me since Christmas. As is usual at that time of year, the radio, particularly the type of stations I listen to, was full of the usual christmassy songs, most of them customarily horrible. Like Dante’s circles of Hell, there are graded degrees of quality of Christmas song. “Adeste Fidelis”, say, might enjoy the company of Aristotle and Ovid, while “Jingle Bell Rock” rots amidst the betrayers.
I had always thought that there was a place reserved in one of the lower circles for “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas”, a song, on casual listening, I had always found exasperatingly smarmy and condescending. Over time I’d guessed that there was a greater meaning behind the song that I wasn’t getting, but didn’t care because the tune, its arrangement, and the way it was sung, inevitably crushed its suppressed sentiments down to the complacently glib.
It may have been one I hadn’t heard before, it may be that for once I paid close enough attention, but last Christmas I heard several times a version of the song that was sincere, touching, and achingly sad. Usually, a revelation like this is an experience of unalloyed pleasure, the thrill of discovery coupled with the minor relief of there being one less odious thing in the world to despise; but I cannot shake off a sense of regret for my newfound admiration of this song.
It can be hard to pin down the exact circumstances that force you to reconsider your tastes. Sometimes a shift in understanding can come from a forced change in perspective. I’d always disliked The Beatles’ “Ticket To Ride” until one day in my early twenties when, immobilised by flu on a couch, I heard it played on a small AM transistor radio hidden beneath a cushion and realised it was a little masterpiece.
More usually such changes in taste can be attributed to a natural, healthy expansion of one’s palate over time, or that comes naturally with the attainment of maturity. In this case, I can see how an older, more experienced mind can recognise depths in the little Christmas song to which a younger person would remain oblivious. Why does part of me resent finding this depth? Is it better to learn to sympathise with other people’s hopes and sorrows expressed in simple songs, or is it better to reject with a youthful sneer the foolish sentimentality, emotional manipulation, the con artist’s pitch?
Having shown so much love and understanding for so long, should I be less tolerant of other people’s tastes? Some years ago I drew a line in the sand at Frankie Valli; should I be doing more to defend myself?
There is so much good music I will never get to hear. Why should I be pleased to discover that “Me and Mrs Jones”, a song I’ve always found hateful, has a rather fine-sounding guitar break? Am I listening to too much mediocre music, and starting to prefer technical accomplishment to creativity and imagination?
Should I stop finding beauty everywhere, lest I open my mind so far that I let in the forces that will close it down, trapping myself in a popular critic’s world of stunted sentimentality and highbrow kitsch?
Is it virtuous to find reasons to accept the bad with the good, or does it ultimately lower one into relativism – a passive, complacent mindset that accommodates any mediocrity it encounters, never stirring to reject it and instead seek out the good?

(Cross-posted at Sarsaparilla.)