PAN IN ON: A snowscape creased with mountains. George Michael’s voice echoes o’er the rolling vista: “Last Christmas, I have you my heart / but the very next day, you gave it away,” he croons. “This year, to save me from tears / I’ll give it to someone special.” In the four-and-a-half minute video that follows, Michael proceeds to do the exact opposite. Instead of giving his heart to someone special, he brings a date and then ignores her in favor of hard-staring at the girl he gave his heart to last year, who has in turn given her heart to a new beau, a white man who might be Sylvester Stallone. She nuzzles him and Michael smolders across the room. Also, the “heart” here is represented by an awful floral broach that she wears on her lapel. Maybe. Not clear.
And besides a lot of staring, nothing really happens in the video. But that’s the appeal of it! It’s a musical tableau of an ’80s Christmas catalogue. You could probably put any song ’80s song about yearning or Christmas or both or neither on in the background, and it would still work, because the images and people are wonderfully generic. A bunch of blandly attractive people from the Ski Gear section of an LL Bean magazine hug in the snow, then they go inside and sit around and be boring in the low light of a cabin, and cuddle. The end! Merry Christmas!
It’s cheesy, overwrought, overplayed, and the “Don’t Stop Believin’” of Christmas songs. Band Aid’s “Do They Know It’s Christmastime” is the Who’s-Who of 80s people our parents should be embarrassed to have ever thought were hot. It is also the strongest argument against nostalgia the world has ever seen. Basically the video is this: pan over a bunch of white westerners with the worst haircuts in the history of mankind. They are wearing headphones and bobbing their heads. Sweat-soaked, chlorine-blond curls flop limply against their artfully furrowed brows. They have the smoothest skin they will ever have in their whole entire lives, they are in their sexual prime, and they are smothering it in polyester, drowning their potential in product.
They are singing about how Africans Don’t Know It’s Christmas. They are painting the culture and ecosystem of an entire continent in continent-sized brushstrokes. It is tremendously paternalistic, so imperial. Bono is there, and he keeps changing outfits, because for most of the song he is dressed like Mr. Clean, but for the final shot he is dressed like Amy Sherman-Palladino. There is a guy at 3:25 who is clothed in a yellow shirt and blue overalls, like a Minion. Everyone else looks like they are in pain, especially Sting. Except Boy George, who looks perfect. The song is stupid, but at least it’s classically stupid, because it spawned this Venture Brothers parody in response and inspired RADI-AID. So there’s that.
Hark! The holiday anthem of already-drunk, vaguely alternative people everywhere. “Fairytale of New York” the song a new classic for an era of cynicism. Thematically speaking, it’s closer to the modern Christmas experience than, say “Chestnuts Roasting.” For one thing, people who love each other are being mean and fighting. (“You’re a bum, you’re a punk.” “You’re an old slut on junk!” …just sounds like another Christmas in the Catchpole family to me.) It also features one of the sickest burns on all of music (“I could have been someone!” “Well, so could anyone.”)
But it’s the music video that elevates the whole experience to artistic heights. We open on a shitfaced Shane McGowan being dragged up the stairs to a jail cell, to spend Christmas Eve in the drunk-tank. Only it’s staged like an old-timey noir, and also people are muttering along with the lyrics to the song. Then McGowan is sitting behind a piano and surrounded by a band, and he is looking like an Irish Jay Baruchel with a douchey earring, and Kristie McCall is leaning on the piano affectlessly mouthing the lyrics. It alternates between extremely sweet (hugging!) and extremely mean (“slut on junk,” etc.) in rapid succession. It has heart. And in that way, it’s just like Christmas.
Truly, what in this world is better than David Bowie just stopping in on his pal Bing, and gathering around the piano like a pair of dear Victorian sisters, and singing? The song itself is fine, but you really must see the 2-minute short film that precedes it, the one where Bowie and Crosby banter mindlessly while slow-walking their way to the piano. A summary: David Bowie lives down the road from a man called Sir Percival, who allows him to come by and play the piano every once in a while. (Why does Bowie not have his own piano?) Percival himself is not there, and for some unstated, possibly sinister reason, Bing Crosby is in his house. (My theory is: Bing Crosby murdered him.) They chit chat mindlessly, and Bowie makes a funny joke at the expense of Harry Nillson, and then they stand around the piano while not playing it.
It’s beautiful. The harmony is simply divine. It is a kind-hearted, silly intergenerational collaboration, like a pumpkin pie baked by a mother and daughter. But the thing that keeps this from being the best Christmas music video of the 80s is that “The Little Drummer Boy” is David Bowie’s favorite carol, allegedly. Highly improbable. The ONLY version of the song anyone likes is the Bowie/Crosby version, which was at that moment in a primordial state. It really is a nice arrangement on a terrible, stupid song.
Honestly, guys, can’t even snark this one. The best thing about the Hall and Oates Jingle Bell Rock video is: Everything. It’s the way they bop almost-but-not-quite in time with the music. It’s the cheesy special effects. It’s the rockin’ granny. It’s the dude who gets locked out of the house. I have to give credit where credit is due, because it was my brother who introduced me to this brilliant piece of postmodern cinema last year. I have seen it at least sixty times since. It’s so very tongue-and-cheek, as if Daryll and John created it not for their contemporaries, but for the future. As if they delicately coifed their hair then that we might laugh at them now, winking all the way.
I suggest watching it thrice alone, then watching it again in a group, pausing very often to discuss its merits. Each moment, each half-second, is a gift unto itself, a precious thing to be unwrapped with trembling hands, to be held in careful palms, to be passed about and cherished and ooh- and aah-ed at, until it is wrapped again in paper, and set in a box, and put on a shelf in the attic till it is retrieved next Christmas.