Recording a Christmas album is basically saying, "Fuck it, man; I don't care about art or soul or rock 'n' roll or my legacy. Just wheel me out, give me the lyrics to "Frosty' and let's try for a gold record." Yes, there are some decent Christmas albums by notable artists-the Beatles, Beach Boys, Elvis-but mostly it's forgettable pap by JV rockers that makes a little piece of Santa die inside.
The varsity squad usually avoids holiday schlock, but just about every second-string rock band has made a bad holiday record: '70s mainstays (Jimmy Buffett, Chicago), Canada's B team (Barenaked Ladies, Crash Test Dummies) and burnt classic-rock bands (Jethro Tull, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Marshall Tucker Band). And those are just the artists that are easily categorized by parentheticals.
Recording a legitimately good holiday album is hard, and making a hit holiday album is even harder. So why even try? Because of something psychologists call intermittent reinforcement: basically, people are more likely to repeat a behavior when they're rewarded occasionally, instead of constantly (think of the pathetic sap at the slot machine saying, "Maybe this time I'll win-shit, no. OK, this time for sure-shit. OK, one more time").
Typically, Christmas albums aren't hits, but the ones that hit often hit huge. A holiday classic can buoy even the most sink-worthy of careers, particularly because, unlike non-holiday records, every single calendar year from here until the end of capitalism will bring yet another "hot season" for your record sales. That's why otherwise rational musicians often find themselves in the recording booth asking, "Was I a little flat on that last verse of "Little Drummer Boy?'"
Exhibit 1: Brian Setzer. In the past three years, Setzer has released two Christmas albums and a DVD. This season he's sung carols on Conan, Leno, Danza and the Today Show. His PBS holiday special aired in dozens of cities. He's the official artist for NBC's "Christmas in Rockefeller Center" and is playing Disney World's Christmas Day parade. Sure, his legacy has devolved from "that guy who sings "Rock This Town'" to "that guy who sings the song from the Gap commercial" to "that guy with that song on the Santa Clause 3 soundtrack," but he's snowed in with royalty checks.
While Setzer's the Christmas king for the Katie Couric set, he's elf-sized when compared to Mannheim Steamroller. Steamroller pioneered New Age in the '70s with its series of moderately successful Fresh Aire albums. Then in 1984 came Mannheim Steamroller Christmas. To date, the album's sold more than 6 million copies-that's more than the Killers' Hot Fuss, Coldplay's X&Y and Gwen's new solo smash combined. Since Steamroller Christmas, the band has released nine more Yule-themed albums, many of which have gone double platinum. Naturally, Steamroller also does an annual Christmas tour extravaganza selling out NBA arenas and charging as much as $95 a ticket.
It may be harder for them to enter the kingdom of heaven than a camel to pass through the eye of a needle, but they don't seem to be bitching about it.
It seems unlikely that the Marshall Tucker Band can do for Southern-rock Christmas music what Steamroller did for New Age Christmas music (or what Setzer's doing for holiday big band), but it's not. By closely following Steamroller's career plan, the epic metal band Trans-Siberian Orchestra has proven any band from any genre can crash the Christmas cash party. The guys behind TSO came from Savatage, a very average metal band; now they sell millions and millions (yes, millions and millions) of albums of Spinal Tap-flavored Christmas tunes and play an annual tour as big as Steamroller's.
While we assume rock 'n' roll is immune to the same behavioral patterns and psychological hypotheses that govern lab rats, it's not. And as much as we pray that U2, Beck and Wilco will all resist the urge to remake "Frosty," odds are one of them will. Grandma's got too much Christmas money to spend on bad music.
But grandma should remember two related laws of the universe. Every time you masturbate, God kills a kitten. Every time you play a selection from Hootie Holiday!, Santa snuffs an elf.