Driven crazy by Christmas music

Guest post by Michael Johnson

Out of nowhere this morning, the ghost of John Cage and his creative genius visited me at a supermarket in Bordeaux, France. I was so glad to be back in touch with the old goat. It had been a while.

But along with a thousand other shoppers jostling for Yuletide goodies, I was being hammered by “Christmas Music”, a Muzak track of Jingle Bells and Silent Night (in English) as I emptied my wallet to bring champagne and foie gras to my home.

Suddenly I heard John whisper in my ear, “Tell them to play 4’33”.” Aha, I thought, that’s the perfect adaptation of a contemporary classic with the trashy earworms we must abide year after year after year. Is there any tune as trite as “Silent Night”? “Adeste Fidelis” and — oh no — “Little Drummer Boy” ! Are there any songs as perfect for the fine hand of John Cage? Silence was his byword, his bible, his autobiography.

I have trotted around the globe for most of my life, finally landing in Bordeaux, which seemed a safe haven from tacky popular culture and seasonal music-making. But it was another disappointment a few years ago to come face-to-face with musical globalization – American tastelessness transported into the heart of Southwest France, the home of Ravel, the birthplace of the Labèque sisters piano duo, the cradle of great writing and great thinking, Mauriac, Montaigne, Montesquieu. The home of soprano Natalie Dessaye, conductor Paul Daniel, and for many years, the adopted city of Roberto Benzi.

Hélas (as the French say), the greatness of the past is being swamped by the dumber tide of the present. Those of us who yearn for a Bach cantata (why not?) cannot even switch off the trash like a smart phone, the other plague of our time. Trivality is in the air, everywhere.

It’s hard to escape the earworm at this time of year, with shopping malls and public streets bombarding us. The less you like these tired tunes, the longer they hang around in the memory cells, circling the mind like fruit flies over an orange.

The late neurologist Oliver Sacks wrote in “Musicophilia” that these awful tunes have subverted the brain, forcing it to fire repetitively. . . “as may happen with a tic or a seizure.”

Sacks quotes a patient recalling a bout of earworms. The song “Love and Marriage” took possession of the man for ten days, leading him to desperate efforts to shut it off: “I jumped up and down. I counted to a hundred. I splashed water on my face. I tried talking loudly to myself, plugging my ears.” It finally subsided, only to return when he told Sacks about it.

Funny. That just happened to me this morning while shopping.

Michael Johnson is a music critic with particular interest in piano. He worked as a reporter and editor in New York, Moscow, Paris and London over his writing career. He is the author of five books and divides his time between Boston and Bordeaux.

Illustration by Michael Johnson


  1. The usual culprits do depress in a curiously offensive way. However, this year I performed ‘Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas’ with a brilliant blues singer and the arrangement really got to me in a lovely way.
    A very happy Christmas Fran, with all best wishes for a great year ahead.

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