You purists can scoff, but I think Christmas with the Cambridge Singers is a great Christmas album. “What sweeter music” never fails to bring me back to the first time I heard it: December, fifteen years ago, when I was broke and desperately unhappy as a missionary in a bad companionship and as a district leader trying to guide the proselytizing efforts of five missionaries and three pathological nihilists. “What sweeter music can we bring, / Than a carol, for to sing / The birth of this our heavenly King?” You might think of buying a Volvo, but I smell the mildew of a missionary apartment that was never aired out properly, my throat gets sore in memory of that winter when I lost my voice and could not speak for days, and I recall feeling overwhelmed by inadequacy and isolation.
There are other examples. Sandra Boynton’s Dog Train is a work of absurd genius, a picture book with an accompanying CD where serious pop musicians sing pitch-perfect songs about the world as seen and distorted through the eyes of pre-schoolers. We borrowed it from the library this last summer, and our kids seemed to play it non-stop for weeks. Those were the same weeks when the physical exertion of packing boxes into storage and sleeping on an air mattress was turning into psychic exhaustion as we prepared for our most recent move. Then there’s a whole list of German and English pop music that I first listened to during the soul-crushing year when I was finishing my dissertation and failing to attract any attention whatsoever from potential employers. Songs that should be ideal specimens of creampuff superficiality from the 80s and 90s instead remind me of frustration and failure.
What do you do when beautiful, evocative music comes to evoke bad memories? When a catchy melody you just can’t stop humming becomes permanently associated with a name you can hardly stand to hear?
Replacement therapy sometimes works. Before we were engaged, before we even admitted to each other that we were dating, I bought Christmas with the Cambridge Singers for Rose, and now that music has some good memories attached to it. This year, we’re giving our kids Dog Train, so maybe in the future we can think of it not as the dirge that helped fill the empty carcass of our house but as the soundtrack of a Christmas season heavy laden with wonder in our new home. As for the pop music–sometimes a dose of melancholy provides just the right accent for high-gloss pop.
Do you have any favorite music with unfortunate associations? Is it on your Christmas list this year?