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Top 40 Philosophy: Nat King Cole, “The Christmas Song”

Posted in Friendly Philosophy, Music, and Top 40 Philosophy

According to the Billboard Holiday Albums chart (as I was writing this), we should do a song from Pentatonix’s first Christmas album. But we already did Pentatonix on Monday. The next album on the chart is the amusingly-titled, Ellen’s The Only Christmas Album You’ll Ever Need, Volume 1. But (of course) it’s just a collection of other people’s songs.

So, instead of doing the fifth album on the Holiday Albums chart, let’s do the fifth song (as of when I wrote this) on the Holiday 100 singles chart: Nat King Cole’s “The Christmas Song.”

Nat King Cole and Andy Williams are my two favorite voices — except for Billie Holiday. I mean, it’s hard not to believe in the existence of intrinsic value after listening to those three sing.

The chords for this song are insane, as anyone who’s ever tried to play it knows. (Thanks a lot, Mel Tormé.) But I, as usual, want to talk about the lyrics.

Nostalgia for Something New

One of the things that’s interesting about Christmas songs from the 40s-60s (this one is from the 40s) is that they help define the feel and atmosphere of Christmas for me, even though I know:

(a) Christmas was celebrated long before they were written, and
(b) they belong to an era in which Christmas was rebranded as “The Annual Return of Santa Clause.”

I can’t imagine Christmas without these songs, so I’m glad they had been added to the Christmas mix by the time I was born — even if it means I don’t get the original recipe.

For Christians like me, of course, Christmas is primarily a time about looking back to the beginning. (We’ve talked before — when analyzing the Beatles — about whether or not to judge things by where they come from, where they’re going, or what they are in themselves.) But even for non-Christians, as “The Christmas Song” brilliantly shows, Christmas is about reliving childhood excitement and wonder.

Childish Stuff

There is a tendency to see the things you’ve outgrown as being of less value than you originally thought (see my discussion of Nirvana and angst). Rattles are fascinating for infants, and peekaboo is hilarious to babies, but what’s actually fascinating is quantum mechanics, and what’s actually hilarious is 30 Rock. Kids movies, furthermore, are just kid’s movies. The really good films are made for mature audiences. And young adult fiction is dumbed down. The really good books are written for the parents of the kids reading the YA books.

When we grow out of something, and cease to find it interesting, it has lost its value to us. But this is extrinsic value. And we are often able to experience its original value again if we share an experience of it with a child. (Intersubjectivity again!)

Peekaboo really is hilarious when you’re playing it with a baby. Disney cartoons really are quality entertainment when you’re watching them with kids.

The question, then, is whether the value was there all along, and you had just lost the ability to see it without help. Perhaps nostalgia can sometimes be a signal that we have grown callous, not that we have grown up.

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The Hidden Track

Q: What kind of philosophy were we doing today?

A: Value Theory.

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