Sunday, December 7, 2008

What Made Him Think a Baby Would Like Drumming?

I'm reprinting this post from my other blog (on MySpace) from December 6, 2007, for several reasons. First, I have since figured out who performed that god-awful version of Little Drummer Boy, second, because I my former MySpace blog isn't very link-friendly, and third, because it's a good post, but it probably merits some editing. So, yes, this is part hubris.

But it's funny hubris.



There are songs out there whose narrative evokes wonder and interpretation throughout the ages. Who hasn't sought the meaning behind American Pie by Don McLean or The Beatles' I am the Walrus, for example. Songs of such complexity, such compelling story, that they capture the imagination and force the listener to question the deep, resonant meaning at the heart of it.

Little Drummer Boy is not one of these songs. It's pretty straightforward.

And yet, today I heard a cover of it on muzak by a group who seemed to not understand what the song is about, musically or otherwise. And this staggers my brain, because what is there to "get" about it? Little boy plays the drum, gets caught up with a group going to see this newborn king somewhere, sees the baby, emotes, realizes he hasn't brought a gift (which is apparently of some importance where these songs are concerned), plays the drum instead, the child--strangely not angry about the loud noise--who just happens to be Baby Jesus, smiles at the drummer boy and all is right in the world. Yippee. Kind of a stupid, yes. No mention of drums or drummer boys in the source material, but whatever--it's Christmas.

From a musical standpoint, the song is a simple repetition of verses. It has no chorus, but each line refrains to "Parum-pa-pum-pum", which is repeated dramatically at the end of each verse before throwing in one last line to tie the whole verse together. The style is very similar to old folk tunes, the hook is catchy enough, it's a sweet story even if it is complete bunk, and there you have it. If you can't hold all of that in your head, that's kind of sad. If you are a professional in the music business and can't grasp all this, then you need to consider a career change. If you are a professional in the music industry who knows this song, decides to record a version of it to be released commercially, and still don't have any idea what this song is about, then you must be Destiny's Child.

This may be the worst ever Christmas song. This includes Jingle Bells as sung by dogs. Give it a listen. The first belly-laugh is around 1:24.

"Parum-pa-pum-pum" is the equivalent of a chorus for this song, chaining the narrative together and propelling the story ahead, all the while reminding us what the song is about. It should work out nicely for an R&B song, because R&B singers, as I'm fond of pointing out, all forgot what choruses were sometime in the mid-90's. Modern R&B is generally a string of monosyllabic, however heartfelt, sentiments used as vocal acrobatics and cordoned off in blocks that are delineated by the absence or presence of back-up singers. Let it go for about four and a half minutes (or substantially longer if this is an R. Kelly song), against a background loop of... whatever, and you've got a Grammy-winner. It's pretty sad--in fact, just talking about it is making me yen for Boys II Men a little.


And yet, even this crude formula could be applied successfully (and no doubt has) to such a simple song as Little Drummer Boy. The parum's become a vessel that edges the song along, and every third set of parum's becomes an abstract climactic build, perfect for showing off those tuned vocalists and their impossibly accurate back-up singers. Catch your breath and on the next verse, each time getting a little bit crazier, until finally it builds up to one thundering orgasm of "parum" and energy and, erm, piety... then laying back for a smoke with that cathartic final line "Then he smiled at me, me and my drum."

Destiny's Child's rendition sounds very much like someone handed the girls a lyric sheet and said "pretend like you have no idea what this song is supposed to sound like and... we're rolling..." And it's all scattershot, really, they just sing bits of the first verse and a half over and over until they decide to stop singing.

So, the arrangement is out there. And by "out there", I mean "impossible to listen to with a straight face". But the lyrics were what made me laugh out loud. I know what you're thinking--how could anyone screw up the lyrics to a song like Little Drummer Boy? Well, let me explain. First, there's the slight issue of gender identification. This version was sung by females, and frequently "boy" is replaced with "girl" such as in the line "I am a poor boy, too", which is perfectly fine, but it causes some titular consternation. The phrase "Little Drummer Boy" does not actually appear anywhere in the lyrics, but if the narrator identifies herself as female then perhaps that version of the song ought to be called "Little Drummer Girl".

And you know, I don't have a problem with that either. Here's my issue: not only did the singer identify herself as "a poor girl", she also was constantly making references to the drummer boy! As though there were multiple drummers there celebrating the savior's birth! Hell, we brought a whole drum line and coordinated a routine; mind if we play it out in the field there? No wonder there was no room at the inn! There was a marching band conference in town!!

But wait, there's more.

Take this line for example: "Then he smiled at me, the little drummer boy smiled at me!" The artist here seems to not realize that Jesus and the Little Drummer Boy are TWO DIFFERENT PEOPLE! So there's Jesus, freshly born, curled up in swaddling clothes, wailin' on the skins like John Bonham... it doesn't work. But the clincher, the laugh-out-loud-and-piss-your-pants part of the song came earlier. At around 1:24.

"Shall I play for him? parum-pa-pum pum, rum-pa-pum-pum... every night."

Every night?

Did someone think this Christmas carol was a bit short on sexual tension? Happy birthday Jesus, I'm your present! What the hell kind of nonsense is this? I know that people "love" Jesus. I get that. But I don't think they mean sexually. But what the hell, suppose we accepted that on faith as well--that someone out there might be sexually attracted to their "messiah". It's vaguely creepy, but I can understand how it might happen. But someone sidling up to a newborn infant Jesus--days old--and wanting to get all freaky with the savior? Really?

Seriously, you cannot go mixing religion and pedophilia like that! It won't fly.

At least, not in the Protestant Church...


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