Driving home from church today, my kids insisted on listening to an odd genre that has developed over the last 50 years or so. It’s called Christmas music, but I’m not entirely sure why.
The song that was playing while we pulled into our driveway was an 80’s classic that appealed to us to “Feed the wororld, let them know it’s Christmas time.”
Just before that we heard a marvelous carol claiming that the singer had seen mommy kissing Santa Claus. It was very cute.
Don’t get me wrong. I love silver bells and sleigh bells that ring and the whole Christmas experience. The trouble is, yesterday Karen asked me to play some Christmas music so I went to Youtube and came across some Elvis songs.
Now the thing about Elvis is that you know his touch is always perfect. If he wants to manipulate your emotions, he’s going to get you. He adored and lived and was the essence of kitsch.
So I should have been prepared for this.
Even so, listening to his Christmas concert music takes you so far from reality you wonder if there’s even a path back.
So then, having listened to Elvis for a few minutes, the Christmas music on the radio became yellow lines on black velvet under a black light. Elvis raises your sensitivity to every type of kitsch and sometimes Camp.
Back in 1962, that great and radical literary/artistic critic Susan Sontag wrote a thoughtful, honest, and readable essay called Notes on “Camp.”
She said, “The essence of camp is its love of the unnatural: of artifice and exaggeration.”
Back then she could say, “Apart from a lazy two-page sketch in Christopher Isherwood’s novel The World in the Evening (1954) it has hardly broken into print.”
I have the feeling she wouldn’t hold to that opinion anymore.
She continues, “To talk about Camp is therefore to betray it. If the betrayal can be defended, it will be for the edification it provides, or the dignity of the conflict it resolves. For myself, I plead the goal of self-edification, and the goad of a sharp conflict in my own sensibility. I am strongly drawn to Camp, and almost as strongly offended by it.”
Precisely. As I write, a Youtube cover of Pet Clarke’s Love, This is My Song is playing on my MacBook. That having ended, the next video is Darlene Love’s All alone on Christmas Day. To embody the exaggeration we are about to experience, Darlene, the singer, calls on the kid from Home Alone, who is sitting at the controls in the studio, asking him if he is ready.
He drops his sun-glasses and, with that James Dean/Fonzie coolness we inflict on our prepubescent movie stars, says, “Let’s roll.” He leans forward and pushes all the controls to their upper limit.
“Artifice and exaggeration.”
In this age when public speakers are expected to avoid the high style like H1N1, everything else is nothing but style. Particularly our worship.
So what? Let me return to Sontag’s essay, because she has things to say.
“Though I am speaking about sensibility only—and about a sensibility that, among other things, converts the serious into the frivolous—these are grave matters.”
Oh sure. How could Michael Jackson and Elvis Presley Christmas songs be a “grave matter?”
I recommend this essay to you, because I have to skip some choice lines, but let me pick it up here:
“To patronize the faculty of taste is to patronize oneself. For taste governs every free—as opposed to rote—human response. Nothing is more decisive. ”
I’d put that last phrase in italics, but I’d rather repeat it.
Nothing is more decisive.
“There is taste in people, visual taste, taste in emotion—and there is taste in acts, taste in morality. Intelligence, as well, is really a kind of taste: taste in ideas.”
Camp places style over content and even disregards the latter. “Camp is a vision of the world in terms of style—but a particular kind of style. It is the love of the exaggerated, the ‘off,’ of things-being-what-they-are-not.”
Later, “To perceive Camp in objects and persons is to understand Being-as-Playing-a-Role. It is the farthest extension, in sensibility, of the metaphor of life as theater.”
This matters because, “camp is the glorification of ‘character.’ The statement is of little importance—except of course, to the person who makes it. What the Camp eye appreciates is the unity, the force of the person.”
Suddenly she is touching on politics and the claims of both right and left about the opposing candidates – or at least potential candidates.
Camp style is serious, but exaggerated. It is fantastic, passionate, naïve. But it is serious. And it is camp because it fails in its seriousness.
It is a painting that tries to reveal heaven and puts clouds in a pure blue sky or moody lights in a house built too close to a river.
It is Swan Lake or Art Nouveau (Sontag’s examples).
It tries to be what it cannot be, so we get a kick out of it.
“Camp is the consistently aesthetic experience of the world. It incarnates a victory of ‘style’ over ‘content,’ aesthetics’ over ‘morality,’ of irony over tragedy.”
Thus Oscar Wilde, perhaps the “father” of camp: “in matters of great importance, the vital element is not sincerity, but style.”
Why do we have so much camp around us?
At least one reason is because of “the culturally oversaturated medium in which contemporary sensibility is schooled. Camp introduces a new standard: artifice as an ideal, theatricality.”
And there we see our idea again, the crucial element of the argument: sensibility or taste.
Ken Myers has probably done more to help Christians understand the importance of sensibility than anybody else I’m aware of. In this essay, Sontag demonstrates how decisive it is in every area of life.
We have the political system we have, for example, because we have a taste for it.
But all is by no means lost. First of all, I believe there is a place for Camp, though one has to be careful with it.
Second, not everything is fighting against good taste. Not everything is excessive, extravagant, unable to fulfill its serious efforts. Yes, Disney is, I would argue, a Camp/Kitsch factor.
So are the publishing companies of contemporary worship songs and music books.
So are almost all Christmas and Easter programs. Nothing could be more Campy than contemporary worship for the simple reason that never have so many people tried to climb so high with so few artistic, spiritual, imaginative, and liturgical resources.
Narnia, however, is not camp. Nor is Middle Earth, though Peter Jackson’s version frequently Camps out.
But pop Christmas music…
Camp or Kitsch? For there is a difference, though I have to think and read more to grasp the refinement.
I think most of it is kitsch and here’s why. Most doesn’t try to be serious and fail. Most avoids the sanctity of Christmas altogether.
So it can be fun to listen to and add a touch of sentimentality to a Sunday evening around the tree with gingerbread men and egg nog. But it doesn’t raise itself to the level of Camp.
Not very often anyway. To do that, it would have to mention Jesus.