John Roderick (the Long Winters) Talks Kelly Clarkson’s Wrapped in Red

There’s no longer a monolithic mass culture in America. The old “melting pot” where Americans tried to blend together into a soup has been replaced...

There’s no longer a monolithic mass culture in America. The old “melting pot” where Americans tried to blend together into a soup has been replaced with a vegetable tray, where Americans maintain their raw celery or broccoli values. We don’t evolve our old customs into new ideas, we cling to them like chimp babies to terrycloth moms. We can’t agree on authors, politics or “science” because truth is relative and all truths are equivalent. We keep paying lip-service to consensus but only because we want to sound smart. America now is an open star-cluster, bound by gravity, crisscrossing and cursing and borrowing from each other but never really making a whole.

I can’t really be cynical about Kelly Clarkson’s Christmas album, Wrapped in Red, as much as it’s my instinct to be, because it would be culturally insensitive to suppose I could ever understand it. This Christmas album is not intended for me. It is not written in a language I understand or could ever understand. My America long ago stopped effectively communicating with the America that produced and/or consumes Kelly Clarkson’s Christmas album. The ironic smirking of Williamsburg/Silverlake snob culture may as well be clicks and pops to the Nashville/Dallas axis of earnest insincerity. I have no option but to respect the difference, the “otherness,” and try to inhabit the controversy. Kelly Clarkson, a white country artist from Texas — at first blush a member of the same privileged white uberkultur as I am — is in fact as removed from my world as we both are from the imams of Islamabad or the glowing anemones of the Marianas Trench.

For instance, I do not know when blonde country artists from Texas started singing like Mariah Carey being eaten out by Tommy Mottola. Did that happen at some point while I was waiting for Sufjan Stevens to release the other 47 albums named after US states that he promised us back in 2005? I have to be honest and say that Kelly Clarkson has a nice, sexy voice, but I don’t know why she’s singing about Christmas in such a sexy way. It feels dirty. It feels… un-Christian. I mean, I don’t know if Kelly Clarkson is a Christian or whether that even matters but Christmas albums are one of those things people from Nashville think people from Seattle are supposed to get upset about because they supposedly make our workplaces unsafe for animists and Falun Gongs. Christmas albums are under attack from people on California school boards with hyphenated names! Frankly, although I don’t feel threatened by Christmas albums, I’m very confused about Christian rock in general and lack the education necessary to thoughtfully comment. All the youth pastors got turntables and distortion boxes and now suddenly the terrifying taboo riddims of rock n’ roll are OK? I don’t get that. I mean, I don’t want to be insensitive, but it seems hypocritical. Either these riddums are taboo or they’re not. Anyway, it’s clear I do not have the cultural knowledge or immersion to understand this vernacular.

Mannheim Steamroller I understand. A Mannheim Steamroller Christmas sounds exactly like what it is: an electro-classical New Age Christmas record made by an advertising jingle-writer from Nebraska. Strangely enough, Chip Davis, the founder of Mannheim Steamroller, was also the songwriter behind the completely fictitious country music star C.W. McCall and his 1975 #1 hit “Convoy,” so that either proves my cultural dis-overlap/star-cluster theory or refutes it. Either way, the incongruity of a plains-state advertising executive writing both the theme to a Kris Kristofferson trucker movie and a proto-steampunk bleep-bloop Xmas album is somehow easier for me to understand and enjoy than of a shiksa Texas millennial contest-winner singing lewd gospel-voiced country-rock Christmas carols. If you told me that Kelly Clarkson was an invention of a Nebraskan jingle-writer I would be expected to smirk knowingly because that conforms to the blue-state counter-narrative of my own narrative of hipster superiority. But Kelly Clarkson is real.

If there is no such thing as an American mass-culture then why are millions of eggnog-drunk people crying sentimental tears to a version of “Silent Night” performed in the style of Solange Knowles doing the National Anthem at a San Diego Padres season-opener? I’m refuting my own argument now. The lasso designed by the Appropriation-Industrial Complex to rope as many Juicy Couture-clad teenaged girls and their divorced moms as possible is working! Every single demographic is represented, and I’m just talking about the entertainment lawyers! There is a mass-culture, and it is experiencing the world with a set of values so far removed from mine that it is an effective parallel universe proof. Einstein was right! I could be more easily convinced of the importance of nurturing the practice of female circumcision than I could be entreated to watch a single episode of American Idol, yet here we are ten years and 30,000,000 albums later and Kelly Clarkson is writhing her way through a Christmas album and pretty much every American with a stick-figure family on the back of their SUV will own a copy.

I feel like there’s no truth to most conspiracy theories because people just aren’t smart enough to pull most of the good ones off. No way. Kelly Clarkson isn’t the product of any one master plan, she is the product of hundreds of people all diligently following the money until it leads them all to Smaug’s treasure hoard where they roll around and Smaug pant-pants in their ears. There have never been so many sequins on things as there are now. Have you noticed this? Sequins are on baby clothes, on grandma dresses, just splooging all over everything. If our stores and radios say anything about us, the thing that unites the greatest number of Americans is a consensus that women should SPARKLE and men should wear some kind of hat. Kelly Clarkson’s album is called Wrapped in Red and I am left to conclude that SHE is the present, and I, the listener, am meant to unwrap her and consume her. The humorlessness of my ivory-tower neo-feminist education requires that I point this out.

I cannot inhabit the viewpoint of Kelly Clarkson. I admit that she is probably a nice person who has gay friends and voted for Obama, but I have more in common with the Saudi Arabian guy who did a Weird Al-style Bob Marley parody a few months ago called “No Woman, No Drive.” At least he perceives that he is within a ludicrous culture. I cannot really review this album because I am from a parallel universe and it wouldn’t be fair. Last year I wrote and recorded a Christmas album with my friend Jonathan Coulton called One Christmas at a Time. We tried sincerely to make an album that reflected our actual feelings about the holidays, and as such we made a rock record that vaguely refers to several Christmas ideas and problems but is in no way a sacred or reverent work. It was a colossal misstep. Turns out even our fans didn’t really want to hear us be smart and thoughtful about the holidays, they just wanted us to do a normal Christmas album, or nothing, or shut up, or fake orgasm to “Little Drummer Boy.” Needless to say, we didn’t sell a ton of these albums. We were proud of them, and happy we got a chance to write songs together and make music, but we felt like dummies for trying to reinvent the wheel.

The Wheel does not want to be fucked with. 

John Roderick is the singer of the Long Winters. He has a podcast called Roderick on the Line.