On my recent visit to NYC, I stayed with a designer in Williamsburg, Brooklyn – a hotbed of hipster culture. And on several occasions, friends told me that I would make a good hipster. This seriously amused me. I have a weird relationship to hipsterdom: I am drawn to its intellect, fascinated by its artistry, and often entertained by its irony – but I will always be on the margins of this subculture. The overbearing ennui is simply not for me.
I have an accordingly conflicted relationship to A Very She & Him Christmas, which I started listening to the day after Thanksgiving. Zooey Deschanel and M. Ward’s album of 12 Christmas classics illuminates in the very best and worst of hipster culture. From the very album title, this indie duo overwrites and undermines the “Merry” of Christmas with a heavy dose of irony about the “most wonderful time of the year.” Check out Deschanel and Ward’s expressions on the album cover, as well: averting their eyes, deferring judgment with blank expressions. “We made a Christmas album, but it’s totally like whatever.”
A Very She & Him Christmas left me cold and a little irritated after the first listen. As cliche as it may be, Christmas is one of my favorite times of the year, particularly because music – whether sacred or secular – is such a ritual part of the holiday. She & Him seemed to be sucking the spirit out of the season with this album of careless, throwaway tracks.
Included in this secular set of songs are several of the most depressing holiday favorites, such as “Blue Christmas” and “I’ll Be Home for Christmas.” Taken at oppressively slow tempi, even sappy sentimental songs like “The Christmas Waltz” and “Silver Bells” come across as flat and utterly futile attempts at happiness. Meanwhile, a playful gender-reversed “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” is taken at such breakneck speed that Zooey Deschanel spits out the lyrics with little musicality.
Oh, Zooey Deschanel. How I admire her quirky charm and intellect; how I respect her successfully bridging that gap between actor and musician. But her careless vocals are my greatest frustration with A Very She & Him Christmas. Songs seem to have been recorded in a single take, which often sounds sloppy rather than delightfully amateur. In one of the most vocally and instrumentally mechanical tracks of the album, Deschanel jerks rather than rocks around the Christmas tree. M. Ward sets Deschanel up for vocal failure on “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” and “The Christmas Song,” which are arranged in depressing keys too low for her voice. Even Deschanel’s layered harmonies – featured most prominently in “Christmas Day” – fail to lift the music to angelic heights.
I exaggerate, of course. A Very She & Him Christmas isn’t a bad album. The diverse instrumental textures, from rockabilly band to solo ukulele, keep things interesting; and the album is a welcome antidote to oppressively happy holiday hits. However, A Very She & Him Christmas remains a frustrating album for me – if only because I know She & Him are capable of making more professional and more passionate music.
Since that first encounter, I have been unable to listen to A Very She & Him Christmas without singing along, harmonizing with the album, almost in some odd attempt to elevate its spirits. My relationship to this album says a lot about my weird relationship to hipsters, which is both an affective embrace of the subculture and a critical distance. If I am on the margins of hipster subculture, then I am also on the margins of a musical theater subculture that could teach hipsters a thing or two. While the hipster bemoans a futile search for authenticity, the show queen celebrates the theatricality of life; while the hipster and sees the inevitable disappointments of Christmas, the show queen indulges in the musicality of the season.
A Very She & Him Christmas brings ironic gravity to the holidays, but perhaps She & Him could balance that gravity with some advice from Zooey Deschanel’s past: “The best way to spread Christmas cheer is singing loud for all to hear.” The holidays are never all sugar plums and candy canes, but sometimes in the very act of singing, we can find a momentary happiness that is at once utterly theatrical and utterly authentic. Let’s aim for those luminous moments this holiday season.