Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Sir Lemming's Guide To Christmas Music

Christmas is not only one of the biggest holidays of the year, it's also undeniably the most musical. There are more songs dedicated to the various traditional Christmas stories -- and then even Christmas itself -- than just about any other specific topic in the world. And there are also songs about winter in general that have been accepted into the canon of Christmas songs, such as "Let it Snow" and "Winter Wonderland". I guess when a song only seems appropriate to play during winter, it naturally gets absorbed into this other set of songs that can only be played in December.

But like any broad category of songs, there are good ones and bad ones. And because Christmas songs are some of the most covered songs of all time, surpassing even The Beatles' catalogue, there are good and bad versions of just about all of them. So I have taken it upon myself to apply criticism to a vast but rarely evaluated sector of music. And no, I do not guarantee that all of this criticism is constructive.

  • I'm going to start with the fundamentals: music that should be part of your Christmas tradition if it isn't already. Michael W. Smith's "Christmas" is pretty much the best Christmas music ever. The album is a symphonic classical pop suite unlike anything else out there, and it's hard to imagine it being improved upon even though it uses some cheesy late-'80s synth, which is no small feat. This is not to be confused with his later "Christmastime". It's a respectable effort that doesn't attempt to duplicate the previous album's strengths, and it does have some great orchestral tracks, but it's still pretty hard to stomach his cartoony renditions of "Jingle Bells" and "Frosty the Snowman". I know he was going for something different, but after the classy and magnificent "Christmas", it just kind of eats your soul a little.

  • Vince Guaraldi's Charlie Brown Christmas soundtrack is also great, but I can't think of anything interesting to say about it.

  • Buy the Trans-Siberian Orchestra's trilogy of Christmas CDs. Then rip them to your computer and delete all the tracks with singing in them. You'll end up with approximately 80 minutes of great rock arrangements of Christmas songs, and 0 minutes of melodramatic power ballads about homeless children on street corners in front of city bars. Then burn that to a CD. Sounds oddly specific, you say? Well, that's because I did it. And it's the best Trans-Siberian Orchestra album ever!

  • If you're in the process of caroling and you decide to sing "The First Noel", watch out for verses 2-4. It's like a hedge maze, made out of syllables instead of hedges.

  • "O Holy Night" kicks butt. Always has, always will. But not when Celine Dion sings it. Who knew that the word "Noel" could be pronounced "Noahrrael"? And who allowed Celine Dion to get anywhere near one of our most cherished songs? Isn't that what the Canadian border is for? While I'm at it, I should probably give Josh Groban a mention. Actually, you can replace that last word with "savage beating", but let's take this one step at a time.

  • Josh Groban is the most boring and completely interchangeable singer of the century. He's the 22-year-old pop star who sings like a 72-year-old pastor. The fact that he's popular with anyone other than aging grandmothers with hearing aids baffles me. I don't think I'd enjoy Josh Groban even if you sawed my ears off, stuck tubes in the blood-caked holes, and literally pumped concentrated Alzheimer's Disease into my brain for a week so that I'd forget what good music sounded like. The worst part is that he also did a song on the Polar Express soundtrack (which I guess is appropriate, because like the characters in that movie, he's an emotionless approximation of an actual human being.) But he gets double duty on Christmas radio because of this. I hope the next person who raises him up so he can stand on a mountain runs away while he isn't looking.

  • While I'm feeling cheery, let's talk about "Christmas Shoes". "Christmas Shoes" is a conglomerate of every horrible Christmas pop ballad trope you can name. Let's run through the checklist:
    It's a story told in song form. Not every song has to be poetry, but basic narrative prose like this is rarely a good sign. After a while it just starts to sound silly, because the singer is describing mundane actions while trying to make it sound melodic and emotional. "So I reached into my pocket, and I found a few coins, blah blah blah..." See "Trapped In The Closet" for the ultimate example.
    It's about helping poverty-stricken children. This is a noble cause that you should should probably be donating more money to than you currently do, but let's be honest, there's really nothing compelling about the idea of some dude giving a kid money. It's a nice message that always makes for boring music. See also "Do They Know It's Christmas?"
    In similarly manipulative fashion, the child in the narrative is a stereotypical stock character, a picture of absolute purity and innocence. Again, not compelling. Naturally, he calls his mother "Mama". I know a song doesn't have time to dive into moral and emotional complexity, especially when it comes to a child, but this is just insultingly clichéd.
    It just keeps getting worse: after the song's middle section, a children's choir repeats the chorus. I don't think I need to elaborate on this. You've heard it a million times, and you know you hate it.
    After THAT, a sole child sings the last line of the song, while the same electric piano that's been in every pop ballad since 1985 plays the last few notes in a slowing tempo, then pauses, and then hits the final note.
    If I've left out any clichés, don't worry: they're there.
    I'm not so jaded that I wouldn't be at least slightly moved by this story if somebody related it as an anecdote, but as a song, it fails.

  • If you ever read the line "the fire is slowly dying" out of context, would you assume it's a Christmas song or a death metal song?

  • Trivia time! There are actually three versions of "Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas": the benign, cheerful modern version, the bittersweet version heard in the film "Meet Me In St. Louis", and the surprisingly dark version that never made it past the writing stage. I won't give all the details here -- that's what Wikipedia is for -- but just know that the first line of the original version was "Have yourself a merry little Christmas; it may be your last." Yikes.

  • "Blue Christmas" is nothing more than a random Elvis song with the word "Christmas" in it. I'm just sayin'. It's still probably better than "Jingle Bell Rock", though. I mean, jingle-horse? Really? That makes about as much sense as Santa Claus coming down Santa Claus Lane. Who cares about Santa driving down ONE street? A street that I can only assume is located at the North Pole? I thought the fact that he goes around the entire world was the thing people are supposed to get excited about. Christmas songs don't have to make sense, but I don't understand how some of these things even made past the stream-of-consciousness stage.

  • And can we stop it with "River" already? This song seems to have picked up steam in recent years, with more radio play and cover versions than ever before. If the name isn't familiar to you, this is that song that features the confusing repeated line "I wish I had a river I could skate away on." The song isn't so terrible in and of itself, but come on, does EVERY song that's even tangentially related to Christmas have to be covered by a million artists and played over and over on the radio from November to December? This song is not a Christmas classic. Just accept it.

  • And lastly, I'd like to be serious for a moment: There's an issue that affects thousands of people across the nation, especially during this time of year. We can no longer turn a blind eye. And with your help, I would like to pass a Constitutional amendment to change the name of "The Christmas Song" to "Chestnuts Roasting On An Open Fire". Or, at the very least, "Chestnuts (Roasting On An Open Fire)". For too long this song has attempted to present itself as the official anthem of the season. It isn't. There's nothing special about it. So please... let us never refer to this song as "The Christmas Song" again.

Merry Christmas.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

A Much Better Article About Piracy

Not that I thought my little rant about piracy was revolutionary or anything, but TweakGuides just posted an article about piracy that puts mine to shame: http://www.tweakguides.com/Piracy_1.html

Even if you're on the side of pirates -- or perhaps especially -- you really should read this article so that you can get your facts straight. It makes several claims that really threaten to shatter the most prevalent anti-DRM arguments out there, and so you owe it to yourself to check this stuff out instead of blindly accepting what you've heard from some guy on a forum. The author of the article clearly has his own opinion on the matter, and one could argue that it "taints" his perspective, but he's up front about it and he backs it up with tons of data that you can't just ignore.

It is a very long article, so I'll summarize most of its major points:
The claim that DRM "doesn't work" because it hasn't completely stopped piracy is akin to saying locks don't work because skilled thieves can still break them. DRM is a deterrent, designed to minimize piracy in the first few weeks of a game's release, and especially to prevent pre-release piracy. The claim that piracy can be stopped by making better games also appears to be flawed, as data suggests that the most pirated games are also the most popular and critically-acclaimed ones out there. (I was particularly infuriated to discover that World of Goo has been heavily pirated; it's made by an independent developer -- literally 3 people -- and it's generally agreed to be an incredible game.) Sales figures appear to indicate that piracy is indeed hurting the PC games industry, though of course this can always be debated, since there are several other reasons that people prefer console gaming. (Personally, I feel this is the one weak point in the article, but it's not a crucial one, and it's still hard to argue that piracy has NO negative impact on sales.) DRM may be inconvenient and may cause some problems for legitimate customers that are quite unfortunate, even unacceptable, but most of these issues have been resolved or are being worked on, and the claim that they install "spyware" and "rootkits" is largely untrue. (This is unlike what Sony did with music CDs a few years ago. PC Gamer also confirmed this in their latest issue.) Overall, there are a few things both sides can work on to resolve this issue, but it involves keeping a level head and examining the facts rather than spreading rumors and buying into propaganda. DRM needs to evolve into something that's less obtrusive to the legitimate consumer, but there are very legitimate reasons for its existence, which can't simply be ignored or circumvented if we want the PC gaming industry to continue to thrive. That is, unless we want PC gaming to consist of nothing more than shoddy console ports, MMOs, and casual games.

Monday, December 08, 2008

'Twas the Night Before [The Holidays]

At one time or another you've probably seen someone rant about people saying "Happy Holidays" instead of "Merry Christmas". Well, get ready to see it again. But this may be more even-handed than you're used to, because I have two hands, and two is an even number.

I understand what stores are trying to do at this time of year. There are other religiously derived celebrations in December aside from Christmas, and so if you want to maximize your consumer appeal, you try to include everyone. I can accept that. And I can accept an office party being called a "Holiday Party" or saying "Happy Holidays" to someone you don't know too well. (On the other hand, I think it would be ridiculous for anyone to feel shame for accidentally wishing someone a Merry Christmas. Some people act as if this is the same thing as walking up to a Jewish guy and doing a Nazi salute.)

But the real problem I have is when people take things that are obviously Christmas-related and substitute the word "Holiday" in there. If you call a Christmas tree a Holiday tree, you are delusional. Sure, it may have nothing to do with Jesus, but it does have to do with Christmas, one way or another. What the heck else is it? Stop lying. It's just silly. Would you call A Christmas Story a "holiday" movie? Who does that help?

Anything that celebrates Jesus or Santa Claus in December is a Christmas thing and the word "Christmas" should never be removed from it. And no one should feel afraid or guilty about celebrating Christmas as much as they want. Sure, those who celebrate other holidays might feel left out, but what do you expect? That's what country you're in. Christmas is deeply ingrained in American (and much of European) culture, both for Christians and many non-Christians. The great thing is that you're free to celebrate whatever you want to celebrate. But for that to work, you have to accept the possibility that you'll be outnumbered.

Let's not be babies about this, people. Everyone's responsible for their own holiday cheer. Celebrate the season in whatever way feels right to you (as long as it doesn't involve murder) and let the rest work itself out. Incidentally, this is also good advice for those who feel that Christmas "just isn't doing it for you" anymore.

Thursday, December 04, 2008

I Have a DRM

Isn't it fun to be part of a boycott? You get to feel like a rebel, and you achieve this feeling by doing nothing! Like, by definition. It's perfect!

You know what else is fun? Video games. Playing them. On my PC.

Today, EA released a DRM De-Authorization tool for Red Alert 3. It guarantees that you'll be able to reinstall the game on as many computers as you want, as long as you only do 5 at a time. And the game still doesn't require a disc in the drive to play (as has been the case since it was first released).

As you've probably already guessed, this hasn't placated fussy PC gamers. (Which is to say, approximately all PC gamers.) They're still crying for EA's blood. They want DRM-free PC games and they want 'em now. Until then, they threaten, they will pirate PC games instead of buying them.

Okay, I totally get where they're coming from. DRM is a terrible solution to game piracy, just like it was a terrible solution to music piracy. I want to see it gone just as much as anyone else does; it simply doesn't work, and it makes the legitimate consumer feel like a criminal.

But I also feel obligated to support the developers of PC games. I mean, this seems like common sense to me, unless being a fan of something really does consist solely of complaining about it. Sure, I want EA to get the message that DRM is terrible, but isn't there a more productive way? As in, "not destructive"? Because guess what: if nobody buys PC games, it will in fact destroy the PC gaming industry. That's how it works.

Is that a risk you're willing to take? It shouldn't be. Because EA won't care. They'll just continue developing console games and make trillions off of it. They can afford to lose the PC market, even if that's a completely bone-headed and avoidable move on their part. And if that happens, you can play the blame game all you want; it doesn't matter. Is it going to happen? Probably not. But I don't feel comfortable pushing things in that direction, especially at a time when console gaming is bigger than ever. This isn't as simple as the music DRM issue was; companies had nowhere else to turn in that case, and you could still support the artists through concerts and merchandise.

So how do we send EA the message? I don't know. All I know is how I don't want to do it. I take no issue with people who download games illegally to bypass idiotic copy protection schemes, but only if they also buy the games to properly reward the devlopers for making them. That's the proper solution, although frankly, I don't even see the need for the download. Most current DRMs don't actually install harmful rootkits onto your computer (though there are exceptions) and are basically just CD Key checkers, and they really don't affect my life in any way. At worst, they require me to have the disc in, which I admit is a nag that castrates one of the potential benefits of PC gaming, but I can live with it. But that's just me. If you really must bypass DRM to ease your mind, please only do so after paying for the game. It may not send EA the clearest message, but it's still the right thing to do. We need to wage this war without civilian casualties.

PS: Valve seems to have figured out a method of verification that doesn't use irritating DRM, and most PC gamers seem to accept it. Yeah, everyone whined about Steam when it first came out, but it's been improved since then. The games that use Steam are completely up-front about the fact that it's being installed, they only verify your CD key upon installation, and there's no real install limit. It's actually not all that different from the DRM used in Red Alert 3, so there's definitely a good way to go about this. It would be great if EA could follow the example.