“I’m singing Marshmallow World for real,” says Mark Steyn. “I’m not part of the great swamp of irony into which pop culture is sinking.” Making fun of corny, happy Christmas songs is a cottage industry, as Stephen Colbert will prove on Nov. 23 when he does his musical Christmas-special parody A Colbert Christmas: The Greatest Gift of All. But Steyn, during his recent brush with the Canadian Islamic Congress, took his mind off his troubles by teaming with British musical-comedy actress Jessica Martin (who has starred in such West End hits as Me And My Girl) for a self-produced recording of It’s a Marshmallow World, available in MP3 and CD from his website steynonline.com. Along with a self-published book called A Song For the Season, a survey of holiday-related songs, it’s his attempt to strike a blow for a proudly unironic approach to Christmas pop. If, as Steyn has argued in these pages, the future belongs to Islam, then the past belongs to songs with lyrics like, “it’s a yum-yummy world made for sweethearts.”
Marshmallow World, a cover of a 1949 song that Steyn calls “a second-tier, second-rank standard,” is accompanied by all the orchestral sounds that signify a merry musical Christmas: glockenspiels, sleigh bells, triangles, and inoffensive brass fanfares. The Anglo-Canadian-American Steyn sounds surprisingly Australian when he sings, but otherwise it’s a good approximation of the spirit of the holiday recordings of such anti-ironists as Bing Crosby. It’s the type of recording that’s still popular with audiences, but not so much with critics. “When I was at the Daily Telegraph in London,” Steyn notes, “they’d round up all the Christmas songs and give them to some miserable misanthropic rock critic to review.” One can imagine what those critics would have said about a single that not only takes Marshmallow World at face value, but even throws in some comedy banter (“Oh, Jessica, the world is our snowball!”) to put us in mind of those Crosby recordings where he and his guest stars would ad lib their way through the last verse.
You didn’t always need to go to a pundit’s self-made CD to find unambiguously jolly, irony-free Christmas music. In the golden age of North American Christmas pop, from the first appearance of Santa Claus Is Coming to Town in 1934 through a pre-murder-trial Phil Spector’s all-star Christmas album in 1963, American Christmas music portrayed a perfect world where snowmen come to life, reindeer are randomly added to Santa’s roster, and you meet some nice old man named Parson Brown or Farmer Grey. Holiday songs with some sense of melancholy or realism were revised to satisfy America’s appetite for Christmas cheer: at the request of Frank Sinatra, songwriter Hugh Martin rewrote the lyrics of his classic Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas to turn it from a sad song to a happy one, while Irving Berlin deleted the introduction to White Christmas because it mentioned how depressing it is to celebrate Christmas in snow-deprived California.
In other parts of the world, it’s been acceptable to create Christmas music that mentions the less upbeat aspects of being caught in a snowstorm. In the Marshmallow recording, Steyn and Martin even tip their hat to British holiday non-cheer: they throw in a brief snippet of the English carol In the Bleak Midwinter, the story of how Christmas livened up some otherwise horrible weather. But in their heyday, American songwriters wouldn’t stand for that kind of talk, and Steyn likes that just fine: “The English Christmas is sort of bleak, grey, dour, whereas in the North American Christmas, the land is just a winter playground.” If you want confirmation that America is different from Europe, don’t look at politics, just compare Hark! The Herald Angels Sing to Jingle Bell Rock.
But even the unnaturally happy yuletide song is a relic of a bygone America; nearly all the most-recorded Christmas songs were written before the late 1960s, when American culture started to break apart. Today, recording this type of song is an act of cultural nostalgia, whether they’re recorded by Céline Dion or a Canadian pundit living in New Hampshire: “I feel like in a sort of fragmented culture,” Steyn explains, “they’re really the last songs we all share.” In a musical world of hip hop, I Kissed a Girl, and various people named Cyrus, maybe a traditional, un-cynical version of Marshmallow World is a blow for traditionalism. Or would be, if that song didn’t rhyme “girl” with “world.”