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Digested Week: New York’s Christmas music is no fairytale for me | Emma Brockes

Digested Week: New York’s Christmas music is no fairytale for me | Emma Brockes


Monday

New York is a Christmassy town where the holiday spirit is strong, but for British people in the city at this time of year there is one sizeable drawback. Over the last few weeks, in department stores and supermarkets, on the car radio and streamer playlist, I have been reminded of the wrongness of the American holiday songbook. For anyone raised on Wham! and Wizzard played on repeat since November, it requires a small but painful annual adjustment.

It’s a curious cultural difference. If British festive music is stuck in 1984, then, ignoring Mariah Carey, as one generally must, the American equivalent hasn’t budged since 1953. It’s Perry Como doing (There’s No Place Like) Home for the Holidays (music to die to). It’s Frank Sinatra groaning out Silent Night at half speed and having what sounds like a very low moment during the line “holy infant”. It’s the worst rendition of O Little Town of Bethlehem I’ve ever heard (Elvis, in his depressed period) and songs by second-tier lounge singers that turn on the leery delivery of the phrase “old Saint Nick”. The only decent number on rotation this month has been the impeccable Eartha Kitt’s Santa Baby.

Nobody wants this! And yet I’m not sure Americans fully know what they’re missing. The truth of the matter is that Christmas music can only decently fall into two categories: uptempo but fundamentally wistful 80s pop, or carols from King’s. (I’ll make an exception for Chris Rea’s Driving Home for Christmas, the nearest thing we have to the doobly-boobly fare of the American songbook.) And in spite of its aptness, I’ve never once, in 15 years, heard the Pogues’ Fairytale of New York played in a branch of Target at Christmas. Humbug!

Tuesday

There are also no nativity plays or carol concerts in the US state school system, a separation of church and state which, for 99% of the year, I am totally down with. But at Christmas, no. Like most people, I require everything to be exactly as I experienced it as a child or I become angry and confused. That my children will never stand on stage with a tea towel on their heads bearing shoe boxes tied up with ribbon is a source of genuine sadness. This morning, I tried to explain to them how a nativity play works and, almost 40 years after the event, found myself vaguely preening as I said “I was Mary”.

I was, too. Philip Dilworth was Joseph and there was a terrible palaver when he put his arm round me at the stable mouth and the three wise men – Stephen Weatherall, I’m talking about you – couldn’t keep it together. One of my eight-year-olds considered this information and said, wistfully: “I’d be a donkey.” But, sadly, it is never to be.

Larry the cat sitting on the step of No 10
Larry the cat: ‘I’ll leave my petition for a cat flap right here, shall I.’ Photograph: Mark Thomas/Alamy Live News/Alamy Live News.

Wednesday

There are reliable distractions in the form of awful December movies and we must thank Netflix, this year, for dropping what is comfortably the worst movie of the season in the shape of Leave the World Behind. An adaptation of the great Rumaan Alam novel of 2020 in which a family vacationing in the Hamptons has to deal with an unspecified terrorist attack, the film version is so bad it’s almost thrilling. There’s a lot to choose from, but I’d highlight the hatchet-faced grimness of Julia Roberts, so poorly lit she should sue, Ethan Hawke playing himself (again), Mahershala Ali dropping in from an entirely different movie, apparently, and lots of speeches that run along the lines of “technology, eh, what about that then, we thought it was good but it’s bad”.

The most interesting thing about the movie is that the Obamas co-produced it via their production company, Higher Ground, which, over the years, has started to look increasingly like an elevated version of Harry and Meghan’s Archewell. There’s no law against having fun after the White House, but the sheer obviousness of the pair heading straight to Hollywood so they can hang with Roberts is somehow disappointing.

While their company started off with excellent documentary titles such as American Factory and Crip Camp, things have gotten a little flabby lately. Joining Leave the World Behind, the Obama’s have had a hand in the very bad Michael Keaton 9/11 movie, Worth, and Kevin Hart’s Fatherhood (no, me neither). It could be that serving for eight years as US president doesn’t qualify you for absolutely any job whatsoever that you fancy in retirement.

Thursday

Is this the end of Rudy Giuliani? Finally? I hope not. I know that’s not the right sentiment, but unlike Steve Bannon, or Roger Stone, or any of the other former characters in the bad mob movie that was the Trump administration, I can’t quite extinguish a flame of affection for Rudy, whose ludicrousness is almost poetic.

The former mayor of New York filed for bankruptcy on Thursday after a federal judge ruled he had to pay up the $148m (£115m) he owes two women in Georgia, who sued him after he falsely accused them of treason. This was an allegation made by Giuliani after the 2020 election, which he presumably made in an effort to advance Donald Trump’s fortunes – possibly in the dim belief the former president would pick up his legal fees.

That hasn’t happened. Instead, as with the builders and tradesmen who constructed Trump’s casino in Atlantic City, Trump has stiffed Giuliani, handing over via his political action committee a mere $340,000, a drop in the ocean of what his former personal lawyer owes. While Giuliani has listed his assets at $10m, paperwork relating to the bankruptcy this week put his debts – made up largely of unpaid legal fees and lawsuit payouts – at an astonishing $500m. Meanwhile, Trump’s rationale for not paying him is quite beautiful. Giuliani has long had the vibe of a no win, no fee lawyer and now Trump has called him on it. According to sources quoted in the New York Times, Trump isn’t paying Giuliani a dime on the basis that every lawsuit he launched in Trump’s interests, he lost.

Friday

In the US, homemade holiday cards featuring family photos outnumber store-bought Christmas cards featuring holly and robins. One comes in from an acquaintance in which the two children of the family are lovingly featured but, contrary to previous years, no parents are shown. I’ve seen this before and in my experience the omission always means the same thing. It is the women who design and send the Christmas cards (and organise the presents for that matter) and if her spouse was paying attention, the new card should concern him. I doubt he’s clocked it, which, of course, is how they got there in the first place. Happy Christmas, then, to let’s call them the O’Malleys, and great good luck to Mrs O’Malley when she launches her divorce proceedings on 3 January. May your new divisions of labour go well in 2024!

Rishi Sunak and Giorgia Meloni
Rishi to Giorgia: ‘I mean I guess I’d describe myself as hard right-curious …’ Photograph: Guglielmo Mangiapane/Reuters



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