Saturday, December 19, 2009

Michael Jackson and "Santa Claus is Coming to Town"

Given that they're recorded hundreds of times a year, it's not an easy feat to record the 'definitive' version of a Christmas song – the genre, such as it is, is primarily given over to lukewarm 'interpretations' that, at best, merely impress. It's all but impossible to achieve 'greatness' while recording a Christmas song.

So it's noteworthy that doing so, and doing so at the age of 12, is one of those many particular achievements that Michael Jackson was able to pull off in his time on this earth. In 1970, when the Motown mill was putting them through an exhausting three-albums-a-year schedule, the Jackson 5 released an eleven-track Christmas album. Several of the performances are excellent, the whole thing is energetic... but it was their recording of the 1934 standard “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” that was truly exemplary, to the point that most recordings of the song today bear at least a minor debt to Michael Jackson.

Why is it so great? Well, I once read a commentary about this song that mentioned that, at 12 years old (he might have been 11 upon recording it), it's possible that Michael Jackson was one of the few performers to record this song who actually believed the words he was singing. Obviously, the pre-teen Michael Jackson was one hell of a method actor, in that he'd made it through a succession of singles that spoke of romantic love and relationships on a level he was probably unable to genuinely appreciate, and certainly unable to empathise with. But here, even if he had outgrown Santa by then, this is still content much closer to his heart and to his own sensibilities than “I was blind to let you go”. Michael Jackson tears into this song with an assurance that comes from mastery of the subject because he does have that mastery – a way that grown-ups like Mariah Carey or Bruce Springsteen had long since lost sight of.

In any case, whatever is powering those energy levels, they are truly sky high, and his exuberance is entirely contagious. There is so much rubbish recorded in the name of Christmas that hearing a song that truly brings a smile to your face is a real December revelation.

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