Emily DeBaun’s recent review of Sufjan Stevens’s new Christmas album Silver and Gold brought to mind the slightly less recent discussion of “Upper Middle Brow” art by William Deresiewicz at The American Scholar. DeBaun interpreted Stevens’s new album in terms of “its juxtaposition of nauseating kitsch and stripped-down religious orthodoxy,” two opposite poles “on the spectrum of Advent listening.” On Silver and Gold, Stevens paints a harshly critical picture of American consumerism and its influence on Christmas. DeBaun pushed back against Stevens’s neglect of “how the material, cultural, aesthetic aspects of Christmas can be incredibly powerful when informed by the religious reality of the holiday.” Ultimately, she argues, “we can recognize the excess and dangers of America’s cultural Christmas without falling into blanket condemnation.”
My own reaction to Silver and Gold was that Stevens’s cynicism feels entirely too easy. After all, Americans have been decrying the commercialization of Christmas for decades. “A Charlie Brown Christmas” (first aired in 1965), for example, plays on the same juxtaposition between crass commercialism and “the true meaning of Christmas” that drives Silver and Gold. I think Deresiewicz’s identification of the Upper Middle Brow (Midcult) can help us see what Stevens is up to and where he goes wrong. The lowbrow consumerism that Stevens ridicules belongs to Masscult, or popular culture. And lampooning Masscult has become the hallmark of Midcult, which has lately become infected with a seemingly unquenchable thirst for irony. Midcult has always been “marked by a high-minded sentimentality that congratulate[s] the audience for its fine feelings… peddling uplift in the guise of big ideas.” It’s just that, in the age of irony, what the upper middle class—or the mass elite—feels most self-congratulatory about is not being Masscult.
My relatively high opinion of Stevens’s arrangements and lyricism would have me put his work in the rarified Upper Middle Brow neighborhood of Midcult, a kind of gated community that “possesses excellence, intelligence, and integrity.” The problem with Upper Middle Brow is that “it always lets us off the hook,” meaning it doesn’t force its audience to question or justify its own values. Upper Middle Brow “stays within the bounds of what we already believe, affirms the enlightened opinions we absorb every day in the quality media, the educated bromides we trade on Facebook. It doesn’t tell us anything we don’t already know.” Certainly, this fits Silver and Gold’s polemic quite nicely. If you’re listening to Sufjan Stevens’s new Christmas album, you probably already share his convictions about the spiritual and artistic value of Taylor Swift’s cover of “Last Christmas.” The album provides an opportunity for you and Sufjan to reflect on how materialistic and kitschy you two aren’t.
What Deresiewicz demands as an alternative to Midcult is an art that will challenge the mass elite’s self satisfaction: “The salient characteristic of that class, as a moral entity, is a kind of Victorian engorgement with its own virtue. Its need is for an art that will disturb its self-delight.” Given the moral dimension of Deresiewicz’s critique, it seems like the word he may be looking for is “guilt.” He seems to want art that prosecutes the audience, with self-affirmation displaced by conviction of sin. Certainly, one should be able to find this in Christmas music, though one might not either on Silver and Gold or in the pop culture it castigates.
In fact, I’m somewhat skeptical about DeBaun’s defense of “cultural Christmas in context” precisely because the acknowledgement of sin is so nearly absent from our Yuletide celebrations. It is worrying that the positive examples of Christmas traditions she offers—giving thoughtful gifts, reconnecting with family, donating to charity—are often confined to a few weeks on the calendar. It’s all well and good that the holiday offers a corrective to our otherwise disordered pattern of life, but there is also the danger that this annual tribute to “the important things” facilitates—by purporting to absolve us of—our day-by-day neglect of the same. This redeemed cultural Christmas might itself belong to the Upper Middle Brow, just without the cutting-edge ironic gloss. Jordan Bloom says this about Upper Middle Brow music: “It’s like emotional crack; a quick jolt of nostalgia or sentimentality to get you through the day. Some throwaway lines about mountains or trains to consume on the subway before sitting at a computer for eight hours.” In short, it’s a kind of hypocrisy, like buying an indulgence without true repentance.
As always, examples of art that will disturb its audience’s self-delight are few and far between. It’s a simple matter of supply meeting demand. However, I will offer one Christmas-specific possibility for your consideration. In 1997, Low released “If You Were Born Today (Song for Little Baby Jesus)” as a 7” single (it is also featured on their 1999 EP, Christmas). The song begins “If you were born today / We’d kill you by age eight.” It goes on to list a number of sayings (some scriptural and others merely “truthy”) which Jesus would “never get the chance to say.” Like much of Low’s music, it’s a largely comfortless song. What comfort it does offer comes from the fact that Jesus did have a chance to say those words or words like them. But I think the lyrics are effective in troubling our self-delight in the face of the Incarnation.
“If You Were Born Today” accuses us of rejecting the fullness of the Incarnation and of neglecting broad swaths of Christ’s humanity in our Yuletide observances. In coming to grips with the Incarnation, we cannot only consider Christ’s infantile vulnerability, but also the challenging, disruptive pronouncements of his maturity. The Christ of Christmas will not always lay in a manger. The same body will later turn over the tables at the Temple. The taming of the Incarnation is the kind of real sin of which we need conviction, and insofar as “If You Were Born Today” achieves that, it is a valuable counter to the schmaltz and cheap grace that even the “good” Christmas music too often partakes of. If it represents a third way artistically between and beyond Christmas Masscult and its self-congratulatory detractors, so much the better.