Monday, September 2, 2013

Necessary songs

From that time on she sang Christmas carols, '"Happy Birthday to You," the school fight song, "America the Beautiful," "Blowing in the Wind," and all other necessary songs, in full voice; when asked to join in on a chorus or clap hands to a beat, she joined in and clapped hands; she marched down aisles, recited the Girl Scout creed, saluted flags, said grace, wore name tags, repeated solemn oaths and shook hands with the total stranger to her right. And not once in thirty years did she fail to find such an occasion hateful and freshly humiliating.
Jincy Willett, Jenny

I'm with Jenny, the title character in one of the stories in Jincy Willett's excellent 1987 collection Jenny & the Jaws of Life. I, too, cringe and try to hide when compelled to sing what she terms "necessary songs," those songs that everybody knows and everybody sings and most people don't seem to mind. I do mind, however, and even though Jenny is a fictional character, I am still glad I am not alone in feeling the way I do toward some of the songs and rituals mentioned in the story.

I attended a birthday party yesterday and, as usual, I faded into the background when it came time to sing "Happy Birthday." Of all the necessary songs, this is the worst. It's so mindless, so repetitive. It's not quite so bad when it's my own birthday and I don't have to pretend to sing along. I wish it were within my power just to change the song a little bit, perhaps altering the second line so it went:

Happy birthday to you.
May good luck follow you.
Happy birthday dear __
Happy birthday to you.

I'm sure I'd still hate the song, but possibly not to the degree I do now.

I enjoy Christmas music, but I try to avoid the most familiar carols when I can, listening instead to songs that are a bit more obscure. On most public occasions, however, it can be impossible to escape the necessary carols that everybody knows. Necessary secular Christmas songs like "Jingle Bells" and "Winter Wonderland" are even worse.

Not all rituals make me uncomfortable. I don't mind the national anthem, although it seems silly to sing it at baseball games. I find some pageantry and ceremony quite moving. I tend to cry at parades. I can live with wearing name tags, saying grace and shaking hands. I don't even mind wishing you a happy birthday. Just please don't ask me to sing it.

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