I’ve never liked the word “baby” when it’s used, particularly in songs, in reference to one’s beloved. Romantic relationships belong to consenting adults, and I can’t see any reason to call someone whom I love that way a baby. It feels demeaning. But in the various news reports about the Grammys, one of Justin Bieber’s songs was repeatedly inflicted on listeners. In this song, the boy sings “baby, baby, baby” over and over. Given the fact that Bieber is himself a child, the word may actually be appropriate here.
One of the blessings about Christmas finally being over is that we get eight months without having to suffer obnoxious songs pouring out of tinny speakers. Yes, sometime in August, stores will assault us again, but for now, we can go back to Muzak. But while those carols are still fresh in our minds, like a cow pie just laid in a field, I take this opportunity to tear apart one of the worst: “Away in a Manger.”
This is the kind of song that an adult who hates children writes for children. It’s cloying, stupid, and preachy. It’s an example of why theology must never be allowed to drive the writing of lyrics. Consider:
Away in a manger,
No crib for a bed.
The little Lord Jesus
Laid down his sweet head.
From the start, we’re told that the story is happening away over there. That’s pleasant, since we do want to keep the cattle stalls downwind whenever possible. Someone with some talent would want to put us in the moment, but that person didn’t write this song. The writer did need an extra syllable in the last line of that stanza, and thus we have the word “sweet.” I’m not in the habit of licking the heads of babies, so I can’t comment from experience here, but perhaps what was meant was “sweat.” That would make more physiological sense, unless the kid was diabetic. Moving on:
The stars in the sky
Looked down where he lay
The little Lord Jesus
Asleep on the hay.
The cattle are lowing. . . .
Of course they are. The kid is sleeping on their dinner. If you plant a child on my plate, I’ll make some noise too. What the stars are doing looking down is beyond me, but I suppose that since one of their number went down for a closer look (c.f. “We Three Kings”), the rest wanted to peer over its shoulder.
The poor baby wakes,
But little Lord Jesus
No crying he makes.
Indeed. So it’s not diabetes; he’s either autistic or choking. If you’ve spent any time around healthy infants, you know that their default setting is WAIL. Ah, but now we have a shift in point of view in mid verse:
I love thee, Lord Jesus.
Look down from the sky,
And stay by my cradle
Till morning is nigh.
Um, it’s been a long time since I’ve dwelt in a cradle. Apparently, the writer of this song was also an infant (that explains a lot) or has some psychological aberrations that would have been better to leave out of the lyrics. We have also jumped a good bit in time, since the formerly baby Jesus is now hanging out with those rubbernecking stars. What we have here are words shoehorned in for the purpose of rhyme only. The writer got committed to “wakes” and “sky” and had to find something that played along. Since the kid is up and about already, perhaps “A pizza he bakes” would have been more useful, and the writer ought to have ended the verse, “I ask myself why,” but this was not composed by a particularly reflective person. Let’s get this over:
Be near me, Lord Jesus.
I ask thee to stay
Close by me forever,
and love me, I pray.
Bless all the dear children
In thy tender care,
And take us to heaven
To live with thee there.
Once again, this song covers decades at a minimum, unless the infants are running the nursery. (Oh, wait, that’s Congress. [That was an embarrassingly easy jab. I apologize.])
The song is done. As with many such compositions, there came a moment when the writer said, “Yup, that’s ready for the world.” Those of us who have to listen to it shout back, “No, it’s not,” but some people just aren’t stopped by a harsh reaction.
This carol is a lesson in how not to write a song. Unfortunately, since it’s a Christmas carol and since we live in an age that tolerates all manner of popular schlock, it lives. I read that the English voted it their second favorite carol, probably right behind “Jingle Bell Rock.” The English haven’t been right in their heads for a long time, though. As for those few of us who remain sane, my recommendation is to adopt behavior appropriate to the age of the intended audience and scream bloody murder until someone changes the station whenever this comes on.
I just heard a report on All Things Considered that Justin Bieber has written a memoir. I have no idea if he actually wrote it, and I don’t care. He’s sixteen and has achieved nothing beyond becoming popular. This kind of thing challenges my commitment to individual liberty. Why didn’t someone tell that child, “No, you’re not memorable yet, and if you keep telling yourself otherwise, you never will be”?
Oh dear gods, I weep for humanity.