“Labor of Love”
I refer, of course, to the Isaacs’ Christmas song that seems to have some folks all twitterpated, and given all the raving about it, I was ready to be gobsmacked. But I’ve now listened to it a coupla of times and I’m mostly sorta … meh … about it.
I wrote this and a version of the rest of this post earlier this week and sent it down to the interns for processing, only for it to be sent back with an insolent note: are you trying to fulfill the stereotype of Avery as a curmudgeonly hater who just hangs around the music to diss it?
This seemed like a fair point worth cogitating on for a few days, not least of all because I really and truly wanted to be blown away by the song and thought maybe I had just approached “Labor” with the wrong mindset or something the first time, maybe hadn’t really heard what others were hearing. So I listened to it a few more times and put on my best frame of musical mind and thought about it some more and hoped for the spirit to move and … well … still meh.
Musically it’s pretty unremarkable, meandering around melodically for most of the verses and then using a fairly pedestrian set of musical thoughts in the chorus that I suspect most people would forget if it weren’t for the Isaacs’ transformative way with harmonies.
That, and the fact that Mark Lowry has been praising the song, which no doubt has distorted the feedback loop, not only because of Lowry’s considerable Gaither acclaim but also in this case because of his having co-written what has pretty much become the Christian equivalent of “I’ll Be Home for Christmas”: “Mary Did You Know.”
As with “Mary,” it seems to be the lyrics of “Labor” that most people have in mind when they speak of what they like about the song. And certainly there is an earnestness of imagery in play here surpassing that of anything I can recall hearing in a Christmas tune. Thus the first verse:
It was not a silent night
There was blood on the ground
You could hear a woman cry
In the alleyway that night
On the streets of David’s town.
And the stable was not clean
And the cobblestones were cold
Little Mary full of grace
With the tears upon her face
Had no mother’s hand to hold.
It was a labor of love, of course, and etc. I take this cinema verite rendering of the nativity scene as part of the song’s attempt to humanize the Christmas story in – quite literally – warmblooded terms. The lyrics’ insistence on the unseemliness of it all (the blood, the unhygienic setting, the cold and the loneliness) would seem to be implicitly taking aim at the plastic idealizations of the crèche that dominate commercialized, Christmastime accounts of the birth of Christ. And I wonder if it isn’t this implied but discernible critique of mainstream secular Christmas culture that a lot of folks are responding to at some level in the song: a kinder, gentler cri de coeur about keeping Christ in Christmas.
And why not? At $1.29 on iTunes, “Labor of Love” is a lot better KCIC value than the empty symbolism of a Jesus is the Reason for the Season car magnet, with the added bonus that the song doesn’t generate nearly as much cognitive dissonance as typically wafts off the debates about the secularized monetization of Christmas that always seem to play out in profit-taking contexts like cable news, talk radio, and websites festooned with ads for this or that trinkety
holiday Christmas gift. As if (with apologies to Wordsworth) laying waste our powers in the sordid boon of getting and spending is somehow less soul-wasting if we gild consumption in the tinselly talk of keeping faith with the gifts of the magi to the Christ child.
(Money where my mouth is digression: Avery HQ hasn’t purchased Christmas gifts for the past several years and instead has made contributions to the ministries and/or charitable organizations of our friends’ and families’ choosing, and have asked friends and family to do the same on our behalf … here is one of our favorite local charities and here’s one from back home in St. Louis … feel free to give as the spirit leads).
Anyway. For me, a song about the bloody birth of an illegitimate child in a filthy stable leaves me as cold as the song’s cobblestones, however technically accurate all this may be from the biblical literalist’s reading of the Christmas story. Even in the context of a super-sentimental genre like southern gospel,* the song seems to rely disproportionately on a maudlin scene of sentimentalized human woe to illustrate a divine truth. But then again I’m not the target audience here either, and I might react differently if I were to hear it live.
*I realize this is not exclusively a sg song, as some of you are pointing out in comments. My point is that within sg, the threshold of sentiment is above average and even by that standard, the song still pushes the limits of sentimentalization.Email this Post