Have you heard a bad version of "Santa Claus Is Coming to Town"?
I mean, I'm sure one exists. I'm sure in the vast infinity of Christmas covers, there's a terrible, rotten, no good version of this song. But it's remarkably hard to find, to my mind. There's something about this particular tune that remains unscrewuppable, like Bruce Springsteen's "Atlantic City" or "Amazing Grace." You have to work really hard to make one of these songs unlistenable. You can do it, but you have to make clear how it's all on you.
This isn't the case with almost any other Christmas song, really. Even my absolute favorites — songs like "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" and "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing" — can easily be destroyed by ladling on the sap, which is always the temptation with holiday tunes. When it comes to sentimentality and the season, a little goes a long way — but it's all too easy for those who perform these songs to forget that fact, and pretty soon, you're caterwauling your way through "Hang a shining star upon the highest BOUGHOUGHOUHGOUHGOUH!" and making nobody happy.
But "Santa Claus Is Coming to Town" is different. It's easily the best Christmas song in the "Meant for children/about Santa Claus" division, but there are lots and lots of versions primarily aimed at adults (like, say, the Bruce Springsteen one that pops up on classic rock stations around this time of year), and most of those are pretty good, too.
I thought I would start writing this post and have a hardcore reason for why this is, but I just don't. I was going to say that the song avoids sentimentality because it doesn't really invite sentimentality (which it doesn't) and remains rollicking, but that's true of, say, "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer," and there are dozens of popular, terrible versions of that song.
No, I think what carries this song is momentum.
Think about it. "Here Comes Santa Claus" and "Rudolph" and "Frosty" and all the rest mostly find a gear and stick to it. "Santa Claus Is Coming to Town" definitely repeats itself endlessly (it wouldn't be a Christmas tune if it didn't), but it also subtly builds from the series of slightly creepy warnings that make up the verse to the explosion/celebration that makes up the chorus. And the bridge pushes that even further. "He sees you when you're sleeping, etc." isn't just a little scary — it's legitimately terrifying stuff.
So maybe what makes this song work is entirely an accident. It's all in the disparity between the lyrics, which awkwardly try to posit the fact that Santa Claus is an omniscient, godlike being who punishes with impunity as a great thing, and the music, which is legitimately joyful. "Rudolph" might tell a pretty intriguing little story, but there's no real disconnect between what it's saying and what it seems to be saying. "Santa Claus Is Coming to Town," by contrast, is at war with itself.
And that means that the song always has a tension that the best singers exploit. No, nobody goes full dystopian here (though I'd love to hear that version), but in all of the best versions of the song, there's a divide between jaunty and genuinely unnerving. The best art often seems to be at odds with itself, even if that occurs accidentally, and "Santa Claus Is Coming to Town" just might be one of the few Christmas songs that manages this trick.
So, that said, here's my personal favorite version of the song, by Big Al Carson with Lars Edegran and his Santa Claus Revelers, from Putamayo's New Orleans Christmas album, which was released to raise funds for Hurricane Katrina victims. (It's worth tracking down in full, as it's not available on Spotify.)
Pay attention, for instance, to the rarely performed opening verse that Carson opens the song with, which posits that the singer has just returned from a trip to the North Pole. Thus, the song takes on another dimension entirely — the disparity between joyful music and creepy lyrics now becomes the disparity of a parent trying to get their child to be quiet, because if they don't, Santa will know.
That's at the heart of the Santa myth and this song. We want to believe that if something goes desperately, horribly wrong, somebody will know, even if it's just a man in a red and white suit who will give those who've wronged us a lump of coal. "Santa Claus Is Coming to Town" can be joyful amid the terror because we assume he'll never come for us.
Episodes is published daily, Monday through Friday, unless I don't feel like it. It is mostly about television, except when it's not. Suggest topics for future installments via email or on Twitter. Read more of my work at Vox Dot Com.