Erin McKeown had her tongue firmly in cheek on her 2011 album of holiday songs. Make that anti-holiday songs, starting with the record’s title. We can’t print it here, but let’s just say it rhymes with “Luck That,” followed by an exclamation point.
They’re not for everyone, and certainly not for those who offend easily, but the songs are McKeown’s satirical take on what the holidays mean to her. In place of good tidings and cheer, the singer-songwriter skewers what she considers the oppressive nature of this time of year.
“The thing about this record is that some people really like Christmas and don’t have a sense of humor about it,” McKeown says. “I lost some people along the way [with this album]. When it came out two years ago, some people were like, ‘Really? Why are you doing this?’
“They were like, ‘Your voice is wonderful, and I love your albums, but I’m going to step aside until you make something else,’” she adds. “I don’t know why you would be surprised that I made this album if you had been listening to me.”
McKeown, who lives in Western Massachusetts, will play songs from the album with two shows at Club Passim on Dec. 6. Matt Smith, the venue’s managing director who booked the performances, as he has in the past, likes the message of McKeown’s show, which she calls her “Anti-Holiday Spectacular.”
“It says that we need a break from [the holiday season], another perspective,” Smith writes in an e-mail. “When malls are playing Christmas carols before Thanksgiving, there’s a problem. And someone needs to sing dirty songs about it.”
If it seems like a subversive addition to Passim’s calendar, amid all the reverent shows celebrating the season’s warm and fuzzy feeling, that’s fine with Smith.
“Subversive? I sure hope so!” Smith says. “If there are people offended by it, those are people who are probably taking themselves a little too seriously.”
McKeown, 36, grew up Catholic and now considers herself spiritual but not religious. She has the usual hang-ups with the holiday season: It starts too soon, it’s too wrapped up in commercialism, we’ve strayed from the meaning of Christmas.
“I really hate Christmas with a terrible edge. Part of the reason I made the record was to do something with that hate in a way that was less vitriolic,” she says. “It’s really helped me, I have to say.”
More than anything, though, McKeown wishes we had a choice to formulate our own feelings about Christmas.
“I’d like to have the space to celebrate or not celebrate, and it just feels so suffocating at this time of year,” she says. “There isn’t even any room to not like Christmas, and that sort of thing just makes me mad. And if you put me in the corner, I am going to fight you.”
That’s exactly what she did on her anti-holiday album. Many of the songs have the merry jingle and jangle of familiar Christmas tunes, but the messages are decidedly pointed and the language often profane. The titles say it all: “It’s a Very Queer Christmas,” “Go Tell It on the Mountain (That Karl Rove Is Born),” “Visions I Have Had While High,” “Christmas (Love It or Leave It).”
Sung to the twinkling melody of “Silver Bells,” “Frozen Smiles” lays bare the disappointment she feels when she spends the holidays with her family:
It’s Christmastime in my family
When will it be New Year’s Eve?
McKeown also made a hymnal, with lyrics and chords, to accompany the album, and her greatest wish is that someday her anti-holiday songs will become a tradition in their own right. She relishes the idea of someone approaching her in 15 years and saying, “I learned ‘It’s a Very Queer Christmas’ from my mom!’ ” After all, dissent always needs a voice.
“For as many people as I lost, I got so many people who have said they felt the same way,” McKeown says. “And that’s what music is for, right? Build some community.”James Reed can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.