Thursday, December 22, 2016

149. “Carolers are singing } underneath the mushroom cloud.”

“Weird Al” Yankovic’s “Christmas At Ground Zero” is penultimate on Dr. Demento Presents the Greatest Novelty Records of All-Time Vol. VI: Christmas (1985) and ultimate on Polka Party (1986), the nadir of Al’s commercial success. I don’t know on which I first heard the song, but my father is certainly responsible, as he bought both LPs. He didn’t like the song. At the time I assumed he found it sacrilegious, but in retrospect I realize what troubled him was the song’s manic despair.

“Everywhere the atom bombs are dropping / it’s the end of all humanity / no more time for last-minute shopping / it’s time to face your final destiny”

I like the song. It’s better than Al’s “The Night Santa Went Crazy” (1996), in which Santa Claus goes postal in the North Pole—this sounds stupid, but among its other weaknesses, “The Night Santa Went Crazy” lacks depth.

“It’s Christmas at ground zero / just seconds left to go / I’ll duck and cover / with my yuletide lover / underneath the mistletoe”

The reference to “duck and cover,” to the emergency broadcast “that let us know / that this is not a test,” the inclusion of a Christmas message from Ronald Reagan (“Well, the big day’s only a few hours away now, I’m sure you’re all looking forward to it as much as we are”), and the air-raid siren that finishes the track grounds the song in political reality. “Christmas At Ground Zero” is punk rock.

As a kid, anxiety about the bomb seemed a concern of the past. Mention of Reagan's Strategic Defense Initiative—“Star Wars”—only irksome because it wasn’t about the real Star Wars. A little older, I worried more about the “hole” in the ozone layer. Gradually, I discovered I was anxious about the bomb, but it was a familiar anxiety, low-grade, constant, maintained by news of plutonium 239 smuggled out of a collapsed U.S.S.R., of North Korean missile tests, of Iran’s nuclear program, etc. Now, our commander-in-chief-elect Trump.

My father is not easily shocked. Maybe “Christmas At Ground Zero” was too flip for a man who watched “Duck and Cover” as a school boy, or who followed the news as Kennedy blundered through the Cuban Missile Crisis. Maybe it just troubled him to see me, at 10, blithely bopping my head to a song so utterly nihilistic.