NASA Creates Movie Parody Posters for Its Expedition Flights: Download Parodies of Metropolis, The Matrix, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and More

For just over eigh­teen years now, NASA has been con­duct­ing expe­di­tions to the Inter­na­tion­al Space Sta­tion. Each of these mis­sions has not just a name, or at least a num­ber (last week saw the launch of Expe­di­tion 58), but an offi­cial poster with a group pho­to of the crew. “These posters were used to adver­tise expe­di­tions and were also hung in NASA facil­i­ties and oth­er gov­ern­ment orga­ni­za­tions,” says Bored Pan­da. “How­ev­er, when astro­nauts got bored of the stan­dard group pho­tos they decid­ed to spice things up a bit.”

And “what’s a bet­ter way to do that oth­er than throw­ing in some pop cul­ture ref­er­ences?” As any­one who has ever worked with sci­en­tists knows, a fair few of them have some­how made them­selves into liv­ing com­pen­dia of knowl­edge of not just their field but their favorite books, movies, and tele­vi­sion shows — not always, but very often, books, movies, and tele­vi­sion shows sci­ence-fic­tion­al in nature.

The prime exam­ple, it hard­ly bears men­tion­ing, would be Star Trek, but the well of fan­dom at NASA runs much deep­er than that.

You’ll get a sense of how far that well goes if you have a look through the Expe­di­tion poster archive at NASA’s web site. There you’ll find not just pop cul­ture ref­er­ences but elab­o­rate­ly designed trib­utes — down­load­able in high res­o­lu­tion — to the likes of not just Star Trek but Star WarsThe MatrixThe Hitch­hik­er’s Guide to the Galaxy (the sole pos­si­ble theme, Dou­glas Adams fans will agree, for Expe­di­tion 42), and even Fritz Lang’s Metrop­o­lis, which first gave dystopi­an sci-fi its visu­al form in 1927 (and which you can watch here). Albums are also fair game, as evi­denced by the Abbey Road poster for Expe­di­tion 26.

Bored Pan­da calls these posters “hilar­i­ous­ly awk­ward,” but opin­ions do vary: “I love them,” writes Boing Boing’s Rusty Blazen­hoff. “I think they’re fun and cre­ative.” And what­ev­er you think of the con­cepts, can you fail to be impressed by the sheer atten­tion to detail that has clear­ly gone into repli­cat­ing the source images? It’s all more or less in line with the for­mi­da­ble graph­ic design skill at NASA, pre­vi­ous­ly fea­tured here on Open Cul­ture, that has gone into its posters cel­e­brat­ing space trav­el and the 40th anniver­sary of the Voy­ager mis­sions.

Going through the Expe­di­tion poster archive, I notice that none seems yet to have paid trib­ute to Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solarissure­ly one of the most pow­er­ful pieces of out­er space-relat­ed cin­e­ma ever made. Grant­ed, that film has much less to do with team­work and cama­raderie than the intense psy­cho­log­i­cal iso­la­tion of the indi­vid­ual, which would make it tricky indeed to recre­ate any of its mem­o­rable images as proud group pho­tos. But if NASA’s poster design­ers can’t take on that mis­sion, nobody can.

via Boing Boing

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Down­load 14 Free Posters from NASA That Depict the Future of Space Trav­el in a Cap­ti­vat­ing­ly Retro Style

NASA Lets You Down­load Free Posters Cel­e­brat­ing the 40th Anniver­sary of the Voy­ager Mis­sions

How the Icon­ic 1968 “Earth­rise” Pho­to Was Made: An Engross­ing Visu­al­iza­tion by NASA

NASA Presents “The Earth as Art” in a Free eBook and Free iPad App

Won­der­ful­ly Kitschy Pro­pa­gan­da Posters Cham­pi­on the Chi­nese Space Pro­gram (1962–2003)

“Glo­ry to the Con­querors of the Uni­verse!”: Pro­pa­gan­da Posters from the Sovi­et Space Race (1958–1963)

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

Napoleon’s English Lessons: How the Military Leader Studied English to Escape the Boredom of Life in Exile

When we talk about coun­try club prison sen­tences, we tend to imag­ine a mar­gin­al amount of time spent on the inside, though the phrase sounds like an extend­ed vaca­tion. Napoleon Bona­parte—exiled to the island of St. Hele­na for his crimes against Europe—got the full treat­ment, what some might even call a sweet­heart deal. As the Pub­lic Domain Review notes, “the British had agreed to pro­vide Le Petit Capo­ral with plen­ti­ful wine, meat, and musi­cal instru­ments.” He was giv­en his own com­fort­able lodg­ings, a spa­cious coun­try house, though it’s said to have been draughty and full of rats.

On the oth­er hand, Napoleon had to foreswear “what he most craved—family, pow­er, Europe,” for a con­di­tion of extreme iso­la­tion. The loss weighed heav­i­ly. After spend­ing six years 1200 miles from shore, he died, some say of poi­son­ing, but oth­ers say of bore­dom. Of his few amuse­ments, con­vers­ing with Count Emmanuel de Las Cases—“historian and loy­al sup­port­er who had been allowed to voy­age with him to Saint Helena”—proved most stim­u­lat­ing. Pre­vent­ed from receiv­ing news­pa­pers in French, he longed to read the few he found in Eng­lish.

Las Cas­es endeav­ored to teach Napoleon the lan­guage of his jail­ers, and the for­mer Emper­or strug­gled might­i­ly to learn it. After three months on the island, he spent the fol­low­ing three study­ing every day, even­tu­al­ly pro­duc­ing trans­la­tions from his French like that below:

When will you be wise
Nev­er as long as j should be in this isle
But j shall become wise after hav­ing passed the line
When j shall land in France j shall be very con­tent…

My wife shall come near to me, my son shall be great and strong if he will be able to trink a bot­tle of wine at din­ner j shall [toast] with him… / The women believe they [are] ever pre­ty / The time has not wings / When you shall come, you shall see that j have ever loved you.

Eight pages in Napoleon’s own hand remain from his time as a stu­dent of Eng­lish on St. Hele­na in the first few months of 1816. They are “some of the most evoca­tive doc­u­ments we have from Napoleon’s time” on the island, the Fon­da­tion Napoleon writes, bear­ing “poignant wit­ness to the frus­tra­tion Napoleon felt in exile…. It is tempt­ing to read a refusal of exile in these sheets, both in the sen­tences them­selves, and in Napoleon’s insis­tent use of ‘j’ (as in the French ‘je’) rather than the Eng­lish ‘I.’”

In one let­ter that sur­vives from March 7, 1816 (see it scanned above), writ­ten for Las Cas­es to cor­rect the fol­low­ing day, Napoleon takes stock of his progress, or lack there­of.

Count las­cas­es — Since sixt week j learn the Englich and j do not any progress. Six week do four­ty and two day. If might have learn fiv­i­ty word four day I could know it two thu­sands and two hun­dred. It is in the dic­tio­nary more of four­ty thou­sand; even he could must twin­ty bout much of tems for know it our hun­dred and twen­ty week, which do more two yars. After this you shall agrée that to study one tongue is a great labour who it must do into the young aged.

Las Cas­es reports that his stu­dent “had an extra­or­di­nary intel­li­gence but a very bad mem­o­ry.” Gram­mar came much more eas­i­ly than vocab­u­lary. His frus­tra­tion over being “impris­oned in the mid­dle of this lan­guage” is record­ed in Las Cas­es’ Mémo­r­i­al de Sainte-Hélène, a record of his fif­teen months on the island with Napoleon. The book became “a pub­lish­ing sen­sa­tion” and would “do much,” the Pub­lic Domain Review writes, “to turn the per­cep­tion of Napoleon from a dic­ta­tor into a lib­er­a­tor.”

via Pub­lic Domain Review

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Napoleon’s Kin­dle: See the Minia­tur­ized Trav­el­ing Library He Took on Mil­i­tary Cam­paigns

Vin­tage Pho­tos of Vet­er­ans of the Napoleon­ic Wars, Tak­en Cir­ca 1858

Napoleon: The Great­est Movie Stan­ley Kubrick Nev­er Made

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness.

Buckminster Fuller Documented His Life Every 15 Minutes, from 1920 Until 1983

If you’ve heard of Buck­min­ster Fuller, you’ve almost cer­tain­ly heard the word “Dymax­ion.” Despite its strong pre-Space Age redo­lence, the term has some­how remained com­pelling into the 21st cen­tu­ry. But what does it mean? When Fuller, a self-described “com­pre­hen­sive, antic­i­pa­to­ry design sci­en­tist,” first invent­ed a house meant prac­ti­cal­ly to rein­vent domes­tic liv­ing, Chicago’s Mar­shall Field and Com­pa­ny depart­ment store put a mod­el on dis­play. The com­pa­ny “want­ed a catchy label, so it hired a con­sul­tant, who fash­ioned ‘dymax­ion’ out of bits of ‘dynam­ic,’ ‘max­i­mum,’ and ‘ion,’ ” writes The New York­er’s Eliz­a­beth Kol­bert in a piece on Fuller’s lega­cy. “Fuller was so tak­en with the word, which had no known mean­ing, that he adopt­ed it as a sort of brand name.” After the Dymax­ion House came the Dymax­ion Vehi­cle, the Dymax­ion Map, and even the two-hour-a-day Dymax­ion Sleep Plan.

“As a child, Fuller had assem­bled scrap­books of let­ters and news­pa­per arti­cles on sub­jects that inter­est­ed him,” Kol­bert writes. “When, lat­er, he decid­ed to keep a more sys­tem­at­ic record of his life, includ­ing every­thing from his cor­re­spon­dence to his dry-clean­ing bills, it became the Dymax­ion Chronofile.” The Dymax­ion Chronofile now resides in the R. Buck­min­ster Fuller Col­lec­tion at Stan­ford Uni­ver­si­ty, a place that has mer­it­ed the atten­tion of no less a guide to the fas­ci­nat­ing cor­ners of the world than Atlas Obscu­ra.

“The files go back to when he was four-years-old, but he only seri­ous­ly start­ed the archive in 1917,” writes that site’s Alli­son C. Meier. “From then until his death in 1983 he col­lect­ed every­thing from each day, with ingo­ing and out­go­ing cor­re­spon­dence, news­pa­per clip­pings, draw­ings, blue­prints, mod­els, and even the mun­dane ephemera like dry clean­ing bills.” Fuller added to the Dymax­ion Chronofile not just every day but, from the year 1920 until his death in 1983, every fif­teen min­utes.

In 1962 Fuller described the Dymax­ion Chronofile as what would hap­pen “if some­body kept a very accu­rate record of a human being, going through the era from the Gay ’90s, from a very dif­fer­ent kind of world through the turn of the cen­tu­ry — as far into the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry as you might live.” Using him­self as the case sub­ject for the project (as he did for many projects, which led him to nick­name him­self “Guinea Pig B”) meant that “I could not be judge of what was valid to put in or not. I must put every­thing in, so I start­ed a very rig­or­ous record.” Open Cul­ture’s own Ted Mills has writ­ten else­where about the rig­ors of stor­ing and main­tain­ing that record in archive form over the decades since Fuller’s death, and now, as with so much Fuller did, the Dymax­ion Chronofile stands as both a com­pelling odd­i­ty and proof of real, if askew, pre­science. After all, how many of us have tak­en to doc­u­ment­ing our own lives online with near­ly equal inten­si­ty — and how many of us do it even more often than every fif­teen min­utes?

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Buck­min­ster Fuller’s Dymax­ion Sleep Plan: He Slept Two Hours a Day for Two Years & Felt “Vig­or­ous” and “Alert”

Buck­min­ster Fuller’s Map of the World: The Inno­va­tion that Rev­o­lu­tion­ized Map Design (1943)

Watch the Mak­ing of the Dymax­ion Globe: A 3‑D Ren­der­ing of Buck­min­ster Fuller’s Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Map

A Har­row­ing Test Dri­ve of Buck­min­ster Fuller’s 1933 Dymax­ion Car: Art That Is Scary to Ride

Bet­ter Liv­ing Through Buck­min­ster Fuller’s Utopi­an Designs: Revis­it the Dymax­ion Car, House, and Map

Every­thing I Know: 42 Hours of Buck­min­ster Fuller’s Vision­ary Lec­tures Free Online (1975)

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

Jazz Musician Plays Acoustic Guitar While Undergoing Brain Surgery, Helping Doctors Monitor Their Progress

Unlike many col­or­ful expres­sions in Eng­lish whose ori­gins are lost to us, the com­par­i­son of major­ly con­se­quen­tial tasks to brain surgery makes per­fect sense. One false move or mis­cal­cu­la­tion can result in instant death. The chances of irre­versible, life-alter­ing dam­age are high, should a scalpel slip or a sur­geon mis­take healthy brain tis­sue for dis­eased. This can hap­pen more read­i­ly than we might like to think. “It can be very dif­fi­cult to tell the dif­fer­ence between the tumor and nor­mal brain tis­sue,” admits Dr. Basil Enick­er, a spe­cial­ist neu­ro­sur­geon at Inkosi Albert Luthuli Cen­tral Hos­pi­tal in South Africa.

An oper­a­tion Enick­er led makes the pro­ce­dure seem like just as much an art as a sci­ence. Dur­ing an “awake cran­ioto­my,” the sur­geon and his team removed a tumor from the brain of Musa Manzi­ni, a South African jazz bassist.

To help them mon­i­tor the oper­a­tion as they went, they had him strum an acoustic gui­tar in the OR. “Pre­sum­ably, had he hit a wrong note,” writes Kimon de Greef at The New York Times, “it would have been an imme­di­ate sig­nal for the sur­geons to probe else­where.” He also car­ried on an extend­ed con­ver­sa­tion with one of the sur­geons, as you can see in the video above.

Such pro­ce­dures are not at all unusu­al. In a sim­i­lar case at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Texas’ MD Ander­son Can­cer Cen­ter, young musi­cian Robert Alvarez strummed his gui­tar while sur­geons removed a tumor near his speech and move­ment cen­ters. In 2014, de Greef reports, “a tenor in the Dutch Nation­al Opera, Ambroz Bajec-Lapa­jne, sang Schubert’s ‘Gute Nacht’ as doc­tors removed a tumor. In 2015, the sax­o­phon­ist Car­los Aguil­era read music and per­formed dur­ing an oper­a­tion in Spain.” That same year, a Brazil­ian man played the Bea­t­les while he under­went brain surgery.

Not all of them are musi­cal, but awake cran­iotomies are so com­mon that Manzi­ni “watched quite a lot of YouTube videos,” he says, “to pre­pare myself men­tal­ly.” As for the shock of being con­scious while sur­geons poke around in your most pre­cious of bod­i­ly organs, mil­lime­ters from pos­si­ble paral­y­sis, etc., well… it’s cer­tain­ly more com­fort­able now than in some of the ear­li­est brain surg­eries we have on fos­sil record—some 8,000 years ago. One won­ders how Neolith­ic patients passed their time under the knife.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Oliv­er Sacks Explains the Biol­o­gy of Hal­lu­ci­na­tions: “We See with the Eyes, But with the Brain as Well”

This is Your Brain on Sex and Reli­gion: Exper­i­ments in Neu­ro­science

The Brains of Jazz and Clas­si­cal Musi­cians Work Dif­fer­ent­ly, New Research Shows

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

David Bowie and Bing Crosby’s “Peace On Earth/Little Drummer Boy” Gets Psychedelically Covered by The Flaming Lips

By now, you’ve hope­ful­ly seen David Bowie and Bing Cros­by’s unlike­ly encounter in 1977, where they sang a hasti­ly pre­pared med­ley of “Peace On Earth/Little Drum­mer Boy.” It’s a curi­ous Christ­mas clas­sic, and now the sub­ject of a trib­ute by The Flam­ing Lips. Above, watch their psy­che­del­ic take on the mashup. And if you need to revis­it the orig­i­nal, just head here.

If you would like to sign up for Open Culture’s free email newslet­ter, please find it here. Or fol­low our posts on Threads, Face­book, BlueSky or Mastodon.

If you would like to sup­port the mis­sion of Open Cul­ture, con­sid­er mak­ing a dona­tion to our site. It’s hard to rely 100% on ads, and your con­tri­bu­tions will help us con­tin­ue pro­vid­ing the best free cul­tur­al and edu­ca­tion­al mate­ri­als to learn­ers every­where. You can con­tribute through Pay­Pal, Patre­on, and Ven­mo (@openculture). Thanks!

Relat­ed Con­tent:

When Christ­mas Was Legal­ly Banned for 22 Years by the Puri­tans in Colo­nial Mass­a­chu­setts

David Byrne Cre­ates a Playlist of Eclec­tic Music for the Hol­i­days: Stream It Free Online

The Sto­ry of The Pogues’ “Fairy­tale of New York,” the Boozy Bal­lad That Has Become One of the Most Beloved Christ­mas Songs of All Time

When Christmas Was Legally Banned for 22 Years by the Puritans in Colonial Massachusetts

Com­plaints about the com­mer­cial-age cor­rup­tion of Christ­mas miss one crit­i­cal fact: as a mass pub­lic cel­e­bra­tion, the hol­i­day is a rather recent inven­tion. Whether we cred­it Charles Dick­ens, Bing Cros­by, or Frank Capra—men not opposed to marketing—we must reck­on with Christ­mas as a prod­uct of moder­ni­ty. That includes the sacred ideas about fam­i­ly, piety, and grat­i­tude we attach to the sea­son.

The Puri­tans of the Mass­a­chu­setts Bay Colony “despised Christ­mas,” notes Boing Boing. They asso­ci­at­ed it with debauch­ery: heavy drink­ing, glut­tony, riots, “row­di­ness and sin­ful behav­ior.” Not only that, but they “saw it as a false hol­i­day with stronger ties to pagan­ism than Chris­tian­i­ty,” writes Rebec­ca Beat­rice Brooks at the His­to­ry of Mass­a­chu­setts blog, and “they were cor­rect, accord­ing to the book The Bat­tle for Christ­mas.”

The His­to­ry Dose video above informs us that in 1659, “the Gen­er­al Court of Mass­a­chu­setts made it ille­gal to cel­e­brate Christ­mas.” Feast­ing, or even tak­ing off work on Decem­ber 25th would result in a fine of five shillings. It seems extreme, but the hol­i­day had a car­ni­va­lesque rep­u­ta­tion at the time. Not only were rev­el­ers, at the end of a long year’s work, eager to enjoy the spoils of their labor, but their car­ol­ing might even turn into a kind of vio­lent trick-or-treat­ing.

“On some occa­sions the car­ol­ers would become row­dy and invade wealthy homes demand­ing food and drink,” Brooks writes. They “would van­dal­ize the home if the own­er refused.” The Puritan’s author­i­tar­i­an streak, and respect for the sanc­ti­ty of pri­vate prop­er­ty, made can­cel­ing Christ­mas the only seem­ing­ly log­i­cal thing to do, with a ban last­ing 22 years. In any case, explic­it ban or no, spurn­ing Christ­mas was com­mon prac­tice for two hun­dred years of New England’s colo­nial his­to­ry.

In the end, for all its sup­posed intru­sions into the snow globe of Christ­mas purism, “we can par­tial­ly thank com­mer­cial­iza­tion for sus­tain­ing the domes­tic brand of Christ­mas we have today”—the brand, that is, that ensures we can’t stop talk­ing about, read­ing about, and hear­ing about Christ­mas, what­ev­er our beliefs, in the sev­er­al weeks lead­ing up to Decem­ber 25th.

via Boing Boing

Relat­ed Con­tent:

How David Lynch Stole Christ­mas

The Sto­ry of The Pogues’ “Fairy­tale of New York,” the Boozy Bal­lad That Has Become One of the Most Beloved Christ­mas Songs of All Time

Christ­mas Eve in the Trench­es, 1914: When War­ring Sides Laid Down Their Arms & Joined Each Oth­er in Song

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness.

Watch The Smiths Play Their Last Live Show (December 12th, 1986)

It couldn’t have lasted—a flame burn­ing twice as bright, and so on. One of the best bands to emerge from the explo­sion of British new wave and post-punk in the 1980s, The Smiths built a tem­plate for thou­sands of mope-rock bands who fol­lowed. Long­stand­ing ani­mos­i­ty has meant that their brief time togeth­er con­tains their total lega­cy. No reunion shows or albums—despite rumors over the decades since they broke up in 1987; no ersatz ver­sion of the band, miss­ing key mem­bers but limp­ing ever on.

Live albums, com­pi­la­tions, and box sets may have appeared over the years, but they all con­tain music writ­ten, played, and record­ed between 1982 and 1987, a peri­od dur­ing which the song­writ­ing duo of Mor­ris­sey and Marr had as much cre­ative ener­gy and pur­pose as any of the famous song­writ­ing duos of twen­ty years ear­li­er. Love them or hate them—there seem to be few peo­ple in-between—The Smiths’ impor­tance to alter­na­tive and indie rock is inescapable.

Like many oth­er huge­ly influ­en­tial bands in pop­u­lar music, the mythol­o­gy can eclipse the com­plex­i­ties. Unmen­tioned in many a glow­ing account, for exam­ple, are the unsung one­time-mem­bers who played bass or gui­tar at points in the band’s short life—most sig­nif­i­cant­ly gui­tarist Craig Gan­non, some­times called the “fifth Smith.” Gan­non played on such sem­i­nal hits as “Ask” and “Pan­ic” before being let go from the band before they played their final con­cert, an Artists Against Apartheid ben­e­fit at London’s Brix­ton Acad­e­my on Decem­ber 12th, 1986. See it above in a fan-record­ed video.

Delayed after Marr was in a car acci­dent, the con­cert shows them back to their core four line­up, reunit­ed with fired, then rehired (then arrest­ed) bass play­er, Andy Rourke. They play “Shoplifters of the World Unite” from their upcom­ing final album, 1987’s Strange­ways, Here We Come; they play The Queen is Dead’s “Some Girls Are Big­ger Than Oth­ers” for the first, and last, time live onstage; they end the night where they began, with their very first sin­gle, “Hand in Glove.” No one knew at the time that it would be their last gig, includ­ing the band.

They con­tin­ued on for the next few months, record­ing, mak­ing TV appear­ances, and pon­der­ing a major label move. Dif­fer­ences per­son­al, legal, and cre­ative soon drove the four mem­bers apart. They have all con­tin­ued to con­tribute sig­nif­i­cant­ly to the direc­tion of alter­na­tive rock, as sup­port­ing play­ers, super­star indie gui­tarists, and, well, Mor­ris­sey. We might wish for a more pol­ished doc­u­ment of their last show, but so it is. Fans are extreme­ly unlike­ly to ever get chance to see it hap­pen again.

“Yes, time can heal,” wrote Mor­ris­sey in his often embit­tered auto­bi­og­ra­phy. “But it can also dis­fig­ure. And sur­viv­ing the Smiths is not some­thing that should be attempt­ed twice.” We should count our­selves lucky—those of us in the love-the-Smiths camp—that they sur­vived as long as they did, pro­duc­ing jan­g­ly, gor­geous, snide, maudlin, and mor­bid­ly hilar­i­ous indie-pop gems from the very begin­ning to the very end of their maybe-per­fect­ly-con­cise career.

See the full setlist below:

Big­mouth Strikes Again
London/Miserable Lie
Some Girls Are Big­ger Than Oth­ers (only live per­for­mance)
The Boy With The Thorn In His Side
Shoplifters Of The World Unite
There Is A Light That Nev­er Goes Out
Is It Real­ly So Strange?
Ceme­try Gates
This Night Has Opened My Eyes
Still Ill
/The Queen Is Dead
//William It Was Real­ly Noth­ing
//Hand In Glove

via Son­ic More Music

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Hear the 50 Best Post-Punk Albums of All Time: A Nos­tal­gia-Induc­ing Playlist Curat­ed by Paste Mag­a­zine

Stream 935 Songs That Appeared in “The John Peel Fes­tive 50” from 1976 to 2004: The Best Songs of the Year, as Select­ed by the Beloved DJ’s Lis­ten­ers

The Fall’s Mark E. Smith’s (RIP) Cre­ates a List of His Favorite Books, Films & Music, Cir­ca 1981

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness.

What Makes Music Sound Like Christmas Music? Hear the Single Most Christmassy Chord of All Explained

Dur­ing the past few months of this year, as in those same months of any year, we’ve been hear­ing a great deal of Christ­mas music. Some of the songs in the mix — “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Rein­deer,” “Have Your­self a Mer­ry Lit­tle Christ­mas,” “The Christ­mas Song” — few of us have ever known a time with­out, and oth­ers make it in because of their sea­son­al­ly themed lyri­cal con­tent. But cer­tain songs just sound like Christ­mas songs, some­how, and to under­stand what, in musi­cal terms, fills those com­po­si­tions with the spir­it of the hol­i­day sea­son, watch the five-minute Vox explain­er above that reveals “the secret chord that makes Christ­mas music sound so Christ­massy.”

First we should dis­tin­guish pop­u­lar Christ­mas songs from pop­u­lar non-Christ­mas songs, espe­cial­ly ones record­ed in the past half-cen­tu­ry. “Rock ’n’ roll songs (and the sub­se­quent pop songs influ­enced by the genre) may only con­tain three or four chords, each chord usu­al­ly being just a major or a minor — the two chord ‘fla­vors’ anal­o­gous to choco­late and vanil­la,” writes Slate’s Adam Ragusea. In con­trast, a selec­tion from “the Great Amer­i­can Song­book” might “use a Baskin-Rob­bins shop full of chords and chord fla­vors — 7ths and 9ths, half and ful­ly dimin­ished, var­i­ous inver­sions, and more” under melodies that “tend to include a lot of chro­mat­ic notes (the black notes on the piano when play­ing in the key of C major).”

In the era when most beloved Christ­mas stan­dards were con­ceived, song­writ­ers still made much use of that wide musi­cal palette, the son­ic col­ors of which had as much to do with jazz as with pop. But since the 1960s, writ­ers of pop songs  have used these now-exot­ic har­monies “to get a ‘clas­sic’ sound. For instance, John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s ‘Hap­py Xmas (War Is Over)’ includes some notes in its choral parts that I think are intend­ed to recall the har­mon­ic vocab­u­lary of those 1940s Christ­mas stan­dards.” No coin­ci­dence, sure­ly, that Mari­ah Carey’s “All I Want for Christ­mas Is You,” per­haps the only Christ­mas song writ­ten in recent decades to attain the same pop­u­lar­i­ty as the old stan­dards, uses the same com­po­si­tion­al tech­niques.

“I count at least 13 dis­tinct chords at work in ‘All I Want for Christ­mas Is You,’ result­ing in a sump­tu­ous­ly chro­mat­ic melody,” writes Ragusea. “The song also includes what I con­sid­er the most Christ­massy chord of all — a minor sub­dom­i­nant, or “iv,” chord with an added 6, under the words ‘under­neath the Christ­mas tree,’ among oth­er places.” As in Irv­ing Berlin’s “White Christ­mas,” he notes, “the chord comes imme­di­ate­ly after a major sub­dom­i­nant chord, giv­ing the effect of a ‘bright’ major sub­dom­i­nant that you might say ‘sighs’ or ‘melts’ into a ‘dark’ minor sub­dom­i­nant spiked with a ‘spicy’ extra tone (the added 6), before the songs set­tle back into their ton­ic, or ‘home,’ chords.” And so we come to the unex­pect­ed find­ing — though hard­ly a dis­pleas­ing one — that a prop­er­ly made Christ­mas song has more than a lit­tle in com­mon with a prop­er­ly made Christ­mas cock­tail.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Stream 22 Hours of Funky, Rock­ing & Swing­ing Christ­mas Albums: From James Brown and John­ny Cash to Christo­pher Lee & The Ven­tures

Stream a Playlist of 68 Punk Rock Christ­mas Songs: The Ramones, The Damned, Bad Reli­gion & More

Hear Paul McCartney’s Exper­i­men­tal Christ­mas Mix­tape: A Rare & For­got­ten Record­ing from 1965

Gui­tarist Randy Bach­man Demys­ti­fies the Open­ing Chord of The Bea­t­les’ “A Hard Day’s Night”

The Moth­er of All Funk Chords

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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