Behind the Cover Art
Featured: Isabelle Molinari
The Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree is for many a beacon of Christmas. It reminds us of fairytale Christmas movies and Central Park covered in snow. While the tree this year may not look its best, just like the rest of us, and Christmas may not be exactly what we wait all year for, the traditions and spirit of Christmas still lives. Christmas cookies can still be baked, carols can still be sung, and trees can still be decorated. Let this season be one of joy and hope, even if it is also full of Zoom calls. The happiest and healthiest of holiday seasons to you and yours.
The Staff of Calliope
Is it a “Wonderful Lifetime”? How Made-for-Television Christmas Movies Represent a Fictional America
After a very rough eleven months, the holidays are finally upon us. People are getting cosy, the fires are blazing, and if you are in the United States, then the Lifetime Christmas movie marathon is well underway. Catherine Mullner is here to take a look into why these predictable films are still on everyone’s televisions every December, and how they represent the ultimate fictionalised “American Dream” we still can’t let go of.
There are a lot of things America has made that some of us cherish, and some of us absolutely loath. We can immediately name Donald Trump, tuna casserole, and the electoral college right off the top of our heads for things we’d rather have never existed.
But, something that’s been firmly in the middle of love and loath is the Lifetime Movie Channel. Although it has gone through several phases since its conception in 1984 as a television channel specifically made to discuss women’s health and issues, it is now known for rather ridiculous made-for-television movies. Evil twins, warnings against teen pregnancy, and stripper stalkers are all staples of Lifetime. If movie titles like Inspector Mom (2006) and Killer Hair (2009) don’t make you want to find this station right away, then perhaps knowing that Tommy Wiseau’s The Room (2003) was originally a Lifetime movie will!
However, in the holiday spirit, I wanted to take a particular look at its made-for-television Christmas movies. There are, of course, plenty of other television channels, such as Hallmark and Freedom, that each has its own Christmas movie marathon, full of classic stereotypes and flannel-wearing men. However, I wanted to focus particularly on the Lifetime Movie Channel because of its long history of producing questionable movies, and its recent developments in trying to represent more of the actual American population (emphasis on trying).
The first Lifetime Christmas movie aired in 1997, however, what has brought Lifetime infamous fame is its Christmas movie marathon, “It’s a Wonderful Lifetime”, which has aired every year since 2012. This year alone, the “It’s a Wonderful Lifetime” movie marathon will feature thirty films, and began over a month ago on the 23rd of October! I believe this was done in an effort to see if they could eventually merge their summer movie marathon with their Christmas marathon, beginning it on the 31st of August by 2030, but that’s just a personal theory.
What’s interesting about the types of movies made for this Lifetime Christmas marathon is the complete dichotomy in reception. These movies are made for a particular audience (i.e., white suburban housewives in middle-class America), and the reception for their targeted audience is always somewhat positive. To those in that demographic, Lifetime Christmas films represent comfort and security. They act as an escape from worldly woes and offer predictable storylines one can feel safe within.
I think this paraphrased quote from the Mary Carver Blog (one of many blogs I read researching this article) exemplifies the comfort Lifetime Christmas films bring to some people: “no matter what is going on in your life or in the world, [these films] will always be there …and they will not let you down.”
That line read as incredibly intense for me. It seems like such a minute thing to need stability and consistency from, considering I would much prefer that from my physician, my government, and the McDonald’s ice cream machine that is always broken.
But, taking a step back, this statement began to make more sense. There is something about these predictable films with their casts of blonde women, single brunette dads, and scenic suburban towns that reminds me deeply of The Great Gatsby and the quest for the American Dream. These films play into the fictionalised American Dream, that living in America is a rainbow, with financial security and a nuclear family as the attainable pot of gold at the end of it.
Obviously, the mechanics of the American Dream were designed to be operated by rich white people, who can then turn around to every demographic besides theirs and say confidently that, “You just didn’t work hard enough! You can achieve anything if you work hard enough, and you believe!”
You can work so much harder than the 331,790,984 people that live within the United States, but when there is systemic prejudice built into both the economic and legal system, that logic flies out the window. What is really being said is “the American capitalist system works for those who designed it”, and therefore I submit this ridiculously weighted theory on a very silly topic:
Ultimately, Lifetime Christmas movies reflect that the United States of America was and is still made with upper middle class white, Christian families solely in mind.
It is not a new revelation that America, like a lot of other post-industrial capitalist countries, are made to work mainly for the upper class. However, what is perhaps new is to make an argument that this concept is clearly reflected in something as trivial as Lifetime Christmas movies. Yet, one could argue it is in things we consider trivial that we see the most blatant reflection of our own societal values and taboos. So, what evidence do I have to back up my theory? I submit to you all Lifetime’s most iconic Christmas movie trope: “Executive City Girl Returns to her Small Town Roots: the Saga.”
In this commonly used plot device, seen in holiday hits like All I Want for Christmas (2013) and A Nanny for Christmas (2011), women who “hate” the holiday season and are too busy being successful marketing and advertising executives (because there are no other types of executives in the Lifetime world) are forced to return to their small hometown. There, they encounter one of three options: brunette single dad, brunette ex-boyfriend, or local brunette man who somehow helps run the town with his smile and muscles. All are required to wear flannel, which is also a town law.
She resists the holiday spirit, she resents being kept away from her work and constantly points at her phone and sasses everybody to show this. Yet, she is softened by the two twin daughters of the single dad she ends up nannying for/ competing in the town bake-off with her ex-boyfriend / saving the ice rink with the town mayor. Everyone around her is encouraging her to find “Christmas magic” and “to let herself be happy”, even though she was perhaps already happy, enjoying financial stability at her seemingly high-end executive job.
This trope displays a lot of unconscious rules and societal norms that middle-class suburbia accepts as reality, yet have never been applicable to all of America (and quite frankly, never will be). Sure, this trope is comforting to some and predictable to all, but there is a huge issue in its seeming comfort. Why must the woman return home and settle down to be truly happy? There is always the assumption that she is alone in the city, scared, and out of her depth. The comfort she seeks can’t be truly found in individual self-worth or her network of close friends or family members she trusts, but rather must be found in the arms of a husband, a future with children, and in fully supporting the entire community of her town. She must settle back into the bubble to be happy in this plot, or there won’t be a happy ending!
Another obvious issue is the assumption of heterosexuality. It is not in a woman’s arms that our lead protagonist can find comfort in, but rather in Chad’s, Brad’s, and the occasional Derek. It is after twenty-three years of making Lifetime Christmas movies that the channel is putting out an LGBTQIA centred film called The Christmas Setup (2020). In it, real-life couple Ben Lewis and Blake Lee will star as the featured couple, and find holiday joy with each other, just as 20 million other people will during this holiday in the United States.
There is so much more that is blatantly linked to what the channel thinks middle class, white America will find acceptable, and is then reinforced by their Christmas films. To celebrate and find joy in the holidays, that usually means characters are finding that in a Christian/ Christian-esque context. Furthermore, Lifetime films have featured historically all white-casts, or often white leads. To give some credit, however, Lifetime has taken more strides than Hallmark to include POC actors and stories. This year, they will be releasing a film called Sugar & Spice Holiday (2020), featuring an Asian American family.
However, one band-aid won’t fix a broken leg. There are still millions of ways made-for-television films, Christmas or otherwise, could improve their representation of racial diversity and LGBTQIA stories in America. It is not someone’s innate fault that they get to take joy in made-for-television Christmas movies like those Lifetime makes. However, perhaps it is time to recognise that not everybody has the privilege to feel comforted by these stories because they don’t get to see themselves properly represented on screen. When we recognise and understand this, we then can truly find ways to share in joy and love with everyone (and not just holiday joy for that matter).
So, take up a seat, grab a seasonal beverage of your choice, and if you can’t agree on what film to watch with somebody, I think Shrek (2001) is something we all can universally agree brings joy.
Slow Burn Nightmares and Uncanny Familiarity: Ari Aster’s Hereditary and Midsommar
Paola Cordova breaks down the masterpieces of filmmaker Ari Aster, and what makes them so uniquely special.
If I were to use a singular word to describe what it is that makes Ari Aster’s films so good in the most disturbing way possible, it would be the word “uncanny.”
What exactly constitutes the “uncanny”? It’s a term that was famously explored in the field of psychoanalysis for years and, in the context of the arts and literature, refers to things that are unsettling to us not because they are alien but rather, the opposite. If something is familiar or similar to us but has a couple of elements that make it essentially different, it raises a primordial fear buried within our minds of something being hidden within the familiar. The unheimlich, as Sigmund Freud would develop in his work by the same title in 1919, refers to something that is simultaneously alien and close to home. The term in German is in and of itself its own antonym, its own contradiction, an overlapping of terminology that leads one to understand the semantic rootings of what the uncanny truly is. We are our own contradiction, and our deepest fears are hidden in the deepest corners of the subconscious mind, and the fact that these hidden thoughts could come to light is altogether deeply frightening.
Hereditary (2018) and Midsommar (2019) are both films that make your gut churn in the worst way possible, eliciting feelings of disgust and fear as they slowly burn through two hours of entertainment playing out before your eyes. This might sound like I am taking a knock at Ari Aster, but if anything, I am doing the contrary: his horrific, uncanny feature films are some of the most beautiful and truly terrifying experiences to behold. The two feel deeply genuine, personal, and allow a third party viewer a cathartic opportunity to realize their greatest horrors within their gorgeous sets and Bergman-esque closeups. Both films explore different facets of the uncanny, with Hereditary largely taking place within a family, a home, and their friends, and Midsommar in sunny, candy-colored fields that appear completely harmless until the horror story unravels.
Firstly, let’s discuss the exploration of the family in Hereditary- a deeply uncanny film particularly because of its revelation of the nature of intimacy and emotion in a deeply dysfunctional context. Aster does not grant the film too many flashy, paranormal, gory moments until the end, but throughout it is a feeling that I can only describe as wading into a bog full of rot, littered with perfectly preserved human corpses a la Come and See (1982). The family’s reality initially feels unfocused, blurry, like it is hiding something in plain sight- disturbingly resembling our own but setting off alarms in our heads that something does not sit right. When the sweaty, greasy teenage boy drives his eerily silent sister having an allergic reaction in a deep panic through the streets, it’s something we can all relate to. Cut to a second later when her head gets blown off by a lamp post on the street in a way we do not physically see but rather understand from a loud thud and the horrified expression on the boy’s face- a manifestation of the uncanny. When Toni Colette’s character transforms from being a loving mother throughout the majority of the film to being a possessed creature banging her head on a cellar door until it literally falls off of her body, leaving behind a bloody stump, the same feeling of horror is evoked.
The beautiful home within which Hereditary develops is made out of wood, decorated in art deco fashion in greens and browns that might have in any other setting appeared warm and familiar. Set in an idyllic corner of the woods, the home appears unthreatening and even cute, with a small beautiful tree house right outside it. Inside the house lives a family that might have also, in many other situations, appeared regular- a middle-class mother, father, daughter, and son with nothing particularly off-putting about them. What offsets the situation is the idea that something lurks within, true to the Freudian concept that the scariest things that we can think of come directly from us. The house, as much as the family, are plagued by what Toni Colette’s character cries about in desperation at the beginning of the film, the monsters of mental illness that run in the family that she feels live on in her children, particularly in her young, reserved daughter. The uncanny element of the film can be understood in the title even, which itself indicates that the undoing of the characters and their fate is something that they have inherited from their own grandmother/mother. Charlie (the aforementioned young girl who is brutally and accidentally decapitated in a car accident) carried within her a literal demon that was brought into the family through her grandmother’s involvement in a hellish, nightmare cult- showing that her fate as much as her brother, mother, and father’s comes, literally, from the familiar. Ari Aster here explores one of the most widely set fears of any regular person: what if we were our worst enemy or deeply trusted them and we didn’t know it? Well kept domesticity has its own layers of (literal) hell within it, and the truth is shocking to behold.
Midsommar, on the other hand, is unsettling because of the fact that there is hardly any physical darkness within it. The majority of it unravels in a candy-colored palette, fields full of smiley-faced, tranquil individuals dressed mainly in white and flower-patterned cloths. Swedish midnight sun and aesthetically pleasing pageantry illuminate the most bloody and vile acts- starting with a woman throwing herself off a cliff to bash her face in. These horrifying scenes where the daylight illuminates every detail of the gore and destruction to an extent leaves you wishing perhaps the darkness could cloak some of it to make it less overwhelming to the senses.
The events that happen around the characters can be said to be completely external to them, except they aren’t. The familiar sunshine and colorful landscapes that might otherwise appease the common viewer are filled with a physical manifestation of Florence Pugh’s character’s (Dani, the protagonist of the film) trauma. After having lived through a gruesome murder-suicide in the family, with a boyfriend who does nothing to help her emotionally recover and begrudgingly sticks around uselessly, she bottles up her pain and buries it within her. Her means of processing her pain culminate in the iconic ending, where she, wearing a flower crown, looks upon her boyfriend, who is burning alive (upon her request), and smiles. Midsommar can be called a nightmare, played out in summery daylight, but it could also be interpreted as Dani’s ultimate fairytale. The uncanny here plays its role in its fundamentally contradictory elements, both visually and thematically.
Aster continues to shock and horrify us in innovative ways that are executed flawlessly upon the screens from where we watch his movies. Playing with horror as something that is so deeply internal speaks personally to his experiences, but also to a more universal one in general, finding that the most terrifying things come from the slow burn destruction that comes from a hidden place in our minds. Our subconscious is our greatest betrayer, and we hope to see what else he can bring to the table in what he has announced as his next project (a four-hour-long nightmare comedy as he describes it).
Commercialisation or Celebration? The Changing Face of Art
Anne Moorehouse discusses the shifting purposes of the visual art world and the potential ramifications of these alterations
The historic relationship between art and money seems powerfully alike to the blossoming affair between the current vast majority of St Andrews students and Pret: mutually reliant and nearing inseparable. For numerous reasons, which I will go on to elucidate, the commercialisation and commodification of artworks, largely fuelled by the nineteenth-century Art Nouveau movement, continues to infiltrate many aspects of our daily lives. Not even the humble three streets of St Andrews can escape its talons…
On nearing completion in perusing the fine wares of Waterstones bookshop, I arrived at the gift section – the favourite part for all unenthused seven-year-olds looking for something other than the usual subjection to the KS2 Maths textbook. Unusually, the beloved stationery missed my doting attention this time – to my dismay, the Van Gogh Starry Night 1000 piece jigsaw puzzle, ‘Hokusai Wave Travel Cup’, and Edward Lear face mask blinded me to all other pleasures. There is something painful in the thought of someone’s recently infused egg and cress sandwich breath smothering a face mask adorned with the image of Lear’s artwork. I struggle to imagine Raphael’s delight at seeing one of his putti from The Sistine Madonna grace the kneecaps of Amazon’s finest leggings.
Such designs, purely for monetary and commercial purposes, cannot be said to retain the original work’s meaning. Yet, how far should such criticism be taken? Are such products disrespectful to the artist? Do we even possess the right to dissect their art and create a whole host of arguably trivial merchandise from them? Does the circulation of such produce foster a complete misunderstanding of the respective artwork? Do we face the risk of some audiences knowing the artworks primarily through consumer items and not in virtue of the original itself? In order to confront such challenges, perhaps we should travel back to one of the core veins in the creation of such a culture.
Popularised in France, Art Nouveau was the international artistic movement of the late nineteenth to early twentieth-century; heavily influenced by the ideals of the Arts and Crafts Movement, pioneered by William Morris in Britain, the period was characterised by a desire to dissolve the boundary between fine and applied art. Placing a new emphasis on interior and graphic design, textiles and jewellery, amongst several other consumer goods, there was an inevitability for art to be commodified. Challenging the historicism and eclecticism of prior and contemporary academic art, the new hybridity of styles imbued art with a purpose of utility in the domestic and public realm and became characterised by its decorative and practical appeal. Many of you will be familiar with the name Toulouse Lautrec, possibly knowing of him as one of the great post-Impressionist artists. However, Lautrec was one of the first whose work challenges the boundary between an art form and a commercial good. Indeed, Lautrec established his reputation from creating advertising posters for Parisian nightclubs and dance halls. Lautrec’s name became known almost overnight with the dissemination of 3,000 copies of his 1891 Moulin Rouge – La Goulue. Pasted on lampposts and even donkey-carted sandwich boards, such posters were not as we perceive them today, revered in museums and fought over in auction houses for thousands. Essentially catalysing the birth of graphic design, many have debated whether these advertisements can be viewed as art. Don’t fret, the ‘what is art?’ conundrum will not be indulged in today…that’s for you to go away and ponder.
The Czech-born artist Alphonse Mucha was also working in Paris during this time and was offered a job in a French print shop to design posters advertising Sarah Bernhardt’s performance in the play Gismonda. As with Lautrec, the work propelled both Mucha and the actress to the forefront of their respective creative fields, resulting in a long-term partnership. The integration of text and image alongside the stained glass, geometric design, perhaps deliberately reminiscent of Paris’ famous Metro, is quintessential of Mucha’s new style, but, again, raised certain ambiguity towards its status as ‘art’. Mucha went on to produce book illustrations, wallpaper, and carpet designs, securing his position as a designer for the interior of Georges Fouquet’s jewellery shop. As with several other contemporary artists, such a multi-faceted role redefined the reputation of artist; they were no longer simply experts of a certain style or art form but became prolific craftsmen across a wide spectrum of media. However, unlike Lautrec, Mucha soon came into “conflict with the crass commercialisation of the style he had helped to initiate” (Michael Salcman, 2015). In contrast to his earlier works, Mucha felt his commercial work to be departing from the true purpose of art and his own artistic philosophy. For this artist, the line between art form and commercial product had blurred beyond the point of clarity.
For others, the new graphic pictorial language and synthesis of styles were crucial steps towards elevating applied art and design to the pedestal of high art. This process became known in the German counterpart movement, ‘Jugendstil’, as ‘Gesamtkunstwerk’. As with several other European artistic cultures, the Vienna Secessionists perceived Japanese art as the embodiment of such Gesamtkunstwerk ideals. Indeed, Arthur Liberty’s founding of The Liberty Shop in London in 1874 acquired a reputation for its importing of Japanese objects and textiles. Intertwined with the post-Impressionists’ fascination with colour theory, Japanese woodblock prints, in particular, captured the attention of a wide audience and several European artistic circles. For Gustav Klimt, Japanese artistic methodology provided the critical and long-sought-after opportunity to weld the bridge between high and applied arts. As a devoted collector of Japanese-ware, the linearity, block colours, flat surfaces, and bold outlines of Japanese art wholly permeated Klimt’s artistic perspective. His employment of gold leaf and style in creating objet d’art were strongly informed by Japan’s art. Not only did such works breach the threshold towards commercial art at the time, but Mucha’s highly popular paintings continue to be commodified – it will take you approximately 15 seconds to find the entire array of attire, ridden with cropped and collaged forms of his works.
In assessing the reasons for why artworks are translated into consumer goods, perhaps we can form a clearer idea of the possible benefits of the practice. While mugs, keyrings, tops, and so on, based on certain artworks, are by no means, and never will be, the same as the original, they can be viewed as an important means of promoting the artwork and increasing its popularity. Through the creation of such a market, images of the works are far more accessible to a wider audience and can encourage people to view the work itself. For works that might otherwise fall under the radar of current interest, the appreciation of such art can be retained through a continual production of such items. Indeed, the consuming of merchandise undoubtedly reflects the buyer’s appreciation for the work. All art is in some form related to contemporary culture; perhaps the commercialisation of it is simply a different and evolving strand of that relation. The commodification of art, whilst not always a wholly beneficial process for our understanding of the original as art, does reflect a celebration of it at least.
Is it that Time Already?
Ella Crowsley delves into the history behind some of our favorite holiday tunes
It’s that time of year again! The time where moans upon hearing those infamous opening notes of ‘All I Want for Christmas is You’ turns into belting out every lyric with glee. As the year comes to a close, it seems that the emergence of Christmas music hints at the celebrations yet to come, offering us a sense of relief and pure delight in a way that no other single genre has the ability to. Even those who claim their dislike for Christmas music seem to know every word to the classics and can’t help but tap along when they are played. There’s just something about Christmas music that brings joy! It appears in a variety of genres and themes, from Christ’s nativity to Santa, and to simple songs set around the Christmas season. So, where did this tradition of Christmas music come from, and how has it progressed through the years?
Music associated with Christmas is thought to have originated in 4th Century Rome, through Latin hymns praising the birth of Christ. By the 13th Century, translations and hymns in alternative native languages had appeared, offering those across the world the chance to rejoice in the nativity. Similarly, the invention of Christmas carols appeared through the work of John Awdlay in 1426 as an act of Proselytism, an attempt to spread the news of Christ’s birth from house to house and convert others to Christianity. The word is supposed to derive from the French carole, a dance accompanied by singing. By the 16th Century, carols that we know and love today had started to appear, including ‘God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen’ and ‘The 12 Days of Christmas’. Music soon became one of the greatest tributes to Christmas, often composed by some of the best musicians of the time.
However, with the rise of Puritanism, in mid-17th century England Christmas music was in fact banned. To Cromwell and his followers, singing and related Christmas festivities were not only abhorrent but actually sinful, as it held no biblical justification. For this reason, they believed that Christmas music threatened core Christian beliefs. In a strange turn of events, Christmas music went underground, as families continued to celebrate in secret. In fact, some of the most well-known Christmas songs were composed at this time, such as ‘Hark! The Herald Angels sing’ and ‘In the Bleak Midwinter’. Critics of the time suggested that music like this can be so touching and affecting, particularly in the worship of Christ, people could not stop singing.
When, in May 1660, Charles II restored the Stuarts to the throne, the public practice of singing Christmas music began again. Interestingly, Christmas music of this era shifted to focus on St Nicholas and other gift-bringers. Songs like ‘Up on the Housetop’ appeared and traditional sacred hymns began to transition to the style of Christmas music we recognise today.
Since the mid-50s, many Christmas songs have been produced simply for popular consumption, focusing largely on romantic relationships, using Christmas merely as a setting. However, a lot of more recent Christmas songs are in some way reminiscent of Christmas traditions and celebrations such as mistletoe, presents, and Christmas trees. In fact, many titles attempt to define some of the more mythical aspects of modern Christmas traditions like reindeers and Santa Claus.
In 2016, ASCAP (American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers) released a list of the 30 most played holiday songs of the last 50 years, and the results are unsurprising. ASCAP President commented that “music reminds us that the holidays are supposed to be about togetherness and good cheer. These classics perfectly capture those themes''. The list reveals 30 quintessential songs, of which I’m sure most people know every word to! Topping the list is ‘Santa Claus is Coming to Town’ by Fred Coots and Haven Gillespie. Written in 1934, this song has been reinvented multiple times and recorded by over 200 artists, including Bing Crosby, Mariah Carey, Bruce Springsteen, and Frank Sinatra. It’s unsurprising that this is the song that tops the charts! Coming in at second is ‘Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas’ by Ralph Blane and Hugh Martin (1944) and ‘Winter Wonderland’ by Felix Bernand (1934) is at third. Interestingly, Mariah Carey with ‘All I want for Christmas is You’, the youngest song on the list comes in at number 15. Perhaps this implies that songs need time to work their way into ‘the classics’.
Contrastingly in the UK, PRS for Music (Performing Right Society) conducted their own survey, revealing some more traditionally British Christmas Songs. Ranking number 1, perhaps unsurprisingly is ‘Fairytale of New York’ by The Pogues with Kirsty MacColl (1987). Similarly, Band Aid’s 1984 ‘Do They Know It’s Christmas?’ comes in at number 3, and ‘Happy Christmas (War is Over)’ by John Lennon is in 7th.
So, what is it that makes a good Christmas song? What is it that makes a simple song about Christmas a so-called ‘classic? Of the ASCAP’s top 30 most played songs of the last 50 years, 55% of songs were by solo artists, 65% by men and 25% characterised as ‘rock’ (more than any other genre). From this sample, we may assume that the best Christmas songs would be rock songs by a solo male singer. Yet, we all know that this isn’t true! Perhaps one of the most appealing aspects of Christmas music is the complete mix of artists and styles that appear each year!
Some even suggest that the aspect that makes Christmas songs feel ‘Christmassy’ is actually the minor chords. This feels counterintuitive as most Christmas songs feel so happy and upbeat! And yet, many of them are scattered with minor or diminished chords throughout a piece that’s otherwise in a major key, enhancing that Christmas feeling. This concept can be seen all the way from modern Christmas pop songs, back to Tchaikovsky’s instrumental compositions. Others suggest that simply the use of sleigh bells in a song makes it Christmassy, no matter what the song is! These bells often offer no musical value at all, but they offer the archetypal Christmas noise that we all recognise.
For some people, Christmas just wouldn’t be the same without Christmas music! Some argue that this is because of the ‘exposure effect’, the suggestion that the more we hear a song, the more likely we are to love it. As we only hear these songs for a few weeks each year, it’s difficult to hear them ‘too much’. Many of us relate Christmas music to spending time with family, good food, presents, or even just having some time off. For whatever reason, it seems clear that Christmas songs bring joy to people, and with more and more people appreciating the nostalgia factor that comes with it, it seems that Christmas music is here to stay!
I’ve Got Chills, They’re Multiplying: Why does music make me feel the way I do?
Sarah Johnston explains how music affects the human body, and why it can be incredibly stimulating
There is nothing like a good song.
We’ve all had that experience: your playlist is on shuffle and then it hits that song and you feel the chills run down your back. Your hair stands on end, you can feel your heartbeat - it's like an emotional punch in the stomach. But why does music provoke such a strong reaction from us?
Music stimulates a reward pathway in the brain which floods our system with dopamine, the chemical in our body that controls mood, sleep, memory, concentration, and motor control. Dopamine specifically floods the striatum, an area of the forebrain that deals with addiction, motivation, and rewards. It is literally addictive to listen to good music! It is the reason we love to binge songs until we’re sick of them – each time we listen, we get a hit of dopamine.
But the dopamine reaction is much more complicated than you just listen to a song and feel happy. Our brains are excellent at predicting rhythms and patterns so your dopamine levels actually spike before the part of a song that gives you chills. This is a survival mechanism, buried deep in our subconscious, leftover from the days when making a prediction on a sound or situation could literally mean life or death. The more a song changes, or teases us, or builds up, the more dopamine builds up in our brains and the bigger the reaction it provokes in us.
This effect is especially prevalent in sad songs because melancholy tunes and minor chords trigger a distress response in our brains, which originates from our pre-verbal times as a species when we only had noises to communicate upset or fear. However, if you’ve ever got the chills from a sad song, you’re probably aware that they don’t usually make you feel all that bad. Our bodies' reactions to music are usually overwhelmingly positive. This is because as well as releasing dopamine, they also release adrenaline which makes our bodies more alert, giving us increased energy and brain function.
When you boil music down to its fundamentals it can be compared to comedy in many ways, in the sense that there must be a setup that causes tension, followed by a punchline which gives relief and so causes laughter. The build-up in a song works very similarly: your brain – clever like it is– starts to notice those patterns I discussed earlier and starts building up adrenaline in preparation for the crescendo. The music builds and builds – and actually puts your brain under stress trying to work out what is going to happen – and then suddenly peaks and your adrenaline production stops as your brain stops stressing about completing the pattern. The adrenaline is released into your system and causes your pupils to dilate, your hairs to stand on end, your heart to beat faster, your brain to work quicker, and, of course, you to experience chills.
What music in fact does to your body is make it question whether or not there is a threat in your immediate future. The adrenaline spikes your brain activity to make sure you’re able to determine if there is any real danger as quickly as possible, and as soon as your brain realizes there is no real threat your fear response stops, but it takes a few minutes for the adrenaline to be processed by your body.
The most interesting thing about getting the chills is what causes it – or more accurately what doesn’t cause it. You can get chills from any genre from opera to classical, pop to heavy metal. The process has nothing to do with the style, it's all about the change in the music. It’s why key changes in the final verses of songs are so popular, especially in places like the theatre, where the aim is to make the audience emote.
However, just because our brain knows what is coming, doesn’t necessarily mean we won’t get a dopamine hit next time. When we know what is coming next, our nucleus accumbens becomes more active. This part of the brain controls our reinforcement learning – like the Pavlovian response – and when we hear the section of music that originally gave us a hit of dopamine, because this time the brain has been able to predict it, it gives us another hit of dopamine as a reward. This part of the brain is a key factor in controlling addiction, which is why once you’ve heard a good song once you’ll often listen to it multiple times in close succession.
Another big factor in getting the chills is your environment. Have you ever noticed that the music hits you much more in a cinema than it would on your Spotify? Or that you get chills a lot at concerts? This is because of the context of the situation you are listening to the music in. If the music is used as part of a drama e.g. in a film or show, it will often create a deeper emotional response in the listener because of our association between sounds and emotions. Similarly in shows, as you are invested in the characters, the songs they sing often ‘hit you harder’ because you sympathise with their cause.
In a concert environment, you also have the impact of those around you. If you’ve ever heard the saying ‘their smile is infectious’, it's not actually far from the truth. Hormonal responses in your body not only depend on your own hormone levels, but the hormone levels of those around you. Your body can subtly sense the hormones of those around you. It’s particularly prevalent in nightclub environments with testosterone, but it can equally happen with adrenaline. Stress hormones are one of the varieties which synchronise themselves according to those around you, so if you’re at a concert with lots of other nervous, excited people, your body will adapt your adrenaline levels to match the situation. This is again a subconscious response left over from our early evolution, from when survival was dependent on working together.
Music is one of the most powerful hormonal and chemical imbalances in our lives, and its power should not be underestimated.
However, I don’t think we should let science overshadow the more important factor at play here, which is the individual. If you love a song, then that is the right reaction for you. If you hate a song, then that is the right reaction for you. Our chemical responses are not gospel, and should always be taken with a pinch of salt. If you love a song and it makes you feel happy, then that is what matters above all. Our bodies are hardwired to react to music in certain ways, but our brains, our emotions, and experiences also should have their input.
So blast your Billie Eilish, turn up your Tchaikovsky, and sing along to Six, because the most important thing about music will always be how it makes you feel!
Muse of the Month
Erica Ostlander celebrates a pioneer of Japanese artistic culture
My muse is… Rumiko Takahashi
She is… A world-renowned mangaka who has permanently changed the landscape of manga and Japanese pop culture. She is nicknamed the “Princess of Manga” or the “Queen of Shōnen” and is the creator behind popular series like Inuyasha, Ramna ½, and Urusei Yatsura. She has been a frontrunner in the anime industry since 1978 and allowed the industry to gain global appeal with her universal stories. She started off running a series in the Weekly Shōnen Sunday magazine, which is a publication tailored for young boys in Japan, and eventually branched out by introducing romantic comedies to the magazine, after the rapid success of her series. This sudden change of genre caused her to be harshly criticised by the industry and its fanbase, forcing her to remain anonymous during the onset of her career. However, her stories transcended a standardised audience, creating characters that can reach all types of people-- regardless of gender, age, and typically favoured genres. She continued providing stories and art that changed how pop culture was consumed in Japan, creating a space for art that can be appreciated by everyone. By focusing on imagery and visual flair rather than dialogue, she was able to communicate to her audience on an international level, creating a new understanding of Japanese culture. Her iconic art style will forever be associated with the 80s manga boom and the sudden swell of female empowerment in the entertainment industry. Now she is one of the wealthiest women in Japan and is the winner of the Grand Prix d’Angoulême award in 2015 for lifetime achievement, and is the second manga artist to have ever won this prestigious award. She is a role model as not only an artist, but for her ability to use creativity to inspire change and action.
I first learned about her when… I first started taking an interest in Japanese pop culture and comics, I noticed a strict divide between gender and age in the creation of manga. Each magazine fell under four categories: shonen for young boys, seinen for older men, shojo for young girls, and josei for older women. This clear division between age and gender is something that struck me as odd, but upon further reflection, this divide can also be seen in western media in the form of subtle marketing and other types of promotions. Despite the continuous onslaught of unnecessarily gendered media, I wanted to see if there were any exceptions to this structure of genre in Japan to satisfy my own curiosity. I was already a fan of her more popular series such as Inuyasha, and after discovering its ‘shonen’ origins, my curiosity was officially piqued. I now see her as one of the best cartoonists of all time and I admire the power her art has to transcend societal norms.
I am obsessed because… To put it simply, her stories have defined an entire artistic wave of cross-connecting genres and cultures, allowing her to become the inspiration for the new generation of creators. Her character designs have a retro flair that persists in the modern continuations of her work, promoting a sense of content nostalgia in all of her viewers. It has survived the cutthroat industry of manga and has come out on top through stories that are simple in nature but continue to hold and maintain an audience’s attention for years. For someone like me who tends to overthink plotlines and actively looks for faults in a story, she is able to whisk away any pessimism that may distract from the light-hearted stories she creates. She has an almost innate way of leveling the viewer’s mind to accept what is presented to them without continuous questioning regarding plausibility or realistic character dynamics. She is a strong believer in the power of “simple and fun stories” and she has converted me to become a true “slice of life” enthusiast. In art, it is easy to get swept up in the endless metaphors, philosophical roots, and dark twists hidden behind a piece of art. However, there is beauty in simplicity, and is often more difficult than one thinks to create something that is so simple it can be enjoyed by anyone.
My favorite work by her is… Ramna ½ which is a story that combines the genres of martial arts, comedy, and romance. It is about a boy training to become a martial artist whose gender changes once making contact with hot or cold water. Having a sex-changing protagonist first appears to be a difficult task, especially in terms of marketing in a strictly gender divided form of media. However, this franchise was immensely popular, has multiple TV seasons, and two movies coupled with the long-running manga series. Each character has a beautifully fleshed out persona that allows ample room for showcasing comedy and drama in a scene. The martial arts aspect is perfectly balanced with the romantic web between the characters in the show. It is the ideal example that proves how much we limit ourselves to genre and audience when creating art and can inspire others to reach beyond the standard template for entertainment.
The work by her you absolutely have to check out is… Rumiko Takahashi has produced multiple works that have the ability to define a career, but Inuyasha is unquestionably her most successful series. It is a series following a fifteen-year-old girl from modern Japan who suddenly finds herself able to go back in time to the Feudal era. It is an adventure and romance epic that has 193 episodes across two series, four feature-length films, one OVA, in addition to the new series which premiered last month about the next generation of characters in this fictional universe. It is a series with a hugely passionate fanbase that refuses to let come to an end and is regarded as one of the most popular anime franchises of all time. The story on paper appears to have an elaborate premise, as it is extremely easy to overcomplicate a story centred around time travel. However, Takahashi once again takes her audience away from the logical side of themselves and crafts a happy and pleasant atmosphere. The fights and power systems are consistent and entertaining, and the quality of the art is kept up and well-managed throughout the series. This could be considered the magnum opus of her career and is a great introduction to the Queen of Shonen herself.