I love traditional music that lives without clear ownership or origin. Old hymns are like this. Tunes that don’t exist as single crafted tracks, but as pages of notes or remembered melodies. I guess there’s something pure and fragile about music that’s necessarily performed, always vulnerable to reinterpretation. Writers and performers can’t retain control through royalties or record credits. They can only reiterate and pass on.
There’s probably copyright fineprint (not to mention history) that disputes what I just claimed, but I’m going to ignore it, because ignoring it lets me regard Justin Bieber’s “Drummer Boy (Feat. Busta Rhymes)” as equally legitimate as any other version, as canon as Bing Crosby’s definitive “It’s Beginning To Look A Lot Like Christmas” or the NIV translation of Luke 2: 8–14.
This song has always felt so dumb to me even before its Extreme Makeover Bieber Edition. It’s historical fanfiction undercut by that insufferable “pah rum pah pum pum.” The first seven seconds here are a masterpiece. That trap snare and sleigh bell and church chime sound how a mall smells. Then that encroaching eep eep eep synth screaming “Get excited for this next part!!!!!”
Please just read the lyrics.
The production of this track constructs an imposing snowglobe world where a Busta Rhymes feature is the least ridiculous part. It’s like his verse got intimidated into submission. The rhymes he’s busting simply narrate the arranging of the very collaboration he’s rapping over. So Justin strips things down for yet another, more urgent verse, railing against consumerism and complacency. Justin specifies that part of what makes the homeless and hungry so pitiful is that they’re “wishin’, wishin’ that they had somebody they could hold.” After all, though Christmas music celebrates many types of love and companionship, the genre’s hallmark schmaltz highlights the romantic. Another box that Bieber’s brand is poised to check.
There are actually two facts revealed in the first verse of Justin’s silly rewrite: he drums really well, and he consistently claims Christian faith. It’s tough to imagine Justin before the fame—before former child stars like Justin Timberlake and Usher noticed his home performances on YouTube and saw something special, maybe familiar. Before Justin moonwalked into the spotlight and never left—only changed his hair and accumulated tattoos, grinned less and smoldered more. Before the DUIs. Before his breakdowns, hasty baptism, and bromance with the rockstar pastor of the Hillsong megachurch. But before celebrity eclipsed his true talent, Justin was drumming and strumming and singing in his basement, thankful not only to God, but also to Jesus.
So in 2011, when Justin Bieber Inc. was ripe to churn out a Christmas album, this song was too convenient. Here’s a Christmas classic about drumming. Hip hop music is based around beats. Justin can drum, but also rap. Like him, this song is brazenly Christian, but not nearly a God-song, a hymn with much to say about the reason for the season. It was waiting to be refurbished and plastic-wrapped. This masterpiece catches Justin’s trajectory at peak acceleration, and in some way, manages to encapsulate most everything about his public narrative.
Is this all too much? I’m not being sarcastic. December at least, if not always, is a time for sincerity: I earnestly love this song. I indulge in Christmas music for its self-sustaining cycles—for the sudden recollection of that feeling it both and elicits and demands: cheer. I love first snows. I like the way so many forms of love can be conflated and celebrated—the way “All I Want For Christmas Is You” can be scream-sung to everyone and no one. I sink into the cultural experience that is perpetuated by the business of Christmas. Coca-Cola Santa, visions of sugar plums, the nostalgia over nostalgia. I love a genre being organized around self-inflicted sentimental urgency rather than anything truly musical.
And I think there’s something part-validating, part-horrifying about that sentiment stitched to religion—asserted as an obvious, holly jolly reaction to the embodiment of the long-awaited savior as an impoverished refugee to an unmarried teenage mother in the back of a barn. The silent night, the heavenly hosts, the conviction that this baby will be some kind of subversive and eternal king, and the heartthrob innocence of Beliebing that by 1) acting merrily and 2) giving to charity we can really “change the globe, globe, globe, g-globe.”