For many people, Christmas With the Chipmunks represents fond holiday memories of fun gatherings and familial warmth. But for one artist, this album represents a career filled with emotional abuse by an ill-tempered Svengali, and cries for help that went unheeded. That artist is Alvin, and this album serves as evidence of his systematic abuse and suffering at the hands of David Seville.
The abuse endured by Alvin and the Chipmunks is surpassed only by their talent. Has any other popular artist had the staying power of this prolific trio? Christmas with the Chipmunks remains as relevant today through numerous reissues as it was when first released in 1962. Over their career, the Chipmunks have demonstrated a Bowiesque ability to adapt to changing times and have excelled in such diverse genres as metal, country, punk, and more.
The album’s opener, “Here Comes Santa Claus” includes a showboating introduction by David Seville, demonstrating the Chipmunks’ manager and adoptive father’s pathological need to interject himself into the recordings of his charges. Not satisfied with limiting himself to the introduction, Seville then goes on to nitpick Alvin’s performance line by line, and is so brazen as to leave this in the final mix. Seville clearly feels no shame for this unseemly display.
As the only original composition on the album, their self-titled “The Chipmunk Song” has given millions of music fans an excellent introduction, letting them know everything they can expect from Alvin and the Chipmunks. We’ve seen other artists do this before with iconic, eponymous songs – the Monkees, Bad Company, Talk Talk, Living in a Box – but none with quite the joy de vivre the Chipmunks bring to the table. But behind that frivolous façade lie the tears of a clown, as it is in this song that we’re also introduced to the full fury of David Seville’s cruel verbal abuse.
Alvin seems to be the whipping boy of the group. Simon and Theodore get positive feedback and effusive praise while Alvin demonstrates classic signs of an ill-treated child acting out – distraction, attention seeking behavior, tomfoolery – and then is punished for those very behaviors, keeping the cycle of abuse alive and well. On the plus side, this song does include quite a lovely mandolin solo.
Many of the great Yuletide standards are represented, each with their own unique Chipmunkian twist. Seville manages to restrain himself from intruding on straightforward, well-executed renditions of “Jingle Bells,” “Up On the Housetop,” “We Wish You a Merry Christmas,” “Frosty the Snowman,” and “Deck the Halls.”
But Seville demands the spotlight again on “It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas,” “Santa Claus is Coming to Town,” “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” “Silver Bells,” and “White Christmas,” relegating his clients/children to provide backup to his own lackluster vocals. As if anyone bought this album eager to listen to David Seville. Alvin knows this as he tries to reassert creative control on “Over the River and Through the Woods,” winning a minor victory as he sings over the verse Seville tries to take for himself.
An unexpected delight on the album is found in the guest vocals on “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer” provided by the titular Christmas hero himself. But even this song doesn’t pass without Seville-initiated drama, as he spends the song’s entire intro complaining about the weather, again inexplicably left in the mix, and halfway through the song he actually abandons his young charges as he seeks shelter from the elements.
Seville’s preferential treatment of Theodore is demonstrated on “All I Want for Christmas (Is My Two Front Teeth),” providing a sympathetic ear to the chubby Chipmunk’s plight and granting him lead vocals on the song, the only solo Chipmunk performance on the entire album. Despite being billed as Alvin and the Chipmunks, Alvin is denied lead vocals on any song of his own.
“The Twelve Days of Christmas” shows that Seville can occasionally be just as critical of the other Chipmunks as he is of Alvin. We can all agree that this song is miserable death trudge of a Christmas carol, rarely completed, and anyone who has ever sung it has always regretted beginning it by the time they’ve reached “five gold rings.” And in that spirit, the Chipmunks understandably lose their enthusiasm halfway through and begin improvising their own delightful lyrics. But of course, this goes against Seville’s need for rigid control and thus invokes another tirade.
Despite the holiday joy Christmas With the Chipmunks may represent in our hearts, we must never forget that these seemingly fun-loving creatures trembled beneath the brutal fist of a dictator. Simon and Theodore seemed to succumb to Stockholm Syndrome, but the one ray of hope one can take from Christmas With the Chipmunks is that despite enduring angry tirade after tirade, Alvin never seemed to lose his independent spirit. I often wonder if Alvin ever got that hula hoop. I hope he did. I sure hope he did.
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