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Rollin' some steam.

Many of the cool things I think up—and there are many, even if they’re only cool in my own head—seemingly come too late.  Still, I believe that the following must be addressed. Besides, I don’t want to wait until next year. So here we go.

It’s something I must address because it surfaces every year around the holidays like an annual case of explosive diarrhea. What I am referring to is in no way festive, as it ought to be. Rather, it is scary. It does not recall holiday goodwill or thanks or abounding love or wise men. It recalls a scrap iron processing plant: sheet metal grinding upon itself, sparks, carbon-stained machinery, hydraulics. It does not produce anything close to a feeling of warmth. It, instead, gives me the scary kind of goosebumps. Of course I am talking about the robotic stylings of Mannheim Steamroller and other “holiday” music of its ilk. The Trans-Siberian Orchestra makes me mad too, but I’m going after you in this blog, Steamroller.

Unfortunately, I remember this garbage from my childhood. The blare of synthesized trumpets echoed between the ceiling and our hexagonal orange kitchen tiles before tunneling into my skull like a Martian truth ray. Steamroller’s screeches contradicted the smell of cinnamon and sugar cookies and pine needles. Such forceful music produced by a computer, lacking the hominess and nostalgia of an actual Christmas carol in favor of an ethereal orchestral entity that, I imagine, was conducted by Arnold Schwarzenegger circa The Terminator. “I’ll Be Back” was one of their most popular songs.

The Mannheiminator

And I use the word “their” here, but I can’t say for sure if there’s an actual band involved or even a group of people or even a single person. As far as I can tell, Mannheim Steamroller’s songs are the result of a drunken lab rat bumping into maze walls that have been outfitted with a series of pressure plates. The rat bumps the plate and completes a circuit, which produces a sound. Put a year’s worth of these chirps together and you have The Steamroller’s version of Deck the Halls.

I pose this question to The Steamroller: Huh? Yes, remakes are okay. In a sense, we remake a Christmas carol every time we sing it. But while I don’t mind Bing Crosby singing “White Christmas,” The Steamroller’s remakes border on butchery. Sure, you can keep cutting a New York Strip, but cut too much and it turns into hamburger. Furthermore, if an already existing work is complete in the truest sense then I wish people would leave it alone, or at least be respectful. Take Gus Van Sant’s version of Psycho as an example of remake hell. The film is perfect already, what is one to do that might make it better? Granted, Hitchcock movies and Christmas carols are vastly different. The point is, why screw around with songs that have been decades in the making, have been sung and have been the same for a long, long time? If you want to invent some new carols, be my guest (see Mele Kalikimaka). But I don’t see the point of remaking time-tested carols so drastically. You can’t sing along to this stuff. You can’t enjoy a cup of cocoa or give gifts with The Steamroller blaring the background. You can’t look your children in the eye while it’s playing and say, “Sweetie, this what Christmas is all about,” because you’d be lying.

In fact, the best part about The Steamroller is the name, because nothing describes such irreverent, aggressive music better than a piece of paving equipment. Actually, if you listen to a Mannheim CD for long enough the odor of freshly-melted tar will permeate every room in your house. But don’t worry, nothing’s on fire; it’s just the smell of your eardrums frying like thinly-sliced pancetta. And if you close your eyes, you’ll see it. You’ll see the steamroller mowing down everything, flattening the Christmas tree, blowing out the Menorah (because it’s so bad that Hannakah is affected too), and chasing all eight reindeer into the night. That red sparkle you see on the carriage? That’s the remnants of Rudolph’s nose. Say goodbye to Jimmy Stewart and St. Nick’s jolly hue and candy canes. Not even fruitcakes will persevere. And I know what you’re saying, “At least angels will survive.” That’s true… But they’ll never get wings because no one can hear the bell ringing because The Steamroller is too damn loud.


This said, The Steamroller isn’t a total loss. I propose a couple of alternate uses. 1) Rave music for senior citizens. The Steamroller has that industrial sound, without being offensive (in subject at least). So get some glow sticks and an abandoned warehouse and let’s party until 8 pm. 2) The aforementioned Angela and I prefer this option—use the term “Mannheim Steamroller” as an expletive. It’s fun to say, but no one will get offended. Suggested uses: a) Surprise. “Mannheim Steamroller, that deer came out of nowhere.” b) Exaltation. “This bratwurst is Mannheim Steamrollin’ delicious.” c) Frustration. “I can’t believe you cheated on me with the limo driver. You’re a real Mannheim Steamroller.” d) Ridicule. “You play Dungeons and Dragons? What are you? A Mannheim Steamroller?” e) Open-Mouthed Awe While Viewing The Aurora Borealis. “Ooh, Mannheim Steamroller.” f) Expressing Pain After Hitting Your Thumb With A Hammer. “Mannheim Steamroller!” g) Excited Fear When Going Down The First Drop On A Roller Coaster. “Maaaannnnheeeiiimm Steeeeaaammmrolleeeeer.” h) Crying (So Hard You Can’t Breathe) On Account Of The Simultaneous Pain And Rapture Of A Justin Bieber Concert. “Man…Mann…nnnn…hei…heim…mmm St…st…ste….steam…mmm…mmm…rolllllll…er…er…er. Justin, I love you.”

Boycott The Steamroller. Save Christmas.

-MC JLight

That was the day that mother told me I was too old to listen to rap music. Mid spring, 2002. I was twenty-four and moving out of my apartment. Mother was helping. We got into my car; I turned the ignition. When the engine started the radio was blaring a song by my friend, Snoop Dogg. He was extolling the virtues of a gin and juice cocktail. My mother, needless to say, did not appreciate his music. Mommy quickly flicked the volume knob and broke the news to me. It was so traumatic, so perverted that it has stuck in my head ever since.

In her sweet, irritation-laced voice she said to me, “Josh O’Dell, you are too old for this. You don’t need to be listening to such scary music.” Ahhh. But I love it so much. Scary? It’s not scary.

Since then I have not stopped listening to my beloved musical genre. If anything I have listened to it more even though I’m now thirty-two. Truthfully, I don’t know if I’ll ever retire my library. I can’t envision a scenario in which I’ll say, “Oh, what silly music. What was I thinking?” Of course when I have kids I’ll have to listen in private because no one likes a toddler who tells his grandmother that he’s got ninety-nine problems but a ______ ain’t one. She really might hit him. (Check your Jay-Z lyrics.) (Mom, I would never let my kids listen to Jay-Z. Not until they’re eight.)

I love rap music because of those satisfying moments when I am in the car bobbing my head to Biz Markie’s rough beatbox or the knotty rhythms of Dangerdoom…. In those moments I am cool. Possibly the coolest I will ever be. I’m not kidding. At that moment, when I’m spitting verses I am part of the musical collaboration That’s when I’m MC JLight, standing on stage with my hand cupped around the mic. I am a badass. I’m Steve McQueen with rhythm and gold fronts. And not even you—the staring lady next to me at the stoplight with your finger halfway up your nose—can tell me different.

The coolness factor is a big deal because those of you who know me well also know that my everyday alter ego, Joshua O’Dell, is patently uncool. He crosses his legs because it’s comfortable. (Sorry, it is.) He eats granola. He can’t tan to save his life. And, worst yet, he listens to NPR.

I like many other genres, but nothing is cool like rap. Classic country is twangy-cool. I’m going for urban-cool. Jazz is very cool, but I can’t participate in it unless I want to break out the old saxophone, which I don’t. Grunge is cool if you’re into sitting in a corner, thinking about why life sucks. Bluegrass is moonshine-cool. Metal just makes me weep—very uncool. There’s all that emotional, whiny, songwriter stuff. That’s sensitive-cool or don’t-watch-me-leave-you-but-listen-to-me-describe-the-rain-drops-for-five-minutes cool.

I love rap because, to put it bluntly, I’ve got beats in my bones and I’ve got a sweet booty that deserves to be shook. And it’s always been largely about the beats. Lyrics are cool, but the rhythm is the skizm. Rap allows for the baddest moves on the planet, e.g., break dancing, pop lock, cupid shuffle, stanky legg, lip gloss, Bugs Bunny, scuba hop, lip gloss, Aunt Jackie, running man, a-town stomp, SpongeBob, chicken noodle soup, the robot, the cabbage patch. I can do every one of ‘em.

Without rap there are so many things that I still wouldn’t know. Without Snoop Dogg I wouldn’t have realized that I need to have my mind on my money AND my money on my mind. Without Young MC I couldn’t truly bust a move. Without Busta Rhymes I wouldn’t know how to speak gibberish. If not for Freestyle Fellowship who’s going to tell me that the potato is hot? And without Black Sheep I wouldn’t have the option of this or that.

Besides, I grew up listening to this stuff. And it was okay back then, i.e., Mom knew I was listening to it. So it was okay until I turned, what, eighteen? Twenty? After that I was supposed to skip straight to Larry Welk? I mean at this point it sounds like I ought to keep rapping seeing as I’m so removed from being a grown-up. If I suddenly stop listening to it I might get the urge to sit in an office or eat a tapa.

Now that sounds scary.

-MC JLight