Christmas calls for kitsch. Whether it’s cheap tinsel, plastic yard snowmen, or fake trees, the holidays are never quite complete without piles of normally tacky ephemera. Surprisingly, perhaps, this aspect of the holiday season also has a lot in common with ’80s music videos. At that time, the music video format was in its infancy and artists were still figuring out how to translate their music into a short-form film.
It’s fitting, then, that this week’s Video Dose is Run DMC’s “Christmas in Hollis,” which combines the look and attitude of early hip-hop with the silly jankiness of the holiday season. The video begins in “Santa’s Workshop 1987,” which is depicted as fake little house in the snow. Inside, Santa is using the classic game Simon to designate children as either naughty or nice. After a few minutes an elf shows up and Santa leaves to go on his rounds.
Once Santa leaves, the cliché Christmas music that had been playing stops and Run DMC’s actual song begins. The elf, left alone at Santa’s controls, begins designating everyone as naughty and soon the video cuts to a fictional version of the group’s home neighborhood Hollis, in Queens, N.Y. From here on out the video mostly features Run DMC rapping about how they celebrate and what they hope to get for Christmas.
If “Christmas in Hollis” isn’t Run DMC’s best or most famous song ever, the video is a remarkable example of holiday irony and hip-hop deconstruction. Generally speaking, Run DMC was a pioneer group that not only changed the way rap sounds, but are also largely responsible for how it looks. They rejected the glam aesthetic of earlier groups and opted instead for a rougher, “street” image. In “Christmas in Hollis” that image is cleverly juxtaposed with the kitschy accoutrements of Christmas, which pokes holes in the seriousness of both. The fake fireplace, for example, looks all the more absurd with an ’80s rapper standing next to it, and the group seems to be telling us that they don’t take themselves too seriously. By the end of the video, the constant barrage of Christmas imagery in the company of typical hip-hop bravado comes off as a more ’80s-esque version of the kind of irony that made the beginning of Elf so charming.
While placing hip-hop and Christmas images side-by-side makes the video endearing, it also turns a critical eye on rap’s ever-present obsession with wealth. Even today (or perhaps especially today), hip-hop has fixated on and fetishized an opulent fantasy that vaunts money, male virility, and power. It’s precisely the kind of thing that Saturday Night Live satirized in “I’m on a Boat” and Kanye West and Spike Jonze explored in “We Were Once a FairyTale.”
What’s so amazing about the “Christmas in Hollis” video, however, is that it includes the same type of critique, but twenty years earlier. How, it asks, might a few poor youths acquire a boat? Where are their bags of money going to come from? In essence, how can they break the cycle of urban poverty? The answer is simple: Santa will do it. It’s an altogether brilliant idea and still quite a bit fresher than most songs and music videos manage today.
Jim Dalrymple is a regular correspondent for Rhombus. His Video Dose feature, highlighting the best of the artform, appears on a weekly basis.
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