Music critics have observed, correctly I think, that the most successful pop songs have always been sentimental. For an illustration of this insight, one need look no further than the Beatles. As Simon Frith observed (“Towards An Aesthetic of Popular Music”):
I thought of Frith’s insight while running a few last minute errands on this Christmas Eve, during which a local radio station played Frank Sinatra’s rendition of “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas.” Like many of the Christmas songs that are now standards, “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas” dates from the World War II years, first sung not by Sinatra but by Judy Garland in the musical Meet Me In St. Louis (1944), in which she sings the song to her little sister, played by child actress Margaret O’Brien (see it here), during a scene set on—what else?—Christmas Eve. Although filmed during the war, in 1944, Meet Me In St. Louis is set in a nostalgic and sentimentalized past, late in 1903 just a few months prior to the opening of the Saint Louis World’s Fair—more properly the Louisiana Purchase Exposition—in April 1904. The title of the film is an allusion to a popular song recorded in 1904 in order to popularize the Saint Louis World’s Fair, “Meet Me in St. Louis, Louis,” or, in its truncated form, simply “Meet Me in St. Louis.” Although the Exposition was dedicated to scientific progress—mathematician Henri Poincaré gave a lecture at the Exposition, and various “primitive” cultures were on exhibition in order to emphasize the virtues of industrial civilization—40 years later the Exposition was used as an illustration a simpler, and better, America. Such is the strange distortion of history characteristic of the sentimental impulse.
Perhaps given the long delays and difficulty of air travel this holiday season, pre-9/11/01 America, although not a decade past, is now considered nostalgic. No doubt it shall be someday.