An evergreen classic that squeezes a year's worth of ubiquity into four weeks at the end of the year, "White Christmas" has been pushed and pulled in enough directions to make it all but unhearable to contemporary ears. Worked over by everybody from Bing Crosby to the soundsmiths at Muzak LLC, the song might seem like a preordained signifier born from ages-old folk tradition. But as outlined in Jody Rosen's deceptively slim history, "White Christmas" charted a rich and clumsy path to its status as one of the best-selling records on the planet. Set in the song factories of Tin Pan Alley and the sun-drenched studio lots of golden-age Hollywood, White Christmas tells the story of a song—and a songwriter, Irving Berlin, who knew he had penned a classic well before the public took notice. "Not only is it the best song I ever wrote, it's the best song anybody ever wrote," Berlin told the staff arranger he first hummed the melody to in 1940. A songwriting legend whose credits included "A Pretty Girl Is Like A Melody" and "There's No Business Like Show Business," Berlin was no stranger to the charms of predestined standards. But the seasonal rub of the song that kick-started a holiday-music cottage industry represented a stretch for a Jewish immigrant transplanted to New York from Siberia. In graceful, breezy prose befitting its subject, White Christmas works both as a snappy Berlin biography and as a readily approachable piece of musicology. Rosen does a solid job of fanning out his subjects, following Berlin's professional rise as it paralleled the cultural assimilation of American Jews. After cutting his teeth in the boisterous ghetto of the Lower East Side, Berlin (and his mostly Jewish contemporaries in Tin Pan Alley) helped shape a distinctly American brand of pop music that married idealism and escapism in the '20s and '30s. First imagined as a sly spoof of holiday cheer, "White Christmas" originally included an opening verse set in Beverly Hills, before Berlin cut it to focus on the chorus that warmed a country thick in the throes of WWII. After it appeared in the 1942 film Holiday Inn, Crosby's signature rendition of the song went on to sell more than 400 million copies, pushing the music industry's focus away from sheet-music sales and helping give the Christmas season a forcibly American stamp. Rosen grows a bit repetitive as he navigates his narrow premise, but the story never sags as it filters a sharp musical exegesis through themes of commercialism, secularization, minstrelsy, and the many shades of the American imagination. The book concentrates on a small subject, but like the song at its heart, White Christmas divines a lot of meaning from the 54 weirdly morose words that came to signal Christmas from here to the end of the world.
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