By Christopher Treacy & Brittany Ann Tranbaugh
Our current CQ Roundup Song of The Week, “Christmas Flannel”, from the ever-clever Brittany Ann Tranbaugh, is so many things simultaneously. It’s a holiday song. It’s a breakup song. It’s a song that inadvertently touches on disrupting gender norms. It’s a Christmas song that reflects a more normal range of emotions rather than the gleeful holiday crap that mirrors almost nobody’s natural inner rhythm this time of year.
Life is complex. Boiling it down to “…the most wonderful time of the year” is a nice fantasy, and maybe that sentiment can even be used to coax ourselves out of minor irritations. But heartbreak doesn’t give a shit whether Jesus is celebrating a birthday, and sweet, sappy songs sound… even sappier when contrasted with a truly mournful state of mind.
Take it away, Brittany Ann Tranbaugh…
Taking a gift you bought for someone else and enjoying it for yourself seems selfish – except, perhaps, in the wake of getting dumped. There’s something empowering about it, seen in this light. Did this story come to you in your imagination, or… is it based on real events?
The song is based on my real experience verbatim! It just sort of poured out of me the day after the breakup. It came from a real place of grief but I consciously decided to make it a cheeky Christmas song from the very beginning of writing it. I think you can feel both those currents of grief and “screw you, I’m moving on” in the song.
The image of using the flannel to absorb the tears is particularly striking. As if the protagonist is wearing her angst, and yet people seeing her in the shirt would have no idea what it signifies or what she’s putting it through… almost like it’s a punching bag. Is the shirt, in a sense, a personification/embodiment of the person it was meant for?
I wanted the sadness of the verses to clash a bit with the sassiness of the chorus to convey the rollercoaster of emotions one goes through when a breakup is fresh. I like the imagery of putting the shirt on in a moment of empowerment, and then being out a few hours later and seeing the person and having to use it to dry my tears. Maybe the shirt is more a personification or embodiment of the process than the person.
Sad holiday songs… they’ve really developed a following. The season has many feeling forced to crack a smile and behave like things are great, even when life is dealing them blows like it normally does, so sad songs seem more natural, but that’s also a matter of disposition, I guess. Can you speak a little to their popularity?
I think you really hit the nail on the head with what you said about feeling forced to smile and pretend like things are great. It seems that many people are drawn to Christmas songs that affirm their own complicated feelings about the holiday season. My sense is that most people don’t like vapid, formulaic, insincerely happy songs at any point of the year, and even if they indulge in some of them during Christmas, they still want to listen to songs that have emotional complexity. A song that I think does this beautifully is “Christmas Makes Me Cry” by Kacey Musgraves, which was a big inspiration for this song both sonically and mood-wise.
Dress it up, dress it down: women in flannels can be very sexy. Do you think part of that comes from perceived gender norms of the past? A flannel shirt was long associated with laboring men needing to keep warm. Over time, that’s shifted, but those old associations remain lodged in our perception. There’s something more personal about gifting a flannel – closer to giving underwear than, say, a sweater, which seems less intimate. Would you agree?
I think you’re right about the association with perceived gender norms of the past. I think what makes flannels sexy is that they represent both masculine energy and also softness and warmth. Flannel shirts are essentially the queer women & non-binary peoples’ uniform from September through March, and we are always joking about them. I wanted to really hammer on the fact that the shirt was a flannel one as a nod to queer audiences. I agree that gifting a flannel feels more intimate than a sweater, especially in a queer relationship where you know that person is going to wear the shirt constantly.
Did you feel compelled to address the holidays in song?
When I decided to make this a Christmas song, I took it as sort of a challenge to break out of my usual songwriting conventions. I don’t think I’ve ever written a waltz before, for instance. The slightly jazzy chord progression and “fa la la” section are outside of the norm for me too. It felt like a fun and playful exercise that ultimately was legitimately healing for me in processing the loss of a relationship.
Christopher Treacy has been writing about music and the music industry for 20 years. He’s contributed to The Boston Phoenix, The Boston Herald, Nashville Scene, and Berklee College of Music’s quarterly journal, as well as myriad LGBTQ+ outlets including the Edge Media Network, Between the Lines/Pride Source, Bay Windows and In Newsweekly. He’s the Managing Editor for CQ and lives in Waitsfield, VT.