To me, there is only one video that truly ushers in the holiday season, one video that perfectly captures the essence of Christmas and brings me joy. It has everything—intrigue, classic holiday iconography, and a very annoyed legendary powerhouse singer continuing to power through a catastrophic mess like the seasoned professional she is.
I am of course talking about the video of Patti Labelle’s disastrous 1996 Christmas performance at the US national tree lighting ceremony.
Let me set the scene.
It is, as I said, 1996 and the US White House is holding their annual Pageant of Peace ceremony, a tradition they’ve done since the ‘70s. During the function, the current president lights up the chosen national Christmas tree, a living tree that’s planted in the White House, and shares a message of peace. That year, it was President Bill Clinton pre-Monica Lewinsky. The C-Span archive of this event reads, “President Clinton pressed the button to light the national Christmas tree, dedicating it to peace, love, and the young people of the world.” He’d know about the latter.
The ceremony tends to be packed with live performances with the likes of Christmas queen Mariah Carey, Eartha Kitt, and LL Cool J (?) all gracing the stage in the past. This year, it’s Patti Labelle, a children’s choir, and a marching band.
The first sign that something is amiss happens during Patti’s introduction. The host, who also happened to be the president of the Christmas Pageant of Peace, announces that Patti is the next performer and says her full name. Normally, that’s the cue for the performer to come on stage, which Patti does. However, the host continues on to talk about her and her achievements, leaving Patti to awkwardly go back out. In any other performance, that’s a slight, awkward hiccup you might chuckle at. Here, it’s an ominous portent for what’s to come.
The introduction ends, and Patti finally makes her way to center stage. Only, before she could actually reach it and say a short opening message or even give the title of the song she’s about to sing (“This Christmas”), the band starts blaring the music. Her lips visibly tighten, though she still flashes a smile. (Again, a pro.) You can see her looking around the stage as she sings. If you’re watching through the original C-Span archival footage, you’d find out why a few moments later, when she ends up providing her own harmony (“this Christmas”) and asks, “Where are my background singers?”
That’s followed by her directly addressing the cue card operators in front of her, who are bungling it. “And it’s the wrong words on the cue cards, I don’t know the song.”
“I’m going to adlib all I can because I don’t have the right words and I have no background singers,” she sings out, still completely in tune.
The C-Span footage doesn’t show the cue card operators, but a recently unearthed video remastered by the William J. Clinton Presidential Library does. There, you see three women desperately fumbling with the cards. Three. Three people are handling this and they are screwing up.
Back to the background singers. They finally arrive at some point, to which she says “thank you.” They sing, and she rolls her eyes and gives them a bow.
Then comes another iconic line. She frantically tells the cue card operators to bring back a card they had just discarded. “Let me see that card again! Girl, let me see that card again!” She says it so fast that “card again” sounds like “cardigan,” and “Girl, let me see that cardigan” becomes a famous mondegreen.
The cue card, it turns out, is to introduce the band’s captain who is about to play a saxophone solo. He does—but Patti drowns him out by singing over him, her one act of sweet vengeance.
She ends the performance with a band, belting out her heart. It reminds me a lot of something Regine Velasquez once said, where she birits even more when the band is playing badly or playing the wrong note to mask the mistake. Only in this case, Patti’s singing somehow highlights it more.
Rolls her eyes, plasters the biggest and fakest smile imaginable, and sings over a man’s sax solo: That’s my diva right there. It’s a case study on an incommensurate pro experiencing the worst performance of her life, with everything that could go wrong going wrong through no fault of her own, and somehow still sounding great. You cannot deny those vocals. Say what you will about what just happened, you cannot say that Patti sang badly.
We all have our own personal traditions. For some, it’s lighting up the Christmas tree. For others, it’s playing the classic holiday tunes by a union buster. For me, it’s Patti. This video has gotten me through seasonal depression, through heartbreak, through grief. Thanks, Patti. Now let me see that card again!