X is for Xmas : Mariah Carey

In 1973, I played the angel Gabriel in my school nativity play.  In 1994, Mariah Carey released “All I Want For Xmas Is You“.  If, due to some kind of time-glitch, we could have met as these moments crossed, we would have had a lot to talk about.  Underneath the veneer of festive cheer there lay a deep seated ambivalence to Christmas in both of us.  I was five, she was twenty five.  Like Shostakovitch secretly sneaking in some musical modernism under the noses of the Stalinist regime, Mariah and I would secretly be sticking a finger to Xmas, me sporting my cardboard wings, her jumping around in the snow.  I, for one, am not fooled by that Santa outfit in her video….more of that later.



Every December, this song is everywhere again.  Like other Xmas songs, it is mainly used to block out the fear of silence that these obligatory festivities seem to invoke.  Does anyone ever listen to Xmas music?  It’s just on.  All the time.  It’s like tinsel; you put it up, therefore people are in the mood, they are “festive”.  It makes the room shiny and the mind follows suit accordingly.  But “All I Want For Xmas Is You” has a sinister side.  That santa shuffle drumbeat powers a dark heart, the heart of a woman for whom receiving presents has become a dull routine….

“I don’t want a lot for Christmas/There is just one thing I need/

I don’t care about the presents/Underneath the Christmas tree”

It’s hard to avoid the irony of hearing these words from behind the lopsided gait of an Asda trolley full of tat.  And yet, there’s more to come.  She hints that Santa’s duties perhaps extended to more than just deliveries in the Carey household…

“Santa Claus won’t make me happy/With a toy on Christmas Day”

Well, Santa is an easy target.  But really its the music that fascinates me.  It’s easy to see Mariah Carey as the typical plastic balloon animal served up as entertainment but, in addition to her singing abilities, she can write.  This music slips expertly in and out of stability like a drunken reveller avoiding vomit puddles in a suburban street.

It’s important to stress that she was not the first to see the bittersweet contrasts in Xmas.  “The Coventry Carol” is a sixteenth century composition and it veers from major to minor at an alarming rate.  Often music of this period ends on a major chord out of convention (a kind of musical intolerance for unhappy endings) but here even the fourth note slips into a major key before moving straight back to the minor, like a cheap line of coke that wears off too fast.  In short, no one really knew even then whether they were supposed to be enjoying Xmas or not.

So back to Mariah and her disturbing vision.  It all starts pretty conventionally; bells, chords, warbly R n B vocals.  But listen to that line at 0:25…”I just want for my own/More than you could ever know”; on the words “own” and “know”, that note, an Eb, it’s very unstable in G major.  And each time, the melody just jumps back on to the tonic note, a highly illegal move in melody writing.  In board game terms, it’s like going up the snakes and down the ladders.  Over and over through this song, the melody lingers around this same note like scratching a flea bite that only gets worse with the itching.  At 2:39, in the bridge, she lingers on that Eb in the bass on the words “and everyone is singing”, the beat surging optimistically on, the chords reflecting a deep disquiet.  I hear you Mariah, I thought the same in 1973 with my cardboard wings, soon-to-be-lost blonde hair and claustrophobic fear of choirs.  Whilst its easy to respond to this music in the usual way, drinking sherry or grinning at each other, there is a whole other level of emotional richness here.

And what about the video?  Viewed today in all its shaky, grainy nineties-ness, it looks like a cross between flashback footage of a murder victim from a Scandinavian thriller and something the victim of a stalking campaign might find in their inbox.  I made a list of some of the images;

  1. Spinning santa heads
  2. The woods, deserted
  3. Standing alone in the woods, deserted, as the sun rises
  4. Disembodied hand and forearm reaches for something
  5. Holding an incongruous rabbit aloft
  6. Unexplained digging in the snow (where is the rabbit?)

I could go on.  It’s all pretty weird, straddling a line between true love and bizarre fixation.  All I Want For Xmas Is You.  In a box.  It’s a brilliantly double edged sword, a Trojan horse of disturbed emotions smuggled in under the guise of a simple “Christmas Song ” and, coincidentally, one which went on to be the best selling holiday ringtone of all time.

And as I re-read what I have written, I feel a bit guilty.    Because actually I have to confess to liking this song.  I wish I could listen to it more often, but it’s not built for that.  Considered as a piece of music separate from it’s function, it loses its power.  Unlike a dog, a Xmas song is just for Xmas.  This one makes my Xmas a bit more interesting.




G is for Glass

What do Philip Glass, Michael Brecker and Charlie Parker have in common?  They all became “influential”; their music was therefore admired, dissected for easily digestible nuggets of information, and promptly looted.  Music conceived in a long flowing gesture of inspiration can be chopped up like a jigsaw puzzle, the pieces left in a pile to be put back together as people see fit.

Brecker and Parker have, from time to time, become synonymous with a kind of jazz “authenticity”, a level of technical expertise, a badge earned.  It is proof of ability, and often impresses, like vaulting over the highest wall at the back of the school playground.  But the way these players put ideas together, the storytelling, the artistry, is often all but ignored in favour of attention to the short term logic of  flashiness, with a sound like wasps in a jam jar, as saxophonist Stan Sulzmann, master aphorist, once said. 

 Imagine, as a point of reference, an edit of “The French Connection” featuring only the car chases.

Glass wrote recently about ownership of music in the Internet age.  If anyone has fiercely protected their intellectual property whilst allowing his “brand” a free rein it is Philip Glass. His gently undulating chords have acquired a kind of omnipotence, on tv they roll out like wallpaper over any quantity of cinematic dialogue, sweeping landscapes or, well, almost anything.  They are everywhere, almost so easy to write that they write themselves.  My god , those arpeggios.  Save me from those arpeggios.  Like Michael Nyman, he looked back to the baroque for inspiration, taking the music’s chordal accompaniments (arpeggios, broken chords, whatever) and promoting them to a lead role by removing, to put it rather crudely, the “tune”.  They are, in many ways, nothing more or less than a box of paints looking for an outline. 

And yet in his early work, Glass focused almost entirely on the rate of change of these chords, or eventual adding of a single note to a repeating pattern, like a Persian rug design that grows an inch if you look at it hard enough.  These alterations were exquisitely paced, dropped like rocks in a sand garden, few and far between for maximum impact. And, for me, it works, a process that is in itself a beautiful thing.  Before he eventually followed his own followers into a bland orchestral mush of symphonic turd polishing, largely of his own making, Glass had something.  He had something so huge it had to be monetised.

Structure is a long term phenomenon, it happens over time.  An effective structure urges you to anticipate and reflect simultaneously, to experience what is to come with the weight of past moments in mind.  It’s like a massage, it gets better if you stay with it, and like a massage, this is not always true if it is clumsily handled.  As time passes, the skill required in maintaining an atmosphere, telling a story, increases.  And whether pre concieved or improvised on the spot, you either stay for the whole thing or you miss its essence.

And yet, in the midst of this strange decline in attentiveness, we have the Box Set.  Netflix, Amazon Prime and others enable us to digest long term structures, and some, like “Mad Men” and “Breaking Bad” are extraordinary.  We can digest them in a single sitting.  Or not.

And that’s the key.  We choose the pace of our cultural consumption.  I watched an episode of the “The Good Wife” in my pants a few mornings ago.  If I wanted to I could pause it in my underwear and watch the conclusion in a dinner jacket.  You can’t do that with an opera.  There is a kind of entitlement to our own leisure time tabling, to have absolute choice over which thing on a phone we look at and when and for how long.  Some people in the arts are very creative in addressing this need, feeding it whilst maintaining some kind of artistic integrity.  I am envious of them, and would like some pointers, to be honest.  

In a recent double bill of Stravinsky’s “Oedipus Rex” and “Symphony Of Psalms”, the director Peter Sellars had Oedipus, blinded and broken, walk across the stage in the middle of the second piece, a double fugue interrupted by a clumsy piece of theatre where Sellars attempted to link the impersonal detachment of Greek mythology with the penance of Christian psalms.  And on he came at the end with his stupid trousers,  and silly hair to take a bow, Stravinsky spun in his grave.  But what are we to do?  Keep trotting out the same stuff?  We have to keep busy, reinterpret, find new meanings and connections in a world where time and space no longer separate the events of innumerable lives throughout history.  It’s my personal sacred space that Peter Sellars invaded, but for others he may have brought that music to life.  I can go back to the composer’s recording for my kicks.

Don’t get me wrong, it could be that this is all fascinating, an opportunity for new forms of art.  I know I am old, and it is my inevitable fate to look on, befuddled and bemused, as those youngsters devoted to a new utopia, having grown up with the cloud, fashion it’s silver lining.

And as I sink into season 5 of “The Good Wife”, a twisting, turning, long-game playing legal saga, I hear again those fucking arpeggios again, bittersweet, major to minor, signifying nothing.  Another missed royalty for Philip Glass, taken by some other composer who hired that music rather than owned it.