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;
- Spinning santa heads
- The woods, deserted
- Standing alone in the woods, deserted, as the sun rises
- Disembodied hand and forearm reaches for something
- Holding an incongruous rabbit aloft
- 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.