Tuesday, December 23, 2008

All I Want for Christmas Is You by Mariah Carey

Is Christmas a celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ? Yes. Is there other traditions attached to this holiday that have little to do Jesus Christ? Yes. Is a necessarily a bad thing? Yes, but only kind of.

Christmas in many ways seems like a disingenuous holiday. Research has shown that Jesus Christ was most likely born not in December. Early Christians celebrated Christmas in December to overshadow pagan holidays that celebrated the winter solstice. There was of course no snow when Jesus was born, the Coca-Cola Company created the modern day image of Santa Claus and retailers aren’t thinking about baby Jesus when they are pumping Christmas music over their speakers the day after thanksgiving and holding holiday sales throughout the month of December.

It’s slightly annoying sometimes (well it was REALLY annoying yesterday when I was trying to find a parking space at the mall) but despite all of the artificial and over-commercialization of Christmas, American culture has changed Christmas in a true national celebration of what is most joyous and important in our lives. Moreover, I can’t think of song that exemplifies that better then Mariah Carey’s Christmas masterpiece, “All I Want for Christmas Is You.”

Almost every pop artist you can think of has released a Holiday themed album or song, most of which are focused on Christmas. Most of these songs are ok, some are just painful and a few of them are inspired. What is it about “All I Want for Christmas Is You” that has made it have a more beloved than let’s say “'Please, Daddy (Don't Get Drunk This Christmas)” by John Denver?

Don’t get me wrong, I LOVE John Denver, “Take Me Home, Country” is one of my favorites songs, but a song that features son pleading to his dad to not get drunk so his mom won’t cry on Christmas is just wrong. ANYWAYS, moving on . . .

Mariah Carey and her writing partner Walter Afanasieff utilized musical allusions so that the music, even without the lyrics we would instantly recognize this as a Christmas song. The first sound we here are orchestral bells that bring to mind a toy piano which places us in the mind a child anticipating opening presents of Christmas mornings. The chimes that follow remind us of church bells and Mariah Carey’s gospel inspired opening takes us to Christmas service. Then come the sleigh bells from “Jingle Bells” one of the most beloved Christmas songs (which has a hilarious third verse in which the narrator falls in the snow is passed by a “gent” who laughs at him and drives away). This is enough to put us in the Christmas mood but there is even more to this song.

“All I Want for Christmas Is You” creates an enthusiastic and joyous energy through th rhythmic organization in the music. After the introduction of the song, the piano enters with the sleigh bells. The piano is dividing the beat into three equal parts, emphasizing every three notes (0.51 into the song):
1,2,3, 1,2,3, 1,2,3, 1,2,3

Right when Mariah comes in the piano part changes still dividing the beat into three parts but accenting every two notes it plays (0.57 into the song):
1,2,3, 1,2,3, 1,2,3, 1,2,3

The speed of the notes stays the same however the piano line accents them differently.

If you take the rhythm from the first line “I don’t want a lot for Christmas” and identify which subdivided beats the words fall on it looks like this:
1,2,3, 1,2,3, 1,2,3, 1,2,3, 1,2,3, 1,2,3, 1,2,3, 1,2,3
I___Don’t_Want_a lot_for__Christ-mas

If you look carefully you will carefully you will notice that “-lot for Christmas” accents every three divided beats its’ just shifted over one note. Now if we superimpose the melody emphases over the piano emphases we see an interesting relationships.

Melody-1,2,3, 1,2,3, 1,2,3, 1,2,3, 1,2,3, 1,2,3, 1,2,3, 1,2,3
Piano---1,2,3, 1,2,3, 1,2,3, 1,2,3, 1,2,3, 1,2,3, 1,2,3, 1,2,3

Only during beats, 1, 3, 4, 6 & 8 does the emphases in the melody line up with the emphases in the piano. When the verse gets to the line “All I Want for Christmas Is You” the melody and piano line both emphasize ever three subdivided beats creating a sense of arrival and resolution. The bass line, which seems rhythmically dull keep these two lines from drawing apart by maintaining a consistent beat. Whenever two instruments that are emphasizing subdivided beat in different ways the music has an chaotic energy that is like the feeling of kids engaging in different activities during recess, but like teachers who supervise recess the bass line keeps them the frameworks makes sure this energy never gets out of control.

My favorite moment in the song is at the end of the bridge singers, which features a fascinating development in the back-up singers part that helps create the energetic climax of the song. From the beginning of the bridge, the back-up singers change notes predictably every 4 beats. The part changes with the line “and everyone is singing” when the back-up singers hold their note for this entire line which is 8 beats long. In the next line the “I hear those sleigh bells ringing,” the back-up singers change the notes every 4 beats starting before “I” and changing their note on “sleigh.” Then the back singers drop out and punctuate the third beat of the next two measures accented “bring” and “need” of “Santa won't you bring me the one I really need.” Finally, the back up singers come earlier then we expect in the next measure on beat two instead of beat three emphasizing “my” of “Won't you please bring my baby to me?” The changes in the back-up singers make the bridge drive forward without actually the song speeding up. It expresses a frenzied almost uncontainable child-like excitement that propels the song into the last verse.

Mariah Carey goes through a Christmas journey in this song. The song starts with her disregarding many American Christmas ideas that really don’t have anything to do the birth of Christ. She doesn’t want presents or stocking. She doesn’t think that Santa Claus can make her happy. She’s not looking forward to snow or reindeer. All she wants is for Christmas is the one she loves. In many ways, Mariah is describing what is at the core of the holiday season for many people, including myself, which is sharing time with the ones we love.

Then in the bridge, something changes. She sees the Christmas lights and the excitement of children. She hears people singing and sleigh bells ringing and she eve asks Santa to bring her baby to her, even though she said earlier that Santa could not make her happy. She falls into the magic of the seasons and it’s a heartwarming transitions in which she accepts what is all around as part of what makes her happy making the final verse even more joyous and celebratory.

I’m not Christian and I understand that it’s challenging for non-Christians to have a religious holiday pushed into their face and the middle of the culture. It does overshadow over cultures but we do live in Christian-centric society. I’m not saying that because the majority of Americans are Christian that means our society doesn’t have a responsibility to acknowledge other religions holidays. It does and honestly, we do a pretty mediocre job of learning about other religions. How many Americans do you think can effectively explain Ramadan to their children? But let’s not be bitter about this.

The emotions and the meaning of Christmas in America is something that we can celebrate without mentioning Jesus Christ and understand without ever going to church. If we as non-Christians can do this, it helps us gain and understanding into the spirituality of Christianity, which gives us perspective to help others understand our own beliefs.

“All I Want for Christmas Is You” is about wanting what is important. It’s about taking a look around and enjoying the happiness of people around you and it’s about looking on the bright side of life.

Or maybe, just maybe, it’s as my friend Sara told me last night: a song about a girl who wants to get laid on Christmas.

Either way, I hope you all have a great time during the next couple of days celebrating whatever you are celebrating and sharing this time with the people that you love.

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