I know. It’s August. It’s not even Pumpkin Spice Latte season yet, nevermind Christmas. But I think this needs to be brought to light now, in preparation for what’s to come. You know what I’m talking about: the pervasive self-satisfaction in claiming to hate this song. It’s fashionable to disparage it because it’s so damn catchy and upbeat – nowadays nobody wants to be so gauche as to actually enjoy a catchy tune. Even though we all love it, it’s officially attained “guilty pleasure” status. We listen in secret, scorned by the more discriminating tastes of our friends. We apologize when it pops up on our holiday party playlist, feigning embarrassment, even though we deliberately included it. But this season, when your friends start complaining how much they hate it, you no longer have to pretend to agree. You don’t have to feel guilty about liking this song anymore. Because I firmly believe – and will provide evidence to that end – that Mariah Carey’s 1994 hit “All I Want For Christmas” is one of the greatest pop songs ever written.
WARNING: It’s about to get extremely nerdy and a little blasphemous. I make no apologies and I ask no forgiveness. Read on at your own risk.
I’ve read several excellent posts over the years which focused largely on the nostalgic quality of the song lending to its popularity as a Christmas song. The orchestration immediately invokes a holiday mood; the richer, more colorful harmonic language borrowed from the American Songbook (nicely laid out here), as compared to today’s more bland primary chord-based progressions, aurally reminds us of Irving Berlin, Cole Porter, and the Gershwins. The driving 12/8 meter, combined with the obvious stand-alone (as opposed to self-dubbed) backup singers, hearken back to the 50s and 60s Motown sound as well as traditional rock -n-roll, and arguably the pinnacle of the popular Christmas tune (think Andy Williams) and the lion’s share of holiday radio programming. These factors alone make “All I Want for Christmas” a contender for Christmas Tune Hall of Fame. But a key element has been overlooked – an element I consider the essence of this song’s excellence, and the element that, when combined with the song’s Golden Age musical language and Motown texture, makes it one of the greatest pop songs of all time, transcending the ages. That element is form.
In order to understand “All I Want for Christmas” as a modern pop song based in the tradition of the American Songbook, we must consider the formal language of both genres. Typically, a Songbook’s structure is binary: Intro-Verse. The intro, which serves to set the stage for the song proper, can be viewed as a modern version of recitative: though it was metered, it was not strict. The verse’s usual AABA lyric structure was built toward the “tag,” a phrase at the end of each A line that typically also served as the title of the song (i.e. Gershwin’s “Someone to Watch Over Me”).
In contrast, most modern pop songs forego the Songbook’s compound binary structure in favor of a larger rondo-based form. A typical modern pop song might be structured thus: Verse-Chorus-Verse-Chorus-Bridge-Chorus(x1000). Common variations include halving the length of the second verse and/or inserting a third verse (or a repeat of all or part of the first verse) before the final chorus. The bridge serves as a contrast to the verse and chorus sections, and can be anything from a reworking of the chorus to an instrumental solo version of a verse to a full-fledged excursion into new material (source: my substantial memory of popular songs from c. 1980-2005).
Notably, some of the greatest modern hits break this structure. The most obvious is Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody,” a through-composed song with neither verse nor chorus. But a more interesting and apropos example is Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing,” which withholds the chorus until the very end, effectively turning the form on its head, arriving at the chorus as a result of built momentum instead of a familiar waystation between verses. But while Journey relies only on standard pop song form, Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas” achieves the same momentum by masterfully combining the most effective elements of both idioms, aurally bridging the gap between decades of popular song.
The structure of “All I Want for Christmas” is the pop music equivalent of a sonata-rondo. It begins with a fully orchestrated free-metered introduction, providing Mariah the opportunity to be Mariah while very deliberately building tension; something big is about to happen. Sure enough, after vocal gymnastics and fermatas worthy of a Classical concerto, that driving rock 12/8 we all know and love emerges and with a gliss we slide headfirst into the first verse.
We immediately recognize it as the structured and slightly expanded version of the free intro, and furthermore as a proper pop song verse. It settles nicely in square phrases of 4+4 (“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 is comfortable, familiar territory to our modern ears. However, the back half of the verse notably shifts, building momentum. Recalling Songbook traits, the phrases – textually, harmonically, and melodically – foreshorten to groupings of 2+2 (“I just want you for my own/more than you could ever know/make my wish come true”), then we hear the tag: “all I want for Christmas/is you.” We now have, effectively, the length and structured narrative of a modern pop verse propelled by lyric drive to the tag – the punchline, the title of the song – the strength of its arrival psychologically supplanting a chorus.
A second verse, structured identically but with new lyrics, holds to its Songbook roots. In Standards, the second verses – if they exist at all – are substantively equal to and typically align in mood with the first verse (i.e. Gershwin, “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off”). On the other hand, second verses in modern pop music often either further the emotional state of the singer or advance the narrative. Here, in keeping with Songbook tradition, Mariah opts for the former. Once again, the same foreshortening leads to the tag, and without any delay we are swept into the bridge.
Until this point, Mariah has been focused on her own emotional state, specifically how nothing traditionally seasonal will satisfy her. Including the introduction, there have so far been five instances each of “don’t” and “won’t”. She has effectively been pouting (“I won’t make a list and send it/to the North Pole for Saint Nick”), refusing to expend any effort whatsoever as it will surely be futile. These sentiments find an appropriate home in the mostly-Songbook form – a free introduction followed by two similar verses, each leading to a tag.
The inclusion of a truly modern bridge at this point redirects and focuses the song’s narrative. The dramatic and musical differences are immediate: here are short, factual statements, underscored by a simpler, shorter, more repetitive harmonic progression than in the prior verses. It is as if she suddenly looks around at the rest of her world (“All the lights are shining so brightly everywhere/and the sound of children’s laughter fills the air”) and realizes her desperation – everyone is enjoying the trappings of the season while she is miserable. These new, short, declamatory statements are bereft of qualifiers and softeners such as “just” and “even.” She is not happy. Notably, this is the first time in the entire song she is obviously overdubbed by herself, not her backup singers; in addition to being a noticeable (and modern) aural contrast, it is has a definite psychological effect – she is inside her own head. The foreshortening present in the verses also appears here, once again dramatizing her heightened emotional state: “And everyone is singing/I hear those sleigh bells ringing.” And whereas before, the tag served as the conclusion to the thought process (“All I want for Christmas/is you”), here there is no conclusion, only a plea: “Santa won’t you bring me the one I really need/Won’t you please bring my baby to me.” It is like a prayer – a supplication to a higher power for help, more than half of it recited on a single note, in a simple, repetitive rhythm. It is also phrased appropriately: “won’t you” (“will you not”) highlights the humility of the supplicant and appeals to the merciful side of the one being asked.
It is this desperate and heartfelt plea that makes the seamless return to a verse seem like an extension of the bridge itself. The verse, though using the same texture and harmonic language as the previous two, is a full four phrases shorter and contains no complaints about what won’t satisfy her. She has gone through an emotional transformation in the bridge; she has taken stock of her surroundings and her situation and she means business. This final verse is now framed by and heard through the context of that bridge, that plea; the lyrics (“I don’t want a lot for Christmas/This is all I’m asking for”) have become the content of the “prayer” instead of simply a third verse, and the tag – the title, the final line – has become the emotional and dramatic goal of the entire song.
We can now clearly identify the two component forms comprising the song as a whole. The first, to our modern ears, is that of a pop song with a tag instead of a chorus. Its narrative drive and length fit that form quite nicely, and is not unheard of. The second is that of an expanded and extended Songbook form with only one verse. Each A section ends as expected with a tag, and the B section provides contrast. It can be viewed as a development of Songbook form the same way sonata form can be seen as an evolution of rounded binary. However, each of these forms on its own cannot account for the dramatic power of this song; the drive to the tag and the narrative shift of the bridge are each crucial to its development and would not be as effective without the other.
Without this hybrid form, “All I Want for Christmas” would not pack the emotional punch it does. A modern chorus-based idiom would lessen the drama significantly due to its repetitive nature. A traditional Songbook form, on the other hand, would remove the sense of a narrative and restrict the opportunity for development due to its constrained structure. It is, therefore, the exploitation of the key dramatic device of each form – the tag and the bridge – that make this song what it is. The tag is, after all, the dramatic goal of the verse, but the inclusion of a masterfully-written modern bridge re-casts its emotional punch, making it the necessary conclusion to the entire song, not just each verse. It is this masterful blending of forms – the emotional weight of the Songbook and narrative drive of the modern pop song – that, when combined with Songbook harmonic language and Motown texture, make Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas” a song for the ages and one of the greatest pop songs of all time.