Tag Archives: the 90s

on why mariah carey’s ‘all i want for christmas’ is one of the greatest pop songs ever written

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.


1 Comment

Filed under guerrilla pop musicology

crash into jesus

Even though I have an iPod, whenever I arrive in a new city my first order of business is to find a good variety radio station. Or better yet, a 90s station. I mean, we’ve met; you know me and 90s music. The best one I ever found was in Tallahassee. It broadcast out of Albany, GA, and I could only get it in my car, but man was it heaven. GenX Albany. Played all 90s, all the time. Until they killed it and turned it into a Top 40 station.

So now that I’m in Cincinnati, I’ve found three acceptable stations – two variety and one rock. One of the variety stations is clearly superior to the other two (read: plays more Hootie and La Bouche), but it broadcasts out of Norwood, and as far as I can tell, unless you’re physically in Norwood the station is pretty weak. Unfortunately, the other (much stronger) station on that frequency is a Contemporary Christian station. Sometimes it’s a battle – how much cheesy Jesus love do I want to put up with while trying to get my Deep Blue Something fix?

And then, something amazing happened. I tuned in to find the Norwood station and the Jesus station locked horns in a stalemate that left them essentially alternating phrases. The best part: it was some cheesy Jesus song versus DMB’s “Crash.” That’s right, the song about voyeurism. This, to the best of my artist’s rendering, is how it went:

“Touch our lips just so I know… you’re my salvation, you’re my redeemer… Hike up your skirt a little more and show… your mercy and grace are all that I need, and…  I watch you there through the window and I stare at you wearing not a thing… Jesus, you’re my everything… the king of the castle, you’re the dirty rascal… touched me and now I’m free.”

I nearly drove off the road from laughing so hard – it could not have happened with better songs. I don’t know that I will ever again be fortunate enough to hear something like this. Eric Cartman would be proud.

Leave a comment

Filed under story time, this actually happened


I just moved to Cincinnati from Tallahassee, because in a little over a month I will be embarking on my DMA at the Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music (CCM). I’m stoked, overwhelmed, a little frightened and a little unbelieving. But that’s a story for another time.

As I was planning this move, I wanted to look into two investments: a piano and an Xbox. The piano seems self-explanatory; I’m a pianist. But thinking about it, why would I want to buy one when a whole bunch of new Steinways – that I can use whenever I want – come with being a student at CCM? (It’s okay, be jealous.) Welp, because sometimes I don’t want to fight for parking. Sometimes I don’t want to commit to the 2 or 3 consecutive hours of practice that would make it worthwhile to fight for parking. Sometimes I know I only want to do 45 minutes off and on. Or maybe I want to do one more hour before I go to bed at 11. Or those times (many, many times) that I’ve lost an afternoon or evening because I was cooking something that took longer than an hour. So, I decided it was a good idea; I wanted something small in relatively decent shape. Just something that could get work done.

The Xbox, well. My roommate had his hooked up to his TV as a composite DVD player/game console/Netflix streamer, and I really liked the setup. And since I was upgrading my TV to a reasonable size (from my old 14″), I needed something like that. And, in my continuous effort to be the coolest person I know, I wanted a gaming console. I always have, but growing up I knew not even to ask. So now that I’m an adult (or something) and I’m effectively the only person who can tell me no, I decided it was a reasonable investment. And besides, I already own Mass Effect (all of them, yes) from when I played it on Brooks’s console and I wouldn’t mind playing it again.

So over the course of three days I bought a TV, a couch, a piano, renters insurance, read the Ohio drivers manual and opened a checking account. At the end of the third day, feeling waaay too adult-like, I made the executive decision. On the morning of the fourth day I bought an Xbox and a pile of games.

And you know what, they were both great ideas. I have the piano and Xbox in separate rooms, about 20 feet apart, and they both call to me. I’ll be woodshedding at something and I’ll hear the Xbox call me, “But don’t you want to blast some mercs and geth and Collectors and flirt with the turian?” (I have a serious thing for Garrus, shut up.) And I’ll think, Why yes! Of course I do! and I’ll go do that for a while. And soon enough the piano will call, “But Beethoven! and Rachmaninoff!” And I’ll think, Of course! Naturally! How could I? and go back to practicing. It’s a pretty nice safeguard against burnout on either of them.

The only problem is that neither ever stops its siren call. Back and forth, back and forth, all day. It’s great – until I have to go to bed. It’s difficult dragging myself away. But, I guess that’s what coffee is for.

Leave a comment

Filed under story time

i’m getting a haircut tomorrow

I desperately need a haircut. My ponytail is starting to look like a legitimate horse’s tail. In fact, I don’t like that I have a ponytail in the first place. So I scheduled an appointment at Hair on Earth and hopefully it will be awesome.

Normally, when I go to Lisa (my stylist at home) I just trust her to do something fantastic, and she always has. She convinced me to try bangs for the first time in ten years. She helped me construct my favorite style ever – blonde and fire-engine red streaks. I love her. I don’t know the people I’m going to tomorrow, so I figure I should probably come up with something other than “eh, just do something cool.” So I came up with this:

1. No longer than shoulder-length.
2. Full bangs are out of the question.
3. I must be able to keep it out of my eyes easily.

Then I figured it would probably be helpful if I came up with something more specific. So I googled “hairstyles.” It came up with a lot of celebrities, high-fashion/high-maintainance, and spam. Not useful. So I tried “hairstyles for fine hair,” (because fine hair requires special treatment), which resulted in a lot more nonsense, a lot of styles that didn’t relate to fine hair at all, and a lot of contradictory statements written in disastrous grammar.

It also produced a link to finehair.com. A relatively professional website, compared to all the other ones dedicated to hair, it looked promising. I started browsing.

It appears to be one woman dedicated to working with fine hair. She developed and sells her own line of products. Her writing is pretty bad. She takes questions from The Public and answers them the best she can, nothing I haven’t heard before. I get bored of reading and head over to the photos section.

I’m expecting it to be a bunch of celebrities having nothing to do with fine hair (like on the front page), but no. These are actual customers. And they made me want to cancel my appointment tomorrow. Because if this is the revolution in fine hair, count me out.

I go for Long Hair styles first. (Please, please click these links and scroll to see the pictures. They make this whole post worth it.) These women… are all blonde. And these styles are universally unflattering. Moving onto Short Hair styles. Bunch of post-menopausal women with the traditional short, curly/wavy hair. And a man, for some reason. WOW, REVOLUTIONARY! I’VE NEVER SEEN AN OLDER WOMAN WITH HAIR LIKE THAT BEFORE!

Moving onto Curly styles. This was my favorite. I actually laughed. None of them actually have curly hair. One woman’s face is blurred out, and this girl looks like she woke up in 1993 on the Jurassic Park set during the tropical storm:
could her hair look any worse?







So I finish my laugh and skip Straight styles and head to Frizzy, because my hair does frizz! Nah, nothing interesting there. Just more middle-aged blondes.

Backing up to Straight styles even though my hair isn…HOLY SHIT! IT’S FRANZ LISZT! AND SHE’S A WOMAN!
I swear.






So if you believe in prayer, please pray for me tomorrow. Because unless it turns me into a legendary pianist, I don’t want to look like this.

Leave a comment

Filed under story time, this actually happened

genX music trivia

It all started out simply enough:
A guy MJ works with challenged her with 80s music trivia. She schooled him, then got him back with “Who sang intro and backup in ‘Money for Nothing’.” We then spun this set of trivia questions for her (or anyone’s) use. Good luck.

Name 5 artists who sang in ‘Feed the World.’
Name the official lineup of Nine Inch Nails. (Trick Question. Answer: Trent Reznor.)
Why is the frontman in Radiohead so f*cking whiny. (Answer: Because he’s a bitch.)
Name which of the Gallagher brothers from Oasis was arrested for assault. (Trick Question. Answer: Yes.)
Name how many times Alanis drops a four-letter word in JLP. “Damn” does not count.
Estimate the pounds of weed DMB has smoked, either by their own volition or through smelling it at their concerts. (Trick Question. Answer: Those are two very different numbers.)
Name the character that made David Bowie famous. (Trick Question. Answer: David Bowie.)
Freddie Mercury: God or Goddess? Discuss.
How many of the boy bands can you still tell apart?
-Sub-question: How many of the lesser known boy bands can you still name?
-Sub-question: How many members of each band can you name? First and last names, please.
Why weren’t girl groups, save the Spice Girls, as popular?
-Bonus: How many former girl group members went on to have real careers?
-Bonus: How many went on to do cocaine?
Name 3 failed girl groups who had moderate hits.
Hanson played their own instruments but were not considered a boy band. Every other boy band did not play instruments. Discuss.
Courtney Love. What the f*ck? Discuss.
Phil Collins was not involved on the “All for Love” song from 3 Musketeers with Bryan Adams, Sting, and Rod Stewart. Speculate as to how this could have been legally allowed.
Explain how Billie Meyers sounds so much like a man, assuming she is not, in fact, a man.
Explain how Macy Gray got a recording deal.
Explain how she was a bigger hit than Erykah Badu.
Hootie and the Blowfish released a Christmas song. Discuss.
Crash Test Dummies could harmonize, play instruments, and had a decent singer, yet they fell off the face off the planet. Discuss.
Compare and contrast: Pearl Jam, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Green Day. You have 20 minutes. (Answer: Can’t be done, they’re the same band. Pearl Jam just writes better lyrics.)
Name one song by Nickelback and one song by Creed. Bonus if they’re attributed to the correct band. One free therapy session for choosing to answer this question.
Name three songs by La Bouche. If you can’t, you don’t deserve to.
Name three techno tunes without lyrics from between 1992 and 2000. (Hint: Sandstorm.)
Speculate on what else she could have been saying instead of ‘eat the fruit.’ Must have the same number of syllables and vowels. -Bonus points if it makes sense in another language.
Dance to all 8 minutes of a single techno song without stopping.
What destroyed Mariah Carey’s career?
Name at least three of Britney Spears’s boyfriends.
Name at least 3 songs written about Britney Spears by her exes.
Name a single artist with which Timbaland has not worked. Must be between 1994 and now.
Name an artist whom Brian Eno has not produced. Must be between 1985 and now.
Name an artist Puff Daddy has not sampled.
Name 5 songs you once loved but now cringe to hear because some assclown sampled it between 1990 and 1999. Bonus points if they absolutely ruined your musical hero.
Name a city Phil Collins has not toured in.
Name a fact you remember from Pop-Up Video.
Why is 90s dance music better than any other decade’s?
Marilyn Manson: Discuss.
Oral question: pronounce Johnny Rzeznik in the original Polish.
-Bonus: Make him some pierogi.
-Bonus: Drop them off at his mother’s house.
-Bonus: Let him buy you some Buffalo wings.
-Bonus: Go see a Sabres v. Penguins game. Root against Cindy Crosby.
-Bonus: Get trapped on the NYS Thruway together between Buffalo and Syracuse in the winter.
—Double bonus if you have to shovel the car out from the shoulder.
—Triple bonus if they closed the Thruway while you were still on it and you didn’t know.
—Quadruple bonus if a NYS Trooper stops to tell you to get off the road even though the next exit isn’t for 27 miles.
—Quintuple bonus if you have to stop and push the car at any point along the way.
—Reminder: do not use your cellphone. It is illegal. All bonuses forfeit if you use your cellphone.

Bonus: One point for every song you can name that has not gotten airplay since its release.
Bonus: One point for every overplayed song that you still love, but everyone else hates, i.e. Iris.
Bonus: What movie soundtrack is Iris on?

1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized

when i was your age

Remember when Coolio released Gangsta’s Paradise? Remember how absolutely hardcore it was?

Remember how there wasn’t a single four-letter word in it? No N-bombs? No F-bombs? Not a single word needed censoring, bleeping, or splicing? Remember how it had a message? (“Tell me why are we so blind to see/That the ones we hurt are you and me.”) Remember how it won the 1995 Grammy for best song?

All this occurred to me today as I was driving home from church and the song came on my iPod. How clean it is by today’s standards. I miss 1995’s pop music. It’s the year I really started to love it. Spin Doctors aside, the genre hadn’t quite sunk into inanity yet. Songwriters still tried to communicate something at least semi-intelligently. (See: Dave Matthews, early/middle Mariah Carey, Alanis Morissette, etc.)

Fast-forward to 2003, the year I graduated, the year I pretty much stopped caring about pop music, the year the 90s actually ended as a trend. The 2nd biggest hip-hop hit that year was 50 Cent’s In Da Club (second to Outkast’s Hey Ya, a pinnacle of inanity). Right off the bat, (the part that everyone remembers – “Go shawty, it’s your birthday”) he drops an F-bomb, and in the chorus informs said shawty that if she’s interested in some X and some f***ing to come find him in the club. She will apparently know him by his bottle of champagne. During the rest of the song, he talks himself up (“Been hit wit a few shells but I don’t walk wit a limp” – he’s clearly a big deal), name-drops (“N****s heard I f*** with Dre, now they wanna show me love”), throws out at least ten N-bombs and a few more F-bombs. I’m surprised this got on the radio. I’m even more surprised it won a Grammy.


Note: I have nothing against these words in and of themselves. They’re very effective when used well. (Again, see Alanis Morissette.) But beating us over the head with them is counter-productive, especially when you’ve got nothing to say in the first place.

Just for comparison, how about today? One of last year’s biggest rap hits was apparently Jay-Z’s Empire State of Mind. It seems the trend of talking yourself up has remained, and the name-dropping has increased. There aren’t nearly as many censor-worthy gems, but judging by what I hear thundering and blasting by on the roads (n**** this and n**** that and f*** you n****), I know it exists. I give Jay-Z credit for not going there (at least in this instance).

Now here’s the thing. I’m assuming these guys thought they were being progressive and edgy, but they sound like cavemen. ME BIG DEAL! ME AWESOME! ME DANGEROUS! ME HAVE IMPORTANT FRIENDS! YOU STUPID! ME IMPRESS YOU WITH BAD WORDS!

Oh. I am overcome. Allow me to bask in your presence.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized