Today is a sad day for people who enjoy good things and who don’t enjoy bleeding out of their ears on a regular basis. After 20 years as the #1 most played holiday song, Mariah Carey’s “All I Want For Christmas Is You” has been dethroned.
You may not consider this bad news. You may think of Carey’s hit as nothing more than a silly, earwormy, fluff of a pop jingle. You are, however, wrong. While it’s easy to write the song off because of our overexposure to it or its boppy simplicity, there’s a reason why the song has been so popular for so long. A lot of reasons, actually. Over at the AV Club, you can read a brilliant deconstruction of why this song is magic and why it’s had such staying power. For one thing, the song is deceptively simple, when really there’s a whole lot going on there.
Yet musically, “All I Want For Christmas Is You” is hard to pin down as being from a specific era, which helps its enduring appeal. The song begins with a sparkling bit of percussion that resembles an antique music box or a whimsical snow globe. As it progresses, other seasonal percussive signifiers emerge: celebratory church-like bells, cheerful sleigh bells, and an underlying rhythmic beat that sounds like the loping pace of a horse or reindeer. These sounds echo religious and secular musical touchstones, without veering blatantly too much in either direction, and give the song an upbeat, joyous tone.
Besides that, while the song does seem to have an overabundance of pep, the lyrics are actually pretty damn sad.
The song can just as easily be interpreted as a melancholic song about unrequited love, especially because it’s all crescendo and no denouement: Listeners never find out if the main character actually gets her wish—much less if the person she’s confessing her love to actually feels the same way. “All I Want For Christmas Is You” is a one-sided confession of wants and desires, not a song describing or celebrating a consummated relationship…
“If you wanted to get real bummed about it, I think the argument could be made that the song is denouncing the artificiality surrounding the spectacle of Christmas,” [musician Ryan Willems] continues. “Saying that you are so hung up on the negative of not being with one person on Christmas that you can’t embrace the joy of the holiday is really pretty sad, but also movingly honest for a pop Christmas song.”
Paul McCartney’s 1979 song sounds like he wrote it in 5 minutes before going out on stage at a middle school talent show, and threw in some space laser distortions, cause that’s what the kids like, right?
The song barely has a melody, speak-sings its title 12 times over the course of three and a half minutes (I counted, expecting it to be maybe double that. That’s how aggressive the song’s banality is), and then spends a solid portion just shouting “DING DONG” at us. It’s ear poison. Even if it’s not the worst (THOUGH IT REALLY IS), it has never deserved to be played so constantly. If not for its ubiquity, it probably wouldn’t seem nearly so terrible. But this time of year, it is EVERYWHERE. This ranking that shows the song ousting Mariah comes from the company PlayNetwork, which curates song for retail stores to play. So no matter what your own personal tastes, if you spend any time in malls or shops this month, this affects you.
To be fair, the new #1 spot doesn’t actually go to Paul McCartney. Instead, The Shins’ cover from 2012 tops the list. And it is more palatable. It at least has more of a melody. And it’s more than a minute shorter than the original. I still want to reach in through my own ear to squish my brain when it gets to what passed for a chorus, though.
So long, Mariah. You will be missed. If only by comparison.