Dec 23 2014

All I Want for Christmas Is Diminished Chords


Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas is You” does more than subtly evoke memories of Judy Garland and Nat King Cole’s Christmases gone by. It sounds more like it could have been written in that era and locked in a Brill Building safe that wasn’t cracked again until 1994, when Carey needed a new song for her Christmas album. But it wasn’t, of course. Carey and Afanasieff wrote it themselves.

Mariah Carey is not having a very merry Christmas. Her in-progress divorce from Nick Cannon has turned both ugly and time-consuming, a fact that People reports led directly to the other big season-spoiling event in her life. After reportedly spending hours on the phone with her lawyers a couple of weeks ago, the singer arrived at Rockefeller Center terrifyingly late to sing her signature holiday tune, “All I Want for Christmas Is You,” on live TV.

Perhaps due to lack of warm-up time, Carey was unable to produce many of the crucial notes of the song that fall in her “head voice,” the female register analogous to the male falsetto. Her performance was reminiscent of watching Larry Holmes knock out Muhammad Ali during the great boxer’s ill-advised 1980 comeback attempt. Sylvester Stallone, who was in attendance for the fight, famously said it was “like watching an autopsy on a man who’s still alive.”

The athletic analogy may be particularly apt, though boxing is actually the wrong sport. Elite singers tend to be more like gymnasts—even the best aren’t capable of reproducing the most dazzling feats of their youth. The tragic fate of all vocalists is that they’re never again as young as they are on the day they record their biggest hit. Jon Bon Jovi barely had the range for “Livin’ on a Prayer” when he cut it in 1986, so it’s not surprising that he hasn’t stood a chance in any subsequent performances.

Those pop culture Grinches who’ve been expressing shamefully unseasonal schadenfreude over Carey’s flop would do well to remember two things: 1) Mimi sings better on her worst day than 99.9 percent of all humans who’ve ever lived; 2) She is the co-author, along with longtime collaborator Walter Afanasieff, of the only Christmas song written in the last half-century worthy of inclusion in the Great American Songbook.

Sure, there are other great modern holiday songs—my favorite is probably The Waitresses’ 1981 post-punk classic “Christmas Wrapping.” But I invoke the Songbook specifically.

Before the rock ’n’ roll era, popular songs had a lot more in common with jazz. Composers such as Ralph Blane (“Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” 1943), Mel Tormé (“The Christmas Song,” commonly known as “Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire,” 1944), and Jule Styne (“Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!,” 1945) all brought the rich harmonic palette of jazz to the pop tunes and Broadway and Hollywood musical numbers that comprise the canon of 1920s-’50s songs qualifying as Great American.

Rock ’n’ roll songs (and the subsequent pop songs influenced by the genre) may only contain three or four chords, each chord usually being just a major or a minor—the two chord “flavors” analogous to chocolate and vanilla. In contrast, a tune from the Songbook might use a Baskin-Robbins shop full of chords and chord flavors—7ths and 9ths, half and fully diminished, various inversions, and more. The melodies that work over such chords tend to include a lot of chromatic notes (the black notes on the piano when playing in the key of C major).

These relatively exotic harmonies—particularly the diminished chords—are often used by more modern songwriters to get a “classic” sound. For instance, John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s “Happy Xmas (War Is Over)” includes some notes in its choral parts that I think are intended to recall the harmonic vocabulary of those 1940s Christmas standards.

I count at least 13 distinct chords at work in “All I Want for Christmas Is You,” resulting in a sumptuously chromatic melody. The song also includes what I consider the most Christmassy chord of all—a minor subdominant, or “iv,” chord with an added 6, under the words “underneath the Christmas tree,” among other places. (You might also analyze it as a half-diminished “ii” 7th chord, but either interpretation seems accurate.)

The same chord is found, in a different key and inversion, in Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas”—on the line “children listen to hear sleigh bells in the snow,” specifically under the word listen, among other spots. In both songs the chord comes immediately after a major subdominant chord, giving the effect of a “bright” major subdominant that you might say “sighs” or “melts” into a “dark” minor subdominant spiked with a “spicy” extra tone (the added 6), before the songs settle back into their tonic, or “home,” chords.

In plain English, it’s a chord sequence that sounds “cozy.” Carey’s song includes lots of other major-to-minor or diminished sequences that make a guy feel like he’s snuggled by the fire, just back from the war, with a mulled cider in one hand and his other arm around Rosie the Riveter, ready to start a baby boom on Christmas Eve 1945.

I should say I’m talking here only about the song’s harmonic content. The way those harmonies are articulated with rhythms, instrumentation, and phrasing is drawn straight from soul and R&B music that wouldn’t be popularized until a decade or two after my little postwar scenario. In fact, that’s another reason why “All I Want for Christmas Is You” makes us so happy—it reminds us of the great ’60s and ’70s Motown covers of prewar Christmas classics, such as the Jackson 5’s bopping version of “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town” or Stevie Wonder’s joyful reading of “The Christmas Song.” Carey’s song gives us a double shot of mid-20th-century nostalgia.

Mariah Carey might not still have the Olympic gold medal-winning voice that she had in her 20s, but songs can last forever, and in the case of “All I Want for Christmas Is You,” I suspect it will. Even as I write, it has once again nestled into a familiar place at the top of Billboard’s holiday chart.

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