On Second Thought
Mariah Carey – Merry Christmas

for better or worse, we here at Stylus, in all of our autocratic consumer-crit greed, are slaves to timeliness. A record over six months old is often discarded, deemed too old for publication, a relic in the internet age. That's why each week at Stylus, one writer takes a look at an album with the benefit of time. Whether it has been unjustly ignored, unfairly lauded, or misunderstood in some fundamental way, we aim with On Second Thought to provide a fresh look at albums that need it.

Wondering why Christmas missed us: Wikipedia defines “Christmas Envy” as, “In psychoanalytic thought, the desire of Jews or people of other non-Christian denominations to celebrate and enjoy all the non-religious traditions and customs associated with Christmas. See also Hanukkah Bush, Nativity Menorah, Star of David Made of a Bunch of Crucifixes, Neil Diamond.”

Now, even if I might happen to be the person who submitted Christmas Envy’s Wikipedia entry, this definition remains true. Christmas Envy is a most powerful force, often afflicting our more Semitic-ly inclined children at an early age:
Mommy? How come they don’t celebrate Hanukkah on Home Improvement? How come our house is so freaking dark? How come all the other children in school are so very happy … and we are so very sad?
I live in the suburbs of Long Island (which is redundant, of course). Right now the air is cool, the grass is frozen, and house after house after house is lit up like the freaking sun, each decorated with successive tiny bursts of reds, greens, blues, purples, yellows, and maybe, if you’re lucky, a big fat inflatable illuminated Santa Claus. Jewish grandmothers will typically scoff at such displays as gaudy or tasteless or, more likely, “goyim nachas” (which roughly translates to “shit that makes Christian people happy”) but I don’t know, it looks pretty awesome to me. Because then we arrive at our house: a bay window with nine mostly unlit orange bulbs. This is the festival of lights? Seems like they’re beating us at our own game.

So let’s put this out there: Hanukkah isn’t much fun. (And if you really want to know, we don’t even really play with dreidels. In fact, dreidels don’t even exist; it’s simply a myth conceived by the Jewish liberal media to make you think we’re not just sitting at home doing nothing in the dark.) To its credit, Christmas makes a great effort to include everyone regardless, spreading cheer and good will toward men and the such. But there will always exist, at least among the “Chosen People,” this inescapable feeling of exclusion, an exclusion from joy. Christmas Envy manifests itself like so: First you resent it, then you realize you resent it because you’re jealous, then you do it a little bit, and then you feel guilty. Congratulations! Now you’re “a self-hating Jew no better than Larry King,” as your grandfather would say. There are no winners. You can’t win. But, I’m red and green with Christmas Envy and there’s nothing I can do about it. For this, I mostly blame Mariah Carey.

Which brings us to today’s topic: I have a sneaking suspicion Merry Christmas might be the definitive Mariah Carey album.

Regardless of your religion, if you’ve ever worked in a drugstore or a mall during the holiday season, while Christmas music is incessantly pumped through the Muzak, you begin to develop a certain appreciation for the stuff. Now, to be fair, even to the most holiday-spirited Christmas music can be insufferable: monotonous sleighbells, unintelligible choral hymns, overly expressive anonymous vocals, irritating novelty songs. But every now and then an undeniable gem queues up on the PA and, as a stock boy for CVS Pharmacy, you must cherish these moments. These are the songs that make work bearable, tiny beacons of light in the shadows of Muzak. Of course we’re talking about John Lennon’s “Happy X-Mas (War is Over),” Darlene Love’s “All Alone for Christmas” (Home Alone 2, what!), Bing Crosby and David Bowie’s “Little Drummer Boy,” Nat King Cole’s rendition of “A Christmas Song,” The Chipmunk’s “Christmas Don't Be Late,” and, reluctantly, Paul McCartney’s “Wonderful Christmas Time.” (Maybe once they played Run-DMC’s “Christmas in Hollis” but it sure as hell didn’t happen on your shift.)

But 200 years from now 16-year-olds will teleport to their jobs at the mall. They will clock in using their retina, re-stock and straighten the aisles through telekinesis, maybe fold some pants, Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas Is You” will come on…

And all work will stop.

History has a funny way of disregarding Christmas albums by contemporary artists as mere stocking-stuffers or contractual obligation fillers, often assuming they’ve been recorded, mixed, packaged, and released for consumption with the same amount of effort it takes to snowblow your driveway. This might be right. I doubt John Denver and the Muppets or Ashanti were busting their ass to drop a classic on the masses, but in the case of Mariah Carey’s Merry Christmas the argument simply does not and should not apply. It … transcends!

Released shortly after the multi-platinum success of Music Box, Merry Christmas is Mariah Carey at her absolute creative and commercial peak, her voice still a marvel, her songs and performances still undeniably brilliant. Sadly, Merry Christmas is also in some ways the climax in a career that, beginning with Music Box’s follow-up Daydream, would find Carey devolving into a glorified hook singer, almost completely forsaking the straight vocal pop that made her a superstar for the limiting melodic palette of hip-hop and R&B; that has never really suited her talents. As we know, she would later fail miserably, lose her fucking mind, flaunt breasts so spread apart they look like Captain Crunch’s hovering and disembodied eyebrows, then lose her mind again (then come back to prominence 10 freaking years later; that’s really neither here nor there). Point is: this is a far cry from the girl dressed like Mrs. Claus frolicking in the snow.

The closest we’ll get to the traditional gospel album Carey will probably never get to do, Merry Christmas finds Carey performing elevated, near-definitive interpretations of songs that have been sung by the majority of the solar system; songs like “Silent Night,” “O Holy Night,” “Jesus Born on This Day,” even “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing”; songs that Carey somehow refreshes and makes her own.

She fares even better on the album’s more contemporary tracks, all of which are surprisingly heavily indebted to Spector-pop. On Darlene Love’s “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home),” she’s backed by her somehow-never-superfluous gospel choir, and employs all 27 or so of her octaves for the song’s perfect ‘60s progression; she sings “The snow’s coming down” with the same enthusiasm as children who’ve been praying for a snow day. For the Carey original “Miss You Most (At Christmas Time)” you get Carey and piano and some strings for a genuinely understated ballad, which, all things considered might feature her most beautiful vocal performance ever.

Which brings us back to “All I Want For Christmas Is You.” To say this song is an instant classic somehow doesn’t capture its amazingicity; it’s a modern standard: joyous, exhilarating, loud, with even a hint of longing (ooh longing!). She sings, “I don’t want a lot for Christmas / I won’t even wish for snow,” such a beautiful phrase delivered with full sincerity over rolling pianos, spine-squashing tympanis, philharmonic strings, and a quasi-wall of sound—and Mariah’s gorgeous voice bursts through it all. Fuck, why haven’t I been celebrating Christmas?!

Dr. Seuss was mad Jewish, but he wrote in How the Grinch Stole Christmas, “Welcome Christmas while we stand, heart to heart and hand in hand.” That’s pretty nice. He figured that shit out. There’s no guilt. No guilt in being a Jew who envies Christmas, or being a Jew who enjoys Christmas music, or being a badass (as I am) and still liking Mariah Carey, because, all this stuff is freaking awesome.

Click here for an exclusive mp3 of Barry arguing with his mom.

By: Barry Schwartz
Published on: 2006-12-21
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