All I Want For Christmas Is: Boooo!

The year was 1995. I was in eighth grade. Christmas was approaching, and with it a holiday party hosted by a friend of mine, with both boys and girls invited. Including my first crush.

And oh, my friends, I had it bad. Granted, it was mostly based on the fact that he'd accidentally introduced me to the Beatles' Abbey Road—but the more I look back, the more legitimate that appears as a reason to fall in love with someone.

I was an absolute bundle of nerves, sitting in the tinsel-drenched living room while we all opened presents and sipped hot cider, when onto the stereo came a song I'd never heard before: Mariah Carey's All I Want For Christmas is You.

They say that you know you're in love when all the songs make sense. In this case, not only was Mariah singing what was going through my head at the moment, she was doing it while I was sitting in the same room as the love object in question. The effect on me was a shocking, profound, and secret happiness—the sense that someone understood what I was feeling and had put music around it. I bought the single and learned the words. Singing it felt dangerously expressive, even if nobody else was in the room.

It's been one of my favorite Christmas songs ever since—even though I would be soundly rejected when I later worked up the nerve to ask my crush for a date. That never felt like the important part, somehow—what mattered was that I was putting words around my own romantic feelings for the first time, even if I had to borrow someone else's words to do it.

Skip forward to 2011. I've married a lovely man (unrequited crush < thoroughly requited passion) but that Mariah Carey song still gives me goosebumps of happiness. And then Twitter tells me it's been recently covered by Justin Bieber and the video features Mariah Carey.

Despite my better instincts, I couldn't stop myself from watching.

You will be unsurprised to hear that the video is terrible.

I am not going to rant about the ravages of Auto-Tune or Justin Bieber's melodic cop-outs in the second verse. (Though I could.) Instead, I'm going to tell you how they've killed all the power of this song in some very specific and very troubling ways.

First, The Original Version

The song has two official videos. The first is a home-movie-style romp with snow and sledding and an astonishing number of baby animals. It is flirty and fun and warmly intimate.

Mariah throughout is active: she's wrestling Santa in the snow, running, sledding, opening presents, laughing, waving her arms, snuggling with bunnies, and scratching reindeer under the chin. There's not a lot of skin shown (she's got an off-the-shoulder dress at one point, but is wearing it with gloves and leggings). Her smile is frank, open, and friendly. She's sexy, to be sure—but it's the kind of sexy that happens when someone feels good about themselves and the people around them. It feels like a glimpse into a happy, fulfilled life. Actual presents are either adorable baby bunnies, or just an excuse for the kids to put boxes on their heads and make people laugh.

The other Mariah video ups the sex appeal with a little 1960s black-and-white glamor. The aesthetic is a callback to classic girl groups like the Ronettes—a visual reference which would also be picked up later by Alicia Keys' stunning Every Little Bit Hurts and, of course, Beyoncé's Single Ladies.

In her achingly good book Where the Girls Are, author Susan J. Douglas talks about girl groups and sex and girls' experience: "In the 1960s, pop music became the one area of popular culture in which adolescent female voices could be clearly heard." Groups like the Ronettes, the Shirelles, the Supremes, and so on sang about women and girls' approaches to sex and romance, whether traditional ("Goin' to the Chapel"), assertive ("Be My Baby"), or wary ("Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?").

It's pretty clear that the Mariah Carey, Beyoncé, and Alicia Keys videos mentioned above are explicitly weaving their voices into this pattern of female expression. Mariah is front and center at the microphone, in control, making her desires plain. She sings with her whole body, so even though she is on that stage for the whole song, she is neither static nor trapped. Note that this video is also completely free of dudes, even though it's ostensibly a love song addressed to one.

{An aside: The parallels between the power Douglas ascribes to girl-group music and modern explorations of romance reading are pretty interesting. Both are things enjoyed primarily by women, and which serve as a source of bonding and way of navigating the tricky waters of dealing with men and relationships. Both are also ridiculed in the culture at large. In a familiar echo of the constant dismissal of romance, Douglas cites a male music critic discussing girl-group music: "I feel this genre represents the low point in the history of rock 'n' roll."}

The other significant element of this song is its disdain for commercialism—gifts are explicitly dismissed in favor of love, lust, affection, seduction, whatever you want to call it. "I won't even wish for snow," claims the lyric. The idea of Christmas as a time of shopping and buying and money matters is entirely pushed aside in favor of sexual satisfaction. (And if you ask me, there's a clever little double entendre when Mariah sings that "Santa Claus won't make me happy / with a toy on Christmas Day").

This message is more subversive than it may appear. It refutes both the stereotype of the woman as a money-grubbing gold-digger, and the stereotype of the woman as a passive object of sexuality. She's a complete subject, in both grammatical and Foucauldian terms.

And those are basically the two halves of the song: a woman's desire, and the unnecessary nature of presents.

So it makes total sense that it would be covered by a teenage boy standing in the middle of a mall.

The Bieber Variation

I can't compete with the brilliance of Linda Holmes' satirical riff, but there are a few points I'd like to set down.

At the risk of echoing Arrested Development: Who is the "you" in that chorus? Is this really supposed to read as a romance between forty-one-year-old Mariah and seventeen-year-old Justin Bieber? Because whether or not you intended to portray a romance between our two singers, a word that you are going to see tossed around a lot is: uncomfortable.

Or else the romance is between Justin Bieber and a Nintendo DS. I'm not sure that's any better.

And just what is with this one shot in the middle of nowhere?

A screencap of Mariah Carey, wearing a Santa hat and large snowflake earrings. Her head is tilted up and to her left, her eyes are closed, and her lips are parted. She leans slightly forward, and the frame cuts off her shoulders and collarbone before her bodice starts so that she appears to be naked.This is a screencap from the video. It looks as though Mariah is singing, but she is not. This is a brief clip that is inserted at around the 1:08 mark. It is so short as to be almost subliminal, but during that brief window Mariah appears to have a tidynice little orgasm. In a cutout Santa dress. While we watch.

And this takes place between all the pose-y, cheesecake shots of Mariah flashing booty at the camera, which start to feel really creepy by the time four minutes full of them have passed. She's not romping in the snow anymore. She's not owning the stage, or dancing with her girlfriends in Nancy Sinatra boots. She's trapped against this one mystery wall being leered at by a gaggle of high schoolers.

And presumably by the audience, or at least a portion of it. The whole thing reeks of the male gaze.*

*{Aside: sometimes, when I think of the male gaze, this is what comes to mind:

People who have boobs might as well be carrying the One Ring.}

The only explanation for this colossal misstep is that someone wanted to hit as many demographics as possible: Bieber will appeal to the teenage and preteen girls, and Mariah Carey will appeal to middle-aged women who remember her from their youth, and if we sex her up we can get all the straight men and boys watching too. It's a trifecta!

But Bieber & Pals at least get to do something in the video, even though it looks like they're trashing a retail store during the holidays to the dismay of the Macy's daytime staff, who will have to clean up all those boxes they're flinging around. Let's hope there's nothing fragile in there! Meanwhile, Mariah Carey must be content to flirt with the camera in close-up, and we have lost all track of what we're supposed to be feeling and what the song's story is trying to tell us.

And oh, there is product placement everywhere. All I want for Christmas is to mob-rush a mall at midnight where teenagers start handing me gifts for free. I guess that's not as catchy a song title, though.

TL; DR

Maybe being a grown-up these days means you're doomed to see new versions of old things that fail to resonate with you in the same way. (I'm looking at you, Star Wars.) And it's true that holiday albums can be a wasteland of retreads and tired old melodies worn thin from overuse. But this cover feels so nakedly contrary to the original song's theme and presentation that it could be a parody, if it were funny for even a single moment.

It's not Bieber's fault, either. If this were merely a Justin Bieber cover of a popular Mariah Carey tune, that would be one thing. I don't expect pop stars not to make albums they think will sell. I'm an author; I have no stones to throw from my house with the Buy My Books welcome mat on the porch. I also have no particular antipathy for Justin Bieber, who must be having a hell of a time with the voice changes in a frighteningly public setting. (Can you imagine?)

If they'd written a new song, I could have dismissed it easily and gone about my day. If I had never heard the original before, I would not have cared enough to write almost two thousand words about these two different versions and what they mean for our future. But I care, and I cannot exorcize my disappointment except by talking about it. This is the uncanny valley between pop music as a product for sale and pop music as an experience in our lives.