Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Why I don't like "O Holy Night"

"O Holy Night" (a.k.a "Cantique de Noel") is ubiquitous during the Christmas season. I know it is a very popular Christmas song, but I really don't like it. I may be taking away from the Christmas-Eve spirit, but here are my reasons:
  • It's sooo long, even when it is cut. There are technically three verses and choruses, but just one verse and chorus takes about two minutes. Most popular versions just slap on a chorus repeat after that and call it good. Another option is to string several verses together before making to the chorus. Still, even the most cut versions take a long time at the slow, plodding tempo.
  • It's very hard to arrange, mostly because the arpeggiated accompaniment is such a vital part of the song. The lack of creative arranging is made worse because so many professional artists perform the song, and so there are a lot of versions that sound mostly the same. Mariah Carey's version attempts to change this accompaniment up, and somewhat succeeds, though I'm not so sure about the added backbeat:
  • It's very technically demanding vocally, but unfortunately that doesn't keep many amateurs from trying to perform it. This translates into a lot of cringe-worthy performances, like this one. Okay, that performance was hilariously bad on purpose, but this singer does a great job of making fun of how badly this song can by performed. But even with a competent singer, the song has musical problems.
  • Besides length and slowness, I think the main musical problem in "O Holy Night" is how the music takes precedence over the lyrical content, especially in the chorus. The vocal acrobatics really steal the show and put the emphasis on the performer. You can see this in the Mariah Carey music video above, where Carey seems to be the object of worship in the chapel instead of the Christ child. Relatedly, the music climaxes seem manipulative. Each chorus phrase demands that you pay attention, and the successive phrases keep ratcheting up the tension with each phrase, leaving me exhausted and annoyed by the end.
On a positive note, here's a Mariah Carey performance that I think is really awesome:

What do you think of "O Holy Night"? Anyone want to defend it?

Vocab: arpeggiated, accompaniment, chorus, climax, backbeat

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