There Are No Good Halloween Songs Except for This Lost Will Smith Classic
I’m tired of hearing “Monster Mash” every year, give me the Fresh Prince.
Artwork by Devin Pacholik
This is a column called Major Keys written by Phil Witmer, the only actual musician employed by Noisey. It's about textures, theory, chords (lots of 'em), and how these nerdy qualities make us feel things.
I was born on Halloween (yes, today is my birthday.) Each fall, as a young child, the day would haunt me the same way. Whereas every one of my friends had their birthday parties soundtracked by whatever they wanted (90% S-Club 7, 10% S-Club 7-like material), the circumstances of my birth determined my musical fate. Four demons in particular plagued my nights:
- Michael Jackson's "Thriller," which makes great use of pedal point harmony to build tension but is ultimately not as scary as its video.
- Ray Parker, Jr.'s "Ghostbusters," which is not as enjoyable in its original, un-memed form.
- The main theme from Andrew Lloyd Weber's Phantom of the Opera, which is hard-as-bricks even though it ripped off Pink Floyd.
- Bobby "Boris" Pickett's "Monster Mash," which, no.
It also hurts that Halloween has a slim selection, especially when compared to Christmas. We basically have the above songs and "This Is Halloween" from The Nightmare Before Christmas (see, even then!) as widely-accepted standards. It may have something to do with the fact that Halloween as a time of year has no strong sonic signature traditionally associated with it. Christmas carols are simple and easily identifiable, as they're based on either the plagal cadences of centuries-old church choirs or on extravagant, jazzy show tune chords. Sleigh bells optional, of course, but they help get the point across quicker. Despite Halloween being possibly the loudest Western holiday in every other way, its music is largely negligible. All of it, that is, except for possibly one song. One performed, ironically, by someone who is the very embodiment of good-natured cheer.
Now, Will Smith's brand is not known for being imposing. Nevertheless, even the sunny, after-school mood of the Fresh Prince and DJ Jazzy Jeff's 80s work took a slightly darker turn on "A Nightmare on My Street," a retelling of the general premise behind the Nightmare on Elm Street films. As a song, it's pretty inexplicable, with Smith rapping cheerfully about being murdered in his dreams and featuring an ending skit that has Jazzy Jeff being replaced as DJ by Freddy Krueger himself. However, the sample flip here speaks... not volumes but something to that effect.
It's funny because old-school rap sampling often made songs a harmonic and tonal mess because no one really thought about matching each sample to a home key. Producers like the Bomb Squad took advantage of that, creating music that was intended to agitate and disrupt by rejecting the very notion of having parts stick together in a pleasing manner. Being part of a family-friendly duo, Jazzy Jeff regularly kept things more organized than his contemporaries Public Enemy on the production side, so the slightly unnerving divergence present on "A Nightmare on My Street" is kinda notable.
Using the original theme for the aforementioned first Nightmare on Elm Street film is an obvious choice, but it works in more ways than one. As originally composed by Charles Bernstein, the Nightmare on Elm Street main theme makes use of the classic tritone interval, which is the easiest way to make music sound evil as heavy metal and video game boss fights have proven for decades. As re-pitched by Jazzy Jeff, the song's in the key of E minor, but the main melody hits a B-flat on the way down. I wouldn't say that the "off" note makes "Nightmare on My Street" scary, per se, but I would say that it helps the song come close to defining what a perfect "Halloween song" might feel like. That sound is goofiness meeting genuine dissonance. Other attempts go too hard in one direction or the other. Aphex Twin's "Come to Daddy" is discordant enough to qualify, but it's too dark. "Mind Playing Tricks on Me," arguably the greatest Halloween song of all time off of Bushwick Bill's Hitchcockian verse, rides a smooth Isaac Hayes flip instead of something more nerve-wracking. It's "Nightmare on My Street" that strikes that perfect balance.
In fact, hip-hop and Halloween may go together the best. There's the entire horrorcore subgenre, after all, and Snoop Dogg took that alliance to its logical extreme back in 2001 with his zombie blaxploitation flick Bones. The dissonance of horror-movie samples are part of the genre's vocabulary, with the tradition carried out today by not only 21 Savage but also by the eerie, atonal keys that regularly back the punkish outbursts of Smokepurpp and company. Yet, while many hip-hop songs try to sound like Halloween (the holiday and the John Carpenter film), it's weird that Will fucking Smith's is one of the few that does that and is explicitly about the blend of fear and ridiculousness that characterizes this time of year. Of course, this might all be moot because "Werewolf Bar Mitzvah" is probably the actual best Halloween song and it's not even real. That's what's really scary. Just as long as no one drops "Monster Mash" at any of my future birthdays, I'm good.