Song: “Mary On a Cross”

Another song from a surprisingly popular band — and a bonus feature about missing key changes in modern music

Song: “Mary On a Cross”

A couple of weeks ago on a lark, I featured a song by Ghost (“Dance Macabre”) — and was pleasantly surprised to see a heady response across the board.

I can take a hint, so here is another song by Ghost — a live performance of their 2019 song, “Mary On a Cross.”

The theatrical aspects of Ghost help to set the band apart, and connect with its audience. In this clip, you can see how. Attending a Ghost concert must feel a little like Comic-Con, but with more pseudo-nuns. I hope to find out someday, but I missed their 2022 US tour, much to my chagrin.

Watching the audience so enraptured by the song tells you all you need to know about why this band is on the rise.

“Mary On a Cross” is ostensibly about a romantic relationship between two Ghost characters, Papa Nihil and Sister Imperator. However, various design elements and the cackling ending words to the live performance below suggest it is a thinly veiled ode to marijuana (“mary.on.a . . .”).

The song became a TikTok sensation in 2022 thanks to a fan cut placed over scenes from Stranger Things 4. Ghost released a slower version of the song in response, but it did not perform as well as the fan cut on TikTok.

Written in B with a tempo of 130 bpm, “Mary On a Cross” is catchy and memorable — another surprisingly enjoyable tune from a band that seems to be gaining both fans and confidence.


Bonus Song and Analysis

One criticism of modern music is that it has become dull for a variety of reasons, with many of those — fewer guitar/instrument solos, tepid hooks, staid song structures, emotional distance — boiling down to a lack of key changes.

An insightful analysis of this trend finds that hits with key changes started to disappear around 2000, and have now virtually all but vanished:

One reason for this has been the emergence of hip-hop, in which lyrics matter more than song structure or facility with musical instruments, and where loops became the preferred method of composition. Another has been the nearly simultaneous emergence of computerized composition programs like Logic or ProTools. These tools stack music and make the window left-to-right relatively small, which makes it natural to stack music rather than to think of a song longitudinally. If you think in stacks, you add layers as a song progresses and you want additional drama. If you think longitudinally, you think about how to keep interest by changing structure, chords, keys, and instrumentation over time.

Joe Bennett, a professor at the Berklee College of Music, explains it this way:

The orchestral-score style vertical layout of most [digital recording software] . . . may encourage loop-based writing, because the default setting of the software is to display only a few bars horizontally on screen, with several vertically stacked tracks. This layout, I suggest, makes the songwriter more likely to work on vertical production elements and instrumental layering, and to pay less attention to linear elements.

With more compositions reliant on producers and singers with computers rather than bands working things out organically, these preferences have exerted a strong hold over the music of the day.

All of this is a way to introduce another Ghost song, “Spillways,” which features some exceptional key changes. It has become another hit for the band in many markets, showing that there’s still room for some of the elder magic.


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