Danny Elfman is revered around these parts—so much so, that Heather Elle named the Dead Man’s Party section of DE after one of his Oingo Boingo songs. The very first Party Post was one I wrote for Oingo Boingo’s “No Spill Blood.” So with this whole Halloween in November concept I’ve been running on DE lately, it’s only natural that I chose for the next Party Post, “What’s This?” a clever tune from A NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS about Jack Skellington’s wonderment at his discovery of Christmas.
“What’s This?” may be the one perfect title for a song in all of songdom. Jack Skellington has lived his entire life in one season, Halloween. His and Halloweentown’s existence is extremely limited. Until, that is, Jack heads through a door to a winter wonderland and finds Christmas. His eyes are opened to a whole multitude of experiences so far outside his realm, and these curiosities set him off on a world of wonder as he’s besieged and thrilled by all this new stuff.
And therein lies the magic of “What’s This?” One line in the first verse, “There’s white things in the air,” indicates Jack’s complete lack of knowledge of snow. Listening to the song recently, I recalled my first trip to check out Nova University in Florida. One guy and I were talking about how he’d never been out of Florida and had never seen snow in real life. Elfman’s song led me to take that train of thought one step further, and ponder what it would be like if I met an adult who didn’t know what snow was. That intrigued me, as the angle Elfman takes with the lyrics is so different from any I had encountered with anyone. Everybody knows what Christmas and snow are, but what if they didn’t? What a cool take.
Of course, NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS is a Tim Burton movie, and Elfman has never been a standard lyricist, so the song includes lines such as , “There are children throwing snowballs/ Instead of throwing heads/ They’re busy building toys/ And absolutely no one’s dead.” Jack compares things to his own point of reference, which brings in the macabre to match the wonderment, and also explains why this is my favorite song from the movie. Later in the song, he catalogues all the horrible things from Halloweentown that aren’t part of Christmas, and I dig that he finds such glee in these things that he says, “I cannot get enough.”
It’s also great that the more he sees, the more he wants to experience. “I’ve got to know, I’ve got to know,” he expresses at the tail end of the tune. The Christmas spirit has got him, and in the last line he’s ruminating on exploring this new scene. This will lead to great chaos and terror later in the film, but that’s a discussion of several songs for another time.
We revere Danny Elfman around these parts with good reason. You may think of him as a musical score guy, but at his heart, Elfman is a twisted force in horror, and a welcome one within the walls of Death Ensemble. That he could combine the horror of Halloween with the spirit of Christmas bespeaks of his genius, and he does so with sweet perfection in “What’s This?” The next time you think of snow, think of just how Jack Skellington saw it first.
Elfman is clearly having a ball singing “What’s This?” in this concert clip. What an inspired performance.