Understanding Ghost’s “Mary on a Cross”

“Your beauty never ever scared me.”

Ghost, 
Mary on a Cross 

 

It is an exoteric part of adulting, where all of us come to the realization that not everybody we bond and connect with are meant to stay in our life.

We may have to experience the deaths of the people we value, or we may simply drift apart, for whatever reason. 

Yet, on some level, the connection that we once had would always remain. We may look back at old memories and smile to ourselves, despite the present absence of those whom we shared the memories with. 

This bittersweet feeling of nostalgia, of longing for things past, is brilliantly explored in Ghost’s song, Mary on a Cross

Before we dive into the lyrics and the composition of the song, let’s first take a look at who Ghost is as a band.

Formed in 2006, Ghost is Swedish rock band, who sonically envision themselves as a 60s or 70s group. You can hear this in their distinct use of the electric organ, as well as dated grooves and hooks, which are reminiscent of bands such as Queen, Blue Öyster Cult, Deep Purple, and The Cars.

It’s worth understanding that humor is a big part of their work, from their fake and corny Satanic imagery (which they use as a metaphor for the human condition), to their band lore. The lore is that Ghost is a Satanic clergy, headed by the singer, who is an evil Pope, or known as “Papa Emeritus” — and that Ghost has been there since the 60s. 

And with every album release, their lore expands. 

The joke here, as random as it sounds, is that their 2019 EP, Seven Inches of Satanic Panic, from which the song Mary on a Cross is released, is a 50th anniversary reissue. 

From a few months ago, the song has suddenly went viral on social media. One of the things that has caught the attention of its listeners is the tongue-in-cheek lyrics. 

The lyrics being incredibly cryptic and humorous, listeners have interpreted the song as being about many things — like smoking marijuana or having sex. And some have also interpreted the song as blasphemous, due to its supposed reference to Virgin Mary in the chorus. 

However, the band’s singer, Tobias Forge, has recently opened up about the context of the song, as being about “friendship, and how you, together with someone else could have been something at one point and then you just ended up not being like that”.

He decided on this reveal, after being obliged to answer to a friend of his own daughter, who asked him on whether the song had inappropriate meanings. 

“Go down”, as he explained, doesn’t necessarily mean in a sexual sense. For one thing, it could also imply “go down in history”. Meanwhile, he also made it clear that Mary in the song isn’t a reference to Virgin Mary. 

He suggests that Mary could refer to Mary Magdalene, a figure in Christianity who, for a long time was depicted in history as a prostitute (due to scholars downplaying the important roles of women), but was eventually uncovered to be a significant companion of Jesus.

With that, Forge suggests that this could be a symbol of the song’s theme — of believing something to be one thing, but eventually turning out into something different.

Still, as a good artist, he has left the meaty elements of the song open for interpretation. 

And I’m glad he did. I personally believe that the tongue-in-cheek lyrics are part of what makes the song great. Because that gives us, as the listeners, more space to personalize the song, or to color it with our own set of meanings. 

Also, we don’t necessarily have to know the comprehensive meaning of a song, for it to touch our hearts, to make us feel something that we didn’t realize was there in us — which is the aim of all great art. 

Think of it this way. You don’t have to understand what Serj Tankian is actually implying when he sings “disorder, disorder, disorder” in System of a Down’s Toxicity. But it might make you feel that from the whole gamut of the song, he is lamenting the moral decay of the world. 

And in the case of Mary on a Cross, you don’t have to know who Forge is addressing in the song, and you don’t have to know who Mary is, or what it means for her to be on a cross. But you might be able to feel where the song is getting at, which is, nostalgia for past friendships. 

Moving on to the composition of this song, it reminds me of another popular song on nostalgia, which is The Smashing Pumpkins 1979. Especially, I could hear the similarity in how Mary on a Cross changes its mood and builds up to a more intense end by incorporating a slight change in chord progression. 

If you listen to the first chorus, the notes progress from B, G#, D# to F#, making us feel the sweet aspect of nostalgia, of reminiscing the good times. 

Here’s how the bass notes sound.

The final chorus is played as G#-E-A#-F#-G-G#, inducing a more morose mood. And this reflects the bitter aspect of nostalgia, as we are reminded of the irretrievable quality of such memories, in that they are lost and can never be regained. 

It’s in the little things that this song truly shines. 

This was one of my most-played songs of this year, as with every listen, I would have a greater sense of appreciation for how well-written this song is. 

If you haven’t listened to Mary on a Cross, give it a go! You just might love it as much as I do. 

3 Comments

  1. maggihead says:

    When I first listened to Mary on a cross song, definitely I thought it contained inappropriate meaning so I even checked the lyrics but I never thought it had such interpretation, I always wanted someone to do an analysis on this song and I found a new aspect to listen because of you. Enjoyed the way you tried to breakdown the chorus arrangement to show how artists have brought nostalgia. worth reading this!

    Like

    1. Izzat Zailan says:

      Oh I’m glad to hear you’ve listened to it before! I had always wanted to do an analysis on it, because it was my first Ghost song — and even early on I always felt that it meant much more than the lyrics would otherwise suggest. Anyway, thanks for dropping by!

      Liked by 1 person

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