James Devaney—WireImage
By Cady Lang
November 1, 2019

The temperatures are dipping and twinkling lights are being hung, but nothing confirms that the holiday season is in full swing as cogently as Mariah Carey’s now-iconic holiday classic, “All I Want for Christmas Is You.”

The festive track, a veritable pop masterpiece written and performed by Carey (with a co-writing assist from her longtime collaborator at the time, Walter Afanasieff) has consistently dominated not only the holiday music charts, but the zeitgeist since it made its joyous debut in 1994. Perhaps even more impressive is the Christmas song’s ability to be beloved throughout this time period, somehow capable of charming listeners in spite of its ubiquity every holiday season. Now, 25 years and endless screenings of Love, Actually later, the song has become on of the ultimate modern Christmas anthems, unrivaled by any of its contemporary peers and more than able to hold its own with longtime favorites of the holiday canon.

The Numbers Behind “All I Want for Christmas Is You”: Radio, Streaming and Sales

The popularity of “All I Want for Christmas Is You” is noteworthy, not merely in its staying power (although a quarter of a century at the forefront of the holiday genre is a flex, if there ever was one) or its momentum in gaining ubiquity year after year, but in its ability to command the category over a period in which her industry and the culture has evolved significantly. The Internet, streaming services and multiple waves of new artists have gained considerable traction in the past three decades, but when it comes to the holiday song, Carey and “All I Want for Christmas Is You” have reigned triumphant, over (not in spite of) multiple platforms.

Case in point? According to a 2016 Nielsen report, “All I Want for Christmas” was the only song to make the top 5 holiday songs for radio airplay, streaming services and song purchases, helping to demonstrate the track’s appeal across generations and platforms. Last year, Nielsen found that total digital streaming of audio and video for the song clocked in at just under 229 million, while digital sales of the song were 100k and radio airplay checked in at over 42,000. The multi-platinum song consistently tops the Billboard Holiday Hot 100 and made history in early 2019 when it hit #3 on the Billboard Hot 100, becoming the first holiday song in 60 years to break the top 5 and the second-ever holiday song to chart that high.

Breaking Down Why “All I Want for Christmas” Continues to Be a Favorite Holiday Song: Songwriting, Harmony and Content

There are multiple factors to the song’s popularity, the most obvious of which are the powerhouse vocals of the beloved elusive chanteuse. But the savvy songwriting and themes of the song have played an integral role in the success of the track as well. The track and the album it appeared on, Merry Christmas, were inspired by the upbeat sounds of Phil Spector, who made the hit 1963 Christmas album, A Christmas Gift for You from Phil Spector.

In an interview with Business Insider in 2013, co-writer Afanasieff noted that he was fairly surprised that the track was as commercially successful as it was because it didn’t adhere to conventional holiday music or the sounds of the time.

“My first reaction was, ‘That sounds like someone doing voice scales,’” Afanasieff said. “Are you sure that’s what you want?”

As is her wont, Carey knew exactly what she wanted and kept the melody true to her vision, resulting in a song that Afanasieff says has stayed on top due to precisely that — its uptempo sound, a near rarity in the offerings of American Christmas songs. That’s not to say that the song is simple in any way, however.

“The melody of ‘All I Want For Christmas’ is astoundingly complicated considering how simple it seems,” songwriter and And the Writer Is… podcast host Ross Golan tells TIME. “The brain latches on songs after the listener invests significant time to learn them. That song in particular is now neurologically built into the zeitgeist.”

This, of course, attests to Carey’s skills as a songwriter, a factor that’s often overshadowed by her outstanding talent and larger-than-life persona. Lest listeners forget while listening to her hit the whistle register, Carey wrote 17 of her 18 #1 hits, a feat that astounds on multiple levels.

“This song is a testament to something that Mariah Carey is still undervalued for: Her songwriting,” beauty writer and self-professed lifelong Lamb (for the uninitiated, Lambs or the “Lambily” are the devoted fans of Carey) Tynan Sinks tells TIME. “Mariah Carey wrote this song, dude. Isn’t that crazy? It’s such a classic that people think it’s a cover of something else, but it’s a Mariah Carey original, baby. She just sat down one day and literally invented Christmas.”

In 2015, Slate reported that the song’s seemingly magic ability to put you in a festive holiday mood is actually because of its dulcet harmony, which contains at least 13 distinct chords, including a specific minor subdominant chord, which they dub “the most Christmassy chord of all” and is found in songs like Irving Berlin’s classic “White Christmas.”

In a deep dive into the song’s structure at Quartz, musicologist and Switched on Pop podcast host Nate Sloan also revealed that since Carey was inspired by old school holiday music, she used an AABA song structure that was popular in the 1940s and 1950s and that was used for songs like “Frosty the Snowman” and “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” which can do plenty for holiday nostalgia for the good ‘ol days.

Unlike “Rudolph” and “Frosty,” however, Carey’s track provides a more adult take on a Christmas song, which also proved to be a boon. By eschewing children-centric holiday iconography like Santa and Rudolph for Carey’s trademark musical subject, love and romance, she reached a whole new — and very large — demographic with a theme that everyone could identify with.

“It’s not a religious song,” Andrew Mall, assistant professor of music at Northeastern Univeristy tells TIME. “She talks about Christmas, but no religious beliefs. It’s actually a love song. Anyone can inhabit those lyrics; the lover is not named, the lover is not gendered, so anyone can put themselves in that position as needing someone to love at the holidays. It’s a secular love song and not a religious Christmas carol.” Mall also attributes the song’s popularity to nostalgia of another kind: for the ’90s as a whole, especially the music of the time.

“The song came out in 1994, her first Christmas album; I think when people talk about nostalgia for this album, they talk about nostalgia for the holidays. I think that’s part of that, but I also think it’s part of a larger nostalgia for music from the ‘90s,” he said, noting that ’90s music, stuff he had been listening to in high school, has been showing up of late in his Spotify playlists and are part of a larger trend of things like ’90s dance parties and DJ sets. “This is an ongoing thing not only for people at the end of Gen X, but for millennials too. It’s not only nostalgia for the holidays, which can be fraught for a lot of people, but for the ‘90s, which you can wipe clean and put whatever kind of identity on that.”

The ‘Love, Actually’ Factor

“All I Want for Christmas” can also attribute some of its dominance during the holiday season to its inclusion in the film, Love, Actually. In the film, Sam, a young boy who plays the drums for a school performance of the song harbors a crush on his classmate, Joanna, who is singing lead; the song plays a significant role to this plotline, which helps open and close the film. Jocelyn Neal, a professor of music at UNC Chapel Hill, points to how both the song and movie have solidified their places in the holiday canon.

“It’s important to consider the use of it in the Christmas movie Love, Actually, which came out less than 10 years after the song was released,” Neal tells TIME. “Love, Actually has become for many middle-class Americans, a sort of holiday ritual to watch that movie, it’s in continuous holiday replay and so you have this song that was by this enormously successful pop star in the ‘90s, it has enough rhythm and blues in it to have that edgy sound for a 1990s to mid-’90s hit, and then a little less than a decade later, it’s going to get this boost by being in this now-classic Christmas movie as a key plot point, so it gets new life through that. There also just aren’t other recordings [is “of” accurate here?] original Christmas songs that sound modern but trigger that nostalgic elements. There aren’t a lot of other competitors when you line up those factors.”

Why Mariah Carey Is the Undisputed Queen of Christmas: Festive, Festive, Festive

Part of the legacy of “All I Want for Christmas Is You” also lies within how it’s also posited Carey as the undisputed Queen of Christmas, something she has unabashedly and wholly embraced — although that wasn’t the case when the album was being made. In an interview with Billboard, Afanasieff said that making a Christmas album was hardly a boon to a contemporary artist like Carey at the time.

“20 years ago, Christmas music and Christmas albums by artists weren’t the big deal that they are today,” he said. “Back then, you didn’t have a lot of artists with Christmas albums; It wasn’t a known science at all back then, and there was nobody who did new, big Christmas songs.”

The album’s concept was so risky in fact, that Carey’s ex-husband, Sony Music executive, Tommy Mottola, wrote in his memoir that when the songbird saw the cover of the album, she told him, “What are you trying to do, turn me into Connie Francis?”

However, Carey, an individual known for her penchant for being “festive,” has shared many times that the song’s origin came out of her deep love for the holiday.

According to People, when the song debuted, Carey noted her love for the holiday and its musical traditions: “I’m a very festive person and I love the holidays. I’ve sung Christmas songs since I was a little girl. I used to go Christmas caroling.” During a later appearance in 2015 on Good Morning America, while discussing the song’s success, Carey reiterated this sentiment.

“It’s kind of amazing to me because I wrote it just out of love for Christmas and like really loving Christmas music.”

The Business Behind “All I Want for Christmas Is You”: Sales, Royalties and Tours

Mariah Carey performs live during her All I Want For Christmas Is You tour at Motorpoint Arena on December 09, 2018 in Nottingham, England. (Photo by Samir Hussein/Samir Hussein/WireImage)
Samir Hussein—Samir Hussein/WireImage

Carey’s love of Christmas coupled with her exceptional talent as a performer and songwriter has definitely paid off. According to a report by the Economist in 2017, Carey has earned over $60 million from “All I Want for Christmas Is You” since it entered the musicsphere in 1994, a sum that’s only compounded by the royalties she receives internationally and via streaming. Not to mention, the many live performances, tours and residencies she’s done in honor of the song — the most recent, of course, being, her upcoming limited-run tour in honor of the song’s 25th anniversary, which will include stops at her Las Vegas residency at the Colosseum and Madison Square Garden, following the re-release of a reissued version of the original Christmas album.

And if there’s any doubt that Carey and “All I Want for Christmas Is You” are losing clout this holiday season, consider this: Spotify streams of the song have already seen a 99% increase since October 1st of this year, with the company projecting that the streams will “ramp up substantially” in November (last year, Spotify saw an increase in streams of “All I Want for Christmas Is You” of 2,077% between October and December). It seems that the holiday season — and Mariah season — has arrived.

 

Write to Cady Lang at cady.lang@timemagazine.com.

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