April 21, 2021

DCTRS

Damascus Center for Theoretical and Civil Rights Studies

How Mariah Carey wrote “All I Want for Christmas Is You”

Initially, at least, Queen of Christmas was not in the plan.

Mariah Carey was already a global superstar when she released her first holiday album, “Merry Christmas,” in November 1994. The album was a hit, reaching No. 3 on the Billboard 200 chart. That December, a single — a flavorful slice of neo-girl group pop called “All I Want for Christmas Is You” — shot up radio station playlists. All in all, it was business as usual for Carey, who was well on her way to establishing herself as one of the most successful recording artists of all time.

But something funny happened. “All I Want for Christmas Is You” never went away. The record kept coming back, each holiday season, year after year, insinuating itself onto radio playlists, drifting down department store aisles, lodging in the world’s collective unconscious like no Christmas song in at least half a century. Last year, 25 years after its initial release, “All I Want for Christmas Is You” hit No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100. It seems poised to repeat the feat this year. At this writing, the song sits No. 2 on the Hot 100 chart.

The song’s fortunes have been bolstered by both old-fashioned promotional savvy — by song-plugging efforts that would not have been out of place in early 20th century Tin Pan Alley — and by developments in the digital-age music business. Carey has pushed the song with new versions and live performances that aim at audiences across platforms, genres and generations. In 2011, she released a duet with Justin Bieber, then at the height of his teenybopper fame. She performed it with Michael Bublé on the crooner’s TV Christmas special. She’s sung it with Jimmy Fallon and the Roots accompanied by toy instruments; she’s Carpool Karaoked it with James Corden.

Meanwhile, the rise of online streaming has made “All I Want for Christmas Is You” a juggernaut. It has been streamed close to a billion times, with daily streams on Spotify topping 1 million. This success in part reflects the zeal of Carey’s super-fans, the so-called Lambs, who have waged social media crusades urging listeners to stream “All I Want for Christmas” continuously.

But it also speaks to the character of the song itself: its timeless quality, the way it seems to hover between musical eras and idioms. The song’s harmonic palate, its diminished chords and lustrous chromatic passages, call to mind the jazz-inflected Christmas hits of the midcentury — “The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire),” “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” etc. The song’s driving boogie-woogie piano and wall of background vocals evoke the Brill Building pop of the mid-’60s. Carey’s calisthenic vocals, combining gospel-style melismatic runs and subtly funky syncopations, are unmistakably ’90s, redolent of hip-hop-influenced R&B that Carey herself helped pioneer a generation ago.

In other words, “All I Want for Christmas” has nostalgic appeal, the charming sense of returning to something timeworn and familiar that we demand of Christmas standards — and, crucially, the nostalgia hits on multiple fronts, winking at several music yesteryears simultaneously. In an age of algorithmic playlists, this makes the song a blockbuster. It can seamlessly slot into virtually any holiday playlist.

The result is not just a perennial hit. The song has given Carey a second career. Her first career, of course, went rather well. She is the bestselling female recording artist in history, with more than 200 million albums sold. Her 19 Billboard Hot 100 No. 1s established Carey as the solo artist with the most Hot 100 chart-toppers, eclipsing the record of Elvis Presley.

But like most performers of a certain age, she eventually lost her grip on the zeitgeist. When “All I Want for Christmas Is You” hit the top last year, it was her first No. 1 since 2008. “All I Want for Christmas Is You” offers Carey an insurance plan, a surefire way to return to playlists — and rake in royalties — for at least a month every year.

Mariah Carey in a scene from “Mariah Carey’s Christmas Special.”

(Apple)

Little wonder Carey has begun calling herself the Queen of Christmas, and scattering tinsel across platforms. Each December since 2014, she’s staged a concert residency, “All I Want for Christmas Is You: A Night of Joy and Festivity,” at New York’s Beacon Theatre. (There is no show this year, of course, due to the COVID-19 pandemic.) In 2015, Carey published a bestselling children’s book based on “All I Want for Christmas Is You”; two years later, an animated film, “Mariah Carey’s All I Want for Christmas Is You,” appeared. Last week, “Mariah Carey’s Magical Christmas Special,” a splashy, knowingly kitschy old-fashioned revue, premiered on the Apple TV+ streaming service. Carey is tightening her stranglehold on the season.

In short, she has become the 21st century’s answer to Bing Crosby, a.k.a. “Santa Cros,” another hall of fame vocalist and showbiz giant who was indelibly associated with the holiday. Crosby had his Christmas classic, “White Christmas,” which for decades stood as the top-selling popular song of all time. There can be little doubt that “All I Want for Christmas Is You” is the new “White Christmas,” a transcendent hit, an unshakeable earworm, an industry in and of itself.

Last week, the singer spoke to The Times by phone from her home in Los Angeles, where she was putting the finishing post-production touches on her TV special. Carey discussed Christmases past, present and future — and, of course, that song.

Mariah Carey in her Apple+ Christmas special

“Growing up, Christmas wasn’t always happy,” says Carey, seen here in her Apple TV+ holiday special.

(Apple)

Countless singers have released Christmas albums. Many of them have recorded original songs that they hoped would make their way into the canon alongside “White Christmas” and “It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas.” You’re the only person who’s succeeded in writing and recording a new song that ranks with those mid-20th century classics.
It was kind of an accident. When I did that first Christmas album, “Merry Christmas,” it was pretty early in my career. The label was like, “You should do a Christmas album, it’s a great idea.” I was like, “Hmm, I don’t know.” It seemed a little premature, like I was jumping the gun. The success of it was definitely a surprise. I mean, “All I Want for Christmas Is You” was the first Christmas song I ever wrote.

You co-wrote the song with Walter Afanasieff, your collaborator on several big hits like “Hero” and “My All.” Was the writing process similar to those songs?
It was actually a little different. I started by sitting at the piano and plucking out notes. That’s not typical — usually, I’ll sing a melody to a piano player, and they’ll play the chords that I’m hearing. But in this case, I was just sitting there, coming up with this melody, in a dark house with a Christmas tree. It’s funny, I was talking to Questlove about this today. I was telling him how bad I am as a piano player. Not bad meaning bad — bad meaning terrible. Like, the worst. But, you know, occasionally I’ll sit down and play something and I’ll luck out. It happened with “Vision of Love.” And it happened with “All I Want for Christmas Is You.” It kind of popped out: [sings] All I want for Christmas ... I can’t tell you how that melody came to me. I really look at it as a gift.

So you brought that part to Afanasieff?
Yeah, I brought it in, I sat with Walter. We wrote the bridge together. We wanted it to feel classic. I didn’t want it to feel ’90s. It probably feels ’90s now to people who are nostalgic about the ’90s. But in the ’90s, it was something different. You know, TLC did a Christmas album. It was really great, but it was very specifically ’90s. I wanted this to have a different feel. I wanted it to be, you know, timeless. And to feel festive. The background vocals are a really important part of the song. It was an incredible group of singers. I stacked my own vocals in there. We were having the best time in the studio. It sounds corny, but I think you can hear it on the record.

Like a lot of holiday songs, “All I Want for Christmas Is You” is really a straightforward love song in a Christmas setting.
This is going to sound like I’m making it up or whatever, but it really did come from a place of wanting to write something that felt like Christmas. It wasn’t just like, Oh, we’re going to put some sleigh bells on this record. Or, I’m going to talk about snow. I mean — of course I do talk about lots of Christmasy stuff in that song! But I was trying to do something a little different. I wanted to think of everything that made me feel in the holiday spirit. I was casting my mind back. What are the things I wanted out of Christmas as a kid?

In your new memoir, “The Meaning of Mariah Carey,” you write about your lifelong love of Christmas and about the Christmas celebrations in your childhood home. Things weren’t always so festive in your house as a kid.
Yeah. The book is very real about what happened to me as a child and throughout my life. It’s true, growing up, Christmas wasn’t always happy. It wasn’t like I was depressed around the holidays. I always wanted the holidays to be the best. But, you know, dysfunctional family members and lack of funds sometimes made it a dismal affair. But no matter what, I would try to be festive. I have to give credit to my mother. Even though I have a very, um, layered relationship with her, I have to acknowledge that she was the one who made Christmas a big deal for me. She was super into Christmas trees; she’d be making mulled wine on the stove. She and her friends would be singing all the traditional Christmas songs. They’d go out caroling.

What was the Christmas music that spoke to you when you were growing up?
Wham!’s “Last Christmas” was always one of my favorite ones growing up. It came out when I was still in school. I’m a big George Michael fan and, you know, that’s just a good song — very well written, great chord changes. Of course I love the older Christmas songs, from the 1940s and ’50s. But there are a lot of them that I’ve never sung or recorded. I’ve never done “White Christmas” because the original is so good. My favorite song that I’ve never done is probably Nat King Cole’s “The Christmas Song.” Or, to jump ahead in time, Donny Hathaway’s “This Christmas.” I can’t touch the originals, so I’ve left those songs alone. For the most part I’ve stuck to more traditional carols like “Joy to the World,” “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” and “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing.”

Obviously, Christmas is a little different this year, with the pandemic. What’s it like in the Carey household?
I was in New York City for the first half of the pandemic. I was with my kids [fraternal twins Monroe and Moroccan] and my people, in our own little pod. We didn’t leave the apartment for months. I actually don’t have a problem with that, because going out is work to me. But we’d been planning the Christmas special with Apple for a long time, and we needed to film it at a facility that was big enough to accommodate all the COVID compliance. So after quarantining for months and months in New York, I came out to L.A.

As for Christmas … look, we all know what this year has been, on so many levels. But Christmas in my house is never not going to happen. I’m not just saying this for an article, or to promote something. Everyone who knows me knows I’m obsessed with Christmas. In my house, Christmas is over the top. In the early days of the pandemic, when everyone was shopping for paper towels and freaking out about essentials, I was like, “What am I going to do if I can’t get Christmas lights?”

I guess I’ve passed that Christmas spirit on to my kids. In the middle of the year, my daughter was like, “I miss Christmas.” My son, he listens to Drake and Travis Scott. And Marshmello. That’s what he’s into. But it’s funny, he will listen to a mix of songs from my Christmas albums, all year-round.

So, yeah, my kids have the Christmas spirit. Of course, we can’t go Christmas shopping or look at the tree in Rockefeller Center — all the Christmas stuff we usually do. We usually go to Aspen for the holiday, and we’ve figured out our own COVID-safe travel plan, so we can take a road trip there for the holiday. You know, a road trip with just our people.

No matter what’s happening in the world, Christmas will never be canceled at my house.

You’re the anti-Grinch.
Yes. That’s what “All I Want for Christmas Is You” is. It’s my anti-Grinch medicine.