All I Want for Christmas is You--Mariah Carey.
I can hardly believe I am writing this. Mariah Carey’s All I Want for Christmas is You used to annoy the crap out of me. Maybe not as much as Dominic the Donkey, Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer, or The Christmas Shoes, but up there. Blame it mostly on over exposure. It has been on the short rotation of radio holiday music stations for a quarter of a century, is piped into malls, used as seasonal telephone hold music, and the other day a bunch of local high school choir members were doing a cheerful rendition as Salvation Army bell ringers outside the Jewel/Osco in Crystal Lake.
But my mood must be mellowing. I think I get it now. Perhaps it was the announcement this week that 25 years after its original release in 1994 the song finally hit #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 this week. Not the separate special holiday chart—it has topped those most years—or a genre chart like R&B, Urban Contemporary, or Dance where it has also popped to the top most Decembers. That is quite an accomplishment and ample testimony that folks just love the song. And I finally get it.
The single sleeve for the original release of All I want For Christmas is You.
All I Want for Christmas is You has become a standard and as a hoity-toity New Yorker critic noted has become “one of the few worthy modern additions to the holiday canon.” With global sales of over 16 million copies, the song is mega hit maker Carrey’s biggest success and is the 12th best-selling single of all time, and the best-selling Christmas single by a female artist. It is poised to usurp Bring Crosby’s White Christmas and Gene Autry’s Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer to become the bestselling Christmas song of all time.
At the age of 21 Carey, the mixed race daughter of an Afro-Venezuelan father and a some-time opera singer Irish American mother, had burst on the pop scene in 1990 with a debut album that topped the Billboard 200 album chart for eleven consecutive weeks, singles four #1 hit singles, and led to 1991 Grammy Awards for Best Female Pop Vocal Performance and Best New Artist.
With a natural ear, a multi-octave singing range, and real songwriting chops, Columbia Records President Tommy Mottola “discovered her” and successfully plotted her career as the label’s top female artist in direct competition with reigning divas Whitney Houston and Madonna. Carey had all of their talent but was younger, perkier, and in those days very un-diva like. She was perfect for the MTV age and her videos showed her as playful and innocently sexy in cut-off jean shorts and tom boyish men’s shirts.
Mariah Carey and Tommy Matola at their wedding in 1993.
Mottola became more than just a boss and mentor. To some he seemed a Svengali figure controlling her career. In 1993 the 44 year old married his prodigy. Two more super successful albums and a bunch of single hit followed. Carey was not just at the top of her career—there seemed no cap to even greater success.
Which is why the decision to release a Christmas album was both unexpected and counter-intuitive to industry wisdom. Other than those like Johnny Mathis who had become holiday specialists, most artists did not release a Christmas album until their careers were on the down side often following greatest hits albums that were a virtual confession that no new hits were expected. And the albums that were released seldom included new material but mined a mixed bag of classic carols and holiday standards.
25 years later Carey is a no-doubt-about-it full blown diva performing her now classic song at every opportunity each Christmas time.
Mottola and Carey wanted an album of new songs. She was teamed with her regular song writing partner Walter Afanasieff for the three original songs on the album. Afanasieff reported that the duo laid down the bones of All I Want for Christmas in about 15 minutes with Carey tinkering with the lyrics and hook over the next few days. As producer Afanasieff scrapped original plans to back the song with a live band. The simple, catchy melody was showcased against piano, percussion, synthesizer, and back-up singers in the style of Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound from the early ‘60’s. Compare to Darlene Love’s Christmas (Baby Please Come Home from the legendary 1963 A Christmas Gift for You from Phil Spector album which she went on to perform 28 time for David Letterman’s Christmas eve broadcasts.
And maybe that’s what won me over.