It’s that time of year again. As the 13 opening chimes of All I Want For Christmas Is You begin to traumatise retail workers everywhere — and Mariah Carey defrosts for another month of making the easiest money anyone’s ever made — it’s worth us taking a look at what has made the song so successful.
It isn’t even December yet and Carey has already begun her takeover of the Billboard charts. Her annual comeback is all but certain every year. Last year, she broke the record for most single-day streams on Spotify’s global chart on December 24th — a record she’s broken on four separate occasions. The same week the track hit number one on the Billboard Hot 100 for the 11th time since 2019.
It’s the longest-running holiday number one of all time. Carey is the only woman to have three songs that have topped the charts for double-digit weeks, with her songs One Sweet Day and We Belong Together also hitting this milestone.
However, All I Want For Christmas Is You is its own special case. It’s by far the most popular holiday song of the last 50 years and it gets more popular every year. Many artists who share Mariah Carey’s level of fame have attempted their own Christmas music, but none have become quite as ubiquitous with the holiday. The last pre-Carey seasonal single to make it to number one was 1959’s The Chipmunk Song.
The first-ever Christmas song to come from Mariah Carey has also translated to quite a lot of money for the singer over the years. Estimates from Forbes and The Economist have her earning around US$2.5 million (AU$3.8 million) in annual royalties from that song, whereas The New York Post had the figure at around US$3 million (AU$4.5 million). This is on top of the US$60 million (AU$91.4 million) the singer received in royalties in 1994 when the song was released on her fourth studio album, Merry Christmas, and topped the charts in 26 countries.
In the nearly 30 years since then, the song has been covered by everyone such as Dolly Parton, Michael Bublé, Justin Bieber, Fifth Harmony, Ariana Grande, Miley Cyrus, Demi Lovato, and My Chemical Romance. This helped to keep the song fresh in everyone’s mind and built an association with the holiday.
But as previously alluded to, there is something inherent to the song that separates it from all others. Most seasonal classics are from the 1960s or earlier, with some dating all the way back to the 16th century. All I Want For Christmas Is You is sort of the only modern Christmas song that has cemented itself in the canon in quite the same way.
The song itself is actually pretty sophisticated sonically. Its origins are widely disputed, with the co-writer of the song refuting Carey’s story about her writing the holiday hit on her Casio keyboard as a child. Co-authors of another song that shares the same name filed a lawsuit against Carey earlier this year — with a similar suit being dismissed last year — for alleged copyright infringement.
Regardless of how it came to be or how tired it may have become over the years, it is undeniably an impressive piece of music. It transcends the 90s R&B era it was born from to create a work that honours and adds to over a century’s worth of Christmas music.
Walter Afanasieff, the song’s co-writer, may have stated that Carey “doesn’t understand music,” but it’s undeniable how impressive she is as a vocalist. Starting with that 50-second-long intro, we get some of Carey’s patented melismas on the word “true,” then some rallentando that leads into her appoggiatura on the final “you”. These may just be some music buzzwords, but just attempt it yourself if you want an idea of how skilled she is; even that probably doesn’t give her enough credit for how perfectly placed they are within the song.
This is heard over the song’s now-iconic tinkling percussion sound. The opening chimes come from a fairly uncommon instrument called a celesta, which can famously be heard in Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy from Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker ballet. It was chosen in 1892 for its crystal-like, glittering sound that evokes child images of snow and sugar and became a staple of early 20th-century Christmas music.
Think of the song White Christmas or the score from Home Alone. The celesta just evokes such a romantic and innocent idea of what the holiday is.
Similar to Dance of the Sugar Plumb Fairy, the song’s intro gradually layers new instruments on top of the celesta, one at a time, to build a feeling of anticipation. First come the keyboards, then the church bells, then the driving sleigh bells, then the rock and roll piano. Then the full instrumentation comes in at once, creating this huge symphony of sound. It’s supposed to mirror the building excitement for the holiday itself.
Afanasieff cited the work of Phil Spector — a prolific music producer from the 1960s — in creating the “Wall of Sound” music production formula. This recording technique involved several musicians playing similar versions of the same instrument to create a dense sound, which resulted in pop and rock songs sounding like huge orchestral productions.
A particular source of inspiration was the iconic 1963 LP “A Christmas Gift For You from Phil Spector,” which is widely regarded as the best Christmas album of all time. Though a lot of the instrumentation on All I Want For Christmas Is You was done digitally by Afanasieff, you can effectively hear the “Wall of Sound” in the song’s multiple lush keyboards, two violin strings, and at least nine percussion instruments. The Motown-style background harmonies make the song sound more like it came from The Ronettes than it did anything else from the ’90s.
The song also has a very classic structure with no multi-line chorus. Between the intro and outro, there are three verses that share the same melody and end with the tagline “All I want for Christmas is you (You, baby).” There is also a bridge between the second and third verse with a different melody, creating what is known as the “32-bar form” (also referred to as the “ballad form” or the “AABA structure”) popular in the early 20th century.
The early 40s and 50s were when many of the classic Christmas songs of today were produced. Songs like Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer, Frosty the Snowman, Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas, and Let It Snow, all came from an era where this structure was popular. Popular music widely transitioned into verse-chorus form in the 1960s, but the enduring Christmas songs that we associate with the holiday all have that distinctly older sound and structure.
There is another nostalgic element many have pointed out about Carey’s song. While modern pop music will generally only use three or four chords throughout an entire song, and they’ll typically only be major or minor chords, All I Want For Christmas Is You has a rich harmonic palette reminiscent of the jazz-inspired pop songs of the 40s and 50s.
There are at least 13 different chords within the song, with its harmony including diminished and half-diminished chords, chromatic notes, and jazz-like progressions. People have attributed the use of one scrunchy half-diminished chord in particular as the source of the song’s ‘Christmassy’ sound. The D minor 7 flat 5 — which can be heard under Carey singing the word “presents” in the opening line” — is said to have a distinctly Christmas sound.
That’s why Mariah Carey makes so much money every Christmas. The song is timeless because it was designed to be. It is a nostalgic blend of 100 years’ worth of Christmas music with cute lyrics and instantly recognisable melodies.
In 2023, All I Want For Christmas Is You has transcended its homage to classic songs and has its own nostalgic quality. In the 29 years since its release, it has entered the cultural zeitgeist and become increasingly part of people’s annual traditions. As long as there are people to celebrate Christmas, Mariah Carey will continue to make more and more money every year.