It might seem like there’s an epic scarcity of Christmas songs. The reason they can prove so uniformly annoying is because we’ve all heard the same two-dozen festive staples a zillion times, blaring from every public speaker in earshot, from what seems like mid-July.
Yet, nothing could be further from the truth – scores of new Christmas songs are authored every year, by hundreds of songwriters eager for a lucrative slice of the festive-airplay pie. But somehow, they never get added to the supermarket playlists. Ever. In fact, the youngest regularly heard seasonal singalong is Mariah Carey's All I Want for Christmas is You. And it turns 25 years old this holiday season.
With recorded sales of 16 million, Carey's classic is the 12th bestselling single ever, and it keeps charting every jingle-bell-ringing year – spiking at number three on the Billboard chart as recently as January. According to The Economist, Carey has earned more than $60 million (Dh220.3m) in royalties from the track.
The song even inspired a bestselling children's book of the same name in 2015, and was adapted into an animated film two years later. Next up is a live-action movie (now in post-production) inspired by the song, featuring Carey as a Christmas campaigner, standing against an evil mall development in a close-knit rural town.
Not bad for a tune which apparently took 15 minutes to write, by Carey and Walter Afanasieff, the Russian-born producer whose own $80m fortune has more than a little bit to do with this song.
So why has All I Want for Christmas is You proved so enduring? Here are a few theories.
It went against the grain
In the early 1990s, making Christmas songs wasn’t the norm. It was a time of turbulence and invention – of the polar extremes and heavy themes of grunge and hip-hop. Today’s digital-savvy, post-ironic mindset and millennial embrace of kitsch was unimaginable – back then, boy, the music world was earnest.
Carey’s decision in 1994 to record not just a Christmas song, but an entire album, was practically the most uncool thing an artist could do – especially one prepping a fourth LP at the height of their career, with festive LPs most typically associated with has-beens on their way down to bottom. We can credit Carey’s then-husband and paymaster, Tommy Mottola, head of parent label Sony Music Entertainment. They divorced in 1998, but his idea was probably worth more than any alimony.
It turned the Christmas up to 11
Despite Afanasieff's scepticism to Mottola's idea, carol-loving Carey was sold and the songwriting pair assembled in the heat of summer, at Carey's festively decorated home studio in upstate New York, to write the three new festive tunes (alongside seven traditionals) for her Merry Christmas album.
Without such a wholehearted conceptual commitment, it's unlikely they would have arrived at the universality of its lead single. Opening with the sound of an olde worlde music box and marked by cheery church bells and a loping beat many have compared to a reindeer's trot, the track offers a complete, unironic embrace of all things Christmassy.
It sounds kind of timeless
All I Want for Christmas is You has been repeatedly hailed as the "only" Christmas standard of the modern era, precisely because it sounds like it was from another era entirely. While most modern holiday tunes date like overripe festive fruit (or perhaps pumpkin left over from Halloween), Carey's standard is unashamedly retro.
Built around a classic boogaloo, rhythmic swagger, innocent doo-wop vocals and retro soul instrumentation of piano, bass, drums, violin, oboe and flute, the production recalls the era of Motown, and hints all the way back to gospel. Remarkably this musical palate – and the distinctively seasonal triangle, cowbell, church and sleigh bells which peppered it – were all digital approximations programmed by Afanasieff. Not a single acoustic instrument used, the pop professor channelled then-cutting edge technology to cynically recreate the warmth of Phil Spector's classic productions, conjuring an era of simpler, purer music.
There was a personal touch
Two promotional videos were made, and while the first further exploits the retro vibe with a black-and-white homage to 1960s girl group The Ronettes, the video everyone remembers – the one that has 570 million YouTube views and was once streamed eight million times in a single day (December 24, 2017) – milks the sentimentality of the lyric and the occasion with a grainy, home video-style concept that proved far more endearing.
Credited to Carey and veteran industry director Diane Martel (whose achievements include the clip for Robin Thicke's Blurred Lines, featuring Pharrell and T I), the promo features Carey frolicking coquettishly in the snow before Mottola makes an appearance as a gift-giving Santa. Yikes.
The music is lovingly brain-dead
While it might be hard to imagine a world where you haven't heard All I Want for Christmas is You, it's pretty likely that even an alien who encountered the song once would be able to hum the melody forever after. Because it's almost embarrassingly simple – a basic major scale, rising and falling in monotonous eighth notes, before the chord shifts up a fourth, and repeats.
"It's a very simple arrangement," Afanasieff said in 2014. "In fact, it's so simple that at the time, I really didn't like [it]. [The melody] is almost like a practise interval [exercise] … it made it so easily palatable for the whole world to go 'ah, I can't get that out of my head'." However, the self-conscious composer is perhaps being a little harsh on himself, because beyond this initial hook, there's a deceptive use of jazzy chord inversions and ornamentations.
One critic, Slate's Adam Ragusea, counts at least 13 distinct chords on the charts, including "the most Christmassy chord of all … a minor subdominant, or 'iv', chord with an added six, under the words 'underneath the Christmas tree'." So maybe it took a little more than 15 minutes, after all.
It’s been covered dozens of times
More than 50 artists have covered All I Want for Christmas is You, fuelling a chicken-and-egg rediscovery and re-embrace of the song every time November rolls around.
The diversity of successful recorded versions speaks volumes, with acts from crooner Michael Buble, urban don Cee Lo Green, girl group Fifth Harmony and RnB voice Trey Songz, to even K-pop singers Park Bom and Lee Hi, as well as My Chemical Romance and Bowling for Soup's remarkably rockier interpretations.
Meanwhile Demi Lovato, Ariana Grande, Shania Twain, Miley Cyrus, John Mayer, Kelly Clarkson, Kylie Minogue and Mumford & Sons have all performed the song live – in nearly all cases readily accessible on YouTube – and don't discount the reinforcement cycle of Olivia Olson's take in the favourite Love Actually soundtrack. It all started with the egg, surely?
And then there’s the official re-releases …
Carey has also been feeding her golden egg with timely, genre-hopping remixes of her timeless tune. First came So So Def's authorised urban take, in 2000, which nicely sampled Afrika Bambaataa and the Soul Sonic Force's Planet Rock, and featured guest vocals by Jermaine Dupri and Bow Wow. Sensing the EDM boom to come, Mariah's New Dance Mix, credited to Carey and Low Sunday, arrived in 2009.
Carey then re-recorded the song a year later for her second festive LP, Merry Christmas II You (with actual, real instruments). And who could forget Carey's duet with Justin Bieber in 2011, released as All I Want for Christmas Is You (SuperFestive!), as part of the younger star's own flagrantly uncool Christmas album Under the Mistletoe, surely inspired by Carey's own.
There’s a cheeky emotional subterfuge at the core
While songs of Christmas heartbreak have proved surprisingly enduring (Exhibit A: Wham!'s Last Christmas, the inspiration behind this year's romcom of the same name), All I Want for Christmas is You, is by contrast, flagrantly romantic. In fact, in a holiday hijacked by commercialism and beleaguered by gift demands and obligations, there might be few greater declarations of affection than the one found in the song's title.
And that titular "you" is a perfect gift for all awkward emotional encounters – whether sung tongue-in-cheek to a spouse of 50 years on a winter night, or sheepishly addressed to a subject of desire at a school disco or office Christmas party, the lyric is instantly internalised, and easily projected to the world at large. You don't even need to say the words out loud – a mime or even glance can save a world of embarrassment.
So as long as there are people choosing love over presents come Christmas time, Carey’s classic won’t be going anywhere any time soon.