Sounds of the season

With over 12 million copies sold around the world, Mariah Carey's 1994 release Merry Christmas is the best-selling seasonal album of all time.

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With over 12 million copies sold around the world, Mariah Carey's 1994 release Merry Christmas is the best-selling seasonal album of all time. Even for a singer who has shifted 175 million albums throughout her career, that'll buy an awful lot of tinsel. Its success has also turned Carey into a sort of secular spokesperson for the most important festival in the Christian calendar: American pop's First Lady of Christmas.

Despite having released 11 phenomenally successful non-Christmas albums over her 20-year career, she remains most recognisable in a skimpy red Santa Claus outfit. So, it is no surprise that this year Carey should offer a second festive collection. Titled Merry Christmas II You, it is not an attempt to reinvent the wheel and neither does it pretend to be. Instead it reflects a basic principle of the consumer capitalism that underscores the western holiday season: "Everyone bought the first one, so let's make another".

Then again, Carey's first Christmas album was far from mould-breaking. But it did identify the exact level of contemporary musical oomph needed to update - and replicate - a hugely successful formula already established in the 1940s and 1950s: take a pop star, surround them with fake snow, candy canes and gifts adorned with bows; make them sing about reindeer; maybe stick them in a red and white outfit, and watch the money roll in.

This post-war paradigm, mapped out in albums from Bing Crosby, Johnny Mathis and Elvis Presley, not only helped establish the modern soundtrack to the archetypal Anglo-American Christmas. It also distilled the dominant cultural atmosphere of the period: the nuclear family as source of homely solace, buffer against the godless threat of the outside world. Christmas music has long been used to build a warming fire in the American hearth, and never more so than when it was being buffeted by the chill winds of the Cold War.

The post-war festive aesthetic can also be seen in American cinema and TV, both past and present, in movies from It's A Wonderful Life to the Home Alone series. On Merry Christmas II You, the era is reflected in nostalgic sonic signifiers, from children's choirs to classic carols, to the pristine jingling of sleigh bells. The Cold War era is evoked entirely directly, in fact, in a medley of Charlie Brown Christmas and Christmas Time Is Here, both taken from a famous seasonal staple of American family TV. First screened in 1965, the animated version of Charles M Shulz's popular Peanuts cartoon strip is a kind of morality tale. Shulz's hapless protagonist Charlie Brown fights - successfully, for once - to keep a Christmas nativity play from being ruined by modern affectations, secular fads, and commercialism, defending tradition against baubles both metaphorical and literal. In Carey's cover of the two songs, comforting evocations of bygone sentimentality ring out in the familiar jaunty melody, while the sound of children innocently playing is audible in the background. Listen to what we've lost, it seems to say.

In the doublethink of the modern Christmas, conspicuous consumption is both ally and enemy. The holiday season is about family and sincerity, and cherishing that which cannot be bought. How better to celebrate this spirit than with unbridled materialism? Given her reputation for extravagance, Carey has been shrewd to keep Merry Christmas II You free of references to consumerism - at least in the songs, which comprise eight Christmas standards and five compositions of her own. Outside the album's musical borders, the red and white dollars continue to stack up. The $99.99 Collectors Edition CD comes in "a beautiful golden box", along with a 40-page hardcover photo album ("Mariah's Personal Holiday Photo Album - See how Mimi and her family spend the holidays!"), a sheet of Mariah Carey Holiday Gift Tags, and an Exclusive "MC" Butterfly Christmas Ornament.

The video to Oh, Santa, the album's stand-out track and lead single, tells its own story. Set in New York's Radio City Music Hall, the video begins with an avuncular voiceover saying that the song is "brought to you by Lollipop Bling, from the Mariah Carey Fragrance Collection". (This perfume actually exists.) Like the rest of the video, the ad is a 1970s homage - a pastiche, really - invoking American TV Christmas Specials of yore (and childhoods of yours, more importantly). Most striking is the fact that the ad for Lollipop Bling is woven into the fabric of the video, the footage of the bottle flickering as if weathered with age. Even branding is allowed sepia-tinted moments.

The phenomenal success of Carey's first Christmas album precipitated a wave of similar cash-ins from the mainstream of R&B and pop. In the late 1990s, albums by Hanson and Celine Dion replicated the formula to great success, but the trend reached its apogee with Destiny's Child's 8 Days Of Christmas, an album released in 2001 at the height of the group's powers.

The video for the title track, a souped-up version of the traditional carol, follows the trio as they gleefully shop for presents in a store that is closed to the public. They are, of course, wearing tight-fitting Santa outfits. The song begins with the immortal line: "On the eighth day of Christmas my baby gave to me / a pair of Chloe shades and a diamond belly ring". Outside the shop, children press their faces against the glass, gazing longingly at the shelves inside, before finally being allowed in to raid the shelves and stack their arms to toppling-point with toys. Over the eight days of Christmas, Beyoncé's baby furnishes her with "the keys to a CLK Mercedes" and "a gift certificate to get my favourite CDs", but also "a poem that he wrote for me", "a candlelit dinner just me and my honey", and finally, "quality T-I-M-E".

This is the modern spirit of hyper-Christmas, formed in Mariah's image. And it's not always as simple as its anti-materialist malcontents would have you believe: in the world of 21st-century pop, the festive experience may privilege indulgence, but it also celebrates a genuine sense of affection. There is even a certain spiritual tenor to proceedings - or at least, to the nativity story. Christmas is "very precious, sacred and special to me, on a spiritual level," Carey explains on a special Merry Christmas II You DVD, available only when you buy the album from American TV's Home Shopping Network.

Of the standards, O' Holy Night stands out. Recorded live in Los Angeles - the arrangement builds like a 1980s power-ballad, a litany of keyboard splurges, thundering drums, vocal support from a gospel choir, and Carey's voice soaring to its highest reaches. Then there are a number of carol medleys: O Little Town of Bethlehem/Little Drummer Boy, for instance. The songs are woven seamlessly together, much like Carey's festive messages: love your family, yourself, baby Jesus, shiny presents, the poor, the past, the snowmen, elves and grinches alike. Just love, okay?

One Child, another new song also co-written by Carey, is the nativity story told with a gathering storm of strings, slowly joined by a children's choir. It's an unapologetically bombastic, Michael Jackson-style epic - and that's no criticism. When all the voices come together to sing "one child can change the world" at the song's climax, it's the epiphanic moment where our misguided protagonist finally realises the true spirit of Christmas.

By Carey's own admission, virtually nothing has changed on the new "Extra Festive" version of All I Want For Christmas Is You. But why change perfection? The track's big-band opening, happily lovesick chorus and irresistible sense of momentum still make it, as The New Yorker's Sasha Frere-Jones declared in 2006, "one of the few worthy modern additions to the holiday canon". Like it or not, since 1994 we have had a new Platonic ideal of late-Christian festivity, and it is Mariah Carey in a Santa suit.

Dan Hancox is a regular contributor to The Review. His work can be found in The Guardian, Prospect and New Statesman.