Why Mariah Carey's 'All I Want for Christmas is You' became so popular — and stayed that way
If anything about Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas is You” annoys you, best to avoid shopping malls now. Or the radio. Maybe music altogether, for that matter.
Her 1994 carol dominates holiday music like nothing else.
The Christmas colossus has reached No. 1 on Billboard’s Hot 100 chart the past four years in a row — measuring the most popular songs each week by airplay, sales and streaming, not just the holiday-themed — and it’s reasonable to assume 2023 will be no different. One expert predicts it will soon exceed $100 million in earnings. Even its ringtone has sold millions.
“That song is just embedded in history now,” says David Foster, the 16-time Grammy-winning composer and producer. “It’s embedded in Christmas. When you think of Christmas right now, you think of that song.”
Yet the story behind “All I Want for Christmas is You” is not all holly and mistletoe.
The song’s co-authors, Carey and Walter Afanasieff, are in a mystifying feud. The authors of a different song with the same title have sued seeking $20 million in damages. While Carey calls herself the Queen of Christmas, her bid to trademark that title failed.
Every year on Nov. 1, the song’s hibernation ends when Carey posts on social media that “it’s time” to play it again. This year’s message depicted her being freed from a block of ice to make the declaration.
In both music and lyrics, the song was perfectly engineered for success, says Joe Bennett, musicologist and professor at the Berklee College of Music. And it came from an artist who was at the top of her game at the time.
“All I Want for Christmas is You” works as a love and holiday song. Carey sets it up: She doesn’t care about all the holiday trappings, she has one thing — one person — on her mind. She sprinkles in specific holiday references, from Santa Claus to mistletoe.
The instruments and brisk arrangement recall Phil Spector’s 1965 album, “A Christmas Gift for You,” itself a holiday classic. To top it off, part of the melody slyly references “White Christmas,” Bennett says.
“That was my goal, to do something timeless,” Carey explained in a recent “Good Morning America” interview.
Billboard has produced lists of top seasonal hits since 2010, and “All I Want for Christmas is You” has been No. 1 for 57 of the 62 weeks it has run, said Gary Trust, chart director. Will Page, Spotify’s former chief economist and author of the book “Pivot,” estimates the song will exceed $100 million in earnings this holiday season.
“By most objective measures,” Bennett says, “it’s the most successful Christmas song of all time.”
As Afanasieff has told it, much of the work on “All I Want for Christmas is You” was done by him and Carey working in a rented house in the summer of 1994. The team had a history, working on Carey's albums “Emotions” and “Music Box.”
He started with a boogie-woogie piano, tossing out melodic ideas that Carey would respond to with lyrics, he said on last year’s podcast, “Hot Takes & Deep Dives with Jess Rothschild” (Afanasieff did not return messages from The Associated Press). Later, Carey completed the lyrics herself and Afanasieff recorded all the instruments, he said.
Then things became complicated. Carey was married at the time to Tommy Mottola, head of Sony Music. They broke up in 1997 and her relationship with Afanasieff, who kept working for Mottola, became a casualty of that fractured marriage. Afanasieff said they've spoken once in more than 20 years, and it his contributions have been written out of Carey's telling of the song's creation.
On “Good Morning America” last month, she said, "I was working on it by myself so I was writing on this little Casio keyboard, writing down words and thinking about, ’What do I think about Christmas? What do I love? What do I want? What do I dream of?” she says. “And that’s what started it.”
Afanasieff sounds almost bewildered by the turn of events. He told Variety in 1999 that every holiday season he has to defend himself against people who don’t believe he co-wrote the song.
“Mariah has been very wonderful, positive and a force of nature,” he told Variety. “She’s the one that made the song a hit and she’s awesome. But she definitely does not share credit where credit is due."
Last month, songwriters Andy Stone and Troy Powers sued Carey and Afanasieff in federal court in California, seeking $20 million in copyright infringement and citing their own 1989 country song, “All I Want for Christmas is You.”
Their song has a similar theme, with a narrator desiring a love interest before Christmas comforts. The writers cite an “overwhelming likelihood” that Carey and Afanasieff had heard their song.
The two songs have no musical similarities, Berklee’s Bennett says, and the theme is hardly unique. He pointed out Bing Crosby’s “You’re All I Want for Christmas,” Carla Thomas’ “All I Want for Christmas is You” and Buck Owens’ “All I Want for Christmas, Dear, is You.”
Says the musicologist: “It’s nonsense.”
In his podcast appearance, Afanasieff noted how Foster once told him that “All I Want for Christmas is You” was the last song to enter the Christmas canon and “that vault is sealed.”
Foster told AP he exaggerated a little, but not a lot. Writing a new holiday song is brutally hard, since you’re competing with not just current hits but hundreds of years of songs and memories. The old classics never go away.
“I just stay away from them, because they scare me,” Foster says. “Lyrically, it’s sort of all been done before — better than I can ever do.”
While he appreciates Foster’s compliment, Afanasieff told Rothschild that he hoped others don’t take it to heart.
“I urge songwriters every year,” he says. “It’s time to write the next ‘All I Want for Christmas is You.’”