Priceonomics

Mariah Carey’s “All I Want For Christmas Is You” is arguably the strangest phenomenon in modern pop history. 

Released in 1994, it is one of the top fifteen best-selling singles of all time (at an estimated 14 million units), and has generated $50 million dollars in royalties. But unlike every other best-selling song, “All I Want” only gets more popular, and more pervasive over time. It has become a December tradition among music nerds to see if the song can beat its place on the pop charts from the previous year. It usually does.

This very week, “All I Want” reached its highest ever spot on the Billboard Hot 100, the weekly chart that ranks the most popular songs across all genres, at number 18. The song finds its place among recently released, and likely ephemeral, hits by Demi Lovato and The Weeknd. Brenda Lee’s “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” is the only other Holiday song in the Hot 100, and it’s twenty spots below “All I Want”.

This article explores the history of the “All I Want For Christmas Is You” juggernaut. It is the most recent song to enter the holiday canon, and it might just become the most popular record of all time.

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In 1994, Mariah Carey was on a roll. She had released three albums -- Music Box, Emotions and the eponymous Mariah Carey -- and all had gone multi platinum. She was one of the biggest pop stars on the planet. Music Box, released last out of the three, would become one of the 20 best-selling albums of all time.

But Carey’s managers at Columbia Records were not satisfied. They wanted her to be more than “just” a pop singer: they wanted her to be a popular “entertainer,” in the vein of Frank Sinatra and Barbra Streisand. Columbia thought a Christmas record would do the trick, and though the songstress initially resisted the idea as old-fashioned, Carey eventually agreed.

The Christmas album, in its modern form, can be traced back to the 1940s and the incredible popularity of Bing Crosby’s single “White Christmas”. Penned by legendary songwriter Irving Berlin, Crosby recorded “White Christmas” in 1942 for the movie “Holiday Inn”. The song was immediately a massive hit, particularly with soldiers in World War II, dreaming of home. It topped the Billboard charts for nearly three months and eventually sold 50 million records, far more than any other song in the history of popular music.

Crosby and his label Decca Records realized there was a serious market for Christmas music, and they decided to release a whole album of Christmas-themed material. The resulting album, “Merry Christmas”, was a massive success and set the template for the Christmas album as we know it today: mostly classics, along with some lesser known or original numbers aspiring to enter the canon Artists like Sinatra, Streisand, Elvis Presley, Ella Fitzgerald and Celine Dion recorded similar albums, all of which triumphed commercially.

Mariah Carey’s album “Merry Christmas” was released in 1994. She followed a long tradition of iconic performers releasing a Christmas album.

Carey’s foray into the Christmas album market, “Merry Christmas”, was released on November 1, 1994. It contains 10 songs and includes Carey bringing her famed five octave range to old standbys like “Silent Night” and “Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town.” The album also holds two originals penned by Carey and her frequent collaborator Walter Afanasieff . One of those songs, the religiously-themed “Jesus Born on This Day”, left little mark on Christmas music. The other, secular-themed “All I Want for Christmas is You,” became a sensation.

“Merry Christmas” sold over five million records since its release, yet it was not an immediate blockbuster. It opened as the top album on the holiday charts but was kicked out of the top spot the next week by saxophonist Kenny G’s album “Miracles: The Holiday Album”. Carey’s album sold steadily for the next several years, but fell out of the top 20 Christmas albums by 2004, and the top 30 in 2009.

In recent years, “Merry Christmas” has been climbing back up the charts, and in 2015, it reached the top 10 for the first time since 1999. This recent uptick is almost certainly related to the increased popularity of “All I Want” (sales number for the single are not available for this period).

The chart below shows the album’s trajectory. The red dots display the highest rank for the album in a given year, and the green line is a smoothed fit which displays the trend.

Dan Kopf, Priceonomics; Data: Billboard

What is the greatest holiday hit of our era about?

Carey “ostensibly” wrote the song about Tommy Mottola, then the head of Columbia Records and Carey’s husband. Mottola, who heard a demo of Carey’s music in 1988, was instrumental in her rise to fame. He quickly signed Carey to a deal, and by 1990, Columbia released her first album.

Soon, Mottola was taken with more than Carey’s talents as a singer. The two began dating during the recording of her third album, and they married in 1993. Mottola appears as Santa in the video for “All I Want” and is presumably the “you” that Carey asks for in lieu of presents. Carey and Mottola divorced in 1997.

Mariah Carey and her then husband and record executive Tommy Mottola in the video for “All I Want for Christmas is You.”

Song co-writer Afanasieff has said that “All I Want” was written unusually quickly. He came to a recording session with a chord structure as a framework for the song, and Carey quickly came up with the melody. Even for Carey, known for her showy singing style, the song contained an unusual amount of vocal acrobatics. Following the recording, Afanasieff claims they had no idea that they were sitting on such a hit.

From a musical perspective, the song is, even by the admission of the songwriters, pretty “formulaic”. A fairly basic chord progression, with a few unusual chords thrown in so it wouldn’t sound overly familiar.

Straightaway, the song received substantial radio airplay, hitting number twelve on the Billboard chart that counts the number of times a song is played on the radio in a given week. The song remained popular at Christmas for the next several years, consistently hitting radio play charts, but at a lower level.

By the early 2000s, “All I Want” had joined the canon of “pop” holiday songs, but it was not yet dominating that canon. At Christmas 2002, four other songs — “Jingle Bell Rock”, “Feliz Navidad”, “Rockin Around The Christmas Tree” and “The Christmas Song” — were ahead of “All I Want” on the charts. 

Over the next decade, the song received two jolts that helped take it to the very top of the charts. 

Olivia Olson singing “All I Want For Christmas” in the 2003 film "Love Actually"

In November 2003, the holiday-themed movie Love Actually was released to modestly positive reviews and a strong box office for a romantic comedy. The film includes a plotline about a tween boy falling for a girl in his class. The boy learns the drums to participate in the school’s Christmas Pageant where his classmate will be performing. The big capper of the Pageant is the girl, played by Olivia Olson, performing “All I Want”. Many consider Olson’s rendition one of the most memorable parts of the movie.

Just as “All I Want” has cracked the holiday song pantheon, Love Actually, for better or worse, has done the same for holiday movies. It is the Christmas movie of a younger generation. There is even a Love Actually themed drinking game.  

Although it’s difficult to make a causal argument, the placement of “All I Want” in this modern holiday classic coincided with the song cresting the ranks of holiday music. By Christmas 2005, “All I Want” was the number one Christmas song on the charts.

Mariah Carey and Justin Bieber sang a duet of “All I Want for Christmas is You” that brought the song to a younger audience. Warning: This video is mildly disturbing.

Perhaps just as important to cementing the dominance of “All I Want” was the embrace of the song by boy wonder Justin Bieber.

In January 2010, Bieber was already an internet sensation. Then he released the single “Baby” from his debut album “My World 2.0”. That song became a megahit. It has now been streamed on YouTube over 1.26 billion times, the second most of any YouTube video ever.

Bieber’s second studio release was the 2011 Christmas album “Under the Mistletoe.” The bestselling album included a duet version of “All I Want” between Bieber and Carey. This version of the song made the Billboard Hot 100 and has been watched on YouTube over 100 million times, presumably mostly by a younger audience. 

The song had now gripped multiple generations at their most vulnerable.

Have we reached peak “All I Want for Christmas Is You?” with Carey’s 2015 children’s book themed on the book.

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And here were are, twenty years after its release, and “All I Want” has reached its highest point of prominence.

The song’s popularity has become so overwhelming that this Christmas, Carey decided to release both a children’s book and a TV movie, which she directs and stars in, based on the song.

Have we reached peak “All I Want”? Can the song possibly wrap its tinsel around us even further? A recent deconstructed version of the song, which excludes the vocals, demonstrates that many of us can hear Carey’s voice even when it isn’t there. Our deep familiarity with her melodic line allows our brains to fill it in.

Speaking about “All I Want”in 2014, song co-writer Walter Afanasieff said, “It just keeps growing and growing. I believe it will be the most successful, popular Christmas song of all time.” We think he is selling the song short. Given current trends, it has a chance to become the most popular song recording of all time period.

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This post was written by Dan Kopf; follow him on Twitter here.



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