A video on Mariah Carey‘s social channels officially announces the Christmas season. As the camera pans through the cavernous, icy palace, we land at a vault door. A digital clock reads “October 31, 11:59.” As soon as the clock strikes “November 1”, the vault opens to robed Halloween minions diligently working on thawing a large block of ice with hairdryers. We see a figure ensconced in the ice, blurred but clearly in red. Suddenly, the figure announced, “It’s time!” launching into a whistle note, cracking the ice to reveal Mariah Carey in sexy Santa drag. It’s then official: the Christmas season is upon us.
Mariah Carey has crowned herself the Queen of Christmas, and once the holiday season starts, memes pop up, ringing in the holiday season. And, of course, radio starts to blanket the airwaves with Carey’s classic “All I Want for Christmas Is You”. It’s one of the few Christmas pop tunes that has become an actual holiday standard and has been a staple of holiday music since its release 29 years ago.
Taken from her fourth studio album, Merry Christmas, “All I Want for Christmas” would become one of the biggest-selling singles of all time, eventually hitting number one on the pop charts, giving the pop diva her 19th chart-topper. Merry Christmas peaked at number three on the Billboard album charts and sold over 15 million copies, becoming one of the best-selling Christmas albums ever.
When thinking about putting out a Christmas record, Carey was struck by inspiration while trimming her tree. In a 1994 interview for VH1, she talked about the album’s genesis, which was celebrating the holidays. “Last year, I was hanging out at home, decorating the tree, and I started to get some ideas for some different Christmas songs, and I just had it rolling around in my head, and I said, ‘I might well just go and (make a Christmas album).'” Recording of the album started in December of 1993 while she was enjoying the success of her Music Box album, and like most holiday albums, much of the work ended during the summer months.
The inspiration that Carey talked about in the interview translated into a record of ten tracks with three originals. The setlist was a mixture of secular music and holiday hymns that allowed the singer to bring out her gospel roots, which were largely submerged in favor of the glossy pop she recorded up to this point in her career. What’s so striking about Merry Christmas is that it’s at once a very 1990s album, yet she looks to vintage Christmas records of the 1960s, namely the iconic work of Phil Spector.
One cannot discuss the intersection of mainstream pop and Christmas music without mentioning Phil Spector’s landmark album A Christmas Gift for You from Phil Spector (1963). Applying his legendary Wall-of-Sound production to a batch of contemporary and classic Christmas tunes, A Christmas Gift would become the standard for modern Christmas pop. Spector’s stable of performers, including Darlene Love, the Ronettes, the Crystals, and Bob B. Soxx & the Blue Jeans, took on various tunes, giving the songs a streetwise, rock feel. Songs like “Santa Clause Is Coming to Town” are remade into a Christmas sock-hop dance tune. The highlight of Spector’s album is Darlene Love’s boisterous “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)”, an original piece Spector wrote with Ellie Greenwich and Jeff Barry.
Love’s song with Spector would become one of the most significant contemporary holiday standards of the modern rock era. Most Christmas music came from the Great American Songbook, and Spector’s original felt like a raucous clarion call. It shook up Christmas music.
Its influence can be heard on Carey’s record – not only in the most obvious case, with her cover of “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)” but with “All I Want for Christmas Is You”, which arguably surpassed Love’s song as the premier Christmas pop song. (This seeming rivalry came to a silly head when Love and Carey declared themselves queens of Christmas, with the younger diva even making noise of trademarking the moniker.) “All I Want for Christmas Is You” is a near-perfect homage and pastiche of Spector’s Christmas work.
Written by Carey and her longtime collaborator, Walter Afanasieff, “All I Want for Christmas Is You)” takes many of its musical cues from Spector’s classic work. She and Afanasieff do a lot of work to recreate Spector’s gaudy Wall-of-Sound and incorporate the swinging beat of 1960s girl group pop and the stomping beat of trademark Motown. Her delivery is joyful and girlish, and her background vocalists add just the right amount of raucous joy. (Future soul star Kelly Price is in the chorus that offers Carey ebullient support.)
Like most pop stars of her day, visuals were crucial for Carey’s work, and the music video for “All I Want for Christmas Is You” captures the old-fashioned vibe of the tune. Filmed using Super 8 film and directed by Carey herself, the video touches upon the nostalgia of the song and Christmas itself. For adults, the magic of Christmas is tied to sentimental memories. In the video, Carey is at once sexy yet youthful, clad in a cherry-red snowsuit as she frolics on a snowy hill, swooshing down on a sled, sitting on Santa’s lap, or playing with her dog dressed as a reindeer. The video’s images of yesterday, with images of snow-covered red barns and Christmas trees, suggest Currier and Ives.
As a companion piece, including “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)” is smart because we get to enjoy Spector’s classic and hear just how terrific Carey’s song is. Setting the two tunes side by side highlights how Carey and Afanasieff successfully captured the older song’s frivolous joy.
The other new compositions on the record didn’t make the same impact that “All I Want for Christmas Is You”. The treacly ballad, “Miss You Most (At Christmas)”, is the kind of A/C pablum that Carey could sing in her sleep. The other song, another stately ballad, “Jesus Born on This Day”, is also sweet and sentimental. Still, there’s enough heart and emotion from the precious children’s choir that sounds unbearably sweet and lovely. Yes, the song can veer very close to schmaltz, but Christmas invokes memories of children and childhood. There’s a lyrical emphasis on the nativity story, particularly the story of Jesus’ birth and the moving story of a child born in such humble surroundings, only to become the savior.
There are other allusions to Christ on the record, and one of the most spirited moments is its closer, “Jesus Oh What a Wonderful Child”, which gives Carey a chance to show off her underrated gospel chops. So much of her persona was built on being the perfect pop princess that she often had to subsume her musical influences. She has written extensively in her memoirs about how her label – and her husband, Tommy Mottola – controlled her creative vision, restricting her musical muses, especially when she wanted to stray from the high school pageant of her ballads for music that reflected her Blackness. It would be a few years before she completely wrenched free from the overbearing clutches of Mottola, but on “Jesus Oh What a Wonderful Child”, we see glimmers of Carey’s potential. Yes, it’s gospel pop, smooth as glass and silk, yet Carey rarely sounded so fiery and invested in her music.
After Merry Christmas was released, Carey continued her career, selling millions of albums and growing as a superstar. The popularity of “All I Want for Christmas Is You” grew each December as it increasingly lodged into the public’s collective consciousness. Radio stations of various formats played the song, and its relentless cheer and kicky retro sound made it a holiday staple. It became so ubiquitous during the holidays that Carey eventually found a second career as a Christmas crooner. By the 2010s, she had embraced her diva reputation, reveling in the camp of being a pop diva, and the inherent camp of Christmas dovetailed nicely with her extravagant image. Through one hit single, Carey declared herself the Queen of Christmas, and judging from its perennial success (which hit number-one last year), it looks as if her reign isn’t over anytime soon.