Mariah Carey on the 'once-in-a-lifetime,' 25-year success of 'All I Want for Christmas Is You'
Mariah Carey may be fighting a bout of food poisoning when she jumps on the phone to chat about her permanent holiday classic “All I Want for Christmas Is You,” but she’s in relatively good cheer. “I’m still getting over it, but that’s a whole other story,” she says, of being sick. “That’s not festive.” What is festive: Even 25 years after the song’s release it’s almost impossible to go through winter without hearing the song blasting on the radio, at a party, or in a department store. The song is also one of Carey’s most commercially successful tracks, no small feat for someone who already has 19 No. 1 hits to date (and that includes “All I Want for Christmas Is You,” which recently topped the charts for the first time in its history).
“When it first came out, it was more of a gradual thing,” Carey says about the track’s success. “It was popular, but it didn’t have what it has now. I feel like people have grown up with the song and it’s become a part of people’s lives in terms of the way they celebrate the holidays. That makes me feel really proud as someone that loves Christmas so much.”
Ahead, she discusses the story behind making the song, its longevity, and when she realized it had become a classic.
You’ve become the patron saint of officially informing the public when it’s time to get into the holiday spirit. Are you fully in it right now, or is it something you still need to warm up to?
We released the deluxe edition of Merry Christmas [this month]. So, obviously, I had to get into that spirit [early]. I personally like to wait till after Thanksgiving to really get gung-ho.
Merry Christmas and its lead single, “All I Want for Christmas Is You,” turn 25 this year. Does the anniversary of the song matter much to you, especially when it now feels so ingrained in the holiday season?
I rebuke time. I have a thing where I just live outside the traditional realm of how we measure [it]. So in that way, Santa and myself are very similar. But I’m excited about the 25th anniversary. It’s like everything coming together to give the song a celebratory moment. It’s hard for me to know how much people celebrate this song other than what I hear from friends and just what I read online, or just other things, of people saying that they really get into the spirit with it. That, for me, particularly as a songwriter, is huge. So I do want to celebrate this year in an even bigger way than usual.
Was there a specific point when you realized “All I Want for Christmas Is You” became part of the Christmas lexicon?
The British Royal Navy did something where an entire shipload of [people] sang each part of the song. It was such an amazing thing to see happen. I’ve seen videos of people in Holland during the middle of summer screaming “All I Want” at the top of their lungs. But the main thing is when people come to me and say, “We love ‘All I Want for Christmas.’ We listen to it all year long.”
Which is funny since you were initially hesitant about putting out your first Christmas album.
That is true, and that’s because it was so early in my career. I didn’t feel, from a strategic point of view, that it was time to do something like that. As much as I love Christmas, I thought that the record company was off. Obviously, I couldn’t have been more wrong.
What do you remember about writing and recording the song?
I wrote the beginning and the middle on the keyboard in a little house in Upstate New York, in a room by myself. I just started thinking about all things Christmas and growing up as a kid that loves Christmas. I think that’s why it’s such a festive record. Somebody said the other day, “It’s the saddest Christmas song ever, because you’re like, ‘I don’t care about all these things. I just want this other person.'” And I guess that was my thing. I wanted to put a love twist onto a Christmas song, two of my favorite things in the world…. So when I got with [co-writer Walter Afanasieff] … I recently read something he spoke about in, I don’t 2014 or something, where he said when I brought the song to him, he didn’t like the melody and it was very simplistic. And you know what? That is true, because I don’t usually start writing songs on the piano. I’m a terrible piano player, but sometimes the biggest songs for come [from] just sitting down at the piano and messing around. So I brought it to Walter. I had already written most of the song, and we worked on the bridge and produced it together.
Some of the song’s best moments are the background vocals. You, of course, sing lead when performing, but have you ever had an urge to do the “and I”s instead?
Doing background vocals is one my favorite things. I got my first paying job as a singer when I was 12, singing background vocals in a session I walked to by myself. When I listen to “All I Want for Christmas Is You,” which is only at Christmastime, and it goes into that outro [harmonies]…to me, that’s the happiest part of the song…. I usually sing the “and I”s when we’re just celebrating Christmas [at home].
You must get a ton of requests to use the song in film and TV. But Love, Actually is one of the few that it’s in. How do you decide what is worthy for inclusion?
Love, Actually happened early in the song’s life. And I’m happy I did that. But I’ve been very selective about what I allow the song to be a part of because it really matters to me. I don’t want to give it to anybody. It’s not about the person. It’s just, is this the right look?
You put out a second Christmas album, Merry Christmas II You, in 2010. The first one was such a huge success, was it hard not to compare the two?
I honestly loved the second one. I recorded most of it when I was pregnant. I wanted to do some of the arrangements a little more subtle. “All I Want For Christmas With You” comes along once in a lifetime, but I do love “Oh, Santa” and “Here Comes Santa Claus,” But I love that second Christmas album, and I hope that more people will listen to it. I think another reason that I did it was because I had more Christmas songs in me that I wanted to express. For me, it’s a totally different place creatively, being able to do a holiday album, because you’re just coming from a pure place. And it was the first time I wrote with Marc Shaiman. He and I wrote a song called “Christmastime Is In The Air Again,” which was really inspired by the Nat King Cole era of those kind of classic ballads.
“All I Want for Christmas Is You” is one of the best-selling singles of all time, which makes it your most successful, commercially speaking. Do you consider it your most successful from a songwriting standpoint?
As a songwriter, I look at some of those songs from Butterfly, or “Looking In” from Daydream, or “My Saving Grace” from Charmbracelet, where I know how deep I went as a writer. But “All I Want for Christmas Is You” gives me a feeling of happiness I can’t describe, so it’s a different thing. Yes, it’s a hugely successful song. Do I think it’s the best song that I’ve ever written? I don’t know how to judge that. [But] it has its own place for me.
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