Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas Is You” annually tops the list of most-streamed holiday songs and is officially the most-downloaded holiday single of all time. According to Tech Times, it’s also the 11th-highest selling single of all time and has earned more than $50 million for Carey and cowriter Walter Afanasieff. It is, bar none, the most enduring modern Christmas “standard” of our time.
“I’m a very festive person and I love the holidays. I’ve sung Christmas songs since I was a little girl. I used to go Christmas caroling,” Carey said at the time. “I wrote it just out of love for Christmas and like really loving Christmas music,” she added in 2015. But it was Carey’s knowledge of music history that made the song’s unique mix of elements work. “I listen to a lot of old R&B and I listen to a lot of gospel music for inspiration,” she said in 1994. “I also listen to the radio, and I know every song on the radio because I’m a fanatic about that.”
Initially, Carey’s melody faced some resistance from her co-writer, Walter Afanasieff: “My first reaction was, ‘That sounds like someone doing voice scales,’” he told Business Insider in 2013. “‘Are you sure that’s what you want?’”
Writing at Slate, Adam Ragusea undertook an extensive analysis of the harmony behind “All I Want for Christmas,” counting at least 13 distinct chords in the song, including a minor subdominant chord, which is also found — crucially — in Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas.” In short, “All I Want” is, despite its seemingly simplicity, a relatively sophisticated piece of pop songwriting that has more in common with the Great American Songbook than it does with any of its peers on the charts in 1994. “It’s very retro, kind of like ’60s,” Carey said in 1994.
Afanasieff and Carey tinkered away with the music and lyrics until the summer of 1994. After first attempting to record the song in California with a live band, Afanasieff took matters into his own hands, programming every aspect of the song except for the vocals by himself with a keyboard. But, he said, when it came time to record Carey’s main vocal in New York, “that’s when we first hear her at the microphone singing, and the rest is history.” Carey also reportedly brought in Christmas lights and trees in the studio to set the mood while she sang.
In his book Hitmaker: The Man and His Music, Tommy Mottola — who was the then-24-year-old Carey’s husband (he has a cameo as Santa in the song’s video) — remembered his wife’s resistance to the cover art to the Christmas album. “What are you trying to do, turn me into Connie Francis?” Carey reportedly told him.
In 2010, a British goat farmer found out that his goats produced more milk when played a loop of Carey’s hit. Apparently “The Chipmunk Song” had the opposite effect, so consider those two the yin and yang of “Christmas songs that promote goat milk production.”