Boardroom breaks down the roundabout rollout of Mariah Carey’s Christmas classic and how its chart-topping success came to be.
Do you hear what I hear?
Maybe it’s the bells beginning to tingle. Perhaps it’s the acapella opening. Or possibly it’s the booming background vocals of Kelly Price singing, “And IIIIIIIIIII!”
All these sounds shape the jumping jubilation of “All I Want for Christmas is You” – a holiday anthem known literally and figuratively by heart worldwide. In 2022, the song is played at holiday parties and shopping malls from Finland to Tokyo, but back in ’94, on a silent night in The Hamptons, it was a home alone Mariah Carey that heard it first in her soul.
By herself and beside herself, Carey sought inspiration aside a Christmas tree. Coming off three straight celebrated albums – all of which she sang, wrote, and arranged – Columbia Records tasked the 25 year old talent to take her fans to a winter wonderland.
Mariah Carey – singer, songwriter, and apparently a method actress – put on It’s a Wonderful Life and accomplished the tall order of writing a Yuletide classic in one day – in the middle of August. Unbeknownst to the singer during the summer of ’94, the song would be inspired by the season of giving – and is still giving today.
Much like a snowball rolling down hill, the Carey classic has only gotten bigger over time. Since the song’s release only a year before Dua Lipa was born, Mariah’s melted hearts in both hemispheres across multiple generations.
In the ’90s, “All I Want for Christmas is You” sold more physical CD singles than any song put out by Britney Spears, N*SYNC, or the Spice Girls. In the ’00s, the Christmas classic went double-platinum as a ringtone.
Now in 2022, “All I Want for Christmas is You” sits atop the Billboard Hot 100 yet again.
So, what was the marketing plan behind a song that’s since earned over $60 million in royalties alone? Boardroom breaks down the business and the brilliance.
Do They Know it’s Christmas Time at All?
On Oct. 29, 1994, spooky season was upon America much more than visions of Santa Claus.
Across the pond, Mariah Carey was working months ahead towards December — as was Columbia Records, the label where she would go on to produce 9 multi-platinum albums. Backed by a label still looking to sell Illmatic, Mariah Carey released “All I Want for Christmas is You” as the first single off of her fourth studio album overseas, days before trick or treating even started.
In hindsight, the timing was odd in a number of ways. Historically, Christmas albums were reserved for legacy acts appealing to adult audiences pining for the past.
Just 25-years-old at the time of recording, Carey was crossing over from R&B ballad belter to pop sensation. Essentially, this type of marketing move was not just years ahead of the typical game plan, but a step backwards in regard to where her career was going.
“It seemed a little premature,” Carey told The LA Times‘ Jody Rosen in 2020. “Like I was jumping the gun.”
Still, the project was finished and the wheels were in motion. In order to sell a studio album full of ten tracks, there needed to be one lead single to spur it all.
Initially, the plan was to promote “All I Want for Christmas is You” internationally, never intending to push it on an American audience back home.
To this mission, they started in Japan without a snowflake in sight. From there, it was slated to take off in European and Australian markets where Christmas was largely celebrated. Through the month of November, the song picked up steam overseas thanks the fact that it was ubiquitous.
Clearly, one didn’t have to celebrate Christmas or even understand English to enjoy the record. The melody moved people and the feeling transcended.
In only two weeks, it was evident Columbia had such a huge hit on their hands that they had to take it to US Top 40 and Adult Contemporary radio. By January 1995, the snowy single reached the Top 10 on American charts, in spite of the holiday having already passed.
“The success of it was definitely a surprise,” Carey continued. “I mean, ‘All I Want for Christmas Is You’ was the first Christmas song I ever wrote.”
From Radio to Television
In listening to both the story and the single, “All I Want for Christmas is You” plays like a love song but reads like a fable.
While it is verified by numerous sources that Mariah made the song in one day – with some accounts suggesting it took only 15 minutes – even lightning in a bottle brilliance needs editing and post-production.
Flown in from California to amplify the miraculous melody, it was with help from writer-producer Walter Afanasieff that the studio version of the single took final shape.
Having worked together on previous projects, weeks of arranging and perfecting the holiday hit meant wrapping in elements of gospel, doo-wop, and dance prior to presenting it to Columbia and then radio. While the song was a smash when it came to airplay in major markets, it was also 1994. For the song to take its full form, it needed a music video – or three.
Playing to nostalgia and an older audience, a black-and-white visual inspired by The Ronettes took Carey from The Hamptons to Harlem. For fans, it’s lesser known yet still a testament to Mariah’s artistry.
Putting full focus on the vocal performance – that of Carey, Melonie Daniels, Kelly Price, and her sister, Shanrae – the Mariah mini movie called back to ’60s soul while unintentionally predicting Ariana Grande’s aesthetic.
Two edits of this visual are said to exist, with Carey sitting in the director’s seat for both.
Perhaps more memorable is the full-color clip that’s amassed 747 million views on YouTube, despite debuting in the heyday of MTV, BET, and VH1.
The home movie style short, also directed and filmed in some senses by Carey, proved the perfect holiday addition to any video countdown show. Playing up winter escapes akin to a Coca Cola commercial, the visual shot on Super 8 film hits viewers in the feels the same way the song’s sonics do.
Co-starring former husband and boss Tommy Mottola in a Santa Suit, the low budget video yielded high returns, and it still does. Making the most of Mariah’s love affair with the camera – one in which she owns both sides – even a bonus footage version has proved bankable in recent years.
Such is to say, all this star power on screen made Mariah and the cult-classic Christmas song bigger in 1994 and for the years to follow.
Today’s amassed YouTube views aside, the singer-songwriter showed herself as a certified lead for many memorable music videos to come. From “Fantasy” in ’95 to “Honey” and “Heartbreaker” years after, Carey made her image on MTV matter as much as her vocals on the radio.
All of these elements added up to her becoming the best-selling female recording artist in history, with The LA Times reporting over 200 million albums sold in 2020.
Though it’s not all accredited to “All I Want for Christmas is You,” that song alone accounts for 1.3 billion Spotify streams today – and it’s not done.
The Global Ghost of Christmas Past, Present & Future
When Mariah Carey made her holiday hit, the world was much different.
In 1994, NBC began piloting a show called Friends while up in Canada a baby boy named Justin Bieber had just been born. Though both staples in pop culture still stand today, it’s been Mariah and her Christmas classic that continue to top charts in original and refinished form.
Once again No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 domestically, the song never meant to market to a US audience is still strong 28 years later.
Around the globe, “All I Want for Christmas is You” stands as Carey’s best-selling single in the UK, Canada, Australia, and Germany. Over 16 million copies of the song have been sold, not to mention the album it appeared on has topped the charts in America, Lithuania, Latvia, and Japan.
When Columbia Records first started shopping the single out East, no one could’ve predicted the global phenomenon it would become and continue to be. Even Mariah herself couldn’t have called just how much this summer writing session would mean to her friends, family, and fans for decades to come.
“It was kind of an accident,” Carey told Rosen. “I can’t tell you how that melody came to me. I really look at it as a gift.”
So do we, Mariah. So do we.
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