The Astounding Quarter-Century Ascent of “All I Want for Christmas Is You”

Richard LeBeau
Dec 16, 2019 · 9 min read
Mariah performs to a sold out crowd at Madison Square Garden on 12/15/19.

1,310 weeks after its initial release, Mariah Carey’s modern Christmas classic has ascended to #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 for the first time. This feat shatters or extends countless chart records and marks yet another “comeback” for a music industry legend who rarely gets the credit she deserves.

The Story Behind “AIWFCIY”’s Historic Journey to #1

When Mariah Carey arrived on the scene in the summer of 1990 with her self-titled debut album, her success was swift and astonishing. Her first five singles went to #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 and she was awarded with the Grammys for Best New Artist and Best Female Pop Vocal Performance (for her debut single “Vision of Love.”)

To capitalize on the success, she followed up a year later with a second album, Emotions. Despite going 5x platinum and producing three top five hits (and another #1), the album was considered a bit of a disappointment. As the story goes, her then-husband/manager/record label head Tommy Mottola felt the album’s underperformance was in part due to her leaning too heavily toward urban trends. (In hindsight, Emotions is quite a bold effort with funk, disco, jazz, gospel, and R&B all heavily incorporated across its ten tracks).

To get her “back on track” (commercially, that is) Mottola guided Mariah toward a much more adult contemporary sound. The result was her legendary acoustic performance on MTV Unplugged (which produced another #1, this time a cover of Jackson Five’s “I’ll Be There”) and her biggest album to date, 1993’s Music Box (which produced the #1 hits “Dreamlover” and “Hero.”)

With Music Box’s success bringing her a striking level of global success, Mottola and company got to work figuring out what was the best strategic next step for Mariah. They settled on a Christmas album, which was hardly common practice at the time. For a successful pop artist to record a holiday album at the peak of their success was virtually unheard of and almost no one was in the business of writing and producing new Christmas songs.

But Mottola had faith in the idea and with her legendary love of Christmas, Mariah was on board. She teamed up with her co-writer, co-producer Walter Afanassief to get to work on the Christmas album, which was recorded in the summer of 1994 in the Upstate New York home she shared with Mottola. It reportedly only took them 15 minutes to write and compose “AIWFCIY.”

The single cover for “AIWFCIY” (Copyright: Columbia Records)

Merry Christmas was successful upon its initial release, reaching #3 and selling nearly 2 million copies during its first 8 weeks in the U.S. alone. And a big reason for its success was the popularity of “AIWFCIY.” However, the song was only released to radio and not as a commercial single. This made it ineligible to chart on the Hot 100, which did not allow songs without a commercially released physical single to appear on that chart until 2000. (Although, it is highly unlikely that it would have hit #1 at the time if it had been eligible given its relatively moderate popularity at the time and the huge competition on the charts in late 1994.)

“AIWFCIY” returned to the airwaves like clockwork every year around Thanksgiving for the next 24 years. In 2000, it made its first Hot 100 appearance at #83. Starting in 2011, when rules were modified to reduce the barriers that prevented non-current songs (songs not in their initial phase of release) from charting, it began appearing annually on the chart at higher and higher positions. It entered the Top 10 for the first time in 2017 and hit its previous peak of #3 last year.

So, what led to the song’s growth over the course of the quarter century between its release and its historic achievement today? Well…a lot. I briefly review some of the main factors below.

  • Mariah remained in the news. After the initial release of “AIWFCIY,” Mariah went on to have 10 more #1 hits and release 11 more studio albums. She had a public meltdown that was fodder for the tabloids in 2001 and then an unprecedented critical and commercial comeback in 2005. She made a well-received foray into indie films with acclaimed turns in Precious and The Butler. She had high-profile relationships (including her dirvoce from Mottola, her relationships with Major League Baseball’s Derek Jeter and Latin music sensation Luis Miguel, her marriage to Nick Cannon, and her engagement to Australian billionaire James Packer). She infamously joined American Idol as a judge for a season. She started a line of perfume and other merchandise. She hugely expanded her brand as a live performer (more on that below). Mariah worked her ass off and she was never out of the news for long.
  • The song became a brand. Undoubtedly realizing that no matter how successful or unsuccessful her contemporary endeavors were she would always have the perennial success of “AIWFCIY” to rely on for a paycheck and public good will, she began expanding the song into a brand. In 2010, she released a sequel album called Merry Christmas II You. In 2014, she started a series of Christmas themed concerts with a 6-night sold out run at the intimate, historic Beacon Theater. She has revived the concerts every year since, during which time it has expanded to the Las Vegas strip, European arenas, and — just last night — a completely sold-out performance at Madison Square Garden. She has also released a related children’s book and an animated movie, as well as multiple remixes and music videos of the song and — just last month — a 25th anniversary edition of the original album filled with bonus tracks.
  • The song was covered a lot. One could argue that the establishment of “AIWFCIY” as a modern Christmas classic occurred with the release of the 2003 holiday romance Love, Actually. A cover of the song is very prominently featured in the British import’s climax and the film itself has become a perennial holiday classic. The song has also been acknowledged by many as a modern classic, leading to covers by artists as diverse as Michael Buble, Shania Twain, Justin Bieber, John Mayer, Miley Cyrus, Lady Antebellum, Demi Lovato, Cee Lo Green, Ariana Grande, Jim Brickman, Kelly Clarkson, Kylie Minogue, and Mumford & Sons. These covers have undoubtedly extended the song’s reach beyond Mariah’s fanbase.
  • The song is just great. Sometimes, truly great songs have a way of enduring. The song is at once elegant and infectious and a true pop masterwork .Droves of articles have been written about the song’s profoundly challenging vocal arrangement, how its production pays homage to the standards of the 40s and the Motown hits of the 60s, and its unparalleled endurance in popular culture. Virtually all of its detractors are those who think it is wildly overplayed or those with a more widespread bias against Mariah or her musical genre.

Chart Records Extended/Broken When “AIWFCIY” Hit #1 Today

  • The second holiday song ever to hit #1 on the Hot 100. The only other song to hit the top position is (believe it or not) “The Chipmunk Song” (aka “Christmas Don’t Be Late”) by the Chipmunks, which hit #1 for four weeks 61 years ago (1958–1959).
  • The soloist with the most chart-toppers. With her 19th #1, she extends her lead as the soloist with the most #1s and is second only to the Beatles, who have 20. Third on the list is Rihanna, who has 14. (Note: This only dates back to the inception of the Billboard charts in 1958, meaning that the sure-to-be-impressive chart runs of performers like Elvis Presley are not fully captured.)
  • The artist with the most weeks at #1. “AIWFCIY”’s first week at #1 marks the 80th week she has spent in the pole position on the Hot 100. Her closest competitors have a long way to go to catch up — Rihanna has been atop for 60 and the Beatles for 59.
  • The female writer with the most chart-toppers. Mariah wrote and produced all but one of her 19 #1s. (The exception was her live cover of The Jackson 5’s “I’ll Be There,” which unexpectedly climbed its way to the top spot in 1992.) The only three songwriters behind more #1 hits are Paul McCartney (32), John Lennon (26), and Max Martin (22). She also notched her 14th #1 as a producer, also a record among women.
Mariah performs her Christmas show in Las Vegas
  • #1 Hits in three consecutive decades. Mariah now has #1 hits in the 1990s, 2000s, and 2010s joining the elite group of artists who topped the chart in three consecutive decades. The list only includes four other women — Madonna, Janet Jackson, Britney Spears, and Christina Aguilera.
  • A new record span of #1s. With “AIWFCIY” reaching #1 29 years, 4 months, and 2 days after “Vision of Love” became her first chart-topper she now tops Cher’s 27-year and 5-month span between her first #1 (1971’s “Gypsys, Tramps, and Thieves”) and most recent #1 (1999’s “Believe”). (Important caveat: If you count her time with Sonny Bono, Cher still holds the record with a 33 year gap between “I Got You Babe” and “Believe.”)
  • The longest climb to #1 ever. With 1,310 weeks intervening between its initial release and it hitting #1, “AIWFCIY” marks by far the longest ascent to #1 in the chart’s history. The only songs that come even close are new versions of past hits, which technically don’t count (e.g., Elton John’s re-recording of “Candle in the Wind” to mark the death of Princess Diana.)
  • A record number of consecutive albums with #1 hits. With “AIWFCIY” hitting #1, its parent album Merry Christmas now has produced a #1 hit, meaning that her first seven Billboard charting albums produced a #1. No other artist has come close to achieving this. (And it’s actually 8 consecutive albums if you don’t count the greatest hits compilation she released in 1998.)
  • The Holiday 100 chart dominance continues. In 2011, the Billboard charts started a Holiday 100 to countdown the most popular holiday songs. The chart runs for several weeks in November and December each year and then is retired for the intervening 10 months. In the 43 weeks the chart has existed, “AIWFCIY” has been #1 for 38 of them.

2020 and Beyond

If the song remains #1 through Christmas, which seems highly likely, Mariah will also have the first #1 of the 2020s (the Billboard charts take a few days to be determined and get published, meaning that the charts covering Christmas week will appear the first week of January). This will make her the only artist ever to be #1 in 4 decades (consecutive or otherwise).

Beyond being yet another astounding chart accomplishment for Mariah, it allows her to start the fourth decade of her career on top. Few pop superstars have had more downturns and comebacks in their career and partially as a result her artistic and commercial impact goes largely unappreciated by journalists, the critics, and the music industry. There was a notable change in this trend one year ago when she released her 15th album, Caution. The album became her best reviewed album to date and was featured on many best-of-the-year lists. Nevertheless, it was completely snubbed at the Grammys and Mariah was once again overlooked for both the Songwriters Hall of Fame (for which she just received her third nomination) and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (which she has never been nominated for).

Perhaps the astonishing new heights achieved by “AIWFCIY” will remind the journalists, influencers, tastemakers, and industry powerhouses what Mariah’s fans have never forgotten — that she is a legend who is showing no signs of slowing down. Perhaps it will also give Mariah herself the confidence to go off in some bold new creative directions over the next decade and the commitment to keep showing up for her fans.

A photo from Mariah’s new promotional campaign with Amazon.

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