On December 31, 2016, Mariah Carey performed on Dick Clark’s New Year’s Rockin’ Eve. Or rather, attempted to: technical difficulties with her in-ear monitors and the songs’ backing tracks left her unable to complete her set. Carey’s team blamed the show’s producers for setting her up to fail; Dick Clark Productions blasted the accusations as “defamatory, outrageous and frankly absurd.” Whoever was at fault, it was a shambolic, widely-mocked moment that suggested the pop diva had lost the pop-cultural plot, again.
Carey is no stranger to the comeback. She followed a post-Glitter downturn with The Emancipation of Mimi, one of her most critically and commercially successful albums. Her strategy was simple: shift the narrative back to her knack for crafting first-rate pop music. However, the circumstances were different in this case: Top 40 radio wasn’t interested in new music from Carey or her contemporaries, and mainstream pop tastes were shifting away from the R&B-tinged, vocal-focused pop that she spent two decades putting atop the music charts. Any cultural revival would have to lean on Carey’s existing catalog, preferably tying to a moment in time that anyone could appreciate.
Ironically, the New Year’s debacle offered a path forward, thanks to its proximity to Christmas.
Carey released Merry Christmas in October 1994. At the time, the idea of a mainstream pop star, at the height of their success, releasing a holiday album was novel: the genre was populated mainly by adult contemporary and non-secular artists singing Christmas standards. Carey and frequent collaborator Walter Afanasieff took a different approach, peppering classics like “Silent Night” and “Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town” with their own compositions. One of those songs was “All I Want for Christmas Is You,” a sparkling uptempo with ‘60s melodies and Phil Spector-esque production about eschewing all the seasonal comforts for quality time with the one you love. Timeless yet tantalizingly modern, “All I Want for Christmas Is You” felt like a song that could join “White Christmas” and “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year” as a verified holiday classic. Its initial chart performance bore that out: it peaked at #12 on the U.S. airplay chart (the lack of a physical single prevented it from charting on the Hot 100) and #2 in the UK, just missing out on the Christmas number-one.
Christmas would remain a significant part of Carey’s career: she released the follow-up Merry Christmas II You in 2009 and performed several times during the season throughout the years. As “All I Want for Christmas Is You” aged into its 20s, the song presented her with the opportunity to fully embrace her festive side and tap into the growing nostalgia that Generation X and older millennials felt listening to it. While the iTunes era helped the song re-chart modestly throughout the 2000s, streaming services opened up a lucrative new mode of consumption, where people could endlessly stream “All I Want for Christmas Is You” to get into the holiday spirit. In December 2017, nearly a year after the New Year’s performance, the song peaked at #9, its first top 10 placement. That same month, Carey expanded her holiday-themed concerts beyond its original residency at the Beacon Theatre in New York to France, England, and Las Vegas.
As Carey’s persona shifted closer to the holiday, media outlets began labeling her the “Queen of Christmas,” noting her song’s ubiquity and her increasingly festive appearances. Some might’ve bristled at the honorific, but Carey went all-in. She became the ultimate authority on the right time to celebrate Christmas, teasing fans on social media with videos declaring that is was“not yet” time to break out the decorations. She appeared in holiday-themed commercials, released a children’s book named after her seminal holiday classic, and designed her own Swarovski Christmas decorations. She also developed several television specials, including Mariah Carey’s Magical Christmas Special and its sequel Mariah’s Christmas: The Magic Continues for Apple TV+.
Carey’s embrace of Christmas has canonized “All I Want for Christmas Is You,” transforming it from a novelty into a legitimate chart hit. In 2019, the song topped the Hot 100 a quarter-century after its release, becoming her 19th number-one single and the first holiday song to top the chart since “The Chipmunk Song” in 1958. The song reached #1 again in 2020 and will likely reach the summit again before this year is over. The song was certified Diamond by the RIAA this month, denoting 10 million units sold. It also went #1 in Canada, the UK, Australia, France, Germany, and several other countries.
Carey’s Christmas is both a natural progression of her genuine love for the holiday and one of the most remarkable entertainment recoveries in modern history. You can view Carey’s “Queen of Christmas” title cynically, but she couldn’t have pulled it off if “All I Want for Christmas Is You” wasn’t an undeniable holiday classic from the beginning. Several mainstream artists have released Christmas albums and singles since 1994, but none have reached the cultural penetration that Carey has (the closest competitor is Wham!’s “Last Christmas,” released a decade earlier). Carey claiming the holiday season as her own has certainly been advantageous, assuring her cross-generational relevance at a point when the industry has abandoned her new musical output. (None of the singles from Caution charted on the Hot 100, released the same year “All I Want for Christmas is You” hit number-one.) Where her contemporaries have either embraced their legacy status or struggled to assert their relevance, Carey has the best of both worlds, becoming virtually indispensable to the zeitgeist (at least for two months).
Mariah Carey would be considered a music legend without “All I Want for Christmas is You,” with her melismatic voice and arsenal of hit singles. However, that song and what it has come to represent has pushed the diva into rarefied air. There’s no way she could’ve known this making the album in 1994, but Christmas has made Mariah Carey into a pop culture immortal. You can laugh at the memes (they are funny) or complain whenever those opening piano notes play, but in an age when it’s easier than ever for people and songs to disappear, she is here to stay.