How Mariah Carey’s “All I Want For Christmas Is You” Changed the Festive Music Game

This song is 20 years old. Bow down bitches.

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23 December 2014, 3:00pm

If there’s a common tie that binds us, it’s that after the first listen to “All I Want For Christmas Is You” every year, we’re ready not to hear it again for exactly 365 days. We don’t want to hear the original again, we don’t want to hear the updated version with Bieber, and we certainly don’t want to hear it within the confines of Love, Actually (which will now be considered only as the festive prequel to The Walking Dead).

In fact, if you’ve ever worked in a shopping centre over the festive season, you’ll recognize the first eight notes less as an indicator of Christmas cheer, and more as an anthem of perpetual woe. I mean, all some of us wanted for Christmas was a break long enough to eat stale pizza and buy any (any!) item for that Secret Santa we forgot about. With every bell chime and every Mariah high note, the song morphed into a manic countdown, all while in line to buy a £10 gift card: ALL (you have only two-minutes-if-you’re-lucky) I (to pay for this fucking HMV gift card) WANT (and get back to work) FOR CHRISTMAS (before your manager reminds you that your break ended 13 seconds ago) IS YOU (*sobbing*).

See? Tell me I’m not triggering flashbacks of you folding sweaters for hours, only for someone to destroy your life’s work because they were “just looking.” (Now feel the pain.)

I’m so sorry.

But let’s look at this shit. Let’s, for one minute in our lives, ignore that we spend no less than 148 hours listening to “All I Want For Christmas” over the course of December, and examine the masterpiece that Mariah Carey created. Like, already, Lana Del Rey would kill that bunny for a video quality so low. (And Mariah didn’t even need to mention James Dean.)

Yes, I will say it: Mariah Carey elevated—nay, improved—the Christmas music game. She took slow, plodding, melancholy dad music (that I still love, and I will admit that because I have nothing to hide) and turned Christmas into a goddamn rom-com soundtrack. She made, for a brief shining moment, shopping seem fun; like looking for parking was part of an adventure. And the reason’s simple: when this track dropped two decades ago, it was a lone, Christmas-loving wolf. In 1994, we were pre-Hanson “Snowed In.” We were pre-*NSYNC’s “Home for Christmas.” We were pre-”Goodbye” by the Spice Girls (which should always count as a Christmas song because they wear coats in the video). All we had was Band Aid (NOPE), and John Lennon giving us grief for being alive.

For fuck’s sake, even Wham! didn’t make us feel like this. (It made us feel like George Michael was wasting his angelic voice on somebody who obviously didn’t recognize.)

Thanks to Mariah, Christmas music became interesting. Despite her one-piece snowsuit and snow-thrown-in-the-air, it became less embarrassing, and less cliché, and a million times less ridiculous.

I mean, even when she pets a dog in antlers, I don’t want to walk into an avalanche because I’m hearing an adult person sing about Santa.

Which is something else Mariah Carey avoided here: her song wasn’t gross. Sure, it’s about wanting some guys for Christmas (meh, whatever), but she’s not whining in some Sexy Baby, faux-Marilyn voice. She’s not participating in “Baby It’s Cold Outside” culture. She’s not moping around, saying her Christmas will be “blue” because she’s single and/or alone. SHE IS SITTING BY A FIREPLACE HOLDING RABBITS AS IF SHE’S THE MOTHERFUCKING STAR OF THE HOLIDAY. (Which is also a movie that would have 100% been improved with the addition of Mariah Carey, thanks.)

Instead of running along with the holiday herd, Carey give the herd the finger, let them pass, and released one of the most compelling Christmas songs in existence. What’s even better is that the rest of her album doesn’t deign to tired holiday “I love you, but I’m saaaaaaaaaad” trope either: aside from “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home),” which is a Phil Spector cover, and “Miss You Most (At Christmas Time),” the album sticks to the classics, and centres even around religion (which makes sense because she has a gospel background).

Mariah Carey wasn’t some sad sack spending the entire season cooped up singing about lost love or watching mummy kiss Santa Claus; she was (and is) a pop star, who treated Christmas like any occasion that necessitates another hit.

Also, if this was wrapping paper, I would buy it:


Ultimately, Mariah Carey had the guts to flip the Christmas formula on its head and establish it as another opportunity to assert one’s musical relevance. Similar attempts were made previously, sure (enter: U2), but not since the 60s—and “Christmas in Harlem,” because it’s perfect—did Christmas have the capacity to be cool again. (Because let’s be real: there is nothing cool about “Wonderful Christmastime.” And also something very tragic about The Ramones getting festive.)

So subsequently—or predictably—Mariah Carey saved Christmas (music). Boy bands and Britney Spears and Destiny’s Child ended up releasing original, chart-bothering songs throughout the rest of the 90s, and now you’re not technically a pop star until you contribute something to December’s holiday-oriented catalogue (hi Ariana!). We may condemn “All I Want For Christmas” while at a 7-11 trying to find a last minute gift for that one fucking cousin, and we will certainly roll our eyes at Justin Bieber who dare touch it, but between our retail-evoked PTSD and arguments about why Love Actually is problematic, we still owe Mariah Carey kudos for releasing something that was, once upon a time, interesting.

Or at the very least, a Christmas song you could change over to if your mom thought “Fairytale of New York” was a little intense. Happy 20th, you ridiculous carol.

Follow Anne on Twitter: @annetdonahue