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Carey Cracked The Christmas Code: Preparing for Annual Chart Ascent

Mariah Carey has declared "it's time" for Christmas.
Mariah Carey has declared "it's time" for Christmas. By Courtesy of Mariah Carey @mariahcarey
By Leigh M. Wilson, Crimson Staff Writer

Take a look at the top-selling songs of 1990 and you’ll see Paula Abdul with her R&B groove “Opposites Attract,” New Kids on the Block’s disco hit “Step by Step,” and Vanilla Ice’s “Ice Ice Baby,” cited by many as introducing hip-hop to the mainstream. If you refresh to 2021, you’d see that a lot has changed except for one thing: Mariah Carey tops the charts in both years.

How does anyone maintain relevance across two generations? The answer lies in one track — a song that defies the normal rise and fall of the average pop hit. Instead, it enjoys perennial commanding popularity for four weeks every year. After months of dormancy, it suddenly plays incessantly in shopping malls, in a tight rotation on the radio, and in the trenches of social media. Even if listeners “don’t want a lot for Christmas,” “there is just one thing” that they can’t go without: Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas is You.”

There is a wide body of music scholarship on Mariah Carey’s 1994 single, as it continues to influence American pop music. Though the song has been charting on various lists since 1995, the “unofficial anthem of the holiday season” hit number one on the Billboard Hot 100 for the first time in Dec. 2019 and did it again in Dec. 2020

Carey and a few select others struck gold. The pop music canon relies on impermanence and rapidly changing tastes (when was the last time you listened to Rihanna’s “We Found Love,” the top song from this time just a decade ago?). Yet sometime in November every year, millions turn off their Saweetie and Polo G and switch to antiques like Burl Ives’ “Have a Holly Jolly Christmas” (1964), Andy Williams’ “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year” (1963) and Nat King Cole’s “The Christmas Song” (1961), as if they were written this year.

American Christmas art relies on a sense of collective nostalgia for midcentury simplicity; the black-and-white scenes of “It’s a Wonderful Life” make color film seem futuristic, the primitive animation of “Frosty the Snowman” and claymation of “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” look back to a time without CGI, and the big bands of our Christmas standards make listeners salivate for a time when jazz reigned supreme.

New additions to the canon must look back to the past in some way. Carey’s single is no exception. In a 1994 interview she said of the work: “It's very traditional, old-fashioned Christmas. It's very retro, kind of '60s,” in other words, harkening to the other Christmas staples that enjoy enduring popularity. It is no wonder that so much of our current Christmas music was recorded in the 1950s and ‘60s, or made to sound like it was.

It’s worth mentioning the immense sums of money hiding behind the sleigh bells and chimes. Carey herself makes a large six-figure sum in royalties every December from the song, and countless sales departments use the song to get potential customers in the Christmas (spending) mood. This past week, when Carey posted a video on Twitter in which she smashed a pumpkin with a candy-cane baseball bat while dressed in a Santa suit and declared “It’s time,” she began the annual economic rush to which she provides the soundtrack.

This December, like every December, it’s time to do exactly what you did last December. It’s time for families to lean into their traditions, visit grandparents, and reheat old customs to celebrate. As science fiction fans wait for the invention of time travel, they would do well to realize that the technology has existed for decades. Every December, we do our collective best to travel back to circa 1960 by consuming old art, dressing in old styles, and re-enacting old lifestyles. Mariah Carey in 1994 took advantage of this impulse and crafted the perfect time-machine song. Long after Carey is gone, she’ll still be offering rides back to a time she didn’t even live through. If history is any indication, we’ll also still be taking her up on her offer.

—Staff writer Leigh M. Wilson can be reached at

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