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"All I Want for Christmas Is You" — and to have this song explained

Mariah Carey performs her Christmas classic
Mariah Carey performs her Christmas classic
Getty

"All I Want for Christmas Is You" is the greatest Christmas song written in the last 25 years — and the most popular, too.

It is one of a handful of late 20th century songs readily accepted into the Christmas canon, and it's almost universally praised by critics for its bouncing chords and Mariah Carey's pristine vocal technique. With its upbeat melody, "All I Want for Christmas Is You" combines the nostalgia of Christmastime cheer with the popularity of a great love song.

But how did it get to be such a standard of the season? Here's everything you need to know:

1. How popular is this song?

The only reason "All I Want for Christmas Is You" never hit number one on the Billboard Top 40 is because of poor planning on the part of Carey's record label. The song was never released as a single in 1994 (the year of its release and height of its popularity), and, thus, it could never hit the top of the charts. Understandably, sales for Christmas songs and albums drop steeply after the holiday. That Top 40 pinnacle, however, is probably the only major popular milestone that the song hasn't crushed.

Merry Christmas, the album the song is buried on, is the ninth best-selling holiday album of all time. Every single year since the Billboard holiday chart — which includes airplay, sales, and (as of this year) streaming — was introduced in 2011, "All I Want for Christmas is You" has settled snugly at the top. This year, it hit no. 1 in the second week of December, topping both age-old classics and Ariana Grande's new release "Santa Tell Me." In terms of Christmas sales, Carey is the Queen Bee.

2. Can I listen to the original song as a refresher?

Of course. Here's Mariah Carey in the original music video made in 1994.

There were actually three music videos made for this song because that's how popular it is. This is the first one. Here is the second video:

We'll get to the third video in a bit.

3. What's the story behind the song?

Carey made this song as a part of the aforementioned Merry Christmas, a 12-song album. Merry Christmas was, at the time, a strange choice for Carey. She was a young, rising star and Christmas albums in the early 90s were mostly being made by stars past their prime. The fact that "All I Want for Christmas is You" wasn't released as a single, means that her label wasn't particularly impressed with the song, if not the entire album. They were wrong. Popular artists make Christmas albums every year, despite the existence of so many other Christmas albums. These albums are perennial hits. They make artists a ton of money, selling copies year after year when the holiday season rolls around.

But Carey has also said that she made the album because of a deep and long-lasting love of Christmas. She said in Chris Nickson's biography of her:

"I'm a very festive person and I love the holidays. I've sung Christmas songs since I was a little girl. I used to go Christmas caroling. ... When it came to the album, we had to have a nice balance between standard Christian hymns and fun songs. It was definitely a priority for me to write at least a few new songs, but for the most part, people really want to hear the standards at Christmastime, no matter how good a new song is."

"All I Want" is also, ostensibly, about Carey's husband at the time, Tommy Mottola, adding an emotional component to the song's composition.

4. Who wrote the song?

Mariah Carey

Mariah Carey performs a Christmas concert (Paul Morigi/Getty)

Walter Afanasieff and Carey herself co-wrote "All I Want for Christmas is You." Legend has it that the two cranked out the entire song in a burst of creative inspiration that left them, after just 15 minutes, with the complete song.

"To me, it's kind of a cosmic occurrence that happens once every five billion years," Afanasieff told Billboard in October. "We feel lucky, because it was the last major song to enter that Christmas canon. Then the door slammed shut. [Although] I'm sure there's going to be another one; there has to be."

There was another song also titled "All I Want for Christmas is You" performed by Vince Vance and the Valiants and sung by Lynda Lyle five years before Carey made the title famous. Though the two songs bear the same title— and idea of wanting your loved one for Christmas — they have very different melodies and lyrics and entirely different copyrights. There is no evidence that the 1989 song influenced Mariah Carey's version.

5. Why do people love the song so much?

For one thing, people just love Mariah Carey. In her prime, Carey's absurd vocal range allowed her to hit one of the highest notes ever produced by a human being (the G-sharp located three-and-a-half octaves above middle C). She also holds the record for the most No. 1 songs in history, ahead of Elvis and the Beatles.

But it's not just Carey. The song itself is great — well-written and well-produced. It's a truly magnificent Christmas song.

As Adam Ragusa argued for Slate, "All I Want for Christmas is You" sounds like a classic. "'All I Want for Christmas is You' does more than subtly evoke memories of Judy Garland and Nat King Cole’s Christmases gone by. It sounds more like it could have been written in that era and locked in a Brill Building safe that wasn’t cracked again until 1994, when Carey needed a new song for her Christmas album," he wrote.

Ragusa counted 13 different chords in Carey's song, which is something completely unheard of in modern rock and pop, where most songs have three or four chords. That makes the song sound much, much older than it actually is. Thus, it subconsciously influences you into thinking you're listening to a Christmas standard.

6. Has the song been in the news lately?

mariah carey 2014

Mariah Carey at the82nd Annual Rockefeller Christmas Tree Lighting ( Paul Zimmerman/Getty)

Yes. Carey's famous vocal range has faded as she has aged. On December 3, she performed the song at the tree-lighting ceremony at New York's Rockefeller Center. When it was time for her performance, Carey arrived late. That late arrival might be why, when a video emerged with her vocals isolated, she sounded terrible.

In the viral video, Carey is off-tempo and can't hit the high notes she is so well-known for. This could have been due to a lack of warm-up time or bad noise reduction on stage. Or Carey could have lost some of the notes in her upper-register due to vocal decay, age, or a combination of both. Many fans tried to write off Carey for her performance. This is a little unfair to Carey as an artist. On one hand, audiences are notably critical of live performances, and for Carey to flop on her biggest hit is embarrassing. On the other hand, live performances have become such a hotbed of criticism that artists might feel like they need to use heavy backing tracks and back-up singers instead of simply adjusting the range of the song as they might have done in the past.

7. Is that the only controversy with this song?

Nope! In 2011, at the height of Justin Bieber's fame, he and Carey recorded a remixed version of the song for his Christmas album, Under the Mistletoe. In the opening sequence for the music video, Carey stands with her leg bent against the wall, wearing a two-piece elf costume that shows part of her upper abdomen. When Bieber strolls around the corner, staring open-mouthed at Carey, she winks at him.

The two barely interact at all during the duet, but the age difference (Carey was 41 and Bieber was 17) was enough to get people angry about both the seductive nature of the song and the over-the-top objectification of an older woman by a young male pop star.

8. What are some popular covers of the song?

As with any popular Christmas song, "All I Want for Christmas Is You" has been covered many times. Since 1994, dozens have covered the song, including Shania Twain, Miley Cyrus, Michael Bublé, Cee Lo Green, and Fifth Harmony.

Because of the way music licensing works, any artists can cover any song for a flat fee and gain their own performance copyright. Thus, they can collect royalties from a song that has already been created, while Carey and Afanasieff are paid for the songwriting copyright. Thus, the frequent covers of the song are also beneficial to Carey and Afanasieff. It's hard to say if this is the most lucrative song Carey has ever been associated with, but it has to be near the top of that list.

9. What's the best version of the song?

Carey's original version remains the best. But if you're looking for a cover to mix up your Christmas playlist a little bit, you can't go wrong with Ariana Grande's cover. After all, she's a baby Mariah: