Mariah Carey’s Christmas tyranny is all I want

THIS Christmas will be the 29th since Mariah Carey released “All I Want for Christmas is You”. It’s been part of the holiday soundtrack for the entire lives of Gen Z and Generation Alpha. And for a substantial part of mine, though I can still remember life before all those melismas. 

I’m a late boomer, born the year after the release of “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” by Brenda Lee. “White Christmas” by Bing Crosby, first recorded in 1942, was already a venerated secular classic. Both remain at the top of the all-time holiday playlist. 

I must admit, for a couple of yuletides, I was glad to hear Carey’s song get more play than the melancholy, slightly vengeful “Last Christmas” by Wham!, even if I did idolise George Michael. 

Since then, however, her dominance has become almost tyrannical: The song’s bouncy cheer refuses to let go of shops, restaurants, airport lavatories and the playlists you’re forced to listen to when put on hold over a complicated gift order. 

Even out of earshot, I would be possessed by the tune, unable to get it out of my head. It would repeat and repeat like some demonic mantra. 

But real-life repetition has been the gift that keeps on giving for the superstar. Estimates are that the song has made more than US$60 million (RM279.66 million) for Carey since 1994. The age of streaming has increased revenue: fr-casino spot, a French betting app, estimates the song has generated more than US$7.5 million from its 1.5 billion streams on Spotify. 

It’s everywhere you turn, blasting out as if the spirit of Christmas has to be pounded into you. I’ve dashed out of rooms when it plays, just to avoid the rhythm getting to me. 

I don’t dislike Christmas songs. “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” is one of my favourite pieces ever, though it’s a contest between Frank Sinatra’s version and Judy Garland’s. 

Ol’ Blue Eyes apparently thought this line was too sad: “Through the years, we all will be together, if the fates allow. Until then we’ll have to muddle through somehow” — and replaced the end with “Hang a shining star upon the highest bough” to rhyme with the pay-off: “So have yourself, a merry little Christmas now.” 

Sinatra’s tweak has that genius commercial quality — expectation — but Garland’s had a noir melodrama, the kind of bittersweetness that defines the season for many of us who can’t respond to “Hark! the Herald Angels Sing”. 

Carey’s lyrics — which music industry lore says were written in 15 minutes — feel like lots of other songs scrunched together, a net covering everything from “All I Want for Christmas Is My Two Front Teeth” to “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town” and “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” to “Santa Baby” (by Eartha Kitt in 1953, Madonna in 1987). 

Admittedly, it’s constructed with a winning wall of voices reminiscent of the Ronettes or Martha and the Vandellas (tell me you can’t hear “Be My Baby” and “Dancin’ in the Street”). 

So, we’re at the node in the essay when my argument has to make its logical and dramatic turn.

I have to confess it isn’t a rational denouement. I was at the holiday party of one of my favourite London restaurants last Christmas when the subject of seasonal songs came up. 

I immediately made clear my opinion about “All I Want for Christmas”. A friend differed quite vehemently. It’s a wonderful song, she said, so perfect for the season. 

It gets you in the mood for celebration even after a year that hasn’t been worth it. “It’s all about the chance to be happy,” she said. 

Then the song came on and she asked me to dance. We did. 

The nostalgic amalgam of cultural and musical references, if you stopped thinking about them, all came together like… a shining star upon the highest bough. As a wise man wrote, “Just dance”. 

A few days later, the rector at my church gave his Christmas sermon. He took as his scriptural passage Mariah Carey’s lyrics but with a twist. He said to hear the song as if the Christ Child was saying it…to you. I laughed. But I haven’t been able to hear the song the same way ever since my friend Millie asked me to dance to it and the preacher gave it a Jesus spin. 

Then I came upon this presumably tongue-in-cheek paean to Carey’s song in The Atlantic by Emma Green from 2015. It’s over-the-top — and Green’s line-by-line analysis of the lyrics is subversive and hilarious — but it’s worth pondering: “Carey’s masterpiece is an incredible feat of philosophical subterfuge. Christmas is a time of material and affection-based excess, yet the song is narrowly focused on just one thing: Getting to be with a specific person, eg you. It rejects the idea of love in general in favour of love in particular, simultaneously defying and defining pop-music conventions. With infinitely more economy of expression and undoubtedly catchier lyrics, ‘All I Want for Christmas Is You’ is a sort of Hegelian dialectic of Christmastime desire, taking the conflicting notions of abundance and specificity and packaging them neatly into an earworm for the generations.” 

Hark, the herald angel sings! Sometimes, you need a star to muddle through somehow. — Bloomberg

  • This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners. 

  • This article first appeared in The Malaysian Reserve weekly print edition