Anyone capable of croaking out a note these days now puts out Christmas records. We are oversaturated with them, and they come and go with barely a whimper.
You can think of some the reasons why — banalization, cannibalization — but it may simply be because every year for the past 19 years, a juggernaut has blown them all away: “All I Want For Christmas Is You,” by Mariah Carey.
We wanted to learn more about what went into creating something so utterly dominant, so we called up Walter Afanasieff, who co-wrote the song.
Carey is obviously the star of “Want,” but Afanasieff composed all the music. By the time the song came around, Afanasieff had already been Carey’s main songwriting partner for five years. He was also a driving force behind the two hit singles immediately preceding “Want”: “Hero” and “Without You.”
Recording a Christmas album was basically unheard of in 1994, Afanasieff says, and a bit of a risk. Back then, top 40 Christmas songs in the U.S. had practically died out, having been deemed too sleepy for Gen-Xers.
But Carey had entered the height of her powers, and things were going so well that they figured they could get away with it. Plus, Afanasieff says, Carey just loves Christmas, both for its festive and religious trappings.
So in June 1994, they started writing songs for a Christmas album. Carey had Christmas lights and decorations strung up to set the mood. There would be three singles, and thanks to some nudging from Tommy Mottola, Carey’s Bronx-born husband and impresario at that time, one of them was going to be a more upbeat, propulsive number in the mode of Phil Spector’s ’60s Brill Building pop sound. Indeed, the song in many ways resembles the Spector/Darlene Love hit “Baby Please Come Home.”
With that directive in mind, Afanasieff says he’d come up with a basic chord structure when he and Carey sat down at a piano to write the tune at the house she was renting with Mottola in the Hamptons.
Initially, Afanasieff admits, he blanched at where Carey took the vocal melody.
“My first reaction was, ‘That sounds like someone doing voice scales … Are you sure that’s what you want?’”
But Carey was adamant, and after a few hours, they had the main elements of the song.
“She would sing a melody and I would do a chord change … it was almost like a game of ping-pong, back and forth, until we had it.”
He flew back to California to have the song recorded by a live band in a studio, but he said they failed to capture its essence, so he ended up using his first, personal arrangement. With the exception of the background vocals, everything you hear on “Want,” — the piano, the effects, the drums, the triangle — were played or programmed by Afanasieff.
Five months later, the song was out. Afanasieff claims he had no clue he’d come up with a smash, and that he’s not even sure if he recalls the day it was released. “My reaction was ‘Oh cool, I got another song on the radio.’”
But the track soon became ubiquitous as Christmas 1994 approached.
The next year, it did so again. And again and again. It’s since sold at least 14 million copies, and this year will again sell one million copies in the U.K. alone.
It’s gotten to the point, Afanasieff says, where he has an informal competition every year with Jem Finer, the Pogues member who co-wrote their Christmas smash “Fairytale of New York,” to see which song does better over the holidays.
So why does he think the song has become so huge?
“It’s not about the song structure, it’s not about the production, it’s not about the rhythm … there’s no secret formula,” he says, although he says having Mariah Carey’s voice helped.
But, he says, it contains several novel elements that have sustained its success. There are almost no other uptempo songs in the American Christmas canon, he notes, let alone ones packed with something approaching Carey’s vocal fireworks. It also helped that, although it was a Christmas song, it didn’t focus on any of the typical, children-oriented Christmastime iconography like Santa or Rudolph. “It’s more adult,” he said. More than anything, according to what people tell him, it’s really a song about love and romance that also happens to be about Christmas .
Combine those elements, and you get a monster hit.
But while the entertainment industry will notoriously throw money to clone any successful product, Afanasieff says they’re barking up the wrong tree with Christmas.
“The last thing I would tell a record company is to make another ‘All I Want For Christmas Is You.’”
“Want” is definitively the most successful song he’s ever been involved with — though he also produced “My Heart Will Go On,” whose sales come close. He gets hundreds of requests to license the track for covers or other material. But while he’s enjoyed the financial rewards from the song, he gets uncomfortable when people call the song a cash cow.
“I hate that,” he says. “The commercial part was not the point in any way.”
The reward, he says, is humble appreciation that he gets to be associated with a song the rest of the world has added to the Christmas canon.
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