SlateWhy Is This Song No. 1?

Why Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas Is You” Is Finally No. 1

For her wish to come true, it took changes in technology and chart rules. Jimmy Fallon didn’t hurt, either.

At a time of year that brings us oft-told holiday fables and yarns about Christmas miracles, the moral of this story is simple: When it comes to the Billboard charts, never, ever count out Mariah Carey. In the same year Carey experienced the defeat of a storied Billboard chart record, she sets another, more singular and improbable one: the longest trip to No. 1 of any Hot 100 hit, ever.

That song—do I even need to say its name?—is “All I Want for Christmas Is You,” a 1994 recording from Carey’s album Merry Christmas that has emerged as the stealth hit of the past quarter-century, more popular than the industry, the public, or even Carey herself fully appreciated for most of those 25 years. It is now Carey’s 19th career Hot 100 No. 1, a triumph both improbable and yet inevitable. (I predicted this a year ago, and it wasn’t a hard call.) Barring any unexpected late-in-the-year challengers, it’s likely to be the final chart topper of the 2010s. Which, given that Team Mariah just world-premiered a brand-new high-concept music video for the 1994 song this week, seems virtually guaranteed at this point.

The ironies of this chart victory are manifold, not least because 2019 was going down as a year when Billboard’s history books were beginning to close on Carey. Just over four months ago, Carey and Boyz II Men’s 1995–96 megahit “One Sweet Day” was outlasted at No. 1 by Lil Nas X and Billy Ray Cyrus’ own collaboration, “Old Town Road.” It was not only a passing of the torch between pop generations. It felt like we were closing the book on the chart-conquering career of Carey, a Hot 100 titan whose last No. 1, “Touch My Body,” was more than 11 years ago. She hadn’t recorded a new Top 10 hit in a decade or even a Top 40 hit in more than six years. As she settled into a perennial Las Vegas revue that showcased her remarkable roster of, until recently, 18 No. 1 hits—the most of any soloist, and second only to the Beatles, with 20 U.S. No. 1s—Carey seemed on a permanent nostalgia tour of past glories, resigned to fall two short to the Fab Four in the record books. And now, at the age of probably 50 but possibly 49, Carey has her elusive 19th Hot 100 topper, just a couple of years younger than female record holder Cher was in 1999 when “Believe” rang the bell.

Notably, “All I Want for Christmas Is You” is Carey’s first chart topper of the streaming era on the charts, which goes a long way toward explaining, in raw-data terms, how this happened. Billboard reports that the song is tops this week in both digital metrics that contribute to the Hot 100: streams, where it racked up more than 45 million plays in the tracking week—a gargantuan number for such an old song—and digital sales, where it sold 27,000 dollar downloads last week, another number that would not be remarkable except for the fact that it’s already sold 3.6 million downloads over the years, and folks are still buying it. As for the Hot 100’s third metric, radio airplay, the song this week “only” ranks 27th among radio hits. But the fact that it’s on the airplay chart in the vicinity of current hits by Halsey, Dua Lipa, and Arizona Zervas is exceptional. Carey’s new holiday standard ranks higher at radio than any other holiday favorite, from Bobby Helms to Burl Ives to José Feliciano.

This data breakdown is helpful as far as it goes. But explaining how “All I Want for Christmas Is You” had its biggest year ever in 2019 means going deep down the rabbit hole of American musical consumption habits and Billboard chart policy. (I will also have a new Christmas episode of my podcast Hit Parade next week that goes into even greater detail about the history of holiday music on the Billboard charts—with handy musical aids!) Basically, a perfect storm of technological and chartological ephemera conspired to give Carey this chart topper.

One thing to understand about Christmas and the Billboard charts is that the music-industry bible has never, in nearly a century of charting hit songs and albums, had a consistent policy on holiday music that lasted more than a few years. Sometimes Christmas songs were included on the Hot 100, and sometimes they were segregated on a separate Christmas or Holiday Songs chart. Going all the way back to the age of Bing Crosby and Nat “King” Cole, holiday hits would chart one year, disappear for a few years, then come back on a different chart. And some of these songs were album cuts, not issued as retail singles, which means that often they weren’t allowed on the Billboard hit parade at all.

This might sound frustrating, but I don’t blame Billboard—especially in that analog era—for its inconsistent approach. Simply put, holiday music is a hard fit for the charts. Keep in mind that the Hot 100, and most music charts, only reflect popularity a week at a time, and a typical chart run for a nonseasonal pop hit is a dozen weeks or more. So even when holiday songs were allowed on the Hot 100 back in the day, they would often have modest chart peaks—like Brenda Lee’s “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree,” an immortal holiday jam but only a No. 14 hit in 1960, thanks to its truncated four-week chart run. You’d be surprised how many bulletproof holiday hits—from Darlene Love to Vince Guaraldi to Wham!—either charted poorly, or not at all, in their day.

Conversely, this also helps explain how, in the entire history of the Hot 100, there’s been only one prior Christmas song at No. 1—and it’s by three imaginary singing rodents. That prior No. 1 Christmas single was “The Chipmunk Song (Christmas Don’t Be Late)” by the titular marmots but really David Seville, who (in)famously sang the song slowly and then sped his voice up to achieve the chipmunk voice. “The Chipmunk Song” topped the chart 61 years ago—in 1958, coincidentally the year the Hot 100 launched—and honestly, it’s more a relic of that year than a holiday song per se. As it happens, 1958 was a huge year for novelty records, and specifically singles with comically sped-up voices. Prior Billboard No. 1s that year included Sheb Wooley’s “The Purple People Eater” and the single that launched the tape-trickery trend, “The Witch Doctor” by David Seville—recording, at first, under his own name, before inventing the Alvin, Simon, and Theodore characters for his year-end single. “The Chipmunk Song” wasn’t No. 1 that December because it was a Christmas record. It was No. 1 because it was part of a then-hot fad.

So Carey’s chestnut is arguably the first Christmas record that feels like an actual Christmas song to hit No. 1. Of course, the very idea of what “feels” Christmassy is an ever-shifting yardstick. But Carey, cleverly, evoked a very specific holiday mode when she penned “All I Want for Christmas Is You” in 1994. By her own admission, she was replicating the peak girl-group sound of Phil Spector, as captured on his classic 1963 album A Christmas Gift for You. This various artists compilation was a showcase for the stable of acts on Spector’s Philles Records label, from the Ronettes to the Crystals, and for Spector’s legendary Wall of Sound production style. The album was basically a flop, and none of its tracks were hit singles—not even Darlene Love’s original “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)”—but after the LP entered the canon as one of the greatest albums, period, of all time, it became a standard. Evoking this sturdy girl-group template, the song Carey penned with her former producer-collaborator Walter Afanasieff sounded instantly familiar, with a sumptuously chromatic melody concocted by Carey and the Spector-esque “boogie-woogie piano” Afanasieff added to the track. Throw in Carey’s universal lyric of love and anti-materialism—sung, Eartha Kitt–style, by a woman who is actually very glamorous—and “All I Want for Christmas Is You” was destined for immortality.

And yet, for all that effort, the song wasn’t a hit in 1994, and it wasn’t just the built-in chart bias against holiday music. For starters, in 1994, Sony elected not to issue “All I Want for Christmas Is You” as a retail single, at a time when that was still required for a song to appear on the Hot 100. This was simply cold business logic. It would sell more Merry Christmas albums in the peak era for the compact disc. And Carey was at the peak of her imperial phase, racking up a string of No. 1s—given that most holiday songs over the prior four decades had underperformed on the Hot 100, why break Carey’s streak of chart-topping hits? So the only chart the song appeared on in the holiday season of 1994–95 was Billboard’s Radio Songs chart, where it peaked at No. 12—impressive for a Christmas song, though a bit low for Carey in this period.

That might have been the end of the story, if Billboard hadn’t made multiple chart rule changes over the next two decades. The first came in 1998, when the magazine caved to the labels’ great war against the retail single by allowing album cuts onto the Hot 100. One year after that change, during the holiday season of 1999–2000, “All I Want for Christmas Is You”—still an album cut—made its first Hot 100 appearance, at a lowly No. 83. Then, in 2003, Apple opened its iTunes Music Store, effectively kicking off the era of the legal dollar download. That holiday season, Carey’s holiday song was a Top 10–ranked download. By Christmas 2005, “AIWfCIY” actually ranked No. 1 among digital downloads—but now there was another Billboard rule to contend with. The Hot 100 restricted “recurrent” songs from reappearing on the chart, unless they were being actively repromoted to radio and music stores (generally a rarity, although in prior years, hits by the Beatles, UB40 and Queen were allowed to return). Christmas songs, in particular, were not permitted to return, given their short window of annual activity. So each holiday season from 2005 to 2011, Carey’s song would sell hundreds of thousands of downloads but remained absent from the Hot 100.

The last one-two punch that changed the Carey song’s chart fortunes came in 2012—and the first was sparked by a sad event. When Whitney Houston died in February of that year, her songs flooded the radio airwaves and sold piles of digital singles. Billboard’s editors took this occasion to make a rule change they’d been contemplating for a while. They would now allow recurrent songs—like Houston’s “I Will Always Love You,” which ranked among the Top 10 songs that week—to reappear on the chart, as long as they amassed enough points to make the Top 50. According to the magazine’s director of charts, the digital age had changed their calculus: “The line has blurred between the relevancy of new and older recordings.” Adding to the blurriness was the arrival of Spotify in America, which Billboard began tracking on its charts in the spring of 2012. Streaming gave the music industry a metric of music consumption that was much finer—and, vitally for Christmas music, faster. Now, even if a holiday song only generated sizable chart data for four or five weeks a year, that data would be massive enough and trackable enough to be meaningful on the big chart.

Carey’s Christmas song benefited from these 2012 rule changes within the first year. It didn’t hurt that, during that year’s holiday season, she appeared on Late Night to perform a special toy-instruments version of “All I Want for Christmas Is You” with host Jimmy Fallon, house band the Roots, and a classroom full of kids. The spirited performance spurred another wave of streaming and digital downloading of Carey’s 1994 classic—only, this time, after the Whitney Houston–inspired rule change, the song was eligible for the Hot 100. It redebuted on the big chart at No. 29. For the first time ever—in 2012!—“All I Want for Christmas Is You” was a Top 40 hit.

Three years after that, in the 2015 holiday season, Carey’s Christmas song broke into the chart’s Top 20. (She was joined that year on the Hot 100 by Brenda Lee, whose classic “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” was back in the Top 40 for the first time in 55 years.) Two years after that, at Christmas week 2017, “All I Want for Christmas Is You” broke into the Top 10. Streaming was now the single biggest factor on the Hot 100, and Christmas playlists from Spotify and Apple Music were fueling more holiday song streams than ever. On the Hot 100, Carey was joined in the Top 40 by recurrent holiday hits by Lee, Nat “King” Cole, Burl Ives, and Andy Williams. Then, just last year—the week after Christmas 2018—Carey had the No. 3 song on the Hot 100, and holiday songs took up 16 spots in the Top 40. Carey’s near miss at the top slot all but guaranteed the song would reach No. 1 in 2019, the song’s silver anniversary. Team Mariah left nothing to chance, releasing everything from a new version of the music video built out of outtakes from the original to a vintage live video of Carey singing the song at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine to—why not?—a release of the song as a physical single for the first time on CD and even cassette. All of this activity counts for the Hot 100.

In short, “All I Want for Christmas Is You” has long been a smash waiting for the metrics to catch up. Separately this decade, Billboard rebooted its former Christmas minichart as the Holiday 100, and ever since its launch in 2011, the Holiday chart has basically been the Mariah chart: “All I Want for Christmas Is You” was No. 1 on the first edition of the rebooted chart and has returned or held there for an absurd 38 weeks out of the 43 weeks it has existed. The more data we have, the more we realize how much Americans love this song.

Many have called “All I Want for Christmas Is You” the last Christmas standard. It’s been covered dozens of times since 1994, from an emo-rock version by My Chemical Romance to an adult-contemporary chart-topping version by Michael Bublé. So … will it also be the last Christmas song to top America’s flagship chart? At this writing, Brenda Lee’s “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” is ranked No. 3 on the Hot 100, suggesting it, too, is on its way to topping the chart, if not this year then maybe in another season or two. I doubt Carey would mind another song beating her mark for oldest single to top the Hot 100. She’s got a bigger target in the record books: getting that 20th No. 1 and finally beating the Beatles. Honestly, the path by which “All I Want for Christmas Is You” got to No. 1 is so fluky, I’m not sure how a fiftysomething Mariah Carey is going to duplicate the feat. But what did I say at the top? Even a Fab Four fan like me would be a fool to call the feat impossible. Never doubt that the elusive chanteuse will find a way to make her wish come true.

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