Dec. 2, 2020 12:00 pm ET
On a video call before Thanksgiving, Mariah Carey looks like she’s on a Christmas card come to life. The singer with 19 No. 1 songs to her name is wearing a dress with the sparkle of snow crystals, and her hair flows over her shoulders in frosty waves. She’s surrounded by gift wrapped packages, fuzzy pillows and white trees glowing with lights.
“I’m sitting here with eight trees in my house,” she says of the setting for the interview. “It’s completely over the top.”
It’s an apt description for Ms. Carey’s commitment to Christmas—and the bountiful seasonal business that has become a pillar of her career. Her 26-year-old song “All I Want for Christmas Is You” is the engine of one of the biggest holiday hit machines of all time. The song, off a 1994 Christmas album that initially seemed like a risky detour, only simmered for years as a staple of Christmas radio. But in the digital era it has undergone a miraculous ascent, thanks to its age-defying bop, the power of holiday playlists, the multiplying effects of the streaming ecosystem, and her fans’ ritual dedication to the song. She has built a franchise around the propulsive tune in recent years with alternate versions and videos, and a book and animated movie for kids.
This year’s big Christmas play: a TV special for Apple, an accompanying soundtrack album, and a new take on a later yuletide composition of Ms. Carey’s, “Oh Santa!” This version features Ariana Grande and Jennifer Hudson, and a girl-group production style that Ms. Carey conceived as “a Supremes moment.” “All I Want for Christmas Is You” snowballed to 309 million on-demand audio and video streams last year, according to Nielsen Music/MRC Data. That helped push it to No. 1 on Billboard’s all-genre Hot 100 songs chart for the first time. It got streamed more than chestnuts like Brenda Lee’s “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” and other latter-day standards like Wham!’s “Last Christmas.” As of Thanksgiving this year, her song had reappeared among the more fleeting hits on the chart (most recently at No. 14), where it’s almost guaranteed to climb as Christmas approaches.
In a year when musicians on every level were forced to regroup, Ms. Carey received a timely gift in the form of her Apple deal. It centers on “Mariah Carey’s Magical Christmas Special,” premiering Friday on the Apple TV+ streaming service. The partnership first took shape last February, she says—shortly after “All I Want” became the first Christmas song in 60 years to hit No. 1, and before coronavirus sent the entertainment industry into a deep freeze.
The special was shot earlier this fall under Covid-safety protocols, and features a celebrity lineup and a story line about Santa calling on Ms. Carey to help recharge holiday cheer. With live performances still off the table, the special gives Ms. Carey a stand-in for the run of Christmas-themed concerts she would normally do.
Streaming TV companies have been stocking up on holiday content that, like the music of the season, subscribers will turn to perennially. Apple recently acquired the rights to “A Charlie Brown Christmas” and other Peanuts holiday specials. The tech giant declined to comment for this article.
“I really do live from Christmas to Christmas,” she says. She monitors details from the color of tree lights (no yellow!) to crafting a new transition from “Sleigh Ride” into “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing,” which the singer says “is definitely a moment for me.”
What makes “All I Want For Christmas Is You” a holiday earworm (written and produced by Ms. Carey and Walter Afanasieff, once a frequent collaborator) is her swinging, stair-run vocals and a throwback ‘60s production style. It has gotten bumps in the past, including from a charming cover in “Love Actually,” a 2003 rom-com which itself became a holiday favorite. Yet “All I Want” didn’t register on the top-songs chart until 2012, when streaming started to catch on with listeners, and first counted toward the official ranking of hit songs.
The song’s exponential streaming growth is tied to the way its sound pairs with holiday numbers of any era. That versatility helped “All I Want” proliferate along with holiday playlists and the smart speakers people use to shuffle them. “She’ll be on pretty much any Christmas playlist, whether it’s a user-generated playlist or an algorithmic one,” says George Howard, a Berklee College of Music professor and industry veteran who managed Carly Simon. The result is an annual reignition of the “network effect” that amplifies content which is already popular, he says.
Ms. Carey also credits the efforts of her “Lambily”—her family of fans known
as“Lambs”—for putting “All I Want” on its path toward No. 1 with a social media campaign that encouraged people to stream the song nonstop and purchase digital downloads. “They did it. I wasn’t sitting at home maniacally trying to make that happen,” the singer says.
Music streams can translate to eye-popping numbers, such as the 658 million views on YouTube for the original “All I Want” video, shot in the style of a home movie when the song was first released. However, streams—from services such as Spotify and Pandora—generate less revenue than the payments and licensing fees that add up each time a tune gets played on the radio and television, and in stores, restaurants and other venues. On that front, “All I Want” likely generates many times the amount of money it does from streaming royalties, Mr. Howard estimates, with Ms. Carey getting paid as a composer, producer and performer of the song.
Ms. Carey is a veteran of holiday specials—she even directed a Hallmark movie, 2015’s “A Christmas Melody”—but her agreement with Apple steps up the production level and extras. Before the soundtrack to her special is released elsewhere, it will be exclusive for a week to the Apple Music platform, where Ms. Carey’s appearances include a six-hour show airing Christmas Day.
Being the Queen of Christmas (a moniker that arrived with the “All I Want” onslaught of recent years) means getting eye rolls from some people. “Cynics and Scrooges,” she calls them, who perceive her Christmas routine as a strategy for cashing in or compensating for a waning flow of new hits. The singer suggests that skeptics should read her recent bestselling memoir, “The Meaning of Mariah Carey,” which begins and ends with Christmas anecdotes. It also includes a chapter that traces her yuletide fixation back to sometimes painful memories of girlhood holidays. She wrote about her cash-strapped divorced mother making the best of it “in a house filled with disappointment and pain,” and an estranged brother and sister whose resentment of their younger sibling—“lighter hair, lighter skin, and a lighter spirit”—boiled over when they reunited at the holidays.
When she recorded her “Merry Christmas” album in 1994, it initially seemed like a move more suited to a singer on the wrong side of their peak, not one who had released her third album, the smash “Music Box,” just a year earlier and was still very much on the way up. Recalls Ms. Carey in the interview, “When I first did it I thought, ‘Am I really doing a Christmas song now? This feels very premature to me.’”
Now it seems prescient. The clockwork return of “All I Want” has been signaled by Ms. Carey in recent years with cheeky social-media posts that hit right after Halloween.
The early start is “an interesting phenomenon that I’m not even necessarily into,” says the singer, who is reluctant to rush the buildup to her favorite day of the year. “I love every holiday. Not every holiday—I’m not living for Groundhog Day—but I’m just saying I’m a very festive person.”