One of the most rewarding parts of being a music fan is picking a side and arguing for it to the ends of the earth. Pac or Biggie? Britney or Christina? Beatles or Stones? In the series Pop Battles, The Ringer tries to settle long-standing music rivalries using listener data from Spotify, the world’s largest music-streaming service. How are today’s young people connecting with the legendary artists of yesteryear, and what does it say about the way these artists will be interpreted in the future?
What did Mariah Carey mean when she said “I don’t know her” about Jennifer Lopez? Did she mean she had never met J.Lo in person? Or that she had never heard of J.Lo at all? Had J.Lo recently eclipsed Mariah on the charts? Was this one of those moments we’ve all experienced when you say you’re talking about Jennifer Lopez but you’re actually talking about Glitter? Was this somehow about Ja Rule?
None of these questions matter. Mariah Carey doesn’t know Jennifer Lopez, one of the biggest pop stars of her generation. Mariah Carey is also completely unconcerned that she doesn’t know Jennifer Lopez, one of the biggest pop stars of her generation, which she makes clear with a dismissive smile. The moment you find out who Mariah is referring to in this GIF, you know that Mariah Carey and Jennifer Lopez are enemies. That is what matters. Sometimes, the best pop rivalries are the simplest ones.
Mariah Carey is the most prolific pop star of the past 25 years. She dominated the ’90s, churning out seven albums that were certified a combined 48 times platinum. She had the biggest song of the 2000s. And here in the 2010s, she is the reigning queen of shade — her smirk is now a digital weapon that can be played on loop.
But I am not here to talk about how Mariah Carey’s “Oh whyyyyy” in the chorus of “Heartbreaker” is the sound of winter’s cruel ice finally thawing. I’m not here to talk about how Mariah once sang over a “Shook Ones (Part II)” sample and made it both sexy and sinister. I am not here to talk about how Mariah dealt with harassment from Eminem for years, then released a diss track response that was a top 10 hit. I am here to talk about the fact that Merry Christmas (1994) is the most popular Mariah Carey album on Spotify.
In terms of album sales, Merry Christmas ranks in the middle of Carey’s discography. But on Spotify it towers above multiple diamond-selling albums — and you can probably guess why. “All I Want for Christmas Is You” has more than twice as many streams as the next-most-popular Mariah song, with 117 million. The song will turn 22 years old this holiday, but it far eclipses more recent holiday tracks released by acts like Justin Bieber, Michael Bublé, Christina Aguilera, and Destiny’s Child.
“All I Want for Christmas Is You” benefits from being a Carey original that’s also the most modern song in the Christmas canon — most other holiday standards are decades older and have their listening audience split among countless covers. “All I Want” actually sounds like a cover — it’s easy to imagine a lo-fi version of this on A Christmas Gift for You From Phil Spector (1963) — but it was composed by longtime Carey collaborator Walter Afanasieff.
But it’s not just the hit single that makes Merry Christmas a unique Carey product in modern times. Every song on Merry Christmas has at least a million streams, which isn’t true of any of her other albums (including Me. I am Mariah … the Elusive Chanteuse (2014), released well into the streaming era). At 14 studio albums and 18 Billboard no. 1s (“Heartbreaker” is the best one), Mariah’s catalogue is too sprawling for the average young listener to make sense of. It’s only natural to stick to the hits — including world-famous Christmas staples — rather than to plod through the endless somber ballads that fill her albums, especially those of the ’90s.
For not being known, and having a smaller discography, J.Lo actually holds up surprisingly well in this matchup. In a less joyful world in which “All I Want for Christmas Is You” didn’t exist, she’d win the head-to-head in total streams. And when it comes to modern music, J.Lo is the more relevant artist. Her most-streamed song, “Ain’t Your Mama,” is from her upcoming ninth album and has more streams on its own than the entirety of Mariah Carey’s 2014 LP.
Lopez has managed to stay relevant by trying on lots of different (radio-friendly) genres to see what sticks. Her first album, On the 6 (1999), has the eurodance-inspired “Waiting for Tonight” and the Darkchild-produced R&B jam “If You Had My Love,” but it’s the Latin dance song “Let’s Get Loud” that has the most streams today. Later she got in the habit of offering up hip-hop remixes of her pop tracks (there’s an airy, forgettable, Ja Rule–less version of “I’m Real” on 2001’s J.Lo). And in recent years she’s pumped out cliché club bangers — which of course means Pitbull is now a frequent collaborator.
Even more so than with Mariah, what still matters here is the hits. There are very few J.Lo songs from the pre-streaming era that have managed more than a million streams besides the major singles. Her most recent album, A.K.A., is her most-streamed, indicating that people aren’t spinning her older LPs front to back too much.
But those old major singles really were huge. During what I’ll deem the pre-Gigli period, between 1999 and 2002, J.Lo released six songs that now have more than 10 million streams (“Jenny From the Block” is now the most popular). She also had a successful rom-com run. And by breaking up with Puff Daddy, she inspired the “I Need a Girl Pt. 1,” a blessing for which the world is still thankful. Mariah Carey has one song from this period with more than 10 million streams. And she released Glitter (the soundtrack to which is suspiciously absent from Spotify). No wonder she was salty enough to give birth to one of the internet’s most infamous GIFs.