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‘60 Songs That Explain the ’90s’: “All I Want for Christmas Is You” Is a Lot Sadder Than You Realize

On our latest episode of our journey through the music of the 1990s, we dive deep into the biggest holiday song of the past three decades and Mariah Carey’s long journey to happiness

Columbia Records/Ringer illustration

Grunge. Wu-Tang Clan. Radiohead. “Wonderwall.” The music of the ’90s was as exciting as it was diverse. But what does it say about the era—and why does it still matter? On our new show, 60 Songs That Explain the ’90s, Ringer music writer and ’90s survivor Rob Harvilla embarks on a quest to answer those questions, one track at a time. Follow and listen free exclusively on Spotify. Below is an excerpt from Episode 7, which looks at the backstory and legacy of Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas Is You.”

It’s time. It’s time meaning it’s December. December belongs to Mariah Carey. What are the essential new Christmas songs released in Mariah Carey’s lifetime? “Last Christmas” by Wham. “Wonderful Christmastime” by Paul McCartney. (It’s a great song. I’m not arguing with you about this.) “Christmas in Hollis” by Run-DMC. “Christmas Wrapping” by the Waitresses. (You know it.) And “All I Want for Christmas Is You” by Mariah Carey. That’s the list. “All I Want for Christmas Is You” came out in 1994 and sounds several eons older than that, in the best way. On impact—the very first time you heard Mariah belt out that very first chorus—it sounded classic, it sounded timeless, it sounded like it was playing in the manger when Jesus Christ was born.

And it’s an incredibly sad song. I’m not trying to ruin “All I Want for Christmas Is You” for you. Quite the contrary. I’m trying to heighten it. I’m trying to deepen it. The question before us today is who was the you in “All I Want for Christmas Is You.” I fear that the answer, as Mariah Carey tells her story now, is that there was no you. There was nobody. She had nobody, really. This song is a fantasy. This song is aspirational. This song is a reminder that pop music—and maybe especially Christmas-themed pop music—can be as transportive for the singer (and the songwriter) as it is for the listener. I’m trying to give you a sense, for mid-’90s Mariah Carey anyway, of what the fates allowed, and what they did not allow.

For starters—and this is important to remember—mid-’90s Mariah Carey is rich and famous. Not unprecedentedly so, but pretty close. She was born and mostly raised in Long Island; her self-titled debut album came out in 1990. She was 21 years old. Mariah Carey, the album, spent 11 weeks at No. 1 on the Billboard album chart, spawned four no. 1 singles, ultimately sold 15 million copies worldwide, and won her two Grammys, including for Best New Artist. She’s won five Grammys total, Mariah Carey, so far in her 30-year career. If there’s ever cause to be offended on someone’s behalf because they’ve won only five Grammys, now’s the time.

I think of Mariah Carey as the Eddie Van Halen of ‘90s pop vocalists: astounding technical ability but bent to the service of equally astounding songs. Pop songs. Eddie had finger-tapping, had shredding; Mariah has the whistle register, and of course has melisma, which is when you turn a one-syllable word into a 35-syllable word. But at their respective heights, these two people were never just showing off. It’s the difference between stunts and hooks. Over her first few blockbuster albums you can hear Mariah honing her craft but in a way that feels effortless, and natural, and graspable. Each one of those 35 syllables tells a story. Each syllable is necessary. This isn’t empty technique. Everything is in its right place.

In 1993, Mariah Carey married Tommy Mottola, the chairman and CEO of her record label, Sony Music. Tommy, it appears, was not the dreamlover in question. Not a happy marriage. For more on this topic I refer you to her autobiography, The Meaning of Mariah Carey, cowritten with Michaela Angela Davis and published in September 2020. Not a happy book. It is bleak, man. It is Dickensian. It’s like if Oliver Twist had five-octave range. It was the worst of times, and then she married Tommy Mottola.

Mariah’s mother was a white opera singer of Irish descent whose family disowned her for marrying Mariah’s Black father. They divorced when Mariah was little, and she struggled, growing up, with her biracial identity. She writes, “My first encounters with racism were like a first kiss in reverse.” She endures a barrage of racial slurs from her white classmates; there’s another agonizing scene when she’s afraid to dance for her grandmother, her father’s mother, because if Mariah dances poorly, that might prove she’s not her father’s daughter, she’s not really Black.

So that little girl gets rich and famous. And she fears, justifiably, that her family now views her primarily as a bankroll. In fact, Mariah says now that she married the swaggering and terrifying and all-powerful Tommy Mottola not so much for love, but because he could protect her from her own family. But Tommy’s idea of protection was to lock her away. It’s a fairy-tale romance in the Rapunzel sense. The happy newlyweds owned a multi-million-dollar mansion in upstate Bedford, New York, that Mariah’s husband transformed into a luxurious panopticon: guards, cameras, intercoms so his voice could follow her everywhere.

Mariah refers to this house as Sing Sing, as in the prison. She was always being watched and was never allowed to leave on her own; there’s a very silly and also profoundly sad scene in the book where Mariah’s in her fancy home studio recording with the rapper Da Brat and they concoct this elaborate Ocean’s Eleven–type scheme to sneak out, jump into one of Mariah’s own cars, and go get fries at Burger King, and come right back. That’s it. It’s framed as an unimaginable act of rebellion, just as many of her biggest early hits are now framed as super-cheery and carefree glimpses into an alternate universe the real Mariah Carey could only dream of inhabiting. She writes, “I created the fun and free girl in my videos so that I could watch a version of myself be alive, live vicariously through her—the girl I pretended to be, the girl I wished was me.”

Mariah Carey’s fourth album is called Merry Christmas. It came out in 1994, the year after Mariah and Tommy got married. There are 10 songs, on the original. Respectfully, I don’t have much to say about nine of them. They’re lovely. They’re fabulous. One broader note: Mariah writes a lot about how Tommy was visibly uncomfortable with her biracial identity, and had Sony frame her as, essentially, a white artist, and an “adult contemporary” artist. Whereas Mariah was naturally, and shrewdly, drawn to more contemporary R&B and even hip-hop. In 1995 she’d collaborate with the Wu-Tang Clan’s Old Dirty Bastard on the hugely successful “Fantasy” remix, and this, too, is portrayed as an unimaginable act of rebellion. Tommy didn’t get the appeal at all: ODB was boisterous and calamitous and by no means an old-guard label boss’s idea of a modern pop star. Mariah saw what was coming. Her husband did not.

To hear the full episode, click here, and be sure to follow on Spotify and check back every Thursday for new episodes on the most important songs of the decade. This excerpt has been lightly edited for clarity and length.