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Wednesday, July 27, 2022

July 27, 2022: Christmas (Songs) in July: Mariah and Marketing Christmas

[On July 30, 1942, Bing Crosby’s “White Christmas” was released. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy Crosby’s classic and other Christmas and holiday songs, for a little flavor of the season here in mid-summer!]

On an authentically wonderful holiday ballad, and the frustrating tradition it helped create.

First things first, lest I call down the wrath of the Lambs upon me: I wrote in my Valentine’s series a few years back about how much I had come to appreciate and enjoy the music, and especially the songwriting skills, of Ms. Mariah Carey. Before I get to her perennially chart-topping Christmas classic, I’d ask you to check out that post for my overall thoughts on Carey’s impressive talents and career.

Welcome back! In 1994, with her career still relatively young but her place on the music scene already well-established, Carey decided to make her fourth studio album a Christmas album, with the lead single a new holiday classic. That album became Merry Christmas (1994) and the song, recorded in August but released as a single on October 29th, was “All I Want for Christmas Is You.” While it had been a while since there had been a truly smash new Christmas track—probably dating back a decade earlier, to Wham!’s “Last Christmas” (1984)—the idea of popular artists recording such songs was obviously not new (cf. the 1940s Bing Crosby classic that’s the reason for this seasonal series). And Carey’s Christmas song blended perfectly her signature sound and vocals with classic Christmas carol vibes, making it, as The New Yorker would later put it, “one of the few worthy modern additions to the holiday canon.” And canonical it has certainly become—there’s a running joke that the Christmas season truly begins each year when Carey’s song is first played, and it’s no joke how much it dominates the charts late in the year every year.

It is likely quite difficult to understand today how much of a risk Carey was taking with this music; as her longtime songwriting partner Walter Afanasieff later noted, “Back then, you didn’t have a lot of artists with Christmas albums. It wasn’t a known science at all back then.” Thanks in no small measure to the massive success of Carey’s song and album—indeed, I would argue thanks almost entirely to that—the opposite has become true over the subsequent quarter-century: now, countless artists put out Christmas songs if not entire Christmas albums every year, following a very well-established and –trodden formula, a known science if there can be ever such a thing for hit records. Again, popular musicians and bands have put out Christmas and holiday songs for at least a century, so each and every one of these individual artists has every right to do so as well. But the cumulative effect has been to so thoroughly saturate the market that not only do none of the individual songs or albums stand out, but the very idea of a Christmas carol or a holiday anthem, of a song written to celebrate this particular occasion, feels that it’s become just another part of the music industry machine. And that is most definitely not all I want for Christmas.

Next holiday song tomorrow,


PS. What do you think? Other holiday songs you’d analyze?

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