How Mariah Carey Sent ‘All I Want for Christmas is You’ to #1 After 25 Years
After twenty five years, Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas is You” has become the number one song in America. This feat has shattered numerous records, most notably for its 25-year-long rise to the top. It also solidified Mariah’s spot as the female artists with the most #1 songs on the Hot 100 and the soloist with the most #1 songs on the Hot 100.
The Hot 100 is generally regarded as the best measure of popularity for songs, but the chart is not without its flaws. Over time the chart has revised its policies to better measure the success of singles. Prior rules have prevented songs from charting despite their popularity. For much of its life “All I Want for Christmas is You” was unable to chart on the Hot 100, and even when it did chart its measure of success was flawed. As the algorithm for calculating the Hot 100 changed, the song continued to see increased success. Now, there’s not denying it: “All I Want for Christmas is You” is the most popular song in America.
While I recognize there are many charts designed to measure the success of songs, but Hot 100 is the most generalized chart and the biggest indicator of overall success. “All I Want for Christmas is You” has enjoyed success for the past 25 years, but I want to focus solely on its success on the Hot 100. Being a #1 song on the Hot 100 is a major accomplishment and an accolade, and no other chart is a stronger testament to a song’s popularity.
Mariah Carey’s 25 Year Climb to the Top
“All I Want for Christmas is You” never debuted on the Hot 100 upon its initial release. That’s not to say the song wasn’t popular, it’s been all over the airwaves since its release in 1994. In January of 1995 the song was charting at number 6 on the Adult Contemporary Charts and number 12 on the Hot 100 Airplay charts. However, Billboard wouldn’t allow the song to chart on the Hot 100 chart because it was not released as a commercial single. It wasn’t until 1998 that Billboard removed the rule banning non-commercial singles to chart.
In essence, this meant songs had to be released as a physical single in order to chart on the Hot 100. Before the digital age of music, customers could go to a store and buy a CD or cassette containing just a single song. “All I Want for Christmas is You” was part of Mariah’s “Merry Christmas” album and unavailable for individual purchase as a single when the album was released in 1994. When Billboard no longer required songs to be sold as a commercial single in 1998, they recognized the rule problematic for established artists. This rule was being abused by some labels who would release cheap singles for $0.49 allowing new artists to skyrocket up the Hot 100. Meanwhile, artists like Mariah Carey signed record deals and their labels wanted to sell the whole album, not just a single.
This meant “All I Want for Christmas is You” could finally chart in 1998, but it was still at a disadvantage. Songs released as commercial singles would have their success measured on sales and airplay. “All I Want for Christmas is You” could only rely on airplay. Still, the song debuted at #83 in January of 2000 due to its airplay during the 1999 holiday season. After a single week on the charts, the song fell off the Hot 100 and went into hibernation for nearly thirteen years.
Time passed and the climate of music sales changed. With the introduction of digital downloads, “All I Want for Christmas is You” could be purchased as a single via digital music stores like iTunes. The song saw significant success in digital sales during the mid-to-late-00’s, but was once again ineligible to chart on the Hot 100. At the time, older songs that had debuted on the Hot 100 were ineligible to return.
This rule sparked some controversies, not only around Christmas time, but also when songs would see a resurgence due to current events. A prime example would be in 2009 when Michael Jackson’s music saw a revival after his death. The Hot 100 failed to account for the popularity of his songs, though other charts indicated their popularity would have made them top ten singles had Billboard not prevented their reentry. Mariah Carey faced a similar struggle each year, especially with “All I Want for Christmas is You” topping the Digital Songs chart in December of 2005. A decade after its release, Mariah’s song was reach new heights of popularity but the Hot 100 failed to acknowledge this success.
When Billboard adjusted its policy in 2012 to account for streaming, they also allowed older songs to return to the Hot 100 if their popularity placed them in the top 50. In December of 2012, “All I Want for Christmas is You” returned to the Hot 100 at number 29. As of 2012, “All I Want for Christmas is You” has seen an annual return to the Hot 100, climbing higher each year. At this point, the Hot 100 was measured on three factors: radio airplay, streaming, and single sales (digital included). While “All I Want for Christmas is You” benefited from these new rules, some damage was done. Millions of digital copies had been purchased and unrepresented on the Hot 100 calculations. Plus, when those copies get played they don’t count toward streaming numbers.
Still, the song’s popularity persisted. In early 2019, thanks to the 2018 holiday season, the song hit its new peak of #3 before falling off the chart. In November of 2019 the song returned at #39 before climbing to #31, then to #18, then it re-peaked at #3, and now it’s #1. To reach the top of the chart the song was the most-streamed song in the US with 45.6 million streams and had the most digital song sales for the week with 27,000. It was also the #27 on the Radio Songs chart, a number I anticipate will increase as the holiday nears.
What Does this Mean for the Hot 100?
To put it simply, “All I Want for Christmas is You” hit #1 on the Hot 100 because it’s the most popular song right now. Yes, it’s impacted by the holiday, but streaming services have given us data confirming that customers choose to listen to holiday music. Mariah Carey created a seasonal earworm for the past 25 years. Now a whole new generation is able to appreciate the song.
Billboard’s rules have changed over time, but I applaud their commitment to find the song that’s truly the most popular during a specific week in time. This does mean the December months will see many Christmas songs reenter the Hot 100, but that’s because people are choosing to listen to Christmas music.
For Mariah Carey, she’s shattered numerous records with this song. However, if the Hot 100 was a more accurate reflection of true popularity in the 90’s I don’t think we’d be recognizing the song’s accomplishment today. It likely would have hit the top of the chart upon its release, or when it topped the Digital Songs chart in 2005, or any other year containing a Christmas holiday. There are only two ways to prevent the song from hitting #1: tweak Billboard’s algorithm or give the song better competition.
Last year the song peaked at #3 but never hit the top because Arianna Grande’s “Thank U, Next” held the top spot while Halsey’s “Without Me” sat at #2. These songs were just more popular that week, despite the competition from the holiday. “All I Want for Christmas is You” could have hit the top, but Arianna Grande’s single was a juggernaut during that time and overshadowed Christmas music. This year, we don’t have a powerhouse single from Arianna or Halsey to keep Mariah out of the top spot.
The end of the year generally has fewer songs and albums released than summer months or early fall. Competition tends to be less stiff, and perhaps “All I Want for Christmas is You” will remind record labels to release some good music before the end of the year. If they don’t give some real competition, the top of the charts may just default to Mariah Carey. This is not without its merits, Mariah’s song has been massively popular for a quarter of a centenary. I also anticipate the song will spend more weeks at the top of the Hot 100, likely non-consecutively, to prove its longevity.
This accomplishment will not go unnoticed, and record labels will try to recreate the magic. The promise of annual success is part of the appeal to recording Christmas music. Now that Christmas songs can receive chart success each year we’re likely to see a little bit more competition.
Whether you love the song or not, it’s chart dominance is an interesting feat and a product of changes to Billboard’s algorithm. After all, this is the first time in 61 years that a Christmas song topped the Hot 100. The last holiday song to top the chart was “The Chipmunk Song” by The Chipmunks in 1958–1959. Mariah Carey may not be everyone’s favorite, but anything is better than the Chipmunks.