A musicologist explains why “All I Want for Christmas Is You” may become the most popular pop song ever

Me and Mariah.
Me and Mariah.
Image: Reuters/Star Max/IPx
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“All I Want for Christmas Is You” might be on its way to becoming the most popular US pop song of all time. I know, it’s tough to believe, but hear me out.

Mariah Carey’s Christmas anthem is already among the 20 best-selling singles ever, with over 14 million copies sold. Among the most popular songs of all-time, it is the only one getting more popular. The song was released in 1994, and in December 2017, for the first time, it cracked the top-10 of the Billboard Hot 100, the music industry’s standard for ranking current song popularity. Carey has already earned about $60 million in royalties on the song since its release, according to the Economist.

The current best-selling single of all time is Bing Crosby’s “White Christmas,” which has a big head start on “AIWFCIY”:” since it was released in 1942, the holiday classic has sold over 50 million copies. But in recent years Carey’s song has become more popular than Crosby’s. This holiday season, “AIWFCIY” has been by far the most streamed song on Spotify, while “White Christmas” is ninth. From 2013-2016, Carey’s song was the most-downloaded Christmas song with around 3.2 million purchases, according to Billboard, while Crosby’s wasn’t even among the top-10. It’s certainly possible that over the next several decades when you account for streaming on platforms like Spotify and YouTube,”AIWFCIY,” could soon surpass “White Christmas” in total commercial success.

What accounts for the song’s astonishing success? We turned to musicologist Nate Sloan, one of the hosts of the brilliant podcast Switched on Pop to find out.

Sloan’s theory is that the lyrics and harmonic structure of “AIWFCIY” combine perfectly to create suspense. The first verse, Sloan explained to Quartz, is a little emotional game Carey plays with us, telling us about the things she doesn’t want before revealing to us what she does. She doesn’t want “a lot for Christmas” or care about “presents underneath the Christmas trees.” All she wants for Christmas is—well, stay tuned.

“That’s a nice trick,” Sloan says. “But it might not be so effective if the chordal structure of the song wasn’t supporting this idea of building to a reveal.”

“AIWFCIY” is in the key of G major. Yet Sloan points out that the only times the song’s first verse uses the G-major chord is at the very beginning and the very end. This is noteworthy because G-major is the chord makes us feel most at ease when a song is in the G-major key. As listeners, we won’t feel relaxed until we hear the song return to that “home” chord.

“There are so many points in that chord progression where you think it gonna go back to where it started and instead she keeps dancing around it,” said Charlie Harding, the other co-host of Switched on Pop co-host, on a recent episode. This leaves us in a sort of auditory suspension: as we process Carey’s lyrics in anticipation of discovering what she really wants, we’re also waiting for accompanying melody to to resolve in a G-major chord. Both happen when Carey finally sings it: “All I want for Christmaaaas….iiiissss…you.” It’s so satisfying!

The other key to the song’s popularity is its old-school song structure, says Sloan. Starting in the 1960s, most popular music moved to the verse-chorus form, with a repeated multi-line refrain throughout the song. For example, Ariana Grande’s valiant 2014 attempt to join the holiday canon, “Santa Tell Me,” uses this form.

Carey’s song eschews modernity by using the AABA song structure popular in the 1940s and 1950s.  Christmas classics like “Frosty the Snowman,” “White Christmas,” and “Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” all use this structure. AABA songs have no chorus, but rather three “A” verses that have the same melody but different lyrics, and a “B” verse that has its own melody and lyrics.

Creating suspense and a little nostalgia. That is how you get what just might become the most popular song of all time.