The yuletide season, once relegated to Thanksgiving and after, has now been spotted as early as October — and the singer Mariah Carey’s perennial hit “All I Want for Christmas Is You” tracks with this new phenomenon.
An NBC News analysis of 15 years of Last.fm listenership data, which tracks tens of millions of songs played daily by millions of members around the world, found that the popularity of “All I Want for Christmas Is You” was once reserved for late November and December. But in the past decade — and the past three years, in particular — increased listenership for it has started in early November and even late October.
From the encroachment of festive tunes to a shift in when people begin holiday shopping, experts say the definition of what's understood as Christmastime is changing.
The rise of ‘All I Want for Christmas Is You’
In the late 2000s, people listened to Carey’s song more than average approximately 31 days in the final three months of the year. In the early 2010s, that number increased to 40 days, and in the past three years that figure has stretched as high as 78.
“Charts are dominated by the newest hit single, and the appetite for new music is the drive for climbing the charts — the only exception to that is Christmas,” said Nate Sloan, an assistant professor of musicology at the University of Southern California. “It has very much to do with the emotional support we draw from this holiday.”
Since its 1994 debut on Carey’s first holiday album, “All I Want for Christmas Is You” has taken on a life of its own — becoming a fast holiday classic despite its short lifespan, spawning multiple covers and collaborations and climbing the music charts year after year.
Sloan attributed the song’s continued success and longevity to Carey’s vocal prowess, songwriting and the niche that Christmas songs fill.
“As a musician and vocalist, Mariah Carey is part of the pantheon of ‘90s and 2000s virtuosos and vocalist divas. She is an astoundingly gifted singer who is known for her ability to reach extraordinarily high notes and the whistle tone, which is beyond the range of the natural human voice,” he said.
He explained that the carol contained all the ingredients of what makes a Christmas song effective: sleigh bells, a well-crafted structure and a story arc.
“The song starts with sleigh bells, which is a requisite for any Christmas classic,” Sloan said. “And then she builds this tension over the song where she says she doesn’t want this or that, then she says the title of the song that we’re waiting for and at that moment, there’s such a payoff.”
The more people tune into the song, the more they begin to associate it with these “emotional psychological reactions” around the holidays, he said. “It becomes a sonic marker of being around family and warmth and time off.”
Fans of Carey such as Ellis Srubas-Giammanco agreed, saying Christmas can sometimes be stressful, citing anxiety over figuring out gift guides, travel and food plans.
Srubas-Giammanco said Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas Is You” acts almost like a “joyful reminder and salve” for all of those uncertainties.
“Who doesn’t want to return to that feeling, that song and that season earlier and earlier?”