Is the golden age of Christmas songwriting over? Walter Afanasieff, co-writer of Mariah Carey’s All I Want For Christmas Is You, reckons so.
It’s 24 years since the release of his song, arguably the most recent to earn a place alongside The Pogues’ Fairytale of New York and Wham!’s Last Christmas on everyone’s holiday playlist. And, by his estimation, it’ll be the last Christmas hit to enter that particular hall of fame. “I don’t think it’s ever going to happen,” he says, “and I’m not saying that to be an asshole or, to say ‘look at me, I’m so cool’. I just think people have their go-to Christmas songs, their playlist. and if you come up with something new, they’ll listen to it for a bit, they’ll play it on the radio but its not gonna knock any of these songs off my Christmas playlist cause they’re there.”
Not even Ariana Grande, whose star has risen monumentally during the course of the year? Who has her own popular Christmas tune, Santa Tell me? And who often draws comparisons to the Queen of Christmas herself, Mariah Carey?
“No. Never ever,” he says. “It’s never going to happen. In 24 years, we can have a phone call, and I’ll say ‘hey, how did that Ariana Grande Christmas song do after 24 years?’ I’m telling you right now it’s never going to be number 1, 24 years in a row.
“And I wish her the best. I wish somebody would come out with the next biggest thing of all-time, I’d love that.”
The Grammy-winning songwriter/producer, who has worked with the likes of Celine Dion, Ricky Martin, Barbra Streisand, Whitney Houston and Beyoncé across a 30-year career in music, created AIWFCIY with Carey in one afternoon in 1994. In over two decades since, its popularity has only risen. Last year, for the first time ever, it entered the top 10 of the Billboard Hot 100 in the USA (it is a regular staple of the UK charts at Christmas time). This year, it became the highest charting holiday song of the past 60 years, coming in at No 6 earlier this month.
“There’s so many Christmas songs,” Afanasieff says, “and every year there are a bunch of new Christmas songs, you know, Kelly Clarkson’s new song [Underneath The Tree], this one, that one. It’s not like people aren’t trying.” He’s even had a few ill-fated attempts at de-throning himself. “I have a song that I wrote that I thought was surely going to be a bigger hit than All I Want For Christmas, it was Why Couldn’t It Be Christmas Everyday? with Bianca Ryan who won America’s Got Talent. We did this Christmas song and I thought, this is it, this is gonna be bigger and better. No.”
Afanasieff and Carey crafted All I Want For Christmas, one of three originals penned for her holiday album Merry Christmas, with a keen understanding of the type of Christmas music that performs well commercially.
“There’s three columns of Christmas songs,” he says. “There’s the big traditional religious songs, Hark! the Herald Angels Sing and all that stuff. Then everyone started to sing beautiful ‘miss you’ Christmas songs, like I’ll Be Home For Christmas, ‘chestnuts roasting on an open fire’ [from Mel Tormé’s The Christmas Song], White Christmas… We started really to get, after World War II, a different kind of Christmas song, which is about the fireplace, missing loved ones, coming home, loving family, whatever.
“And then the third kind of a column we’ve always had at christmas is the fun column – Frosty the Snowman, Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer, Jingle Bells – the kids songs, that are usually really up-tempo.”
He and Carey decided to write a song for each column, and while the two others, Jesus Born On This Day and Miss You Most (At Christmas Time) have largely been forgotten, their stab at an up-tempo tune became an inescapable hit.
And Afanasieff says that, while Mariah’s reluctance to license the song out to ads and films (one of the only times she has was Love Actually, according to Afanasieff) has meant that his pay packet is not as large as it could be, that it is still a “gift” each year.
“We get dozens of requests for licensing,” he says. “And I’ll always say yes because I wanna make some money! But she always says no. So, she’s caused me to make far less money. I don’t have a Ferrari.”
But, he is keen to add: “It’s a very nice, wonderful gift every year that I enjoy. I happen to be in that very, very exclusive club of people that did something that nobody knew would have this wonderful effect. I’m so blessed.”