If the forces of commerce have not completely secularised Christmas, Mariah Carey seems ready to finish the job. I, at least, can imagine a Nativity scenario in which the wise men reach Bethlehem and find Carey's face glowing in the manger.
Right now, her 19-year-old Yuletide jam All I Want For Christmas Is You stands atop Billboard's Holiday 100 chart, where it has been, on and off (but mostly on), since the chart appeared in 2011.
It has also hovered near or at the top of choices for bricks-and-mortar shopping, according to the retail media experience provider PlayNetwork. That is her position on YouTube's top 20 Christmas songs of the month. No. 1 on YouTube is Mary, Did You Know? by Pentatonix, the a cappella outfit with a bestselling Christmas album.
Carey's pursuit of winter dominion is more thorough than those of the other acts. On Dec 18, she concluded her Christmas residency at the 2,900-seat Beacon Theater in New York, the second of what I hope will be many. The next day, the Hallmark Channel unveiled A Christmas Melody, a peculiar romantic family comedy that Carey directed and only kind of stars in. And given how often you can still hear her 1995 hit Always Be My Baby while standing in a checkout line, Carey might just own a chunk of the year-round shopping experience, too.
This is all a savvy bid for, if not relevance, then at least seasonal permanence. Even if it is for only two months, Carey wants us to want her, to need her. She has become to Christmas what the pumpkin spice latte is to fall: nutmeg, foam and caffeine. Meanwhile, her determination to be mandatorily anti-blues makes her a human flu shot.
This is to say that she is also a genius. Who knows where Taylor Swift and Rihanna will be in 20 years? If they need it, though, Carey is devising a road map for the future. Her popularity may rise, spectacularly crash, then rise again, as may the quality of her artistry. But she has lasted. And not only by heading to Las Vegas for one of those long, lucrative engagements that turn legend to kitsch. (Mariah Carey #1 To Infinity ends a 26-show run at the Colosseum at Caesars Palace in late February.)
She has endured by attempting to colonise a holiday.
Most stars, in being synonymous with Christmas, can become partially encased in classicality - whether they are Nat King Cole or Brenda Lee, Wham! or the Waitresses. Carey is trying to be something more with this holiday version of herself: transcendent, ludicrous, fun.
Jokey brand extension is one way to enjoy A Christmas Melody. In telling the story of Kristen (Lacey Chabert), a widowed mother whose Los Angeles fashion boutique goes bust, the movie is as blandly watchable as everything else in Hallmark's Christmas line-up, which includes titles such as I'm Not Ready For Christmas, Merry Matrimony and 'Tis The Season For Love.
But Carey's participation makes the generic badness of A Christmas Melody a touch better than its neighbours. She treats herself like a woman who has come to family entertainment from Venus.
She has cast herself as the villain: Melissa McKean-Atkinson, Kristen's former classmate, head of the Parent-Teacher Association, consummate mean girl, big fan of pearls. Her idea of ho-hum suburbanism and vicious glamour are a riot.
Melissa catches Kristen up on her life thus: "Married now. Twelve glorious years. Three children. Huge four-bedroom, three-and-a- half bath, two-storey." The pearls give you one sense of the character's ridiculousness. Another sense? The fact that the only modifier the children get is "three."
This attempt to do camp in A Christmas Melody means she has missed her own point. Or, that Carey, who is in her mid-40s, suspects that camp is all she has. But All I Want For Christmas Is You is much more than that. She wrote it with producer and songwriter Walter Afanasieff. They gave it sleigh bells and the sonic architecture of a textbook Phil Spector production.
So semi-scientifically, the song is probably impossible to resist. It has endured partly because of the timelessness of its arrangement. But it is also a masterpiece of generosity. That is an aspect of Carey that is easily overlooked because she is also the woman who, in music videos, has been guilty of rigging her appeal by surrounding herself with goofier, rounder, less well-lit co-stars.
Carey has been wise to extend her Christmas empire. Only Cookie Lyon would dare attempt to snatch the holiday from her. But Carey did not need the Beacon Theater or a droopy Hallmark movie to stake her claim. She wrote an unkillable song and no matter what the charts eventually say, that will always be our baby.
NEW YORK TIMES