Christmas is a time when things often become difficult for divorced parents. That seems to hold true for Mariah Carey and Walter Afanasieff, the mother and father of “All I Want for Christmas Is You,” which is arguably the most popular holiday song in the world right now, and certainly the most favored one to have come about in the last 50 years.
The child has grown up beautifully: This week, it set a record for the longest time elapsed between the release of a song and it hitting No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 — 25 years — and also became the first holiday tune to top that storied chart since “The Chipmunk Song (Christmas Don’t Be Late).” (It’s also Carey’s 19th No. 1 on that chart, and her first since 2008.)
But the two credited co-writers and co-producers aren’t exactly celebrating being co-parents this year. After working together on smashes like “Hero” and “One Sweet Day” as well as nearly the entirety of the 1994 “Merry Christmas” album, they became estranged and haven’t spoken in more than 20 years. To Afanasieff’s chagrin, in interviews Carey has given about “All I Want for Christmas Is You,” Carey has seemed to claim sole authorship of the modern holiday standard, suggesting that she wrote it by herself on a Casio keyboard, conflicting with his account of their composing the music together while he played the piano.
“I am proud of this song that I wrote basically as a kid on my little Casio keyboard,” she told Billboard two years ago. In this month’s Cosmopolitan, Carey says, “I just sat down, decorated a little tree and put on ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ and tried to get into that mood. Then I sat in this small room with a keyboard and started doing little melodies and stuff.” In the new Amazon Music documentary “Mariah Carey is Christmas: The Story of ‘All I Want for Christmas Is You’,” the singer says: “Actually I put on ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ downstairs, you could hear it throughout the house and I went into this small room and there was a little keyboard in there and I started playing” — there mentioning “Walter A” by name, as someone she took the song to, after she’d composed it, to co-produce. On the “Merry Christmas 2 You” DVD in 2010, she also recounted being by herself at the Casio when she came up with the familiar keyboard chords.
As for Afanasieff, all he wants is for Carey to publicly confirm his part in co-writing the song and for her “lambs” to stop going after him when he asserts his place in it. Oh, and for them to work together again, if there were to be a true Christmas miracle, although he’s not counting on that.
Afanasieff’s wife, standup comic Katie Cazorla, has been his hearty champion on social media, engaging Carey fans who want him to just cash his checks and be quiet. “If Mariah didn’t promote the hell out of ‘AIWFCIY,’ your husband would’ve been in the unemployment line,” tweeted one antagonist, to which Cazorla replied, “Is that what they call Barbra Streisand’s recording studio?” (referring to his current gig). But more seriously, Afanasieff says they’ve also gotten death threats.
The scenario was made all the more complicated as the last century came to an end because Carey was married to the head of her label where Afanasieff was on contract, with a subsequent division of loyalties in the divorce. Since Carey was still a new artist in the early ’90s and likely not familiar with the intricacies of publishing splits, it’s possible she believes the 50/50 split in writing credit and publishing royalties was not equitable, although exactly what her position is on that remains unknown; her camp declined Variety‘s request for comment.
In a week when the song is at its most celebrated, Afanasieff says he’d like to expound on his equal role in it one last time and then move on.
What’s it like for you, in this week where you’re celebrating and also having your family battling people on social media?
With the crazy, wonderful, miraculous thing that this is in my life for the last 25 years, it has come to a place where it’s almost bittersweet for me because of the fact that I’m constantly, every single year at this same time of the year having to defend myself, because a lot of people just don’t believe that I’m a co-writer of the song. Mariah has been very wonderful, positive and a force of nature. She’s the one that made the song a hit and she’s awesome. But she definitely does not share credit where credit is due. As a result, it has really hurt my reputation, and as a result, has left me with a bittersweet taste in my mouth. Because here it is, such a wonderful, huge event for me, yet my life is being threatened on the Internet, because Mariah fans are accusing me of stealing from her.
I want to talk about the song, since I’m a co-writer, I own 50% of the song, we’re equal co-writers, we’re so joyous and, and I mean, we’re so blessed. yet I can’t call her. She doesn’t call me. She continues to deny the existence of a co-writer on this. So on this wonderful first day that the song is No. 1 on the Hot 100, I’m still being attacked left and right and ridiculed and pummeled by the Internet and social media.
What is the disconnect that has these fans angry with you?
Mariah Carey and I have written a hundred songs together. So to deny my songwriting partnership with her on this one song doesn’t really make sense. All the songs we write are all 50/50, partnership songs. In fact, if you ask Mariah Carey, “Who did you write ‘Hero’ with” or “Who did you write ‘One Sweet Day’ with,” she’ll go, “Oh, well, I wrote that with Walter Afanasieff.” On this one particular song, for some reason, she’s decided to wrap her arms around this in such a way: like she almost does not want to admit [a co-writer]. We wrote three songs on the Christmas album that this is from, 50/50, all in one area of time, together in a house in New York during the summer of 1994. … So on this joyous first 24 hours of this news coming into my world saying that the song went No. 1, you get excited and you get friends and family wishing you congratulations. And my wife posted something on Instagram and, oh boy, it’s like hundreds of just haters. And it makes me realize: is this something that legally hurts my character, my professional name and my professional integrity as a producer and songwriter, that over two decades I’m being branded a liar and a cheat and a charlatan? I’m not bitter in any way, shape or form. I’m just saying, geez, I wish people weren’t such haters. It’s just not fair, to me and my family anymore, to have these horrible, ugly words that have nothing to do with the truth
With the resume you have, do you feel your reputation has been harmed?
Oh, absolutely. There are obviously people in the music business that I’m associated with who know not to believe in that stuff. I’m very reputable, and I’ve never lied or burned a bridge. But I would guess that the people who don’t know me… This is consistently a bad thing, every single year. Do you remember when there was a town hall with Senator John McCain where a woman said to him that President Obama was a Muslim, and he said to her, “No, that’s not true,” and he calmed her down and said, “President Obama is a good man,” and he corrected her? Well, I think that when you go around not correcting and letting the poison in people’s minds continue without ever setting the record straight, I think that you’re just as equally responsible for some of the negativity and for poisoning the well. … I just know that for 25 years in a row, she’s never given me any credit. She wrote a lot of wonderful, beautiful songs with me. She’s the artist — they’re her songs, but we wrote them together. I’m so blessed because of her. She’s extraordinarily talented. I kiss the ground she walks on. I’ve never said a bad word. She’s been nothing but a blessing in my life.
The assumptions can go the other way. Sometimes when people see a superstar collaborating over time with a hit songwriter, they assume the pro writer did all the heavy lifting, and the star just added a few lines. So maybe that feeds into a pendulum swing where, for fans, at least, it’s important to think the star is mostly or entirely responsible.
I’ve worked with plenty of superstars and plenty of people who are not the songwriter that you want them to be or hope that they would be, and you have to go in there and really come up with the goods sometimes, and then those people take a lot of the credit. But Mariah Carey is absolutely, one-million-percent an amazing, incredible, really accomplished and very competent songwriter. She in no way, shape or form did not do her fair share of the writing of the melody and the lyrics of the song.
Tell us your version of how the song came together.
We wrote the melody together and all the chords and all the music that you hear… And then she went off and she wrote her lyric, which she does to every song that we’ve ever written. … She absolutely contributed to the melody. Here’s how it goes. In this case we were at the piano, and I played a series of chords, kind of like a boogie-woogie, one of those like Louis Prima, old-school rock piano kind of things, which is obvious when you hear the song. Mariah didn’t play the piano, I did. So in playing these series of chords, she started to develop a melody for the verse that led to interval, interval, interval, that she went back and forth with me — we changed this, we didn’t like that, we went somewhere else – a series of events that songwriters will have with each other. And finally coming up with pretty much what we both thought was a really good musical bed, knowing where it was going to go as the melody of the song. Of course, there were no lyrics yet, because when we’re writing together, she doesn’t like to immediately start writing the lyrics, so that was something that came later. But sitting at the piano, we created a melody/chordal progression song. I went home to San Francisco, she stayed in New York, and I made the entire track of what you hear, excluding the vocals, of course, and did that on my own. She was never in the room. I produced and recorded and arranged and played every single instrumental on the track, on my own, knowing that I think she would like this or wouldn’t like that. I then brought the truck back to her in New York, and she obviously liked everything, and we started to record vocals.
It’s been published that you tried recording it with a band before you recorded everything yourself?
At the time of the recording of the Christmas album, we assembled a group of mighty musicians, like Dann Huff and Greg Phillinganes, and I think there might have been Nathan East or Omar Hakim on drums. Most of the songs on the album were old-school, very Ronnie Spector, Phil Spector-ish, very gospel-like. So there was a lot of live musician application to this. We did other songs during the sessions with the band. But there was never a version [of “All I Want for Christmas Is You”)] with a band. I think we might’ve tried it and it just didn’t sound as good. It needed to be brighter, more fun and more of what I thought a Christmas song should be on the radio, so I kept all of my synth/sequencer parts, computer parts. It’s a really hard song to play, by the way. If you’re a piano player, it’s got real fast piano stuff, and your hands are gonna fall off halfway through it, that’s for sure.
Did having a No. 1 or even a top 10 single with it seem unimaginable? Because traditionally that doesn’t happen. Aside from Wham’s “Last Christmas” becoming popular over time, and this, there really hasn’t been a successful modern Christmas standard created since the ‘70s.
You have your Christmas music stations and all your other outlets for holiday music, and that really doesn’t apply to top 40 radio. So I never expected it to. It’s just such a wonderful recurring thing, year after year… It’s her song. It’s her. It’s her voice. It’s her wall of sound. It’s wonderful Mariah Carey, the Christmas queen, that has been 25 years in the making to finally land in this No. 1 spot, and I know that the last time a Christmas song was No. 1 was the Chipmunks. This is the only time in the history of music that 25 years after it’s released that a song went No. 1 on the top 100. And I live under the wonderful feeling that, gosh, this is not just financially rewarding — obviously we’ve all made a ton of money from the song — but it’s like being a parent that created something like a child. We did something that now is in a place all its own. Nothing has ever done this before. And instead of being in this wonderful “let’s share the moment positively, giving each other kudos for the work that we did,” I’m getting radio silence. There’s not a mention. And I don’t need the press; I’m perfectly confident in being a co owner and a co-recipient, and I’m credited. But I’m so tired of all these people thinking that I stole something or cheated her.
Your stopping working together had to do with Tommy Mottola, right?
It didn’t work out for some of us. When you’re married to the chairman of the company, and you get a divorce… It wasn’t a civil parting of ways. And I had an exclusive contract and obligation with Sony Music. I had no alternative. I had no way of leaving the company and running off into the sunset with Mariah. So, being under a legally binding contract, I had to stay. Of course, years and years later, what difference does it make? She’s been married since then, he’s been married since then. Like, who cares?
So if you had the chance to work with her again, you would?
In a second. Are you kidding? I love Mariah. It’s not that I’ve been waiting patiently for that to happen, but I feel there’s no reason whatsoever why we’re not working together after all of the magic we made together — all the music that the people in the world love.
She did go in a different direction musically with more hip-hop flavors, which might be hard to reconcile with the sort of thing you did with her.
I think that with her continued support of that style of music for herself — the hip-hop, more of that rather than the pop and especially pop ballads that we were very, very much well known for — I think that she decidedly knew that she couldn’t get that kind of song with anyone else but me. And I’m not saying this in a braggy way or anything, but I just don’t think that there’s anyone else that could have been to her what I was to her — or her to me. I’ve never had another Mariah Carey in my life, and I don’t think she’s ever had a me in her life. So I think that that type of music and that type of song just wasn’t there anymore for her, because I wasn’t there anymore, and that was the choice she made. … And she has continued to have success, but I think that to close a door that big and to slam it shut hard … It’s kind of weird. You would think that if she and I had some kind of a secret… I don’t know. There’s gotta be another reason. But, you know, people don’t last forever. Relationships fall apart. And I wish her the best. I [extend to] Mariah my heart of love for this wonderful, beautiful event that I get to share — somewhat — in, which is having a No. 1 top 100 song this week.
It’s odd that, as successful as this song has been, so few other people try to write original Christmas songs. ‘Tis the season to be lazy and re-record the classics.
I challenge all songwriters and all artists to please continue the legacy of new Christmas songs. Keep writing. You know, it doesn’t have to be that this is the last one, or the Christmas canon is closed. I want everyone to keep the faith that there’s going to be another one that comes out and breaks this one’s record. I certainly don’t think the 25 years of work here can be easily undone in the next 25 years. I’m so lucky. I pinch myself every single Christmas holiday season. It’s such a blessing to me and my family, to be able to walk the earth having this song in our lives.