For 12 days this month, I measured my life in octaves. Five famous octaves, to be exact. For those 12 days, I listened to nothing but Mariah Carey’s Merry Christmas, her 5.5-million-selling gift to the world. And it has been a kind of glorious, melisma-licked waking dream. Why set myself such a task? Partly for the sheer challenge of it. (Why, after all, did Edmund Hillary climb Everest? Some men are just born to push themselves.) But mostly I did it to see if, by diving wholly and fully into the Carey abyss, I could glean something about what made this 1994 holiday album such a Christmas monster. Why was it that, more than two decades since its release, “All I Want For Christmas Is You” is still in the top 20?
The rules of my experiment were simple, a kind of Super Size Me (or Mimi) for the ears. Whenever I was walking, commuting or sitting at my desk, I would listen to the album. I could not skip songs—yes, I now know all the words to “Jesus Born on This Day”—and I could not listen to anything else at these times. I switched between Spotify and the downloaded version of the album on my phone. I had breaks, true: I watched some TV with my husband at night, and, if I was at a party or meeting, I had to give Mimi a rest. But for the bulk of my days, Merry Christmas was the soundtrack to my life. And on the 12th day of my Mariah Carey Christmas, I would see my diva—and hear the album—in the flesh.
The first day of Mariah Carey’s Christmas: Monday.
Mariah minutes clocked: 213.
As I slipped in my earbuds and stepped out my door onto 72nd Street for my first day of this perverse Mariah-thon, I couldn’t help but think that this was probably how the elusive chanteuse herself was starting her day: by listening to a recording of herself singing Christmas songs. Presumably while swaddled in a flock of fleecy lambs. If I was right, she was onto a good thing: Merry Christmas, it turns out, is a buoyant way to kick off the morning, and a strangely delightful soundtrack to the 1 train. The drum-kicking joy of “All I Want For Christmas Is You” in my ears—set against the toadish sad-sack faces of my fellow commuters—was like I was keeping my own happy little bell-filled secret beneath the city. That feeling held up throughout the day as I listened, over and over, to Mariah bleating about missing men and loving God. In meetings, I found myself wanting to get back to my desk for another dose of “O Holy Night”.
The second day of Mariah Carey’s Christmas: Tuesday
Mariah minutes clocked: 195
It turns out I wasn’t the only one with my own little commuter’s secret. As I stood on the 1 listening to Mariah expound on Santa’s naughty and nice lists this morning, I noticed that the older man in a trench next to me was listening to Sinatra’s “New York, New York,” on repeat—he kept thumbing the “play” button on an iPhone that glowed with a big picture of Ol Blue Eyes. What a cliché, I started to think, before remembering that I was a Mariah-obsessed gay dude who knew the Carey-Cannon kids’ names (Moroccan and Monroe) and had committed to two weeks of diva worship. The man smirked when he saw the iconic cover of Merry Christmas—that Mrs. Santa body suit! That impeccable posture!—glowing from my own phone. I decided that I would keep it in my pocket for the rest of this experiment.
The third day of Mariah Carey’s Christmas: Wednesday
Mariah minutes clocked: 182
The gloss was starting to wear off the experiment on my third day in. But only a smidge. I was not annoyed, but I was no longer quite so enthralled (and a little bitter that I couldn’t allow myself to listen to the first new episode of Serial). I found myself drifting and thinking about things like…context. What was the context, I wondered, in which someone—someone normal—would choose to listen to this album? “All I Want for Christmas Is You” is fun enough for a holiday party boogie, but her everything-and-the-kitchen-sink “Joy to the World”? You certainly shouldn't listen to it at work, trying to edit a 2,000-word travel story, as I was doing this day. Carey’s carols are the opposite of background music. Each is like its own national anthem. You don’t do other things when they play. You stand up. You pay attention. And you probably hold your heart.
The fourth day of Mariah Carey’s Christmas: Thursday
Mariah minutes clocked: 245
There is definitely a context in which to not listen Mariah Carey’s Merry Christmas, I discovered tonight: While running. After 10 minutes of trying to work up some sort of pace on a drizzly evening jog through Central Park with Mimi excreting verse after verse of the dirge-like “Miss You Most (at Christmas Time)” into my ear, I gave up and trudged home.
The fifth day of Mariah Carey’s Christmas: Friday
Mariah minutes clocked: 95
Today was a lighter Mariah day—a crazy amount of meetings meant that I was away from my phone and laptop for large chunks of time. We’d had a rough, wet night in Central Park yesterday, but now I was missing her seasonal enthusiasms. When we reunited on the train-ride back (a too brief commute that allowed for just one “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)” and half a “Miss You (Most at Christmas Time)”, I felt that I had let her down.
The sixth day of Mariah Carey’s Christmas: Saturday
Mariah minutes clocked: 260
I sat at brunch this morning with my husband and we didn’t say a word. We ate our two-scrambled-eggs-with-bacon-on-the-side in what must have appeared to those around us as silence—him reading a book, me head-bopping to Mariah. I felt like one of those people who care about exercise but had missed a gym day and now was going to run twice as long and three times as hard to make it up. And so I listened. At brunch. At home. Walking home from brunch. On my way to a party that night. And I listened carefully. As I did, I had more than one “Blurred Lines” moment—you know, when you actually notice the lyrical content of a catchy tune you’ve been listening to for a while and are a little repulsed? I’d already been reasonably turned off by all the Jesus stuff (this is not an album that lets you forget the true immaculate-conceptiony meaning of Christmas), but even the jaunty and Christ-less “All I Want For Christmas Is You” has a bit to quibble with. All Mariah wants in the world is some guy about whom we learn nothing other than that he’s preferable to snow? That’s what you want for Christmas? What about equal pay for women? Or, fuck—just a SodaStream?
The seventh day of Mariah Carey’s Christmas: Sunday
Mariah Minutes clocked: 170
Did Mariah Carey eat Christmas? Did she consume the entire holiday with one 39-minute-and-31-second album? Today, while shopping for Christmas gifts at a department store, “O Holy Night” began to play and I could not quite place the singer. As a newly minted Mariah expert, I knew it couldn’t have been her—too subtle, too much restraint—but I couldn’t even think of another pop caroler who it might have been. It was a woman. Singing carols. So it must have been Mariah. Maybe Mariah with a cold? (Shazam informed us it was Leona Lewis). A friend we met with later said that similarly, every time she hears a woman singing Christmas carols, she just assumes it’s Mariah. Except when it’s Christina Aguilera. Because that shit is recognizably terrible.
The eighth day of Mariah Carey’s Christmas: Monday
Mariah minutes clocked: 202
Could Mariah-ism be a path to self-improvement. Tonight, while walking out of my local wine shop, I stopped to give some change to the homeless guy who waits outside the store every night. I’d already stopped and opened my wallet in front of the guy before I noticed I only had twenties—I couldn’t not give him something now. So I gave him a $20, said Merry Christmas and walked away. I relate this story not to suggest that I am a good person; quite the opposite. I usually wouldn’t have stopped at all; had I stopped for whatever miraculous reason and then noticed I had no small change, I normally would have apologized, closed my wallet and walked on. But this time I had Mariah’s Merry Christmas blaring in my ears. And “Joy to the World” no less. I am convinced this was the sole cause of my sudden-onset generosity. So: Homeless guy outside Beacon Wine, don’t thank me—thank Mimi.
The ninth Day of Mariah Carey’s Christmas: Tuesday
Mariah minutes clocked: 181
I’d been humming along all week, but careful not to do it while people were around. By now, though, I’d completely lost myself in Merry Christmas. I hummed “Jesus (What A Wonderful Child)” on the subway. And “Joy to the World” at my desk. And I hummed “All I Want For Christmas Is You” during a meeting. It did not go unnoticed. A colleague asked, “Is that Mariah?” and our very important and urgent meeting veered into a discussion about the great Long Island success story. This meeting did not achieve much.
The tenth day of Mariah Carey’s Christmas: Wednesday
Mariah minutes clocked: 205
Today I entered an interesting stage of my Mariah madness: passionate diva defense. I was at the Barclays Center watching the Nets play the Heat—not, I suspect, the backdrop to too many passionate conversations about Mariah Carey’s oeuvre—when I got into an argument with someone who had suggested the singer had “lost it”. Sure, she had been big, he conceded, but now she just some busty lawn decoration wheeled out and re-inflated every December to sing her biggest, jingliest hit. She was not, I insisted, summoning all of my intellectual faculties in mounting my defense. She was actually, like, amazing. And besides: What the fuck had this guy ever done with his life. Amiright. And, like: Your mom.
The 11th day of Mariah Carey’s Christmas: Thursday
Mariah minutes clocked: 280
A friend I hadn’t seen in months messaged me on Facebook today to ask, “Joel, are you OK?” He follows me on Spotify and was starting to worry. He was probably right to do so: At my desk today I’d randomly raised my hand, full Celine-style, as Mariah hit her big “O Holy Night” whistle note. I had danced in an empty elevator up 42 stories of a Manhattan skyscraper. “I’m fine,” I wrote back to my friend. “I’m better than I’ve been in a long time.”
The 12th Day of Mariah Carey’s Christmas: Friday
Tonight, my experiment sprung to sparkly, costume-changing life on a Beacon Theater stage bedecked with mammoth fake snowflakes, a soaring Christmas tree, impossibly smiley child dancers and Mariah Carey. Oddly, I don’t remember much of it—the show was a blur of Santa and gospel choirs and weird admissions (“I have real reindeer,” Mariah told the audience, directing us to her Instagram feed for proof). I’d been too close to be fully involved. I’d read the book—like six times—the week before seeing the movie. I was overly familiar, too ready to analyze. Which meant I spent much of the night sitting and watching. And as I watched Mariah—finger in ear, hitting every fan-pleasing whistle note—and as I watched her fans—fingers in ears, missing every whistle note, and not giving a fuck—I began to finally get it. I think. The key was in my unaware humming and the dancing in the elevator and the thrown-up diva arm; it was in its strange and insistent ability to get you to let everything go, to absolutely go for it, to go full Mariah. That night when we got home, the husband and I put “All I Want For Christmas Is You” on for the last few minutes of this experiment. And we danced. Like everyone was watching, and we didn’t care.