Category Archives: Music

How Much Does Mariah Carey Earn from “All I Want for Christmas is You”

alex atkins bookshelf musicFor music artists, Christmas songs are like a one-year membership to the Jelly of Month Club, that prompted Cousin Eddie Griswald in National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation to remark, “Clark, that’s the gift that keeps on giving the whole year.” Take for example Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas is You” — one of the highest grossing Christmas songs of all time. Carey wrote the song with collaborator Walter Afanasieff in about 15 minutes and included it as one of ten tracks on her best-selling album “Merry Christmas” released in 1994. To date, that one four-minute song has earned Carey more than $60 million dollars in royalty — an average of about $2.6 million per year. Not bad for less than hour’s worth of work.

Carey’s Christmas album has consistently been in the Billboard top ten best-selling Christmas albums for more than two decades. Currently, “Merry Christmas” ranks number seven on Billboard’s list, having sold more than 5.5 million albums. Using Nielsen SoundScan data, “Merry Christmas” ranks number three, with sales of more than 5.3 million albums. Worldwide, the album has sold more than 15 million units. Not only has the song been purchased millions of times, it receives a ton of airplay each year on radio and streaming services. On Spotify alone, the song has been played more than 210 million times!

No doubt, “Merry Christmas” has made Mariah very merry every Christmas, as she counts her millions all the way to the bank.

Read related posts: Best Christmas Songs
Best-Selling Christmas Albums

The Story Behind Same Old Lang Syne by Dan Fogelberg
What is the Meaning of Auld Lang Syne?
The Origin of the Name Scrooge
The Inspiration for Dickens’s A Christmas Carol
What is a First Edition of A Christmas Carol Worth?
A Christmas Carol and It’s a Wonderful Life

A Christmas Carol by the Numbers

For further reading:


What is the Meaning of Elton John’s Rocket Man?

alex atkins bookshelf musicRocket Man, released in 1972, is one of Elton John’s signature songs and certainly one of his most successful songs, which climbed the singles charts to number 6 in the U.S. and number 2 in the UK. The lyrics of Rocket Man were written by lyricist and poet Bernie Taupin, John’s talented collaborator since 1967. There were two key influences that helped to shape the song in Taupin’s imagination. First, the successful Apollo missions, particularly Apollo 11 that landed men on the moon in 1969, captured the imagination of the nation; every kid in America wanted to be an astronaut. In the span of a less than a decade, the concept of space travel made the giant leap from science fiction to reality. The second influence was the emergence of music from emerging artists that was redefining the sound of rock with innovative instrumentation and lyrics that explored man’s exploration of space, the final frontier. There were two songs, in particular, that made an impact on Taupin.

One year before man stepped foot on the moon, Americans had already been to the moon — via Stanley Kubrick’s cinematic masterpiece, 2001: A Space Odyssey — a film that continues to inspire filmmakers today. The screenplay was based on a short story, “The Sentinel,” written by Arthur C. Clarke. Clarke and Kubrick collaborated on the screenplay and the novel (based on the screenplay) that was released after the movie’s premiere. Its depiction of space travel and thought-provoking scientific and philosophical themes mesmerized audiences around the globe. Moreover, in one film, Kubrick redefined the cinematic experience, raising special effects and brilliant story-telling to new heights.

One of the impressionable people sitting in a darkened theatre watching Kubrick’s film was a young man named David Bowie. In an interview, Bowie explained, “[Space Oddity] was written because of going to see the film 2001, which I found amazing. I was out of my gourd anyway, I was very stoned when I went to see it, several times, and it was really a revelation to me. It got the song flowing.” The song, featured on the album David Bowie (1969), was about an astronaut, Major Tom, who travels into space, loses communication with ground control, and is stranded in space “floating ’round my tin can/far above the moon… And there is nothing I can do.” Presumably, he runs out of oxygen and perishes.

A year later, the psychedelic folk band, Pearls Before Swine, released the album The Use of Ashes in 1970. Working in the same milieu as Bowie, songwriter Tom Rapp found his inspiration in the short story “The Rocket Man” in the collection of short stories titled The Illustrated Man by Ray Bradbury published in 1951. The story is told from the perspective of a young boy who, naturally, wants to be an astronaut like his father. For the past ten years, the father has visited his wife and son for a short stay (three days) in between three-month long space trips. The father is sad that his relationship to his wife has deteriorated. As any father would, he warns his son about his profession — don’t become a rocket man; you’ll never be happy — if you’re home, you yearn for space; if you are in space, you will yearn for home; it is a vicious circle. Rapp’s song tells a similar story about regret and loss: a young boy talks about his father who is an astronaut and how he and his mother worry about his father’s safety (“My father was a rocket man / He often went to Jupiter or Mercury, to Venus or to Mars / My mother and I would watch the sky / And wonder if a falling star / Was a ship becoming ashes with a rocket man inside.” The father was torn between visiting distant planets and the stars and spending time with his family. At some point, the father perishes: “One day they told us the sun had flared and taken him inside.” The song ends with the pain that the mother and son feel when they look up at the sky and are reminded of their loss: “My mother and I / Never went out / Unless the sky was cloudy or the sun was blotted out / Or to escape the pain / We only went out when it rained.”

In several interviews, Taupin has revealed that the Pearls Before Swine version of Rocket Man was the inspiration for his version. All three space songs, Space Oddity, Pearls Before Swine’s Rocket Man, and Elton John’s Rocket Man share the same subject, an astronaut traveling in space, and share some of the same themes: isolation, dedication, self-reliance, ambivalence, regret, and mortality. And musically, Space Oddity and John’s Rocket Man both utilize the spacey sort of sounds of the slide guitar and synthesizer. Thematically, like Space Oddity, John’s Rocket Man is told from the perspective of the astronaut. Taupin’s astronaut is traveling to Mars as part of a scientific mission. The astronaut reflects on the lengthy journeys (“On such a timeless flight / And I think it’s gonna be a long long time / ‘Till touch down brings me round again”) and the impact it has on him: he misses his home and family (“I miss the earth so much I miss my wife / It’s lonely out in space.”) and the challenges he faces dealing with the monotony (“And all this science I don’t understand / It’s just my job five days a week”). The astronaut senses that the long journeys into space are changing him, impacting his psyche, his mental health: “I’m not the man they think I am at home / Oh no no no I’m a rocket man / Rocket man burning out his fuse up here alone.” Moreover, the narrator expresses his ambivalence, revealing a sense of triumph as well as defeat, by declaring several times, “I’m the Rocket Man.” The song ends by emphasizing the eternity of the flight, perhaps wondering if he will ever return home: “And I think it’s gonna be a long long time…”

In an insightful essay on the meaning of Rocket Man, the editors of Shmoop, describe the Rocket Man as an iconic American archetype, specifically that of the “cowboy”: “Elton John’s Rocket Man is a conflicted cowboy kind of character, torn between his love of the frontierlike realm of space and his home down on the range. When he’s at home on Earth, he yearns to be ‘high as a kite,’ soaring from Mars to Venus to Mercury. But when he’s in space, he misses the Earth: the blue sky, the warm sun, the salt wind, his wife. Space is both ‘lonely’ and ‘timeless.’ And yet while he never seems at ease with his lot in life, he is totally accepting of it for all of its flaws; it is his very identity: ‘I’m a rocket man.'” From there, they compare the rocket man to the idealized masculine man, as represented in the Western canon of literature (“the masculine man is defined by ‘courage’ (according to Cicero), self-reliance, and adherence to the law.”) But more appropriately, they compare the conflicted cowboy to Ulysses from Lord Alfred Tennyson’s poem of the same name (based, of course, on Homer’s epic The Odyssey) who is caught between the obligations of his duties as a Greek warrior and as a family man (husband and father). This is a brilliant insight: both Ulysses and the Rocket Man place duty before family, and are committed to completing their missions, willing to sacrifice time with their family (Ulysses asserts: “to strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield”) — and ultimately willing to sacrifice their own lives. The editors conclude: “these sacrifices somehow enrich the idea of being a rocket man, sticking it out alone in the name of essential masculine ideals.”

While we are on the topic of Tennyson’s poem, it is important to understand that the poem was written in 1833 as an elegy for a close college friend, Arthur Henry Hallam who died that year. In an interview, Tennyson explained that the poem expressed his own “need of going forward and braving the struggle of life” after the loss of his dear friend. And similarly, Elton John’s Rocket Man is also an elegy; both the poem and the song evoke a profound sense of sadness, knowing that in Ulysses’s words “death closes all.”

On a another level, Elton John’s Rocket Man underscores the paradox of the American Dream. The American Dream was first defined by James Adams in his book, The Epic of America, published in 1931. Adams wrote: “[The American Dream] is that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement….  It is not a dream of motor cars and high wages merely, but a dream of social order in which each man and each woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable, and be recognized by others for what they are, regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position.” Rooted in the ideals of the Declaration of Independence (equality, democracy, liberty, democracy, and opportunity), the American Dream is the promise of social mobility for men and women and their children; that is to say, America provides parents the opportunities to support their families through work, so that they and their children will have a better life than their parents. The paradox represented in John’s Rocket Man — as well as Bradbury’s short story and Rapp’s Rocket Man — is this: in order to support his family, the narrator must perform a job that pulls him away from his family; sadly he cannot raise his kids if he is not home. It is an age-old struggle: the choice between career (or work) work and family. The paradox of the American Dream is one of the most compelling themes of Elton John’s Rocket Man and why the song is as relevant today as it was almost half a century ago.

Read related posts: Who is Major Tom in the Bowie Songs?
The Meaning of I Dreamed a Dream
Origin of the Beatles Name
How Rock Bands Got Their Names
The Most Misinterpreted Songs
Best Books for Music Lovers

For further reading: Tennyson (Everyman Library Pocket Poet Series) by Lord Alfred Tennyson
Captain Fantastic: Elton John’s Stellar Trip Through the 70s by Tom Doyle
The American Dream: A Cultural History by Lawrence Samuel

Day Jobs of Famous Musicians 2

alex atkins bookshelf musicBefore they packed concert halls and stadiums around the globe, many musicians held rather typical, boring — and sometimes very unusual jobs — early in their careers to make ends meet. They went from humble jobs that paid a few dollars an hour to earning millions of dollars per year. Not a bad career path. The inspirational lesson here is: early jobs in life should not define you — nor limit you; dream big. Here is a list of famous musicians and the jobs they had before they became wealthy and famous.

James Brown: worked at a shoe shine stand
Jeff Buckley: hotel receptionist
Kurt Cobain: janitor
Phil Collins: movie extra
Chris Cornell (Soundgarden): Cleaning fish guts at Seattle fish markets
Jonathan Davis (Korn): embalmer at funeral home
Snoop Dogg: grocery bagger
Fergie (Black Eyed Peas): voiceover
Boy George: grocery bagger
Nick Hammer (Death Cab for Cutie): sanitation worker
Jon Bon Jovi: assembled Christmas decorations day
B.B. King: tractor
Nicki Minaj: waitress
Alanis Morissette: envelope stuffer
Morrissey: office clerk
Keith Richards: ballboy at a tennis club
Gene Simmons: assistant to a fashion magazine editor
Eddie Van Halen: painted addresses on sidewalk curbs
Eddie Vedder (Pearl Jam): security guard at a hotel

Read related posts: Day Jobs of Famous Musicians
The Day Job of Famous Writers
Random Fascinating Facts About Authors
Random Fascinating Facts About Authors 2

Inventions Predicted by Famous Authors
Sleeping Habits of Famous Authors


For further reading:

What are the Most Common Words Used in Songs?

alex atkins bookshelf music“What would you think, if I sang out of tune?…” Remember the words of that classic Beatles tune? If you’re the type of music listener that pays attention to the lyrics of songs, ever wonder what are the most commonly used words in all popular songs? Music lover Sam Moreton decided to find out. He wrote an algorithm that analyzed one million pop songs. Presumably if you used all of these words in a song, you might have a top-40 hit. Here is the list of the most commonly used words in songs:


Read related posts: Top Ten Movie Songs
Top Ten Most Relaxing Songs
How Famous Singers Got Their Names
How Rock Bands Got Their Names

Origins of the Beatles Name
The Dark Side of the Moon Turns 40
Best Books for Music Lovers
How Many Music Genres Exist?
Greatest Songs of All Time
The Most Misinterpreted Songs
Song Titles That are Not Part of the Lyrics
What is the Longest Song Title?

For further reading:

How Rock Bands Got Their Names 4

atkins-bookshelf-musicSome rock band names are very clever, and some are just plain odd. Regardless of how they sound, all were inspired by a magazine, toy, sexual terms, or even a passing comment. Below are a few interesting band names and their origins (some might earn an MA rating):

Goo Goo Dolls: The band was named after a toy, a Goo Goo Doll, that was featured in an ad in the magazine True Detective.

Scissor Sisters: The pop group began as Dead Lesbian, then Fibrillating Scissor Sisters, before they settled on Scissor Sisters. The name is derived from the lesbian sex act in which a woman rubs her vulva against her partner’s vulva, their legs intersecting like two scissors (the formal name is tribadism, the slang term is tribbing).

Smashing Pumpkins: Vocalist and guitarist Billy Corgan explained that he was in someone’s kitchen and they were having a conversation about something, and he heard someone talk about smashing pumpkins, and he thought to himself “Oh, that’s a pretty good mythical band name, ha, ha.”

Steely Dan: Founding members Donald Fagen and Walter Becker named the band after a strap-on dildo, the Steely Dan III from Yokohama, mentioned in the novel The Naked Lunch (1959) by William S. Burroughs. Really. (Incidentally, the novel, a series of loosely connected vignettes, is told from the point of view of a William Lee, a junkie. The book’s title was suggested by Jack Kerouac. Naked lunch is the “frozen moment when everyone sees what is on the end of every fork.”)

Stone Temple Pilots: During their youth, the members of the band were huge fans of the STP motor oil stickers. They wanted a band name that contained those same initials and considered Shirley Temple’s Pussy and Stereo Temple Pirates, before settling on Stone Temple Pilots.

SuperTramp: The band was initially known as “Daddy” but it sounded to similar to another band, Daddy Longlegs. The band members chose Supertramp from the title of the book The Autobiography of a Super-Tramp (1908) by Welsh poet W. H. Davies.

Talking Heads: The band started out as The Artistics since three band members (David Byrne, Chris Frantz, and Tina Weymouth) were alumni of the Rhode Island School of Design. Founding member Tina Weymouth explains “A friend found the name in the TV Guide, which explained the term used by TV studios to describe a head-and-shoulder shot of a person talking as ‘all content, no action.’ It fit.”

Yes: Founding member and vocalist Jon Anderson initially suggested “Life” while bassist Chris Squire wanted “World.” Anderson explains “Yes got pulled out of the bag, I think. We wanted to display a strong conviction in what we were doing. We had to have a strong and straight title for the band.”




Read related posts: Origins of the Beatles Name
The Dark Side of the Moon Turns 40
Best Books for Music Lovers
How Many Music Genres Exist?
How Rock Bands Got Their Names 1
How Rock Bands Got Their Names 2
How Rock Bands Got Their Names 3

For further reading: Rock Names: From Abba to ZZ Top by Adam Dolgins, Citadel Press (1998)

What Are the Most Popular Music Genres?

atkins bookshelf musicIf you visit Wikipedia’s comprehensive list of music genres — containing more than 1,650 types! — you get a real understanding of the extremely wide range of musical tastes. Back in the day when brick-and-mortar record shops existed (remember the iconic Tower Records?), could you imagine navigating aisles dedicated to 1,650 music genres? It would be, of course, overwhelming. Fortunately, for music stores and online music services, most people’s preference for music gravitates toward about two dozen music genres. Curious to learn what type of music most people like to listen to,, an online music discovery website analyzed the listening preferences of their subscribers over one year. Here is their list of the top ten most popular music genres:

1. Rock
2. Pop
3. Jazz
4. Ambient
5. Hip-hop
6. Hard Rock
7. Chillout
8. Blues
9. Rap
10. Trance

Read related posts: How Many Music Genres Exist?
How Much Do People Spend on Music?
Do Dogs Have a Music Preference?

For further reading:
Infographic Guide to Music by Graham Betts (2014)

Who Wrote the Song “The Christmas Guest”?

catkins-bookshelf-literature“The Christmas Guest” is a touching holiday song about Conrad, a humble shopkeeper whose acts of kindness highlight the importance of compassion and generosity. The song begins with Conrad relating to neighbors that Jesus came to him in a dream, saying that he would visit Conrad. It is implied that Conrad has recently faced some difficulty in his life — “his shop so meager and mean.” Throughout the day, three different people in need (a shabby beggar, an old woman, and a lost child) stumble upon his shop. Each time, Conrad invites them in and provides them with clothing, food, rest, and comfort. But as the day ends, and darkness comes over the village, Conrad laments why Christ has not visited as he promised; in prayer he asks: “What kept You from coming to call on me / For I wanted so much Your face to see.” Out of the silence comes a voice: “Lift up your head, for I kept My word / Three times My shadow crossed your floor / Three times I came to your lonely door / For I was the beggar with bruised, cold feet, / I was the woman you gave to eat, / And I was the child on the homeless street. / Three times I knocked and three times I came in, / And each time I found the warmth of a friend.” Jesus concludes: “Of all the gifts, love is the best, / And I was honored to be your Christmas Guest.”

The song has been covered by Johnny Cash (released in 1980), Reba McEntire (1987), and Grandpa Jones (2003), an old time country and gospel music singer. As you listen to its beautiful lyrics, you may wonder: who wrote “The Christmas Guest”? Excellent question. Let’s step back in time to arrive at the answer.

First, we need to go back 25 years to the year 1991. The song “The Christmas Guest” is a musical adaptation of the poem “The Story of the Christmas Guest” by American poet Helen Steiner Rice, who wrote religious and inspirational poetry, earning the unofficial title of “America’s beloved inspirational poet laureate.” The poem, inspired by the short story of a famous author, was included in Christmas Blessings, a collection of poems published in 1991.

Now we need to go back in time over a century to the late 1800s. Rice was inspired by Russian author Leo Tolstoy’s (1828-1910) masterful short story, “Where Love Is, God Is” (also translated as “Where Love Is, There God Is Also” or “Martin the Cobbler”) written in 1885. In Tolstoy’s story, the cobbler is named Martin (or Martuin) Avdeitch. The title of Tolstoy’s story is based on the Catholic hymn Ubi Caritas that contains the antiphonal response “Ubi caritas est vera, Deus ibis est,” which translated from Latin means “Where true charity is, there is God.” Tolstoy’s story was translated from Russian to English by American writer and translator Nathan Haskell Dole in 1887.

Tolstoy, in turn, was inspired by the French folk tale “Le Pere Martin” (“Father Martin” in English) written by Ruben Saillens (1855-1942), a musician and pastor, considered one of the most influential Evangelical Protestants in France. Saillens sought to evangelize through his hymns and fables. The story “Le Pere Martin” is included in a collection of fables and allegories, titled Rectis et Allegories, published in 1888; however, it must have been written earlier and spread via oral tradition (pastors often repeated each others sermons), which is how Tolstoy must have heard it years earlier. However, Tolstoy does not merely translate Saillens’ story from French to Russian, he changes the story in significant ways in order to make it more poetic and compelling. Brigitte Hanhart retold the story in a children’s book titled Shoemaker Martin published in 1997.

At this point in our story, we must now go back thousands of years because Saillens’ allegory of the shoemaker was inspired by one of civilization’s oldest books — the Bible, specifically the New Testament. Let us turn to Matthew’s gospel, written about 70 A.D., specifically to Chapter 25 (Matthew 25:31-46) where Jesus discusses who will enter the Kingdom of Heaven using the Parable of the Judgment (or the Parable of the Sheep and Goats): “Then shall the King say unto them on his right hand, Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world: For I was an hungred, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in: Naked, and ye clothed me: I was sick, and ye visited me: I was in prison, and ye came unto me. Then shall the righteous answer him, saying, Lord, when saw we thee an hungred, and fed thee? or thirsty, and gave thee drink? When saw we thee a stranger, and took thee in? or naked, and clothed theeOr when saw we thee sick, or in prison, and came unto thee? And the King shall answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.”

May the Story of the Christmas Guest inspire compassion and generosity during this holiday season and beyond. Merry Christmas — and may God bless us, every one!

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For further reading: Why are Red and Green Associated with Christmas?
Who Invented the First Christmas Card?
Yes, Virginia There is a Santa Claus
Twas the Night Before Christmas
A Christmas Carol and It’s A Wonderful Life
Best Quotes from A Christmas Story
The Inspiration for Dickens’s A Christmas Carol
The Story Behind Scrooge
National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation Trivia
Mall Santas by the Numbers
The Atkins Bookshelf Literary Price Index: 2016

For further reading: O Christmas Three: Beloved Christmas Classics by O. Henry, Tolstoy, and Dickens (2010),_God_Is

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