The below editorial features the opinions and views of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of #escYOUnited as a whole, Eurovision or the EBU.
You know the Christmas season has kicked into gear when Starbucks releases its seasonal coffee cups and both atheists and Christians whine about them, pet owners are trying to put fake antlers on their dogs, and Mariah Carey’s “All I want for Christmas is you” is blaring over every loudspeaker in every department store, grocery store, and mall.
Well the yuletide earworm, which is the top selling Christmas single and 16th top selling single of all time according to Billboard, has just turned 25, having been unleashed on unsuspecting revelers on October 30, 1994. As well as launching Carey’s career into the top tier, the song’s co-writer and producer Walter Afanasieff became a much in-demand writer and producer, including to some notable Eurovision alumni.
Afanasieff nearly got involved in Eurovision directly, which we will discuss, but he has had such an effect on Eurovision artists directly and indirectly, that it is worth a career retrospective for an important figure in the music industry on the 25th anniversary of one of the biggest smash hit singles of all time.
Born Vladimir Nikitich Afanasieff on February 10, 1958 in Sao Paulo, Brazil, Afanasieff started out as a jazz pianist and, after moving to the United States, started getting gigs as a session musician. He worked with drummer Narada Michael Walden on a project called The Warriors, an important collaboration that led to Afanasieff getting gig work on some blockbuster projects.
Walden got drafted to produce “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now,” the smash hit power ballad that was the lead single for the crazy 1987 comedy Mannequin starring Andrew McCarthy and Kim Cattrall. ESC United has covered this bonkers movie before, but “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now” was co-written by Diane Warren, who wrote the lyrics for Jade Ewen’s “It’s My Time,” the biggest false dawn a country could ever have at Eurovision when her 5th place at Eurovision 2009 arrested a decade of hopeless finishes for the United Kingdom. Co-written with Andrew Lloyd Webber (the reason your granny got you into musicals), the United Kingdom would never have it as good again as they somehow got worse after drawing a blueprint for doing well at Eurovision.
Afanasieff was hired by Walden to play keyboards on Starship’s “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now.” That track was eventually added to Starship’s 1987 album “No Production,” with the majority of songs produced by Peter Wolf. We have covered him and his ex-wife a couple times before, as he wrote the song for his then girlfriend Christina Simon to perform at Eurovision 1979 called “Heute en Jerusalem,” which came in last place. Joke’s on Eurovision, as Wolf and Simon (who changed her name to Nina Wolf) moved to the United States and wrote and/or produced some of the biggest hits of the 1980s and 1990s.
But wait, there’s more with Starship and Mannequin – the soundtrack for Mannequin was written by Sylvester Levay, who wrote the 8th placed disco song “Telegram” for West Germany’s Silver Convention at Eurovision 1977. Levay’s most famous song credit to date is one of disco’s earliest Billboard Hot 100 Number 1’s in Silver Convention’s “Fly Robin Fly” from 1974. You can bet we are going to cover more of Levay’s colorful soundtrack work in a later installment (hint: “Crime is a disease. Meet the cure.”).
Afanasieff would go on to do session work as a keyboardist on albums by Whitney Houston, Kenny G, Eddie Murphy, and Natalie Cole. However, Afanasieff has been gradually learning and increasing his responsibilities over the years, and when Walden got the opportunity to work with James Bond composer John Barry on a song, he brought in Afanasieff as a co-producer. You may recall “License to Kill” as the underrated second entry for the underrated depiction of 007 by Welsh demi-god Timothy Dalton (“Pleidleisio dros wales yn eurovision iau 2019!“). In this entry, 007 goes on a personal vendetta against a Pablo Escobar-esque drug dealer played with serpentine glee by Robert Davi and featuring Carey Lowell as one of the best and most independent Bond women of all time. It is the best advertisement for Key West, Florida, one of my most frequented spots in the United States, and also has one of the most insane car / truck chase sequences ever committed to film.
“License to Kill” would be an important move for Afanasieff, as his production credit would land him on the radar of Columbia Records for his big breakthrough, a collaboration where, under the moniker of Big Love, he would help launch an American diva into the stratosphere.
Walden, as usual, brought Afanasieff with him to co-produce Mariah Carey’s self-titled 1990 album. While a success, Carey wanted to push herself more into the creative process and draw from her gospel and R&B roots rather than the slick pop that her then-husband record executive Tommy Mottola wanted her to continue with. Afanasieff was the only writer and producer from her debut album to continue with her second album “Emotions,” with his composition “Can’t Let Go” landing at Number 2 on the Billboard Hot 100.
Afanasieff’s method of working with Carey resulted him being the main composer and producer of her third album “Music Box.” This album solidified Carey’s position in the pop stratosphere, with two Carey and Afanasieff co-compositions in particular, “Dream lover” and “Hero,” reaching Number 1 on the Billboard Hot 100. To capitalize on the success of the chart domination Carey had in 1993, Carey suggested to Afanasieff that they go an unorthodox route in 1994: a Christmas album.
In 1994, Christmas albums were strictly the domain of has-beens. For a diva at the peak of her fame to suggest a Christmas album as her next album was an eyebrow raising one, but Carey convinced her then-husband (Columbia Records CEO Tommy Mottola) that her love of Christmas, not to mention her successful combination of pop and gospel, would make a celebration of Christmas something a young and hip artist with many recent Number 1 hits to her name could pull off. And so it was that “Merry Christmas” was conceived and born on November 1, 1994, with its lead single “All I want for Christmas is you” being released two days earlier.
The album was critically slammed, but over the years, the album has shipped more than 15 million units, making it the best-selling Christmas album of all time. “All I want for Christmas is you” is the top selling Christmas single of all time, the 16th best selling song of all time, with royalties to Carey and Afanasieff totaling around $60 million from the single sales alone.
Sadly, after the successful “Butterfly” album in 1997, the Carey and Afanasieff partnership ended when Carey divorced Mottola. Afanasieff was still under contract to Mottola, and as such could not jump ship. According to Afanasieff, Carey held that against him and as she famously refuses to acknowledge time, she has become infamous for refusing to acknowledge his role in her biggest career successes, including this seasonal smash.
Regardless, Afanasieff soon found himself as producer of an even bigger pop sensation. Bonus, it’s from one of the biggest Eurovision winners of all time: Celine Dion. Afanasieff was the producer on the James Horner and Will Jennings penned “My Heart Will Go On,” the mega-smash from the soundtrack to the James Cameron directed blockbuster Titanic. Afanasieff went from co-writing the 16th bestselling single of all time to being the producer of the 8th bestselling single of all time. There is not a storage unit in all of North America that could house the awards he has received for these two songs.
Afanasieff worked with Babyface, Marc Anthony, and Savage Garden, but struck gold again by producing Ricky Martin’s successful post-“Livin’ La Vida Loca” single “She’s All I Ever Had,” which hit Number 2 on the Billboard Hit 100.
But another 1999 project brought him back into the Eurovision alumni loop: Lara Fabian. She came in 4th at Eurovision 1988 for Luxembourg with “Croire.” It must be a good omen to come in 4th when the winner ends up being a pop cultural phenomenon: Olivia Newton-John came in 4th when ABBA won in 1974, and Fabian came in 4th when Dion won. And Fabian had quite the career as well, and she is one of the best-selling Belgian artists of all time with 20 million albums sold. Afanasieff wrote and produced several singles for her English language debut album from 2000. His most notable composition was “Broken Vow,” a Fabian fan favorite that riffs on Sergei Rachmaninoff’s “Piano Concerto No. 2 in C minor, Op.18: Adagio sostenuto.”
Afanasieff continued raking in the hits. Credits included works by Santana, Kenny G, Michael Bolton, Savage Garden, Destiny’s Child (featuring some woman named Beyonce who apparently went on to be a big deal, but I wish she had a Bey-hive or some such to correct me on that), and Josh Groban.
He circled back to Eurovision alumna when he wrote “Zaustavi Vrijeme” in 2008 for Tereza Kesovija. This was for her “A L’Olympia” album, an album produced by David Foster, another American hot shot who has a lot of indirect Eurovision connections (we shall list all of his Eurovision-adjacent projects some other time, I suppose, once I can land a direct Real Housewives of Beverly Hills connection, which he was on because he is the ex-husband of Yolanda Hadid).
Tereza Kesovija, you may recall, is the artist who is the recipient of the coolest announcement in Eurovision history: “Tereza selected by Grace Kelly to represent Monaco at Eurovision 1966.” Regardless of result, this is such a baller announcement it should be an epitaph! And Tereza had an amazing career despite her bad result at Eurovision 1966. That she could call on names like Afanasieff and Foster to write and produce material for her 2008 album – 42 years after she answered Grace Kelly’s call – is a testament to her standing and the level of respect she earned over the decades.
Now we come to the point where Afanasieff makes his most direct connection to Eurovision – the one and only Oksana Stefanivna Hrytsay, more commonly known as Mika Newton. Newton entered the Ukrainian national selection for 2011 with “Angel,” but during this time, when she decided to move to Los Angeles to improve her career prospects, she had worked with Afanasieff on a couple of songs.
Because it’s Ukraine, a national selection can’t be held without it devolving into farce, and so it was when Newton won the final on February 26, 2011. After the heats started on October 31, 2010, but before the final, Newton had been invited to Los Angeles by JK Music Group and Grammy Award winning producer and American Idol judge Randy Jackson. This was on the strength of her soundtrack work in Ukraine and Russia, and Newton spent two weeks in the studio with Afanasieff.
At the Ukrainian grand final, Newton was announced the winner after votes came in, with 45% of the result coming from a jury, 45% from televoters, and 10% from Internet votes. However, Ukrainian politician and jury member Hanna Herman threw a wrench in the works arguing that there was miscounting of votes. In looking into it, the rules called for televotes to be from unique phone numbers (i.e. one vote per phone number, regardless of how many times the number called in), and it was evident multiple instances of multiple votes from the same numbers were counted.
A new final was called for on March 3, 2011, but 2nd place Zlata Ognevich and 3rd place Jamala (you may remember that things worked out for them eventually, representing Ukraine eventually in 2013 and 2016, respectively, with the latter winning with “1944”) withdrew, stating a concern that the voting irregularities would likely remain. As the Ukraine delegation was under a time crunch to get a song and performer in on time, Ukraine declared Mika Newton the winner again and they would send “Angel.”
However, Newton played hard ball and wanted to pick another song, particularly one that she had written with Afanasieff in her recent Los Angeles recording sessions. The delegation’s answer was something along the lines of “немає” (No!). As a compromise, the delegation agreed to a substantial revamp to arrange “Angel” to Mika’s standards, and also improve the staging budget.
With Afanasieff’s song, we could have avoided the Anna Odobescu drama with her song “Stay” for Moldova at Eurovision 2019 (Odobescu hired the same sand artist as Newton used in her “Angel” video, and Newton was very catty on social media about it). Regardless, Newton ended up in fourth, she moved to the United States, released her debut album, and currently resides in Los Angeles.
Afanasieff still keeps busy, and ended up taking another Eurovision alumna under his wing: Isis Gee, whose “For Life” was Poland’s entry at Eurovision 2008. Gee holds the distinction of being the first Polish artist to qualify from a semi-final for a Grand Final, although she squeaked in at 10th place in Semi-Final 1, though only the United Kingdom’s Andy Abraham kept “For Life” from the bottom of the table in the final, coming in 24th.
But the American-born Gee already had a successful recording career, so was not dependent on Eurovision placement to advance her career. However, she also moved to the United States and changed her name to Tamara Gee (Tamara being her birth name), using the album “Love, Tamara,” produced by Afanasieff, as a way to boost her profile in the United States.
Afanasieff became one of the mentors of the Russian TV project Glavnaya Stsena (“Main Stage”), the Russian version of The X Factor, particularly on Seasons 1 and 3. He is still producing and writing for big names, producing Idina Menzel’s 2014 album “Holiday Wishes” and two albums for Barbra Streisand.
And would it be too sappy to hope that Afanasieff and Carey bury their differences and reunite to create more musical magic? They say time heals all wounds, but as Carey does not acknowledge time, a reunion may be a Christmas wish too far.
What do #YOU think of Mariah’s Christmas classic? Any other work impress #YOU from Walter Afanasieff’s back catalog? Let us know in the comments below, on social media, or in our forum.