She’s the only artist ever to top the Billboard Hot 100 in four decades, from ‘Vision of Love’ in 1990 to ‘All I Want For Christmas Is You’, the last chart-topper of 2019 and the first of the 2020s. 2020 will also mark the 30th anniversary of her eponymous debut album, still serving as an inspiration to a generation of artists.
Five octaves, 19 number one singles, 18 of them with writing credits, a newly-reclaimed record of 12 million Spotify streams in one day (over 8,350 streams per minute), and yes, three-and-a-bit decades of excellence. Mariah Carey’s achievements speak for themselves.
Yet, for a while at least, it was cool to hate her. “She’s a diva”, they said (no, she’s just from New York), “she’s overrated” (literally no singer, songwriter or producer would agree), “she lipsyncs/can’t sing anymore” (false), “I like AIWFCIY but not Mariah’s version” (she wrote it… every version of it is her version), “she’s a ‘has-been’” (four decades of number ones though?), and the list goes on. Maybe that’s another article about ageism in the music industry, though maybe not. Still, we’re talking about Mariah Carey’s 1990 self-titled album today, the four number ones it spawned, and the generation of singers it inspired.
When this album came out, the Internet, the Australian Greens, and Russia didn’t exist. Homosexuality was still illegal in Tasmania, Pauline Hanson was still working in her fish-and-chip shop, and the AFL was yet to complete its first ever season. It’s hard to imagine such a world now.
Musically, we’d just been through the 80s, the decade of new wave, dance and synth-pop; Madonna, Whitney and Janet ruled the charts; and Michael Jackson released two of his most iconic albums, Thriller and Bad. Going into 1990, Milli Vanilli had just won the Grammy Award for Best New Artist at the turn of the decade. And then in May, a 20-year-old, mixed-race singer-songwriter from New York released a ballad which would climb to the top of the charts by August.
‘Vision of Love’ broke new ground. The melismas, the vocal runs which she used throughout were not a common thing at the time. Imagine any classic 80s bop having more than three musical notes per syllable, or being slower than speed-walking pace. Now listen to how Mariah stretches out one opening note so that it runs all the way down through her chest voice like a breeze. It seems commonplace now thanks to the likes of Beyonce, Xtina and Ariana (all of whom cite this song as one of their greatest inspirations), but it was novel, unprecedented at the time. Her next number one, ‘Love Takes Time’, was also a ballad.
Then, a series of coincidences: Milli Vanilli got their 1990 Grammy revoked due to a lipsyncing scandal and Mariah received three nominations the following year. When she won Best New Artist in 1991, she said, “with all the controversy surrounding this award, I hope to bring it back to a real singer-songwriter category, where everyone else following me can be as proud as I am to receive this honor.” She performed ‘Vision of Love’ at the awards ceremony, and it was everything music needed that year.
She would get three more number ones in 1991. Two of these (‘Someday’ and ‘I Don’t Wanna Cry’) are from her debut album, Mariah Carey, which therefore has an impressive total of four number one hits.
The album itself has 11 tracks, and while most of them are ballads, it also contains everything from the sky-high whistle notes in ‘All In Your Mind’ (which would become a trademark of her career) to the rap verse in ‘Prisoner’ (which would not). Yes it is remarkably, unbelievably, the same voice that croons “sweet destiny / carried me through desperation” in the lead single which, eight tracks later, spits “I know you’re lying, denying all of your actions / So listen up ‘cause here’s my reaction”.
Mariah is credited as a writer on every single track, and even though it’d admittedly take a few years for her to hit her songwriting stride, it’s also worth recalling that she wrote many of these songs while in high school. The diamond-in-the-rough lyricism however belies a stunningly mature vocal delivery and range, and the album sure does sound great. The boldness, the defiance of ‘You Need Me’, the unfettered conviction of ‘There’s Got To Be A Way’, the seamless transitions between silky whispers and wide-open belts in ‘Love Takes Time’—all of this illustrates the sheer vocal daring of a 20-year-old who knows she has oodles upon oodles of talent, and all the time in the world to explore it.
For her devotees today, ‘Vanishing’ probably best underpins everything we love about the record. It’s the only song on this record she both wrote and produced, which foreshadows both her subsequent struggles for creative control as well as what she’s capable of when she gets it. The song evokes Aretha (think the intro to “You Make Me Feel (Like A Natural Woman)”) until a whistle note appears out of nowhere in the backing vocals, and the second verse divulges that the singer is maybe not so soulful but just as fearless and perhaps more acrobatic, even. It culminates in a number of melismatic belts that herald the arrival of a new diva, and a new defining sound for pop music for decades to come.
Mariah’s legacy is omnipresent in mainstream music now, and it’s in all the little things like the way Ariana sings “I don’t care, ye-e-e-a-h” in “break up with your girlfriend, i’m bored”, or the way Beyonce treats the bridge in “Halo”, or the way Xtina opens literally any of her concerts. And this is just the tip of the iceberg for a pop music market that is now saturated with vocal runs and RnB influences, ushered in by none other than a mixed-race girl from New York, three decades ago. While Mariah’s biracial identity has arguably faded into the background of her public image, it’s worth remembering its role in bringing together influences and genres in a way that no artist had before her.
Now, her debut record lies behind the last 30 years of achievements and milestones — and sure, the odd scandal — but what we hear in Mariah Carey is a 20-year-old coming into her own while also sowing the seeds of something new for the entire industry.
The album has sold over 15 million copies worldwide, another statistic which conveys an abstract sense of Mariah’s success, but we have to remember that, of the 15 million people who bought this album, a small fraction of them are also some of the biggest names in music today. And should you tell them that you consider Mariah overrated, you’d probably get a finger-wag and an anecdote about the beginnings of their own careers. Mariah could never release another song and still be relevant to, indeed revered by, someone you listen to on the regular.