In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.
In the summer of 1990, Mariah Carey arrived on the pop charts like a comet crashing into an unsuspecting planet. When she showed up, she changed everything. “Vision Of Love,” Carey’s debut single and first chart-topper, kicked off an absolutely berserk historic run. That run would make Carey the only real chart competition that the Beatles have ever had. (The Beatles have 20 #1 singles — the most of any artist ever. Carey has 19, and she could still catch them.) Look upon her works, ye mighty, and despair.
There’s no mythic image that marks the ascension of Mariah Carey, no footage of her disembarking from a plane and being mobbed by screaming teenagers. Historically speaking, though, Carey’s entrance is nearly as important as the moment when the Beatles came to New York. “Vision Of Love” can tell you why.
The moment that Mariah Carey hits the whistle-register high note near the end of “Vision Of Love” — the highest sound that a human voice can emit — is a true statement. It’s like the Death Star blowing up Alderaan, or like Brock Lesnar triple-powerbombing Spike Dudley in his first appearance on Monday Night Raw. It’s a display of overwhelming and unchecked force, a sign to the world that the power dynamics have just shifted decisively.
Nobody else could do what Mariah Carey could do, and Mariah Carey did that thing at just the right moment. Carey came along a few months before the press conference where Rob Pilatus and Fabrice Morvan, the two members of Milli Vanilli, admitted that they hadn’t sung a note on their massively successful debut album. When Carey released “Vision Of Love” in May of 1990, the stories about the whole Milli Vanilli scam were still just rumors. Still, Carey was exactly what the music industry needed. At a time when people were getting sick of a certain form of prefabricated teen idol, Carey was an antidote. Carey was still a teenager, and she looked like a model, but she could do things with her voice that few other people on the planet could equal. And Carey also knew how to showcase those talents, how to get the maximum dramatic impact from their unveiling. For a record industry that was terrified of backlash, Mariah Carey represented a new way out.
In retrospect, especially compared to what Mariah Carey would do on later records, “Vision Of Love” sounds almost restrained. In 1990, though, it was as dazzling and baffling as Van Halen’s “Eruption” had been 12 years earlier. Mariah Carey introduced herself as the new final boss of melismatic runs — the R&B technique of bending words or syllables into multiple notes. Mariah Carey didn’t invent melisma, and it was common practice in gospel for decades before she arrived. In 1990, more and more R&B singers were going crazy with melisma; the intro of En Vogue’s “Hold On,” a song that peaked at #2 just before “Vision Of Love” reached its Hot 100 pinnacle, was a sign of things to come. (“Hold On” is a 9.) But Mariah Carey turned melisma into an organizing principle, a foundation. Upon that rock, she built her church.
In a lot of ways, Mariah Carey’s early career was simply a refined echo of what Whitney Houston had done five years earlier. Like Carey, Whitney Houston was 19 years old when she signed her big record deal. Like Carey, Houston worked closely with a high-powered record executive who immediately made her the centerpiece of a whole major-label operation. Like Houston, Carey bridged divides between R&B and pop radio, a difficult split to master.
But there were crucial differences, too. Unlike Whitney Houston, Mariah Carey didn’t grow up singing gospel in Black churches. Instead, Carey was a child of pop music. When Carey learned about gospel, she did it by working backwards, learning about her favorite pop stars’ key influences. Also, Whitney Houston came from a show-business family, and Mariah Carey did not. Carey’s mother Patricia was a vocal coach and a former opera singer, but she didn’t have the same connections as Whitney’s mother Cissy. Mariah had to make her own way. Also, unlike Whitney Houston, Mariah Carey wrote her own songs. That mattered, too.
To hear Mariah Carey tell it, her childhood was a crucible. Carey grew up all over Long Island, mostly with her mother. (Carey has always been cagey about her age, but as near as anyone can tell, the #1 song in the US when she was born was Tommy Roe’s “Dizzy.”) Carey’s family situation was chaotic. Money was tight, and she had difficult relationships with everyone else in her family. (In her autobiography, Carey writes that her sister tried to sell her to a pimp when she was 12.) Carey’s mixed-race background — white mother, Black father with Venezuelan ancestry — made her feel as if she didn’t fit in anywhere. For Carey, music was an escape from all of that.
Carey was 16 when she recorded her first demo. Through her older brother, Carey had met the former Rufus member Gavin Christopher, who was embarking on a solo career, and he produced one of her first demos. (Christopher’s highest-charting single, 1986’s “One Step Closer To You,” peaked at #22.) At 17, Carey moved to New York; for a while, she crashed in Manhattan with Christopher’s girlfriend Clarissa Dane. Christopher also introduced Carey to Ben Margulies, a session drummer who had his own studio in the back of his father’s cabinet factory. For her first few years in New York, Carey would work jobs waiting tables or checking coats. Whenever she wasn’t at one of those jobs, she’d be working on songs with Margulies.
Eventually, Carey found a gig as a backup singer for Brenda K. Starr, whose single “I Still Believe” was on the charts at the time. (“I Still Believe” peaked at #13. A decade later, in tribute to Starr, Carey recorded her own version of “I Still Believe,” and she took it to #4. Carey’s version is a 4.) Starr and Carey became friends, and one night in 1988, Carey was Starr’s plus-one at a music-industry party in Manhattan. There, while Carey was trying to hand a copy of her demo to Atlantic Records exec Jerry Greenberg, Tommy Mottola reached out and grabbed the tape, and then he immediately left the party.
Tommy Mottola, the former manager of Daryl Hall and John Oates, had just become the head of Sony Music. The famous story about that demo tape is that Tommy Mottola, taking a limo back home, listened to the tape. When he heard it, he told the limo driver to turn back around, and he went back to the party, looking for Mariah Carey. She’d already left. So Mottola went on a frantic search for this singer. A few days later, Mottola signed Carey to Columbia, the biggest label under the CBS umbrella.
At Columbia, Mariah Carey was an immediate priority. In introducing her to the public, the label followed the same model that Arista had used with Whitney Houston. The label even used some of the same producers, including Narada Michael Walden, the man behind the boards on many of Houston’s biggest hits. Carey and Ben Margulies co-wrote “Vision Of Love,” the song that would become Carey’s first single and the opening track on her 1990 debut album. Working with Walden and with Earth, Wind & Fire collaborator Rhett Lawrence, Carey reshaped “Vision Of Love” into the song that it became.
I’m working on a book about the 20 most important #1 hits in the history of the Hot 100 right now, and “Vision Of Love” is one of those songs. I don’t want to step on my “Vision Of Love” chapter too much, but that’s the song that pretty much set the stage for a whole decade of showy, pyrotechnic ’90s R&B vocals. It also set the stage for the American Idol-style pageantry that followed more than a decade later. Carey created an environment where her disciples could flourish, and she did it by constructing “Vision Of Love” as a showcase for her voice. The song works as a gradual buildup. Carey starts off low, her voice coming out almost like a modulated sigh, and then she builds up more and more, ramping up the explosiveness with an expert sense of showmanship.
It’s funny. The production of “Vision Of Love” is very much stuck in its moment — the tinny keyboard bloops, the echoing drum sound, the vague vaseline-smear digital gloss all over everything. The groove itself is a classic R&B/gospel thing, but the backing track is hopelessly mired in the adult-contempo aesthetics of 1990. The vocals, meanwhile, are from the future.
Carey’s “Vision Of Love” lyrics are general, almost to a fault. From a certain perspective, “Vision Of Love” is a straight-up love song. From another, it’s Carey singing to God. Really, though, “Vision Of Love” is a song about overcoming struggle and about breaking through to something better — some “sweet destiny” that previously existed as pure fantasy. Carey elevates her own lyrics. In the way she sings, she supercharges those words. There’s not a ton of struggle in that airless production, but in the dizzy workout that Carey gives her voice, you can hear the promise of transcendence. I don’t think “Vision Of Love” is a perfect song, and I don’t think it’s Mariah Carey’s best, but it’s definitely a spectacle.
Columbia was very deliberate in the way it introduced Mariah Carey to the world. Carey and director Bojan Bazelli made a “Vision Of Love” video, but the label didn’t like the way it turned out. So the label enlisted George Michael collaborator Andy Morahan, who made a whole new “Vision Of Love” video, spending a bunch of money to make Carey look like some kind of dreamlike vision. (Carey has also said she was styled, at Tommy Mottola’s insistence, to look Italian rather than Black.) At least one Columbia employee complained anonymously to the press about Carey’s preferential treatment, but that preferential treatment worked.
As “Vision Of Love” started to gain steam, Columbia did everything in its power to make the world aware that Mariah Carey was really singing this stuff. In June of 1990, she sang “Vision Of Love” on The Arsenio Hall Show. A few days later, she sang “America The Beautiful” at a Pistons/Blazers NBA Finals game. By that point, she already looked like a star. Her self-titled debut album wouldn’t even be out until a few days later.
“Vision Of Love” reached #1 in August, a few days before Mariah Carey officially went gold. All through 1990, Carey sang “Vision Of Love” on a ton of TV shows — The Tonight Show, Good Morning America, SNL, the Grammys. Pretty soon, though, Carey would have more songs to sing in those big TV moments. We’ll see Mariah Carey so many more times in this column.
BONUS BEATS: “Vision Of Love” was a big-bang moment, and plenty of singers who will eventually appear in this column have said that the song was a key influence. Interestingly enough, though, there aren’t any truly noteworthy “Vision Of Love” covers. For the most part, the singers who couldn’t pull off those vocal runs stayed away from “Vision Of Love,” while the few singers who could do all that Mariah Carey business also stayed away, perhaps deciding that they couldn’t do anything to improve on the song. (There have been some singing-show renditions, and some of them have been solid, but they haven’t left much of an impression on me.) When “Vision Of Love” has popped up again over the years, it’s mostly been because of Carey herself singing the song live in different settings. My favorite of those is the version that Carey sang on her MTV Unplugged special in 1992. Here it is:
(Carey’s Unplugged will be in this column again.)
THE NUMBER TWOS: Snap!’s overdriven, explosive Teutonic hip-house attack “The Power” peaked at #2 behind “Vision Of Love.” It’s a kinda hectic 9.