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.
Every #1 hit has a story. That’s why I write this column. The people who gave us these songs have lived fascinating lives, and the songs themselves often follow twisty, unpredictable routes to the top. Sometimes, those stories help drive the songs up the charts. And every once in a while, we’ll get a #1 hit that’s about its own story, its own context. That’s the case with “Coming Out Of The Dark,” Gloria Estefan’s third and final chart-topper.
“Coming Out Of The Dark” is a song about enduring hardships, and Estefan recorded it when she was suffering in public. In March of 1990, shortly after her song “Don’t Wanna Lose You” reached #1, Estefan went to the White House to do some kind of anti-drug thing with President George H.W. Bush. The next day, Estefan and her family were in their tour bus, on the way to a show in Syracuse, when they got into a bad highway crash near Scranton. One truck had jackknifed in the middle of a highway, and when Estefan’s driver stopped, another truck rear-ended the tour bus, pushing it into the first truck. Estefan’s spine was fractured. She was airlifted to a hospital in New York City, where doctors put two titanium rods in her back.
For months, Gloria Estefan couldn’t do anything. She couldn’t walk without assistance, couldn’t sleep through the night, and definitely couldn’t perform. Estefan’s personal trainer moved into her house, and Estefan worked herself back into fighting shape, finally reaching the point where she could return to the stage. A couple of months before the crash, Estefan had co-hosted the American Music Awards. A year later, Estefan returned to that show to give her song “Coming Out Of The Dark” its grand debut. Past Number Ones artist Jon Bon Jovi introduced Estefan by stiffly narrating a video package about her road to recovery, and then a completely healed Estefan sang about relying on love to get through darkness. At the end of the song, her bandmates wrapped her up in a group hug. You can see how people might’ve been moved.
At the time, Estefan told The Orange County Register that “Coming Out Of The Dark” had been her husband’s idea. Emilio Estefan, the man who recruited Gloria for the Miami Sound Machine in the first place, was on the tour bus when it crashed, and he was on the helicopter that took her to the hospital in New York. According to Gloria, that’s where he got the idea for the song: “My husband had been in one of the helicopters, traveling from one hospital to the other. It was really dark and grey, and he was traumatized. He got this ray of light that hit him in the face, and he got the idea for ‘Coming Out Of The Dark.’ About three months later, he came to me and said, ‘When you start writing again, I have a song I want to co-write with you. When I came in, he was putting the melody to it, and when I sat there, it all poured out.” (I’m getting that quote from Fred Bronson’s Billboard Book of Number 1 Hits, a crucial reference that makes this column a whole lot easier to write.)
“Coming Out Of The Dark” is a love song, but it’s one of those love songs that could just as easily be about God. Estefan recorded the track with a gospel choir, going after the same kind of dramatic uplift that Michael Jackson had found with “Man In The Mirror” a few years earlier. Estefan sings about relying on someone else for strength: “Step by step, I’ll make it through/ I know I can/ May not make it easier, but I have felt you near all the way.” It’s a little weird to think that Emilio Estefan co-wrote a song that, at least ostensibly, is about him, but there’s no right or wrong way to express love. Maybe we should all write love songs to ourselves.
The Estefans wrote “Coming Out Of The Dark” with Jon Secada, a Cuban-born singer who’d moved to Florida in the ’70s, after his father did prison time in the Castro years. Secada studied jazz vocal performance in college, and he taught music at Miami Dade College for five years. At some point, Emilio Estefan became Secada’s manager, and Secada sang backup on Estefan songs like “Don’t Wanna Lose You.” Secada was still teaching when he co-wrote “Coming Out Of The Dark,” but he left that job soon afterwards. A year later, Secada became an adult-contempo pop star in his own right. (Secada’s highest-charting single, 1992’s “Just Another Day,” peaked at #5. It’s a 6.)
One of the gospel-choir voices on “Coming Out Of The Dark” is Jon Secada. Another is Betty Wright, the great South Florida soul singer. (Wright’s highest-charting single, 1972’s “Clean Up Woman,” peaked at #6. It’s an 8.) The whole gospel-choir thing is striking. Estefan made her name singing puffy dance-pop and gooey ballads, two styles of music that don’t really have any root in gospel. On “Coming Out Of The Dark,” though, Estefan presents herself as a soul singer, leading the choir by whooping muscular ad-libs all over it. That’s a risky strategy, especially considering that she was competing with absurdly gifted R&B singers like Whitney Houston and Mariah Carey on the 1991 pop charts. But Estefan pulls it off. Her vocal on “Coming Out Of The Dark” is tender and sensitive, but it’s also strong and commanding.
Given that Gloria Estefan is mostly famous for cruise-ship floor fillers like “Conga” and “Get On Your Feet,” it’s strange to think that all three of her #1 hits are all ballads. (“Conga” peaked at #10. It’s a 7. “Get On Your Feet” peaked at #11.) “Anything For You” and “Don’t Wanna Lose You,” Estefan’s first two chart-toppers, absolutely bore me to tears. On “Coming Out Of The Dark,” though, she sounds fully plugged-in. There’s an urgency to the song that doesn’t compromise its prettiness. Those first two songs sound like they were specifically engineered to be ignored. “Coming Out Of The Dark” is something else. It’s Gloria Estefan telling a story.
Maybe there’s something slightly craven about exploiting your own misfortune, spinning a whole triumphant-recovery public-interest narrative about surviving a bus crash. (Kanye West, an artist who will eventually appear in this column, did something similar when he rapped about his car-crash recovery on his 2002 debut single “Through The Wire,” which peaked at #15.) But I see something admirable in the drive to come back from a near-death experience and to document your comeback. Sure, it’s self-aggrandizing to hold yourself up as an inspirational totem, but if you can actually inspire somebody, then that’s a pretty nice thing to do. Also, I’d rather have a song about coming back from injury than a 10-part YouTube documentary series about it, which is almost certainly what we’d get today.
Also, as songs go, I think “Coming Out Of The Dark” is pretty good. I like the way the keyboards twinkle and the drums ripple on the intro. I like the stillness in Estefan’s voice. I like the booming intensity of that choir, the way their voices all rise upwards while they sing the title. “Coming Out Of The Dark” hasn’t had much public life beyond the whole Gloria Estefan comeback narrative, and it’s not a terribly memorable song, but when it’s playing, I’m not mad. It’s genuinely pretty, and it holds my attention.
In pop music, longevity is a funny thing. The Grammys tend to anoint artists that the industry believes will stand the test of time. They whiff things more often than not. Critics do the same thing. The albums that make year-end lists are, by and large, the albums that we think will still have some currency years down the line. Sometimes, those predictions can become self-fulfilling prophecies. If enough critics loudly insist that a record is a classic, then that record becomes an agreed-upon classic. But the songs that actually endure aren’t always the ones that people think will endure.
I’m sure Gloria Estefan thought that “Coming Out Of The Dark” would endure. It hasn’t. Instead, the Estefan songs that stuck around are the catchy, bouncy ones — the ones that seemed to promise their own disposability. By that same token, something like C+C Music Factory’s “Gonna Make You Sweat (Everybody Dance Now)” has left a much deeper footprint than most of the other hits of its era. “Coming Out Of The Dark,” on the other hand, has an evanescent quality. It topped the charts, and then it faded from the collective memory forever, despite its supposedly-classic qualities. But that doesn’t mean that “Coming Out Of The Dark” is bad. It means that popular memory works in funny ways, and it also means that “Coming Out Of The Dark” is just ultimately not that memorable. But it’s still a pretty nice song.
Gloria Estefan had already become a pop-music establishment figure by the time “Coming Out Of The Dark” reached #1. Even though she hasn’t made another chart-topper since, Estefan has remained an establishment figure. Her 1991 album Into The Light eventually went double platinum despite, “Coming Out Of The Dark” aside, being absolute trash. (Even the promisingly titled “Sex In The ’90s” is just butt.) A year later, Estefan released a greatest-hits collection that sold four million copies. Estefan has kept winning since then. She got a Presidential Medal Of Freedom. She got a Kennedy Center Honor. She got a jukebox musical on Broadway. She and Emilio are minority owners of the Miami Dolphins. They’re hundred millionaires. They’re doing great.
But in the years since “Coming Out Of The Dark,” Gloria Estefan has not really been a pop-chart presence. The follow-up single “Seal Our Fate,” for instance, flopped hard, peaking at #55. (Bad song.) In fact, Estefan has only made the top 10 once after “Coming Out Of The Dark,” and she needed help to get there. In 1999, Estefan made her movie debut, starring alongside Meryl Streep in the music-education drama Music Of The Heart — which, weirdly enough, is the only major non-horror film that Wes Craven ever directed. For the film’s soundtrack, Estefan teamed up with *NSYNC to record the Diane Warren-written, David Foster-produced ballad “Music Of My Heart.” That treacly, overwrought song peaked at #2, and it success probably had a whole lot more to do with *NSYNC than with Gloria Estefan. (It’s a 3. *NSYNC will eventually appear in this column.)
Music Of My Heart didn’t exactly lead to a big acting career for Gloria Estefan, though she’s had a few roles since. (She voices a character in the Netflix animated movie Vivo, which came out earlier this year and which is deeply mediocre.) Estefan has been steadily making music ever since her pop heyday. I have a vague sense of respect for her, even though I have come to realize that I mostly don’t like her music very much. “Coming Out Of The Dark,” though? I like “Coming Out Of The Dark” just fine.
BONUS BEATS: On her 1993 TV special Duets, Aretha Franklin, an artist who’s been in this column twice, sang “Coming Out Of The Dark” with Gloria Estefan and effectively snatched the song away from her without being rude about it. Here’s that performance: