The Number Ones

October 12, 1991

The Number Ones: Mariah Carey’s “Emotions”

Stayed at #1:

3 Weeks

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.


Sometimes, the obvious record-label idea is the right idea. In 1991, Mariah Carey was a freshly minted superstar. Her self-titled debut album had already sold more than four million copies in the US, and it would eventually move more than twice that number. She’d released four singles, and all four had gone to #1. Carey was already a goldmine for Columbia Records, but she’d split from Ben Marguiles, the producer and co-writer who’d been her main collaborator for most of that first album, over royalty disputes. So Tommy Mottola, the Sony Music president who’d signed Carey and who would later marry her, had the idea to team Carey up with another Columbia Records cash cow. This would work out nicely for everyone.

Mariah Carey didn’t tour behind her self-titled debut. She liked recording, and she wanted to keep recording. Barely a year after her debut, Carey released her sophomore album Emotions. While she was working on that album, Tommy Mottola paired Carey up with Robert Clivillés and David Cole, the two New York house producers who had just hit huge with their C+C Music Factory project. In that early-’90s moment when house music was all over the charts, Clivillés and Cole probably looked like superstars themselves. Earlier in 1991, C+C Music Factory made it to #1 with their moment-defining bubble-house anthem “Gonna Make You Sweat (Everybody Dance Now).” Their album Gonna Make You Sweat was a genuine blockbuster, selling five million copies and launching two more singles into the top five.

Pairing Mariah Carey up with Clivillés and Cole wasn’t exactly rocket surgery, but it was the right move. Carey clicked with the two producers right away. Even on her first album, Carey sounded more at home singing uptempo dance jams than she did on the fusty ballads that her label emphasized. This new C+C+C Music Factory worked together to write and produce four tracks from Emotions, and the album’s title track became Carey’s fifth #1 hit.

The title “Emotions” is an inside joke that’s not actually that inside. “Emotions” is basically a full-on disco song — a conscious attempt to recreate “Best Of My Love,” the 1977 chart-topper from the Earth, Wind & Fire-affiliated disco sister act known as the Emotions. When I wrote about “Best Of My Love” in this column two years ago, I mentioned that Carey, Clivillés, and Cole had pretty much swiped the “Best Of My Love” groove for “Emotions,” and I figured that the title of “Emotions” must be some kind of accident: “That can’t have been intentional.” I was wrong. It was totally intentional.

Mariah Carey would’ve been eight years old when “Best Of My Love” landed at #1, and the song evidently left a deep impression. Both Carey and Robert Clivillés had the idea to come up with an Emotions-style track. In Fred Bronson’s Billboard Book Of Number 1 Hits, David Cole owns up to the homage: “The Emotions were an inspiration for the song ‘Emotions’; there’s no way to deny that or get around it. It definitely has the feeling from the Emotions, but we’re not dumb enough to go and steal the damn record.”

Earth, Wind & Fire’s Maurice White disagreed. White, who’d written “Best Of My Love,” sued Mariah Carey and C+C Music Factory in 1991, and they settled out of court. White got paid, but he was still sore about it years later, telling Spin, “Sampling is one thing, but she took the whole song.” Carey’s “Emotions” actually doesn’t directly sample “Best Of My Love,” but the bounce in that groove is pretty much the exact same. In the Bronson book, David Cole says that it was Carey’s idea to use “Emotions” as a title: “We thought maybe that’s a bit much. And we all decided, ‘No, why not?’ There’s nothing wrong with calling it ‘Emotions’… It’s a great name for a song.”

When seen from a certain perspective, it’s not cool to steal a groove from another track, and it’s definitely not cool to name your song after the group whose groove you’re stealing. That’s supervillain shit. Maybe Maurice White felt like Mariah Carey was making her jack-move even more blatant, rubbing his face in it. But I’m not Maurice White’s accountant, so I don’t particularly care. “Best Of My Love” is a great song, and so is “Emotions.” In the 14 years after “Best Of My Love,” that groove didn’t really lose any of its bounce.

Actually, Mariah Carey picked the exact right moment to bring that sound back. There’s a direct line from disco to house, and the early-’90s boom in house was pretty much the rebirth of disco. As with disco’s big pop moment, plenty of the people who bought house records in the early ’90s — and even probably some of the people who made house records — didn’t know anything about the genre’s roots in gay Black clubs. But Clivillés and Cole came from those clubs, and they definitely knew what they were doing when they helped Mariah Carey come up with a full-on disco banger.

“Emotions” isn’t a house track. It’s pretty much straight-up disco, and it’s got a lot of the gospel overtones that plenty of disco tracks had. (For their 12″ club remix of “Emotions,” Clivillés and Cole made the song over as a house track, but they also included a full-on gospel intro.) Carey loved working with Clivillés and Cole, and she felt especially close with Cole, who was also a singer and who helped push Carey vocally. On “Emotions,” Carey sang the back-up vocals with Cole and with Trey Lorenz, a singer who will eventually appear in this column. With its strutting bass-pops and its ebullient string-stabs, “Emotions” hits like champagne. Carey locks in with that joyous sound, and she uses it as a kind of vocal springboard.

Mariah Carey’s vocals on “Emotions” are nuts. She’d already been deploying her whistle-register high notes like a special effect, but on “Emotions,” she pushes that stuff to new extremes. “Emotions” is a song about being dizzy in love, and Carey evokes that excitement by going into squeak overdrive. Her melismatic runs cover a lot of ground, and on the bridge, she works out her lower range. But the parts of “Emotions” that everyone remembers are the bits where Carey’s voice gets higher and higher, into impossible only-audible-for-dogs realms. At the end of the track, she hits a series of reckless air-raid siren noises. Then, when she should be collapsing with exhaustion, she just lets out a deep and throaty giggle. She’s doing these things with her voice that few other singers could contemplate, and she’s having fun with it. It’s a game to her.

At the 1991 VMAs, as “Emotions” was still climbing the charts, Mariah Carey sang the song live for the first time. During that performance, Carey actually outdid her on-record self, letting out some of the highest high notes ever recorded. This was a display of sheer physical mastery, and it eventually came back to bite Carey. As 2016 turned to 2017, Carey sang “Emotions” on the Dick Clark New Year’s Eve special, and she absolutely shanked those high notes in between complaints about the sound mix. The video went viral, and Carey had to do damage control, blaming the cold weather and the lack of a soundcheck.

And look: It’s fun to watch Mariah Carey seethe while she struggles on live TV — partly because she seethes so entertainingly and partly because it makes for such a jarring clash with the superhuman Mariah Carey that people remember from 1991. But “Emotions” was never just a vehicle for Mariah Carey’s high notes. It’s a jam. Those high notes are in there for a reason. They evoke the big-feelings headrush meeting someone and clicking with them — the same feeling that the Emotions captured with “Best Of My Love.” Those vocals hit so hard because there’s such a celebratory energy to the track.

The “Emotions” video captures that same energy, too. Director Jeff Preiss, who’d already made the Chet Baker documentary Let’s Get Lost, films Carey having fun and dancing with friends and also playing with some weird, cute little animal that I don’t recognize. There are plenty of good-looking guys in the video, but it’s not about the romance that the song describes. It’s just Mariah Carey looking happy. A video like that underlines just how little “Emotions” has to do with romance. On paper, “Emotions” is a love song. In practice, it’s just about feeling like your heart is exploding.

When Mariah Carey’s “I Don’t Wanna Cry” went to #1 earlier in 1991, Carey became only the second artist ever to top the Hot 100 with her first four singles. Before Carey, only the Jackson 5 had pulled off that feat. “Emotions” gave Carey five straight #1 hits, breaking that record that she’d shared with the Jackson 5. Carey was a pop-music fan and a habitual chart-watcher, so that wasn’t lost on her. Soon, Carey would pay tribute to the Jackson 5, but we’ll get to that.

Mariah Carey’s streak of #1 hits couldn’t last forever, and it finally ended after “Emotions.” The next single from the Emotions album was “Can’t Let Go,” a track that Carey co-wrote and co-produced with her “Love Takes Time” collaborator Walter Afanasieff. “Can’t Let Go” stalled out at #2, making it the first Mariah Carey single ever to miss #1. (It’s a 6.) There’s a decent chance that “Can’t Let Go” would’ve reached #1, but Columbia, in an effort to juice up Carey’s album sales, pulled the single before it could reach the top, an increasingly common music-business tactic.

Even with that effort, though, Emotions just wasn’t as big an album as Mariah Carey, though it was still hugely successful. Emotions eventually went quadruple platinum, which is great but which is still less than half of what that debut album sold. The third single from Emotions was the funky dance jam “Make It Happen,” another Clivillés and Cole production, and that one peaked at #5. (It’s an 8.)

But even if Emotions wasn’t the phenomenon that Carey’s first album had been, it still represented a big step forward for Carey. Carey produced or co-produced every track on the record herself. She worked with one absolute legend, co-writing the album track “If It’s Over” with former Number Ones artist Carole King. And she showed the world what she could do with an explosively joyous track like “Emotions.”

Carey kept working with David Cole until his 1995 death. After Cole died, Carey co-wrote a song that paid loving tribute to Cole. That song will eventually appear in this column. A lot of Mariah Carey songs will eventually appear in this column. We’re nowhere near done with her.

GRADE: 8/10

BONUS BEATS: Here’s the “Emotions” cover that Mariah Carey heir apparent Ariana Grande released in 2012:

(Ariana Grande will eventually appear in this column.)

BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the Juan Maclean and LCD Soundsystem’s Nancy Whang sampling Mariah Carey’s “Emotions” vocals on their 2014 single “Get Down (With My Love)”:

BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Drake’s 2018 track “Emotionless” sampled the gospel-style intro from Robert Clivillés and David Cole’s 12″ club mix of “Emotions,” which means that Clivillés, Cole, and Mariah Carey all got songwriting credits on the Drake track. Here’s “Emotionless”:

(“Emotionless” peaked at #8. It’s a 5. Drake will eventually appear in this column.)

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