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.
“Hero” wasn’t supposed to be a Mariah Carey song. Mariah and her regular collaborator Walter Afanasieff wrote the big, grandiose ballad in a couple of hours, specifically to fulfill an assignment. They’d agreed to come up with a song for the soundtrack of a movie that Mariah Carey had never actually seen, and they wrote something that checked all the boxes. If things had gone the way that Mariah Carey planned, “Hero” would’ve become a Gloria Estefan song. If that had happened, I probably wouldn’t have been talking about “Hero” in this column. (Gloria Estefan has been in this column a few times, but I have a hard time imagining her version of “Hero” becoming a #1 hit.) Instead, fate did what fate does, and “Hero” became one of Mariah Carey’s signature songs.
I’ve never seen the 1992 Stephen Frears film Hero. Mariah Carey and I have that in common. From what I can tell, Hero appears to be a perfectly average early-’90s mid-budget movie for grown-ups. Dustin Hoffman is a small-time crook who comes across a crashed plane and saves a bunch of people while also stealing their wallets. Geena Davis is a TV reporter who Hoffman saves from the crash and who makes a whole news circus out of the anonymous man who rescued all those people. Andy Garcia is the con man who pretends to be the actual hero. Chevy Chase has an extended cameo as a slimy newsman. You get the picture. It’s one of those examinations of complicated human nature and the way the media flattens it all out. Even the most heroic figure isn’t exactly a great guy.
The people putting together the Hero soundtrack really wanted a big theme song from Mariah Carey, but Tommy Mottola, Mariah’s then-husband and label boss, was determined that she should have nothing to do with movies. Mottola thought, for whatever reason, that movies would ruin Mariah’s career. (Years later, when Glitter came out, that almost happened.) So the Hero people asked Mariah and Afanasieff to write a song for them instead. At the time, Mariah wanted to get into writing for other artists, and she agreed. Mariah Carey and Walter Afanasieff would write the theme for Hero, and Gloria Estefan would sing that song.
The Hero producers screened the movie for Walter Afanasieff, and he gave Mariah the basic outline of the film. He probably did a bad job with that description. In her 2020 memoir, Mariah writes, “The plot of the film was explained to everyone in the studio in five minutes: A pilot goes around and rescues people.” That is not the plot of Hero, but the plot of Hero ultimately didn’t matter. While enjoying a little alone time in the bathroom, the one place where Mottola’s hired underlings wouldn’t follow her, Mariah came up with some lyrics and a melody. A couple of hours later, she and Afanasieff had just about finished the song.
At the time, Mariah didn’t think much of the song that she’d just co-written. In her book, Mariah writes that the song was “fairly generic” and that the demo that she recorded was “a bit schmaltzy.” She’s being nice. “Hero” is both extremely generic and radically schmaltzy, to the point where it almost sounds like a parody of the puffed-up soundtrack ballads that topped the Hot 100 so often in the early ’90s. While Carey and Afanasieff were working on that demo, Tommy Mottola walked into the studio and proclaimed that the song was great and that Mariah would absolutely not give it away to another singer.
Mariah worked on “Hero” a bit more, trying to make it personal, and the movie Hero never got its Mariah Carey song. In Fred Bronson’s Billboard Book Of Number One Hits, Afanasieff says that he had to call the soundtrack people with some bad news: “You know what? I didn’t come up with anything.” Instead, the future Mariah Carey duet partner Luther Vandross wrote and recorded “Heart Of A Hero,” a soundtrack song that never went anywhere. (Luther Vandross’ highest-charting single is the 1994 cover of “Endless Love,” another schmaltzy soundtrack song, that Luther recorded with Mariah Carey. That “Endless Love” cover peaked at #2. It’s a 5.)
“Hero” is not a song about Dustin Hoffman rescuing Geena Davis from a crashed plane. Instead, it’s a big, arm-swishing ballad about finding your own sense of internal strength: “When you feel like hope is gone/ Look inside you and be strong/ And you’ll finally see the truth/ That a hero lies in you.” That’s a perfectly noble message, but there’s nothing remotely interesting or surprising or even specific about it. It’s pure Hallmark material — a statement of support so vague and all-encompassing that it feels almost aggressively meaningless.
Mariah recorded “Hero” a few different times, trying to find the right vocal tone for the song. “Hero” has a simple melody, but Carey always wanted to show off her vocal firepower. On “Hero,” she tried to strike a balance between her pyrotechnic vocal runs and a more restrained style. She mostly hits her goal. Mariah stretches out all kinds of crazy notes on “Hero,” but she never comes close to losing the melody. She also manages to convey a certain level of emotional catharsis, even though she didn’t actually care about the song very much. It’s possible to imagine a better version of “Hero” built around that exact vocal, but the arrangement smothers any chance of that better version existing.
As a producer, Walter Afanasieff has always colored inside the lines. He’s a meticulous pop craftsman who seems to have no desire to make music that’s even remotely challenging in any way. That’s fine. The world needs pop craftsmen. But the music on “Hero” is thuddingly, gallingly obvious. Afanasieff’s piano line is pretty enough, but everything about the song’s arrangement is pure mawkish sentimentality. The string-surges and flute-trills and big drum-hits all arrive exactly when you’re expecting. It’s the kind of autopilot ballad that could’ve been a big hit in the late ’80s. In the late ’80s, though, “Hero” would probably at least have a ridiculous guitar solo somewhere in there. “Hero” doesn’t even have that going for it.
“Hero” is the second song on Mariah’s Music Box album; it follows the sun-dazzled smash “Dreamlover.” Given that Music Box is mostly an album of hacky, sleepy ballads, “Hero” really sets the tone. In July of 1993, before the release of Music Box, Mariah played a show at Proctor’s Theatre in Schenectady, New York. The performance was recorded for a Thanksgiving TV special, and hordes of fans showed up. At that point, Mariah performed live very rarely. Even though she’d already made two huge albums, she was shocked to see those crowds. In her book, Mariah writes that this was when she first came to understand how popular and beloved she was. At that Schenectady show, Mariah sang “Hero” live for the first time, and the footage of that performance became the “Hero” video.
The “Hero” single came out in October, when “Dreamlover” was still sitting comfortably atop the Hot 100. A few weeks later, Mariah headed out on her Music Box tour, which was only seven dates at arenas. When Carey was on tour, a man named Colin Ferguson boarded a Long Island Rail Road train and methodically shot dozens of other passengers, killing six and wounding 19. Mariah Carey came from Long Island, and she’d ridden those trains many times. Three days after the mass shooting, Mariah finished up her tour at Madison Square Garden. Before the show, she announced that all the proceeds from “Hero” would go to the families of the victims. At the Garden, she dedicated “Hero” to the three men who’d tackled Ferguson while he reloaded. In the Bronson book, Afanasieff says that he looked out into the crowd that night and saw people crying. Maybe “Hero” would’ve made it to #1 without that whole story, but that whole story certainly didn’t hurt.
Mariah Carey came to love “Hero.” In her book, she writes that she had an epiphany before singing “Hero” live for the first time: “I decided that this song did not actually belong to Gloria Estefan, a movie, Tommy, or me. ‘Hero’ belonged to my fans, and I was going to deliver it to them with all I had.” She’s done that a lot. “Hero” is a live-show staple for Mariah, and it’s usually her big closer. Mariah sang “Hero” at a 1996 tribute to police officers who’d been killed, and she sang it with Luciano Pavarotti in Italy in 1999 — a big thing for Mariah, since her mother had been an opera singer.
After 9/11, Mariah sang “Hero” on the big A Tribute To Heroes telethon, and she released a new version of the single, a medley of “Hero” and the Glitter song “Never Too Far.” (That medley peaked at #81.) Mariah also sang “Hero” at halftime during Michael Jordan’s final All-Star Game. She sang it at Live 8 and at Barack Obama’s inaugural ball. The word “hero” is loose enough to encompass pretty much whatever you might want, and apparently the song “Hero” works the same way. Dustin Hoffman dragging people out of a crashed plane? Mass-shooter tacklers? Dead cops? Michael Jordan? “Hero” can apply to all of them, which means that “Hero” doesn’t mean a damn thing at all.
Look: I have no doubt that a lot of people have gotten a lot of hope and strength and inspiration out of “Hero.” But music is a subjective thing. At least theoretically, “Hero” is a song for people who are going through shit and who find themselves in fragile mental states. I happen to be writing this piece on the day that my dad died. (I probably should’ve taken today off, but routines and rhythms and rituals are important to me for reasons that I have never throughly examined, so here I am.) I am a person who is going through some shit and who is in a fragile mental state, and I get nothing out of “Hero.”
Maybe I’m feeling particularly uncharitable today, but “Hero” with all its bloat and manipulative cliché and baby-talk positivity, feels gratingly simplistic, almost to the point of insult. Mariah Carey is a generational talent, and she’s also one of the most dominant pop stars in history. She’s got hits for days, and many of those hits are great songs. But “Hero”? Fuck “Hero.”
Mariah followed “Hero” with another sweeping ballad. Her next single was “Without You,” a cover of the Badfinger power ballad that had been a #1 hit for Harry Nilsson in 1972. “Without You” was Mariah’s first #1 hit in the UK, and it was a huge smash all around Europe, where Mariah hadn’t quite taken over yet. (In the US, “Without You” peaked at #3. It’s a 5.) Mariah’s “Without You” follow-up was “Anytime You Need A Friend,” yet another ballad. That one peaked at #12. It was the 12th single of Mariah Carey’s career, and it was the first one that didn’t make the top 10 on the Billboard Hot 100.
When “Hero” finished its run at #1, the Music Box album was already quintuple platinum, and it went on to diamond sales in the US. Carey’s next album was the 1994 holiday LP Merry Christmas. At the time, Carey didn’t release any songs from that album as singles, though one of those songs will appear in this column a long, long time from now. Merry Christmas went platinum eight times over. Mariah Carey was running things, and before long, she wouldn’t need to rely on boring bullshit like “Hero.” We will see Mariah in this column many more times.
BONUS BEATS: Here’s a video of a 15-year-old Rihanna singing “Hero” at a 2003 talent show:
(Rihanna will eventually appear in this column.)
BONUS BONUS BEATS: In 2008, the finalists on the British singing-competition show The X-Factor released a group-singalong cover of “Hero,” and it became a #1 hit in the UK, where Mariah Carey’s original had peaked at #7. Here’s their version:
BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: In 2012, the American adaptation of The X-Factor featured five contestants who where smushed together into one group, Fifth Harmony. Here’s the five members of Fifth Harmony singing “Hero” on the show:
(Fifth Harmony’s highest-charting single, the 2016 Ty Dolla $ign collab “Work From Home,” peaked at #4. It’s a 10. Fifth Harmony member Camila Cabello will eventually appear in this column.)
BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: In 2015, Mariah Carey showed up in a commercial for something called Game Of War, and “Hero” soundtracked the ad. Here it is:
THE 10S: Snoop Doggy Dogg’s diabolically funky sneer-strut “What’s My Name” peaked at #8 behind “Hero.” From the depths of the sea and back to the block, it’s a 10.