The Number Ones

February 19, 2000

The Number Ones: Mariah Carey’s “Thank God I Found You” (Feat. Joe & 98 Degrees)

Stayed at #1:

1 Week

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.

They can’t all be winners. Over the course of a long career, Mariah Carey has racked up more #1 hits than anyone except the Beatles, and she’s nearly caught up to them. For a decent percentage of her career — a decent percentage of her time on this planet — Mariah has had a song sitting at the top of the Hot 100. These days, she reliably returns to the top every year. It’s been a remarkable run, but all those #1 hits are not created equal. Some of Mariah’s chart-toppers are immortal, incandescent pop classics, and some of them barely exist. “Thank God I Found You” belongs in the latter category.

In some ways, “Thank God I Found You” was Mariah Carey branching out. She’d been making ballads for her entire career, but she’d recorded most of those ballads with the same group of collaborators. Walter Afanasieff, the Brazilian-born studio musician who’d started out his producing career with Mariah, had been Mariah’s go-to ballad guy from 1990 on, but she’d stopped working with him by the time she made her 1999 album Rainbow. Instead, she turned to other establishment figures — Diane Warren, David Foster, Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis. Jam and Lewis, in particular, had been key figures in the R&B world since long before Mariah’s career had begun, and they’d never lost relevance. It just made sense for Mariah to work with the two of them.

Jam and Lewis co-wrote and co-produced six of the songs on Mariah’s Rainbow album. She developed a working relationship with the duo quickly. Mariah would fly into Minneapolis and spend a few hours in the studio with Jam and Lewis, and they’d have a couple of songs done by the time she left. In Fred Bronson’s Billboard Book Of Number One Hits, Jimmy Jam talks about being struck by both Mariah’s depth of knowledge and her clarity of vision: “She knew our catalog upside down. She knew everything about us and what we’d done … She could paint a total picture for us as to what she wanted the finished record to sound like.”

One night, when Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis were at a Timberwolves game, Mariah Carey’s assistant called them up to tell them that Mariah was already on the way to Minneapolis. She was getting in at midnight, and she wanted to head straight to the studio. It’s fun to imagine having that kind of power — keeping two of the biggest producers in the world on retainer, ready to snap into work mode whenever you’re ready to go. Jimmy Jam says that Mariah really only had a title for “Thank God I Found You.” Along with Jam and Lewis, she figured out the rest of the song in the studio.

Mariah has never said who she was addressing on “Thank God I Found You,” but at the time, she was dating the Mexican-born singer Luis Miguel. Miguel was (and is) a titanic star in the Spanish-speaking world, but he never really crossed over to American audiences the way that so many of his ’90s peers did. (Miguel never quite made the Billboard Hot 100.) Miguel and Mariah didn’t stay together too long, but she apparently got a #1 hit out of the relationship.

Mariah’s “Thank God I Found You” lyrics are pure schmaltz. Over and over, Mariah’s narrator tells this other person about how happy she is now that they’re together: “Thank God I found you/ I was lost without you/ My every wish and every dream somehow became reality.” This isn’t one of those love songs that acknowledges how relationships can be difficult, and it’s also not one of those love songs that deals in specifics. Instead, it’s Mariah in mush mode. That’s how things usually went with her ballads. She would sing about these deep wells of emotion, but the words never did much more than outlining those feelings. That was the job of the vocals themselves.

As with so many Mariah songs, “Thank God I Found You” mostly exists as a vehicle for the human voice, an excuse for a whole lot of gravity-defying melismatic runs. In the case of this song, the vocals didn’t just come from Mariah. When they first put the track together, Jam, Lewis, and Mariah all agreed that the song needed male vocals alongside hers. Maybe they were hoping to recapture some of the chart-domination synergy that Mariah had achieved with Boyz II Men on “One Sweet Day” a few years earlier. Jam and Lewis wanted former Number Ones artists K-Ci & JoJo on the track with Mariah, but because they were big stars on a different label, the producers couldn’t get the deal done. Instead, they found Joe.

The singer known only as Joe has never really been a major star, but he’d already been in the mix for a few years. In the Bronson book, Jimmy Jam says that Joe got to sing on “Thank God I Found You” mostly because Jam and Lewis knew he’d show up for all the various promotional duties: “From what we knew about Joe, he was a nice guy who would be there for the video and performances. That becomes important when you do duets, and his label was willing.” That’s not exactly a ringing artistic endorsement, but there’s a whole lot of professional value in simply being reliable. Joe was that. He’s always been that.

Joseph Lewis Thomas, the son of two preachers, grew up in Georgia and Mississippi, and he got his start by recording demos while working at a gospel record store in New Jersey. (When Joe was born, the #1 song in America was Neil Diamond’s “Song Sung Blue.”) Joe signed with Polygram in the early ’90s. His 1993 debut Everything had a couple of decent-sized R&B hits, and his debut single, the breezy and dancehall-flavored “I’m In Luv,” peaked at #64.

Joe made more of an impression with his 1997 sophomore LP All That I Am. A year before the album came out, Joe’s song “All The Things (Your Man Won’t Do)” showed up on the soundtrack of the Wayans Brothers movie Don’t Be A Menace To South Central While Drinking Your Juice In The Hood, and the song peaked at #11. The album went platinum, and Joe went on to sing guest vocals on a couple of big 1998 records. He’s on the hook of Big Pun’s biggest hit “Still Not A Player,” which peaked at #24, and he also duetted with fellow generically-named R&B singer Case on “Faded Pictures,” which went all the way to #10. (It’s a 3.)

By 1999, then, Joe was a known quantity, especially among R&B fans, but he was more journeyman than star. (That would change, at least for a little while; Joe will appear in this column again.) When Joe got the chance to sing lead alongside Mariah Carey on one of her singles, he was ready. In the Bronson book, Joe says, “When she called me to come to the studio, I had no idea I would record at that moment, but I couldn’t let the opportunity slip away.”

Joe isn’t the only guest on “Thank God I Found You.” Jam and Lewis wanted some male harmonies on the track, too, and there may have been some commercial considerations at work when they got 98 Degrees to sing those harmonies. 98 Degrees are easily my least favorite boy band of the TRL era. 98 Degrees were a bunch of square-jawed Abercrombie-model types, along with one slightly doofy goateed substitute-teacher-looking guy. While contemporaries like the Backstreet Boys and *NSYNC brought the fantastical crowd-pleasing flash, 98 Degrees’ whole sales pitch was that they were normal handsome guys who wore khakis and shit. They were boring, and I hated them.

The 98 Degrees era began in 1996, when a few Midwestern college hunks moved to Los Angeles and started a singing group. One of the four guys left to make Christian pop, so de facto frontman Nick Lachey recruited his younger brother Drew, who looked basically exactly like Nick. 98 Degrees thought of themselves as R&B singers, and they got discovered by sneaking backstage at a Boyz II Men show, just as Boyz II Men had been discovered by sneaking backstage to meet Bell Biv DeVoe. They signed with Motown, which was a big deal to them. But 98 Degrees never really made convincing R&B singers. Instead, they had the good fortune to come along just as the boy-band boom was starting, which seemed to embarrass the members of the group to no end. Nevertheless, their 1997 debut single “Invisible Man” climbed as high as #12.

98 Degrees’ sophomore album, 1998’s 98 Degrees And Rising, was when they really hit the zeitgeist. That LP when quadruple platinum, and it spun off a couple of top-10 hits. The biggest of those hits was “Because Of You,” a ballad that they recorded with a Swedish songwriting/production team, and it peaked at #3. (It’s a 4.) Later on, they’d reach #2 with 2000’s shameless Spanglish dance-pop track “Give Me Just One Night (Una Noche).” (That’s another 4.) Then 98 Degrees broke up in 2003, when Nick Lachey and this then-wife Jessica Simpson were becoming stars in the nascent reality-TV realm. (Simpson’s highest-charting single, her 1999 debut “I Wanna Love You Forever,” peaked at #3. It’s yet another 4.) Lachey has remained in the reality-TV realm ever since; he and his current wife now host Love Is Blind and The Ultimatum on Netflix.

“Thank God I Found You” was the only time that any of those 98 Degrees goobers ever sang on a #1 hit. In the Bronson book, Jimmy Jam says, “They had to do their part quickly, and to this day, the guys say, ‘Sorry about the vocal.’ But they came in and killed it.” Now: Why would Jimmy Jam mention those apologies if he really thought that 98 Degrees had killed it? To me, those guys just sound blandly OK on the song, but beyond a couple of ad-libs here and there, none of them ever gets a lead-vocal moment. Instead, 98 Degrees merely do gospel-choir duty, giving Mariah Carey and Joe space to go into untrammeled overdrive on the leads.

They really do go crazy on the song. To me, “Thank God I Found You” mostly sounds like an excuse for Mariah Carey’s vocal pyrotechnics. The song has a pretty-enough central hook, but it gets lost in the melisma deluge. I think Mariah’s reputation for oversinging is mostly unfair. She was usually careful to use her incredible abilities in smart and deliberate ways, highlighting her songs when she could’ve drowned them out. But on “Thank God I Found You,” Mariah and her collaborators blast the vocal runs off into infinity; even the song’s grand and obvious key change barely registers amidst all the weebles and wobbles. On some level, Mariah’s performance is impressive. I definitely can’t sing like that; almost nobody can. But it’s the vocal equivalent of a Yngwie Malmsteen solo — an overwhelming display of technique that never really serves a compelling function or expresses an identifiable emotion.

Even the video seems like it’s out of ideas. Rush Hour director Brett Ratner had previously collaborated with Mariah Carey on the wildly expensive and cartoonish “Heartbreaker” clip. Ratner is nobody’s idea of a great auteur, but there’s some fun energy to that “Heartbreaker” video. The clip for “Thank God I Found You,” on the other hand, is just Mariah, Joe, and 98 Degrees singing the song outdoors at a Minneapolis radio-station show. That’s it. They all seem happy, but it’s not exactly a bewitching cinematic vision.

“Thank God I Found You” also caused Mariah some legal headaches. A few months after the song reached #1, Seth Swirsky and Warryn Campbell sued Mariah for copyright infringement. Swirsky and Campbell claimed that “Thank God I Found You” was a ripoff of “One Of Those Love Songs,” a track that they’d written for the R&B girl group Xscape in 1998. (Xscape’s highest-charting single, 1993’s “Just Kickin’ It,” peaked at #2. It’s a 5.) A federal court dismissed the lawsuit, but then an appeals court reversed that decision, ruling that the lawsuit could continue. Mariah eventually settled out of court.

In retrospect, it’s slightly remarkable that “Thank God I Found You” made it to #1 at all. Sometimes, big-star collaborations can cruise to the top just by being events, but Joe and 98 Degrees weren’t important enough that their inclusion on the song qualified as an event. Rainbow was, at that point, Mariah’s weakest-selling album, but I guess she’d built up enough of a reputation as a commercial juggernaut that she could ride a boring and forgettable track like this one to the top, even if it only stayed there for a single week. We could probably consider that sole week at #1 to be the very end of Mariah’s imperial era — her first imperial era, anyway.

After “Thank God I Found You,” Mariah released one more Rainbow single, the Snoop Dogg collab “Crybaby,” and that one stalled out at #28. (Snoop Dogg will eventually appear in this column.) Then Mariah finally got free of Columbia Records and signed a huge new deal with Virgin, a five-album contract worth $100 million. Immediately afterwards, Mariah came out with her first movie. She’d been planning the rags-to-riches musical Glitter for a long time, and it landed like dog diarrhea on a kitchen floor. Glitter didn’t even make a quarter of its budget, and it became its own kind of rare cultural consensus moment. Just about everyone seemed to agree that Glitter was terrible. (I’ve never seen it. Should I watch it? I probably won’t.)

The Glitter soundtrack turned out to be Mariah’s only Virgin record. Lead single “Loverboy,” a collaboration with ’80s funkateers Cameo that sampled that group’s 1986 single “Candy,” actually made it to #2. (It’s a 4.) But the Glitter soundtrack just barely limped to platinum, making it a pretty stunning failure in the context of Mariah’s career to that point. Around the time that the album and movie both came out, Mariah made a notoriously bizarre surprise appearance on Total Request Live, leaving the normally-unflappable Carson Daly visibly weirded out.

A few days after that TRL appearance, Mariah posted some voice clips on her website, saying, among other things, that she wasn’t sure if she should be making music at the time. A week later, she was hospitalized for exhaustion, and Virgin bought out the rest of her deal. Soon after, Mariah got herself a new deal with Island. Her 2002 album Charmbracelet did even worse than the Glitter soundtrack; “Through The Rain,” its lead single, peaked at #81. Mariah Carey looked like she was done. She was not. We will see Mariah in this column again.

GRADE: 2/10

BONUS BEATS: Mariah Carey’s remixes are usually fundamental parts of her single releases, and I usually talk about those remixes in the body of these pieces. But “Thank God I Found You” has left basically no cultural footprint, and I needed a Bonus Beat, so we’re going to put the remix down here. For the “Thank God I Found You” remix, Mariah and her “Heartbreaker” collaborator DJ Clue basically made a whole new song, and it was vastly superior to the original. Mariah re-recorded her vocals, and Clue made a new beat by sampling Keith Sweat’s 1988 track “Make It Last Forever.” (“Make It Last Forever” peaked at #59.) Nas came through with a guest verse, and Mariah made a new video for the track. Here it is:

(As lead artist, Nas’ highest-charting single is 2003’s “I Can,” which peaked at #12. As a guest, he made it to #5 on Missy Elliott’s “Hot Boyz” in 1999. “Hot Boyz” is a 9.)

THE 10S: Blink-182’s string-drenched, soaringly sincere pop-punk power ballad “All The Small Things” peaked at #6 behind “Thank God I Found You.” It’s a 10, my little windmill.

The Number Ones: Twenty Chart-Topping Hits That Reveal The History Of Pop Music is out 11/15 via Hachette Books. You can pre-order it here.

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