It sounds like a movie. A young singer accompanies the artist she sings back-up for to an event. While she’s there, she passes a demo tape to one of the most powerful people in the recording industry. He searches for her at the party, but can’t find her. When he sees her again two weeks later, he signs her. The unmistakable power of her voice drives her first four singles to #1, and she never looks back. You literally can’t make it up, because that’s the story of Mariah Carey, whose debut album arrived 30 years ago today.
Carey got the love of music naturally; her mother had been an opera singer and worked as a vocal coach. She has occasionally credited struggles she faced as a biracial child (her mother was white, and her father was of African-American and Afro-Venezuelan heritage) with giving her the resolve to succeed. Already singing on demos by her teens, Carey became a back-up singer for Brenda K. Starr before she was 20. In 1988, she went to a CBS Records party where she got her own demo into the hands of Columbia Records head Tommy Mottola. When they reconnected two weeks later, he brought her to the label with a plan to position her against the other major female acts of the day, Whitney Houston and Madonna.
From the outset, Carey was heavily involved in creating her own material. She co-wrote every song on the album (seven with Ben Margulies); in fact, all four songs from the demo, which she’d written with Margulies, made the final cut for the album. The record was all but complete when she and Margulies wrote “Love Takes Time;” Carey intended it for a future album, but reaction among the label execs was so positive that they stopped the pressings of the forthcoming debut to add the song.
Carey began showcasing her phenomenal range on a number of TV appearances in 1990 to promote the album, including The Tonight Show, The Arsenio Hall Show, and Good Morning America. “Vision of Love” was released as the first single in May of that year ahead of the album hitting stores. Carey’s melisma style (which takes a single syllable through different notes) didn’t sound like anything else on the radio at that moment. The song cracked the Hot 100 in June, went #1 in the fall, and stayed in the spot for four weeks. The tune powered the album and Carey to four Grammy nominations in 1991; she won Best New Artist and Best Female Pop Vocal Performance.
In a feat that hadn’t happened since The Jackson 5 twenty years earlier, Carey’s next three singles from the album each went to #1; “Love Takes Time,” “Someday,” and “I Don’t Wanna Cry” kept Carey at the top of the singles charts well into 1991. The album itself went to #1 and stayed there 11 weeks. To date, Mariah Carey has sold more than 15 million copies. Remarkably, Carey’s initial reluctance to tour triggered accusations that she was a studio creation, a myth she handily destroyed by doing an episode of MTV Unplugged that turned out another #1 with her cover of The Jackson 5’s “I’ll Be There.”
Carey’s career has been full of superlatives ever since. While Motolla guided the initial phase of her career, that (and their five-year marriage) didn’t last. She took further control of her own trajectory as a writer and producer, deftly integrating pop, gospel, R&B, and hip-hop into her music while occasionally putting her own spin on cover tunes that become classics themselves. Her 1995 duet with Boyz II Men, “One Sweet Day,” stayed at #1 for a record-smashing 16 weeks. Her 200 million records sold make her one of the best-selling artists in history; Billboard lists her as top all-time female artist in the U.S. based on sales and chart performance. Apart from earning a place in the Songwriter’s Hall of Fame, she has five Grammys, fifteen Billboard Music Awards, and nineteen World Music Awards. Eighteen of her songs have hit #1 on the Hot 100.
All of that would be enough for the careers of a dozen artists, but Carey also pulled off the astonishing trick of writing the most popular modern Christmas song in the world. “All I Want for Christmas is You” was released in 1994 and hit #1 in 2019. You read that correctly; it’s a song that’s so amazingly popular that it re-enters the charts every holiday season. It’s sold more than 16 million copies and is the single most successful Christmas song by a female artist. In the lifetime of the song, it’s earned Carey more than $60 million.
In recent years, Carey’s become a savvy user of social media, using it to joke about her recurring Christmas success and her own diva reputation, and to interact with her fandom. She sometimes features her twin children (from her second husband, Nick Cannon; the two split in 2014) on her accounts. In 2019, she was given the Billboard Icon Award for her contributions to music. At more than 30 years in the business, Carey continues to notch successes and reinvention. With an intensely popular back-catalog of work and an inescapable seasonal anthem, Carey’s vision of success won’t fade anytime soon.
Featured image: Mariah Carey at the 2018 American Music Awards at the Microsoft Theatre LA Live. (Featureflash Photo Agency / Shutterstock)
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