In The Best Sellers, I’m reviewing the best selling albums in the United States from every year since 1956.
1991: Mariah Carey’s Mariah Carey
Mariah Carey is one of those artists that’s been around for so long at this point that it can be hard to remember what made her stand out in the beginning. As the ‘90s began, the music industry really needed Mariah Carey. Her breakthrough came just as the Milli Vanilli lip-sync scandal took hold leading to lots of suspicions on legitimacy in pop music as other artists started to get accused of lip-syncing. Like a lot of pop stars, Mariah Carey was young and beautiful but more importantly, she could really sing. It was that talent combined with heavy marketing that helped Carey become an instant sensation racking up hit after hit giving Carey the second most number of #1 hits on the Billboard Hot 100 with 19 #1s to the Beatles’ 20 and recent events show she could still reach the Beatles record more than 30 years later.
The famous story behind Mariah Carey’s rise starts at a music industry party she attended with singer Brenda K. Starr, who Carey was singing backup for while living in Manhattan in the late-‘80s. Carey had recorded a demo with her friend Ben Marguiles and Starr took her to the party to try to get Atlantic Records president Jerry Greenberg to hear it. But when Carey was about to give Greenberg her demo, Tommy Mottola, the new president of Sony Music and Carey’s eventual husband, snatched it and was so impressed when he listened to it in his limo after the party that he went back to search for Carey who had already left. Mottola eventually tracked Carey down and immediately signed her to Sony’s umbrella label Columbia.
In introducing Mariah Carey to the world, Mottola essentially followed the playbook that Arista’s Clive Davis used in introducing the world to Whitney Houston a few years earlier. Mottola, like Davis, realized the massive potential in a young female singer who had the looks of a model while also possessing an immense singing talent that could appeal to both pop and R&B audiences. Like Davis, Mattola put all his resources into Carey’s debut getting all the best producers, songwriters, and session players including some of the people who worked with Whitney Houston such as Narada Michael Walden, Walter Afanasieff, and Rhett Lawrence. Like Davis, Mottola was heavy on promoting Carey through largely inoffensive adult-contempo ballads with occasional uptempo jams.
When Mariah Carey, the album, was released in June 1990, Mottola and his team at Columbia went into heavy promotion in ensuring the album was a smashing success. They had Carey go on every major show to perform “Vision of Love” first on the Arsenio Hall Show before doing The Tonight Show, Good Morning America, Saturday Night Live, The Oprah Winfrey Show, and Showtime at the Apollo while performing “America The Beautiful” during the 1990 NBA Finals. She also performed “Vision of Love” at the 1991 Grammys where she won Best New Artist, the year after Milli Vanilli won and later rescinded that award. Not long after the Grammys, the album knocked off Vanilla Ice’s massive selling To The Extreme at #1 spending 11 weeks there and today is certified nine times platinum and was named by Billboard as 1991’s best-selling album, the promotion succeeded in everything it was supposed to do. (Technically, Garth Brooks’ Ropin’ The Wind is the best-selling album of 1991 when you take into account SoundScan tracking with Mariah Carey at #2 but his music isn’t widely available so I’m talking about this instead.)
As I said in the beginning, it’s hard to understand now just what made Mariah Carey stand out. For an upcoming book, Stereogum’s Tom Breihan picks “Vision of Love” as one of the 20 most important #1 hits ever and it all makes sense when you understand its impact. Obviously, big-voiced singers had been big as evidenced by Whitney Houston’s success but the breakout of Mariah Carey feels like a major spark for what would come. The success of “Vision of Love” and Mariah Carey helped usher in an era of melisma-heavy pop and R&B singers in the ‘90s and for future stars like Beyoncé and Christina Aguilera, it was a major inspiration for their singing careers. Pretty soon, any major singer that came along was trying to sound as much as Mariah Carey or at least use her style.
Much like when I wrote about Whitney Houston’s self-titled debut, my biggest knock on Mariah Carey is the production more than anything. Listening to the album you can definitely tell its the work of professionals with Walden, Afanasieff, Lawrence, as well as Ric Wake deploying a lot of the production elements prominent in pop music at the turn of the ‘90s- Yamaha DX7 keyboard, loud booming drums, processed sounding guitars, noodling Spanish guitar, generic solos, synth bass, you know the drill. If you’ve been reading this site, then you know I’m not a huge fan of this type of production. Obviously, these guys weren’t trying to annoy me. I wasn’t alive in the early-‘90s so they couldn’t have known about who I was and wouldn’t have known anyway if I was alive. These guys were just trying to make a hit album within the means of what was popular at the time so I can’t fault them for that. But listening in 2022, it’s the production that keeps this debut from one of the best vocalists of all time from feeling truly timeless.
In its promotion, all but one of the four singles released from Mariah Carey are ballads. From a business perspective, I get it. Ballads were an easy way to get a hit in the early-‘90s and for a hugely gifted singer like Mariah, they are often a good way of showcasing her amazing talent. After all, her voice is easily the best part of those ballads amid the dated productions. While Carey sings her ballads just as well as you’d expect her to, for me a big highlight of the album is in the more uptempo tracks. The only single not a ballad to be released is “Someday,” by far the best of the singles with the funky dance-pop production while Mariah still gets to show off her insane voice dropping a few whistle notes at the end.
Going through Mariah Carey’s endless amount of hits, I’ve realized my favorite songs from her usually aren’t the show-stopping ballads but her fun upbeat bangers. “Someday” aside, many of the deep cuts feature some upbeat tracks that showcase how good Carey can be at these types of songs. She’s not exactly belting like on her ballads but she sounds like she’s having fun in a very effortless way that would work very well on future songs as she does her signature melisma runs and whistle notes. On “Prisoner” in particular, Carey even does a little rapping, an early indication of her interest in rap music which would lead to her collaborating with rappers on future songs helping to open the doors for pop stars and rappers to work together.
Rob Harvilla, host of the podcast 60 Songs That Explain the ‘90s, pointed out in his recent episode about how as good as the songs on Mariah Carey’s debut are, it feels “very adult” which perfectly explains my feelings toward the album. It feels more like what the label wanted Carey to sound like than what Carey herself wanted. It’s something Carey brings up in her pretty good 2020 memoir The Meaning of Mariah Carey detailing how Sony and Mottola heavily controlled her image and music positioning her as an unthreatening pop diva that largely sings ballads while she wanted to incorporate more R&B and hip-hop elements into her music. Eventually, she would get that control creating some of her best songs in the process.
Alongside the album’s success, all four of its singles hit #1 tying the Jackson 5’s record for their first four songs to hit #1, a record Carey would soon topple. For any artist, the performance of Mariah Carey’s debut would usually represent a peak never to be replicated or beaten. But Mariah Carey isn’t just any artist and over time would best her debut performance by releasing two diamond albums along with many more multi-platinum ones. With that, we’ll eventually catch up with her again in this column.
Next time: Billy Ray Cyrus manages to break the country/pop crossover barrier with the massive selling Some Gave All, 1992’s best-selling album