Sure, a big part of Mariah Carey’s success had to do with cold calculation. If you listen to her 1990 debut album, it’s fairly obvious that the folks behind her career were looking for a combination of two parts Whitney Houston’s big voice and saccharine balladry to one part each of Anita Baker’s moodier offerings and Taylor Dayne’s upbeat dance/pop. However, in some cases talent overshadows calculation, and with the success of her initial effort, Mariah set the template for the fresh, young, big-voiced pop star. For better or worse, you’ve got Mariah to thank for the likes of Christina Aguilera and Kelly Clarkson.
Truthfully, despite two decades of success and Mariah’s current status as the solo artist with more Number One singles than any other in history, Mariah still hasn’t equaled her debut from an artistic standpoint. Yes, much of it sounds dated, but the former backup singer (for freestyle songstress Brenda K. Starr)’s debut album still sounds fresh and enjoyable for the most part. While Mariah’s next couple of albums found her jumping squarely into Lite-FM territory, and her more recent work has reflected a slightly disturbing arrested musical development, Mariah Carey has mature songwriting, real vocal power and a sense of fun that’s only been present in her work in fits and starts since.
Despite all the calculation involved in making Mariah a star (and a setup that most new artists would only dream of…the national anthem at the NBA All-Star Game…a featured spot on the Arsenio Hall show…sometimes it is easy to be the teacher’s pet, Mr. Sumner), I still don’t think “Vision of Love” was an obvious hit single, that’s for sure. With a slow-shuffle of a groove that was very reminiscent of ’50s doo-wop, the song was a throwback in an era of high-gloss dance music, Diane Warren schmaltz and hair metal. Mariah’s vocal has the innocence of a teenager entering her first love affair. The testifying as the song nears its end (where she stretches the word “all” into about twenty syllables) makes sense in this context. Besides, you’ve gotta admit, the Minnie Riperton-esque dog-whistle squeal was pretty impressive the first time you heard it.
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Speaking of that squeal, the thing that set Mariah apart from other artists of her era is probably the most annoying thing about her debut — she pulls it out on damn near every song on the album. That annoyance aside, the material (which, it should be noted, was co-written by Mariah — a rarity among female pop artists at the time) is universally strong.The ballads all have an aching quality that suggested that Mariah could have a career as a torch singer. Most of them — the Spanish-guitar laden “I Don’t Wanna Cry” and the gentle “Love Takes Time” — became hit singles, but the sleeper ballad here is the haunting “Vanishing,” a track that is now often cited when folks talk about Mariah songs that have real emotional pull.
Although Mariah was best known as a balladeer, her early material is actually more diverse than the material that was given to her predecessors Whitney and Anita. “All in Your Mind” and “Sent From Up Above” have a cool, midtempo vibe, while the rock guitar-etched “You Need Me” and the sassy “Prisoner” (not to mention the hit single “Someday”) are aimed at the dance floor. Those songs serve as a reminder that while the aim was to get Mariah to appeal to an adult audience, she was still only 20 when this album was released. Besides, “Prisoner” is worth hearing if only for the humorous novelty of listening to Mariah rap. In that light, Mariah’s ultimate evolution into a hip-hop/R&B princess doesn’t seem so farfetched — although, thankfully, she’s stayed away from bustin’ rhymes in the years since.
Honestly, what I come away with most after listening to Mariah Carey is “wow, this woman has regressed.” Don’t get me wrong — Mariah was absolutely right to move away from husband/label boss Tommy Mottola in the mid ’90s, as it seemed as though she was being pushed in an increasingly bland direction after the success of her debut. Shaking free of the Celine Dion-ish stylings to reflect a more youthful, contemporary image was a smart move, one that very likely extended her career. However, Mariah seems to have been stuck in creative limbo for over a decade. Even if you look at 2005’s The Emancipation of Mimi, her commercial return to form, it doesn’t hold a candle to her debut from a musical standpoint. While I’m all for subtlety (and much has been made about Mariah’s move away from the power lungs), there’s an honesty in songs like “Vision of Love,” no matter how overblown, that just isn’t there anymore. Mariah’s still young (although perhaps not as young as she thinks she is), so an album that rivals her debut for quality is still in the cards. However, even if that album never comes, Mariah can still rest assured that the success of her debut ignited a career that was influential to many of today’s younger pop/soul divas.