mariah carey debut 30th anniversary

Mariah Carey’s Debut Album Gave Us a Vision of the Future 30 Years Later

In 1985, 17-year-old Ben Margulies found himself living in New York City and playing in a band called King Holiday. Things seemed to be going great; the group’s first show at the infamous CBGB got them signed to a development deal with Elektra Records. However, nothing ever came from the arrangement.

Though King Holiday seemed like a dead end, they were actually the catalyst for a life-changing contact for the aspiring musician. Through mutual friends of the band, Margulies was put in touch with a young teen named Mariah Carey, a burgeoning singer who was looking for collaborators. The two began working together, eventually writing and recording a four-track demo in the back of Margulies’ father’s cabinet factory.

By the time 1988 rolled around, Carey had moved from her mother’s house in Long Island to a small apartment in New York, armed with the tape she and Margulies had created and hoping to pursue her pop dreams. Yet things were slow going; Carey’s initial attempts to conjure interest with any industry contacts of note were not coming to fruition. But help was on the way, as the young songstress began singing back up for R&B and salsa performer Brenda K. Starr. Starr already had some success under her belt, having been featured in the 1984’s hip-hop film Beat Street as well as scoring a couple of hit singles of her own. Starr saw potential in Carey and took the young woman under her wing, bringing the protégé to various industry events to network with possible label decision-makers. At one of these outings, the Carey/Margulies demo landed in the hands of the newly appointed Sony Music head honcho, Tommy Mottola, who upon leaving the shindig, immediately popped the tape into his limousine’s stereo. Legend has it that the mogul was so floored by what he heard that he made his driver turn around and return to the party in hopes of grabbing Carey. However, upon his arrival, Mottola found that Carey had already left. She had felt depressed and despondent after experiencing what seemed like another fruitless night out of rejection.

After a two-week search, Mottola eventually tracked Carey down and signed her to the Columbia label. Now at the reins of the Sony dynasty, Mottola wanted to find for the label group its own pop diva, one to rival the likes of Whitney Houston and Madonna. In Carey, he felt he had accomplished that goal. Her operatic range aligned her with Houston, while her youthfulness appealed to the Madonna fan. Carey had both the vocal chops and innocent good looks to be moulded into Sony’s own queen of pop; however, she also had her own thing going on. Carey brought a bright-eyed freshness, appearing like a high school girlfriend with her modest wardrobe choices, round cheeks, and flowing curly hair, contrasting to the regal properness of Houston (remember, this is pre-Bobby Brown) and the overtly sexual Madge.

Mottola brought in a list of well-known and well-respected producers, writers, and artists to help fully flesh out the foundation of the initial Margulies/Carey effort. The seasoned veterans remarked on how shy and quiet the young woman was, but also on her steely professionalism, especially for someone so young and inexperienced. When the album was finished, Mottola put the corporate marketing machine into high gear for the release of Carey’s 1990 self-titled debut, throwing more than $1 million dollars behind the LP. Though it was a slow burn at the start, things quickly picked up, as Carey made the required rounds of high-profile guest spots. There was a time when it was seemingly impossible to escape Carey or the record’s lead track, “Vision of Love,” as the singer racked up back-to-back appearances on a myriad of media outlets, including Good Morning America, The Arsenio Hall Show, The Tonight Show, and The Oprah Winfrey Show. While Houston was getting riled by some Black critics for “selling out” because of her multi-demographic appeal, Carey spoke openly about her bi-racial roots (her mother was Irish-American and her father was Black and Venezuelan). Maybe it was the ability for Carey to look like a girl next door to anyone — or the fact that you could not escape that lead single — that “Vision of Love” catapulted up the charts around the world. It became a number one smash in New Zealand, Australia, Canada, and the U.S., garnering Carey accolades from critics and fans alike as the song’s elements of gospel, R&B, and pop hit a nerve with a wide array of listeners while simultaneously showcasing her incredible range.

The album’s second single, the Carey-and-Margulies-penned “Love Takes Time,” followed its predecessor and ascended to the top spot on the Billboard leader board. Another slow jam ballad, “Love,” firmly helped Carey conquer the adult-contemporary audience due to its themes of “only time being able to heal heartache” being familiar within the cannon.

The album’s next single, another Carey/Margulies track re-worked from the original demo tape single, was the upbeat girl-power anthem “Someday.” While the lyrics to “Vision of Love” had not-so-vague religious overtones and “Love” played on lamenting romance gone awry, “Someday” kicks the melodious content into the ultimately relatable in the form of a foreshadowing prediction as “the one you gave away / will be the only one you’re wishing for.” The video consists of a flashback, showing the always-dependable kid-Mariah in overalls and a black T-shirt being forgotten and looked over. This is cut with an adult-Mariah cavorting around a classroom, giving the massive tee to the boy “who is going to pay” as “baby, I’m the one who’s keeping score.” With ‘”Someday,” Carey scored a third consecutive No. 1 single while also showing a more playful and less stilted side than her two previous ballads had illustrated.

While “Someday” may have provided some new jack swing-flavored relief to Carey’s romantic woes, the narrative of a doomed love life continued through the fourth single, the rather dreary “I Don’t Wanna Cry.” However, fans lapped up the morose cut, clearly identifying with the well-trodden content of “I know we swore it was forever /But it hurts too much to stay around.” The single placed Carey once again at No. 1 on the singles charts, the first artist since the Jackson 5 to see their first four consecutive singles hit the top spot in the U.S.

The record’s fifth and final commercial track may, like “Someday,” have offered a glimpse into the humanity of Carey. However, the bald political commentary of “There’s Got to Be a Way” did not resonate with audiences and failed to enjoy the same sort of chart dominance as the previous cuts. Even a double-denim=donning Carey playing with kids holding a large boom box in the track’s video did not help raise its commercial appeal. However, in May 2020 — 30 years after its original release — Carey posted a snippet of herself performing the song in response to the death of George Floyd, its lyrics of “I don’t understand / How there can be /Regulated bigotry” more timely than ever before.

Mariah Carey was the No. 1 album for 11 weeks and the best-selling record for the entire year of 1991. While the classic singles may have helped inspire a new generation of pop queens (Christina Aguilera, Beyoncé), it also illustrated the complex role for women in the business, of having to navigate the cookie-cutter template of expected normality and unthreatening, re-heated themes of love lost and found with momentary glimpses of personal struggle for identity and acknowledgment.

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