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How 1996 Became The Year Of The Pop Diva

(L-R) Celine Dion, Mariah Carey, Whitney Houston

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Big Voices, Ballads and Blockbuster Hits: How 1996 Became The Year Of The Pop Diva

Shortly before Spicemania took hold, Whitney Houston, Mariah Carey and Celine Dion ushered in a more grown-up wave of girl power

GRAMMYs/Mar 31, 2021 - 10:51 pm

MariahWhitney and Celine—a.k.a. the holy trinity of pop divas with pyrotechnic vocal ranges—had enjoyed triumphant years before. Carey scored the biggest-selling album of 1991 with her self-titled debut, which spawned four consecutive No. 1s. Houston achieved the same feat in 1986 and 1993 with her eponymous first LP and The Bodyguard OST. And the chart-topping success of Celine Dion's "The Power of Love" in 1994 helped push its parent album The Colour of My Love to sales of more than 20 million

In 1996, the stars aligned for all three powerhouse singers to reach the pole position on Billboard’s singles chart. The trio essentially monopolized its first six months. You had to wait until May 18—when the distinctly non-pop-diva-like Bone Thugs-n-Harmony’s hip-hop eulogy "Tha Crossroads" replaced Carey’s "Always Be My Baby"—to hear someone else at the top of the US Hot 100. 

This remarkable pop diva merry-go-round had actually started back in September 1995 thanks to "Fantasy." Sampling Tom Tom Club and featuring Ol' Dirty Bastard, the sublime Daydream cut pioneered the soon-to-be ubiquitous hip-hop sound. At eight weeks, it also became the longest-running of Carey’s first nine No. 1s before being unseated by her biggest rival’s "Exhale (Shoop Shoop)." 

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That, in turn, was knocked off the top spot after just seven days by another Carey collaboration, with the slick vocal harmonies of Boyz II Men replacing the gonzo, growling rhymes of ODB. A tribute to the loved ones who they’d lost to the AIDS epidemic, "One Sweet Day" remarkably remained the nation’s most popular single until March of the following year. The song’s record-breaking 16-week stint wouldn’t be surpassed until another much less likely duet 23 years later, Lil Nas X’s and Billy Ray Cyrus’ hick-hop smash "Old Town Road."

The artist who finally toppled "One Sweet Day" ended up truly dominating 1996. Although Dion had already released a string of albums before Houston and Carey had set foot inside a recording studio, the Canadian only began making waves outside the Francophone market with 1990’s Unison. It would be another four years before she started being mentioned in the same breath. But by the end of her fourth English-language album’s campaign, Dion had become the new queen. 

A true blockbuster of a record, Falling Into You reportedly shifted a colossal 32 million copies, placing it in the same bracket as The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and Eagles’ Hotel California. It spawned two No.1 hits: the slow-building theme to the Robert Redford/Michelle Pfeiffer romance Up Close and Personal, "Because You Loved Me," and the epic-from-the-get-go "It’s All Coming Back to Me Now." And it saw Dion recognized at every major award ceremony, including the Oscars, Golden Globes, and, most notably, the GRAMMYs. 

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Of course, Houston had previously shared the Album of the Year award for her contributions to The Bodyguard OST. However, Dion was the first of her peers to achieve the accolade entirely independently: despite some rather snooty predictions, Carey’s Daydream had failed to win the category, or indeed any of the five others it was nominated for, in 1996. Falling Into You, which was additionally crowned Best Pop Album at the same 1997 ceremony, even beat another Houston-heavy soundtrack, Waiting to Exhale, to the glittering prize.

Proving her double-threat credentials once again, Houston not only held her own against Angela Bassett in Forest Whitaker’s directorial debut, but she lent her unmistakable voice to three of its songs as well. "Why Does It Hurt So Bad" and CeCe Winans’ duet "Count on Me" later joined "Exhale" on Houston’s tally of Top 30 entries, as did "I Believe in You and Me" from The Preacher’s Wife OST later that same year, too. 

Houston wasn’t the only pop diva to score hits from the 12 million-selling Waiting to Exhale, which placed fourth behind Falling Into YouDaydream and Alanis Morissette’s Jagged Little Pill on 1996’s year-end album chart. Mary J. Blige’s defiant slow jam, "Not Gon’ Cry," became the Queen of Hip-Hop Soul’s biggest single to date before the sweetly-sung funk of Brandy’s "Sittin’ Up In My Room" followed in its footsteps by also peaking at No.2. Meanwhile, Toni Braxton’s emotive ballad, "Let It Flow," effectively topped the charts thanks to its memorable double A-side. 

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Braxton had a remarkable 1996 herself, following up the No. 1 success of "You’re Makin' Me High" with the year’s defining power ballad, "Un-Break My Heart" (its parent LP Secrets went eight times platinum, too). Although she wasn’t entirely averse to bombast, Babyface’s musical protégé proved you didn’t have to shatter glasses to be considered a ‘90s pop diva. Alongside Brandy, Monica and another Waiting to Exhale contributor, TLC’s T-Boz, Braxton’s strengths lay in the kind of rich lower register that could melt butter.  

On the other end of the spectrum, the featherlight vocals of Aaliyah had found their perfect foil in the shape of Timbaland and Missy Elliott’s futuristic production on One In a Million. The sparse robotic funk of "If Your Girl Only Knew" was a prime contender for single of the year. Then there was Lauryn Hill, busy sowing the seeds for her frustratingly erratic solo career as the gritty but beautifully melodic voice behind 1996’s biggest hip-hop act, Fugees.

And although the States would have to wait until the following year for Spicemania to take hold, there were still plenty of groups bringing the girl power. SWV scored their final Top 10 hit with "You’re the One," 702 put themselves on the map with the slick street soul of "Steelo" and Total provided the sugary melodic hook for LL Cool J’s bedroom song "Loungin’." The self-ordained funkiest bunch of divas, En Vogue, also launched their comeback single, "Don’t Let Go," which in 1997 saw them come agonizingly close to the top spot for the third time. 

The new guard of pop divas, however, hadn’t completely shut out the old. Barbra Streisand reached the Top 10 for the first time since 1981 with "I Finally Found Someone," the Oscar-nominated Bryan Adams collaboration taken from her self-directed starring vehicle, The Mirror Has Two FacesGloria Estefan’s soaring "Reach" was chosen as the official anthem for the year’s biggest sporting event, the Atlanta Olympics. And Cher ("One By One"), Tina Turner ("Missing You") and Chaka Khan & Gladys Knight ("Missing You") all made deserved returns to the US Hot 100. 

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Perhaps the most interesting pop diva development, though, arrived at the tail end of the year. Madonna had already settled into the demure balladeer phase of her career with the hits compilation Something to Remember. But she made an even more concerted bid for respectability with the leading role in Evita. The First Lady of Pop’s performance as the First Lady of Argentina was deemed the strongest in her filmography. Simultaneously, the accompanying soundtrack—recorded with musical impresarios Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice—silenced those who believed she didn’t possess the range. 

Of course, Madge would soon reinvent herself as the Earth Mother of electronica on 1998’s magnum opus Ray of Light, completely abandoning the showboating love songs that had become Carey, Houston and Dion’s forte. Yet whereas the latter went on to double down on the histrionics with Streisand duets and disaster movie themes, her two vocal counterparts also began to explore much more credible directions.

Carey roped in Q-Tip, Missy and P. Diddy for the urban pop of 1997’s Butterfly, a clear statement of independence following her split with manager husband Tommy Mottola. Houston, meanwhile, surprised everyone with 1999’s My Love Is Your Love, a masterful comeback guided by a who’s who of contemporary R&B including Rodney Jerkins, Wyclef Jean and Soulshock & Karlin.

By this point, VH1 had belatedly recognized that we were in a golden era for female vocalists, launching their own charity concert series simply titled Divas. The annual show celebrated artists both established and emerging during its initial seven-year run, with Houston, Carey and Dion all making regular appearances.

However, thanks to their dominance of the Billboard charts and the emergence of countless names they inspired, 1996 remains the year when the pop divas—or perhaps more aptly, the elusive chanteuses—truly reigned supreme.

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Ice Spice performs at the Sahara Tent during the 2024 Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival at Empire Polo Club on April 13, 2024 in Indio, California.
Ice Spice

Photo: Matt Winkelmeyer

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New Music Friday: Listen To New Songs From Ice Spice, Ariana Grande, Post Malone, Coldplay & More

As we slip into summer, get the season started by listening to these new songs, albums and collaborations from Gracie Abrams, Kygo, The Joy and more that dropped on June 21.

GRAMMYs/Jun 21, 2024 - 05:52 pm

The first New Music Friday of the summer delivers us fresh jams packed with exciting collaborations and debuts.

This week features releases from big name, genre-crossing collaborations, including Ariana Grande's remix of "the boy is mine" with Brandy and Monica, and Post Malone teaming up with Blake Shelton on their new track "Pour Me a Drink." As you build your new summer playlist, make sure you don't miss out on these ten must-hear tunes.  

Ice Spice — "Phat Butt"

After a massive year with the release of her EP Like..? and four nominations at the 2024 GRAMMYs, Ice Spice is ready to level up once again with her newest single, "Phat Butt." With self-assured lyricism on top of a classic drill beat that is true to her sound, the track serves as the second single to be released from her debut album, Y2K!. "Phat Butt" comes as both a message to those who lacked belief in Ice Spice’s music career, but also as a quintessential summer anthem.

In the self-directed music video, the rapper is shown performing in front of a wall of graffiti with grainy video filters, emphasizing the Y2K feel. Ice Spice is set to take on her Y2K World Tour next month and it's no doubt that this "Phat Butt" will be a highlight on her setlist.

Explore More: The Rise Of Ice Spice: How The "Barbie World" Rapper Turned Viral Moments Into A Full-On Franchise 

Ariana Grande, Brandy, & Monica — "the boy is mine (remix)"

When asking different groups who sings the song "the boy is mine," you're likely to get two answers. Some will say pop star Ariana Grande, while others will think of the original 1998 R&B hit by Brandy and Monica, which won the GRAMMY for Best R&B Performance By A Duo Or Group With Vocal in 1999. Doubling down on the shared name of the track and bridging the generational gap among music lovers, Grande, Brandy, and Monica have come together for a fresh remix of "the boy is mine," and the internet couldn't be more ecstatic. 

"My deepest and sincerest thank you to Brandy and Monica, not only for joining me for this moment, but for your generosity, your kindness, and for the countless ways in which you have inspired me," said Grande in an Instagram post announcing the collaboration. "This is in celebration of you both and the impact that you have had on every vocalist, vocal producer, musician, artist that is creating today."

Read More: 5 Takeaways From Ariana Grande's New Album Eternal Sunshine 

Post Malone & Blake Shelton — "Pour Me a Drink"

Post Malone has been dipping his toes into the country genre for some time now and fans have been anxiously awaiting his promised western era post Cowboy Carter.

Malone and Shelton first ignited excitement with a sneak peek of their song, "Pour Me a Drink" at the CMA Fest earlier this month. Since Posty announced the official release on Instagram, fans have eagerly awaited its arrival on streaming services. The track serves as a tantalizing preview of Post Malone's upcoming country album, F-1 Trillion, coming August 16. 

Read More: Post Malone's Country Roots: 8 Key Moments In Covers and Collaborations 

Coldplay — "feelslikeimfallinginlove"

Coldplay has been generating excitement as they embark on their next chapter, with the release of their latest single, "feelslikeimfallinginlove." Over the past few weeks, they've been feeding fans with sneak peeks on social media and performing the song live on their world tour.

The track sets the stage for the release of Coldplay's highly anticipated tenth studio album, Moon Music, set to land in early October. True to their brand, this song is geared to uplift your spirits, making it the perfect anthem for carefree summer car rides with the windows down.

Read More: How Coldplay's Parachutes Ushered In A New Wave Of Mild-Mannered Guitar Bands 

Kygo — 'Kygo'

Ten years into his career, Norwegian DJ Kygo is dropping his self-titled album, Kygo, which he teased last week with the single "Me Before You" featuring Plested. The song, backed by a thumping mid-tempo instrumental, vividly narrates the transformative experience of being deeply influenced by someone in a relationship and not wanting to return to who you were before. The 18-track project features diverse and vibrant collaborations with unexpected guests like the Jonas Brothers and Ava Max.

Maren Morris & Julia Michaels — "cut!"

Maren Morris and Julia Michaels, GRAMMY-winners both independently renowned for their iconic music collaborations, are now joining forces to release their electrifying new track, "cut!" The duo has been working together for a few years, with Michaels' co-writing Morris' "Circles Around Town," which received a nomination for Best Country Song at the 2023 GRAMMYs. So, while this collaboration might not come as a surprise, it is still certainly a welcomed one. 

After a two-year hiatus from releasing music, pop enthusiasts have been eagerly anticipating Morris' return to the spotlight. "Can't wait to cathartically scream f*ck at the top of our lungs together," Morris said in an Instagram post announcing the track.

Learn More: Behind Julia Michaels' Hits: From Working With Britney & Bieber To Writing For Wish 

Gracie Abrams — 'The Secret of Us'

Building on the success of her debut album, Good Riddance, and the skyrocketing momentum of her career after opening The Eras Tour, California-native Gracie Abrams has unveiled her much-anticipated sophomore album, The Secret of Us.

The album includes the track, "Close to You," which was released ahead of the album drop as the full realization of a 20-second snippet that Abrams posted on Instagram back in 2018. After sitting on the track for six years and relentless pleas from fans, the pop artist finally delivered the full song — a mesmerizing blend of Abrams’ vocal prowess and heartfelt lyricism.  

Learn More: How Making Good Riddance Helped Gracie Abrams Surrender To Change And Lean Into The Present 

6LACK — "F**k The Rap Game"

6LACK is rebranding himself and making sure everyone knows. The release of his newest track, "F**k The Rap Game" addresses the phenomenon of getting caught up in the glitz and glamor of the entertainment business, tying in the importance of staying true to one's roots. The Atlanta-raised artist is currently on tour with rapper Russ, with whom he recently released the single "Workin On Me,” another nod to 6LACK's ongoing mission of self-reflection and deep introspection.

“A better me equals a better you equals a better us. That’s been the formula of my life. I can’t thrive unless I’m around people who are constantly trying to better themselves as individuals,” 6LACK said in an interview with GRAMMY.com last year. “It took a second of me really looking at myself in the mirror, being honest and saying: I am not doing as much work on myself as I claim to be doing and want to be doing on myself.”

Read More: 6lack On His Comeback Album SIHAL: "I’m Playing A Different Game" 

The Joy — 'The Joy'

Months after their buzzworthy performance with Doja Cat at Coachella, South African quintet The Joy has released their self-titled album through Transgressive Records. The album was recorded live, in real time, at Church Studios in London and features no instruments or overdubs — just pure, raw vocals that capture the group's authentic sound.

The Joy came together through a serendipitous twist of fate. Years back, five boys arrived early to their school choir practice and decided to have an impromptu jam session. Realizing their undeniable musical chemistry, The Joy was born, quickly garnering global acclaim. "They are, like, my favorite group," Jennifer Hudson exclaimed on her talk show. 

Surfaces — 'good morning'

Known for their feel-good tunes that took over TikTok in 2019, Surfaces presents their sixth album, Good Morning. In tracks like, “Real Estate,” the band chronicles the idea of exploring one’s mind and thoughts, above all other features, backed by a tropical lo-fi instrumental, as well as a steady thump of a bass, and trilling trumpets. 

“’Real Estate’ is about the infatuation with that place in someone’s mind that you can’t get enough of,” Surfaces explained in a press statement. “It’s a familiar place to call home that feels safe and deserves all the love in the world. We wanted to capture the bliss of finding that space and reveling in it.” 

Lauren Watkins — 'The Heartbroken Record'

Lauren Watkins has a packed summer schedule, which includes opening for country artist Morgan Wallen and releasing her second studio album, The Heartbroken Record. This project draws inspiration from music industry veterans like Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings, while also infusing influences from contemporary artists like Kacey Musgraves and Miranda Lambert. Each track from the album underscores stories of love and loss, woven together by the overarching theme of heartbreak. 

"I didn't want to just put an album out — I wanted it to be purposeful," Watkins said in a press statement. "It's the past several years of my life, and that was just so much heartbreak and dramatic girl-feelings, but I think in a really deep and relatable way… and it just needs to get off my chest."

Why 2024 Is The Year Women In Country Music Will Finally Have Their Moment 

Khalid
Khalid

Photo: ro.lexx

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New Music Friday: Listen To New Songs From Khalid, Mariah Carey, NAYEON, And More

From reworked classics to new fresh tunes, take a listen to some of the most exciting tracks that dropped on June 14.

GRAMMYs/Jun 14, 2024 - 03:44 pm

Those pre-summer Fridays just keep rolling on. With each release day, the music community fills our hard drives, playlists and record shelves with more aural goodness.

Granted, to wrangle it all in one place is impossible — but GRAMMY.com can provide a healthy cross-section of what's out there. From here, venture forth into new releases by Luke Combs (Fathers & Sons), Normani (Dopamine), Moneybagg Yo (Speak Now), Jelly Roll ("I Am Not Okay"), and more.

For now, here are nine new songs or albums to explore.

Khalid — "Adore U"

After previously released single "Please Don't Fall in Love With Me," Khalid is back with another luminous ode to romantic disconnection, where he calls for healing amid broken ties.

"Thousand miles apart and you're still in my heart/ Can we take it back?" Khalid pleads in the hook. "I'm waiting at the start/ Fly me to the moon and now I'm seeing stars when we touch."

Khalid hasn't released a full-length album since 2019's Free Spirit. But he's been teasing a new project for a minute: two weeks ago, he shared an Instagram carousel with the caption "5 years later. Here we go again." And the yearning "Adore U" certainly sets the tone for what's to come in Khalid's world.

NAYEON — 'NA'

TWICE's NAYEON is shifting gears towards her highly anticipated solo comeback with the release of NA, a project that spans pop, dance, and more. The follow-up to her debut solo album, 2022's IM NAYEON, NA provides a glimpse into the TWICE member's transition from being daunted by a solo career to finding comfort in the act.

One highlight is the shimmering "Butterflies," which NAYEON described to Rolling Stone as "one of my favorite songs" yet "one of the harder ones to record, actually." Another is the brassy "Magic," which she calls "a very self-confident song." All in all, NA winningly cements NAYEON's identity — irrespective of her main gig.

Mariah Carey — 'Rainbow: 25th Anniversary Extended Edition'

In light of its 25-year anniversary, Mariah Carey revisits her iconic 1999 album, Rainbow, which featured collaborations with fellow household names like Jay-Z, USHER, and Missy Elliott. The new anniversary edition boasts a plethora of remastered and remixed tracks — a treasure trove for Carey acolytes.

One new track is "Rainbow's End," produced by David Morales; Carey described it as "a hopeful ending to an emotional roller-coaster ride." Elsewhere, there's "There For Me," a love letter to her fans that didn't make the album; a new remix of "How Much" by Jermaine Dupri, and some intriguing live recordings and a cappella tracks.

$UICIDEBOY$ — 'New World Depression'

Since at least their debut album, 2018's I Want to Die in New Orleans, rap duo $UICIDEBOY$ have expertly cataloged the bugs beneath the rock of the human experience: addiction, depression, the whole nine yards. New World Depression is a further distillation of their beautifully filthy aesthetic and worldview.

In highlights like "Misery in Waking Hours" and "Transgressions," MCs $crim and Ruby da Cherry's chroniclings of misery are barer than ever: "Hurts too much to give a f— / Demoralized, always lying, telling people I'll be fine," they rap. Who hasn't felt like this, at one point or another?

John Cale — 'POPtical Illusion'

At 82, Velvet Underground violist, multi-instrumentalist and co-founder John Cale is still a tinkerer, a ponderer, an artist in flux rather than stasis. In 2023, when GRAMMY.com asked when he felt he came into his own as an improviser, he immediately replied "Last year."

That interview was centered around that year's solo album, Mercy, another gem in a solo discography full of them. Now, he's already back with a follow-up, POPtical Illusion.

While POPtical Illusion maintains its predecessors' foreboding, topical nature — and then some — tracks like "Laughing in My Sleep" and "Funkball the Brewster" couch these morose topics in a more playful, irreverent aural palette.

Tanner Adell — "Too Easy"

The Twisters soundtrack continues to be a whirlwind of great tunes. The latest dispatch is Tanner Adell's "Too Easy," a country-pop dance floor banger — its video even featuring a performance by dance troupe the PBR Nashville Buckle Bunnies.

"Too Easy" is the fourth song to be released from the Twisters soundtrack, following Tucker Wetmore's "Already Had It," Megan Moroney's "Never Left Me," Bailey Zimmerman's "Hell or High Water," and Luke Combs' "Ain't No Love in Oklahoma." The full album — which features a hoard of country stars, including Lainey Wilson, Thomas Rhett, Tyler Childers and more — will be available on July 19 when the movie hits theaters.

Stonebwoy — "Your Body"

We've clearly caught Ghanian Afropop star Stonebwoy in a jubilant mood. In a teaser for his new song, "Your Body," the singer born Livingstone Satekia undulates on a saturated, red-and-blue backdrop, foreshadowing the sticky summer days we'll spend jamming the tune.

And the full song certainly doesn't disappoint. Interweaving strains of pop, R&B and reggae, with Stonebwoy deftly switching between singing and rapping, "Your Body" will get your body moving.

Toosii — "Where You Been"

Rapper Toosii last teased his upcoming eighth mixtape, JADED, with "Suffice," its lead single released back in November. In the interim, he's been "locked in perfecting a new look a new sound new everything!" as he shared in an Instagram reel. "I just hope you're ready," he added with star and smile emojis.

Said teaser pointed toward a melancholic, weighty ballad, which ended up being the next release from JADED, "Where You Been." Riding a multidimensional, brain-flipping beat, the song is an immersive, thoughtful banger not to be missed.

Victoria Monét — "Power of Two" (from 'The Acolyte')

The latest Star Wars show on Disney+, "The Acolyte," is getting rave reviews — and three-time GRAMMY winner Victoria Monét is now part of its musical universe. She's contributed an original song, "Power of Two," to the end credits of the Lucasfilm series.

Over an ethereal, melancholic beat, the lyrics detail emotions ripe for either terra firma or a galaxy far, far away: "You thought your soul was a necklace/ That you could wear and take off/ That you could rip and break off/ That you could trade in the dark/ But you're mine."

Bring these killer tunes straight into your weekend — and keep checking GRAMMY.com for more brand-new New Music Friday lists!

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Mariah Carey studio photo shoot.
Mariah Carey in 1990

Photo: Frank Micelotta

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On This Day In Music: Mariah Carey Releases Her Self-Titled Debut Album

Released June 12, 1990, Mariah Carey's iconic debut spent 11 weeks atop the Billboard 200. Revisit the impressive — and GRAMMY-winning — album, which started it all for one of music's great divas.

GRAMMYs/Jun 12, 2024 - 09:46 pm

Years before she was dubbed the "Queen of Christmas" or became the recipient of the Recording Academy's Global Impact Award, Mariah Carey was making a name for herself with R&B earworms and impressive vocal range.

Released 34 years ago today, the New-York native's self-titled debut album featured a tasteful mix of slower, emotional ballads and upbeat anthems. Mariah Carey's lead single, "Vision of Love," offered listeners a first taste of her infamous whistle register and incredible range — it also caught the ear of Academy voters. 

Carey was nominated in five categories at the 1991 GRAMMYs, and took home golden gramophones for Best New Artist and Best Pop Vocal Performance, Female. The album broke chart records, established Carey as a household name, and ultimately paved the way for her illustrious career.

"It seems like everything I did in the first year that I came out with my first album is like a blur because everything happened so fast for me and I never had the chance to sit down and go 'Wow, this is actually happening,'" Carey recalled in an interview with MTV. "I just, like, went straight ahead." 

The success of Mariah Carey was a mix of fate, talent and perseverance. In 1988, a teenage Carey left her family home in Long Island to pursue a music career. She brought with her a four-song demo tape made during her high school years with songwriter/producer Ben Marguiles (who also co-wrote Mariah Carey with several other writers). She continued to shape up the demo tape as she worked multiple jobs, and eventually crossed paths with Latin GRAMMY winner Brenda K. Starr. 

Read more: Songbook: How Mariah Carey Became The Songbird Supreme, From Her Unmistakable Range To Genre-Melding Prowess 

Carey found herself singing back-up vocals for the artist at live performances, and caught Starr's attention with her astonishing voice. Recognizing her exceptional talent, Starr played a pivotal role in launching Carey's career to new heights.  

"I really didn't want to do it, but I said it's gotta be better than what I'm doing now," Carey confessed of the audition in Chris Nickson's book, Mariah Carey Revisited: Her Story. "So I went to the audition, and Brenda was such a great person." 

Eventually, Starr brought Carey along to an industry party, where she was able to get her demo tapes into the hands of Tommy Mottola, the then-president of Columbia Records. With stars in his eyes, Mottola listened to the tape and quickly signed Carey to the label. 

Upon the album's release, critics overwhelmingly praised 20-year-old Carey's vocal prowess, noting how her debut set a new standard that raised expectations for artists across various genres to follow. The New York Times noted that the release came with "more fanfare and promotional hoopla than [Columbia Records] has bestowed on a new young talent in years." The paper continued to lavish praise on Carey's "pop-gospel voice that is impressive in its power and range and that has elaborate vocal embellishments strikingly reminiscent of Whitney Houston's." 

The album featured a whopping four Hot 100 chart-toppers: "Vision of Love," "Love Takes Time," "Someday," and "I Don't Wanna Cry." The album itself spent 11 weeks atop the Billboard 200 — Carey's lengthiest No. 1 to date. 

Read more: Here's What Happened At The Black Music Collective’s Recording Academy Honors 2024 GRAMMY Event Celebrating Mariah Carey & Lenny Kravitz

Twenty-four years and 15 studio albums later, Mariah Carey transcends time. The album not only serves as representation of Carey’s unwavering determination, but a formative piece of art that jump started a truly spectacular career. While the five-time GRAMMY winner is duly given her flowers for her complex and sprawling catalog, an equal sized bouquet should be laid at the feet of her debut album, which remains a timeless paragon for R&B artists to draw inspiration from. 

Black Sounds Beautiful: How Mariah Carey Went From Feeling Out Of Place To One Of The Bestselling Woman Artists Of All Time 

Elton John with Lion King Broadway cast in 1999
Elton John (center) with actors Paulette Ivory as 'Nala' (left) and Roger Wright as 'Simba' (right) at the opening night 'The Lion King' musical in London in 1999.

Photo: Dave Benett/Getty Images

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9 Reasons Why 'The Lion King' Is The Defining Disney Soundtrack

Thirty years after 'The Lion King: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack' was released, revisit all the ways it became Disney's ultimate musical moment, from multiple GRAMMYs to a Broadway smash.

GRAMMYs/May 31, 2024 - 05:14 pm

Following the untimely death of their regular composer Howard Ashman, who, alongside Alan Menken, had written the soundtracks for The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, and Aladdin, Walt Disney Feature Animation were forced to look elsewhere for 1994's The Lion King. As their first film ever based on an original story, and their first to consist entirely of animal characters, the Mouse House was already taking something of a gamble. And they further refused to play it safe by appointing a pop star with no prior experience of the Hollywood machine.

Luckily, the leftfield choice of British national treasure Elton John (then without his Sir title), proved to be a masterstroke. Alongside Tim Rice, the lyricist best-known for his musical theater work with Andrew Lloyd Webber, the Rocket Man delivered five instant classics. Not only did the likes of "Can You Feel The Love Tonight," "I Just Can't Wait To Be King," and "Circle of Life" perfectly help push forward the narrative, but they also helped push the film to awards glory at the Oscars and GRAMMYs, a colossal box office figure of nearly one billion dollars, and permanent residency in the pop culture landscape.

Of course, John and Rice can't take all the credit for Lion King's roaring success. Acclaimed composer Hans Zimmer also came on board to give an orchestral touch to the Shakespeare-inspired tale of an heir apparent, who after escaping his wicked uncle's clutches, returns years later to reclaim his rightful position. And professional singers Carmen Twillie, Sally Dworsky, and Kristle Edwards joined household names such as Nathan Lane, Whoopi Goldberg, and Rowan Atkinson in the recording booth, further driving the massive impact of the movie and its music.

Thirty years after it first enamored the Blockbuster generation, we take a look at how The Lion King still sits at the top of the Disney soundtrack throne.

It's Still The Biggest Selling Disney Soundtrack 

Forget The Jungle Book, Beauty and the Beast, or the more recent musical phenomenon that is Frozen. When it comes to pure sales, the runaway Disney soundtrack leader is The Lion King. The Rice/John/Zimmer collaboration shifted nearly five million copies domestically in 1994 alone. And its impressive worldwide total is now triple that amount.

It's a figure that also places The Lion King in the top 10 best-selling soundtracks of all time. Indeed, it's Disney's only representative in the list, which includes Prince's Purple Rain, James Horner's Titanic, and Bee Gees' Saturday Night Fever, as well as the "I Will Always Love You"-featuring The Bodyguard at No. 1. (It still has a way to go to beat John's commercial peak, though. Goodbye Yellow Brick Road has reportedly sold an astonishing 20 million since its release in 1973.)

It Made GRAMMY History 

It wasn't just at the box office where Disney firmly established its second golden age. Before the release of 1989's The Little Mermaid, the Mouse House hadn't attracted GRAMMYs attention once. By the turn of the century, however, they'd racked up a remarkable 30 nominations and 17 wins — and The Lion King played a major part in this awards dominance.

In fact, it made history by becoming the first Disney winner of both Best Male Pop Vocal Performance ("Can You Feel the Love Tonight") and Best Musical Album For Children, while "Circle of Life" picked up Best Instrumental Arrangement With Accompanying Vocals, too. The Lion King also followed in the footsteps of The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, and Aladdin by picking up the Academy Awards for both Best Original Song and Best Original Score.

It Started A Trend Of Pop Artist Composers 

While Celine Dion, Peabo Bryson and Regina Belle had all previously lent their vocals to Disney's second golden age, The Lion King was the studio's first soundtrack to give a pop star composing duties. Alongside Tim Rice, the celebrated lyricist who'd worked on Aladdin, Elton John wrote all five of the album's vocal numbers. And it was a setup that appeared to give several of his peers ideas.

Randy Newman had already picked up Academy Award nods for his composing talents on 1981's Ragtime. But it wasn't until 1995's Toy Story that the singer/songwriter began the fruitful Disney animation partnership that would also take in the Monsters Inc. and Cars franchises. In 1999, Phil Collins co-wrote and performed the entirety of Tarzan's pop soundtrack. And four years later, Carly Simon decided to get in on the Mouse House action by pulling double duty on seven songs for Piglet's Big Movie.

It Introduced Hans Zimmer To Animation 

The Prince of Egypt, The Road to El Dorado, Madagascar, and The Simpsons Movie are just a few of the hit animations to have benefitted from Hans Zimmer's Midas touch. But it wasn't until 12 years into his career that the German composer proved that his talents could be used just as effectively in the world of animation as live-action. And The Lion King was the catalyst.

Zimmer provided four instrumental pieces for the Disney phenomenon including "This Land," "To Die For," and "King of Pride Rock," also bagging two GRAMMYS, an Oscar and a Golden Globe for his efforts. And as he told Classic FM while promoting his work on the 2019 remake, he has a certain family member to thank. "My daughter was 6 years old. I'd never been able to take her to any premieres, and Dad likes to show off."

It Spawned Several Crossover Hits 

Although Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin had both spawned big Hot 100 hits (the chart-topping "Beauty and the Beast" and Dion and Bryson's "A Whole New World," respectively), The Lion King was the first Disney soundtrack to produce two. "Can You Feel The Love Tonight" reached No. 4 in the U.S. (and No.1 in Canada and France), while "Circle of Life" peaked at No. 18. Even "Hakuna Matata" saw some Billboard action, gracing both the Hot Adult Contemporary Tracks and Bubbling Under charts.

You're unlikely to ever see Elton John performing the latter – four of the film's cast members including Nathan Lane provided the vocals. But the two official singles have remained staples of both his live shows and countless compilations ever since. And they've crossed over to the Spotify age, too, with "Circle of Life" racking up103 million streams and "Can You Feel The Love Tonight" a whopping 322 million.

It Birthed Broadway's Biggest Hit 

Hitting the New Amsterdam Theatre in October 1997, The Lion King wasn't the first Disney animation to get a Broadway stage adaptation (Beauty and the Beast had opened at the Palace Theatre three years earlier) — but it remains the biggest. In fact, thanks to a run of 8,500 shows, its $1 billion-plus gross is now the highest in the theater district's history.

The Lion King has also made it around the world, picking up numerous Tony and Olivier Awards along the way. And as you'd expect, the film soundtrack's pop numbers have been just as pivotal to the theater production's success as its immersive set design, powerhouse performances, and jaw-dropping puppetry.

Those lucky enough to see the spectacle before 2010 would also have enjoyed something of a lost classic. Sung by Mufasa's hornbill advisor Zazu, the John/Rice-penned "The Morning Report" was omitted from the 1994 film but enjoyed a 13-year run in the stage show's opening act.

It Covers A Vast Range of Styles 

"The plan was that we wouldn't write the usual Broadway-style Disney score," John later wrote in his 2019 memoir, Me, about his and Rice's approach to the film. "But try and come up with pop songs that kids would like."

Indeed, while the partnership of Menken and Ashman grounded their Disney sing-alongs in the worlds of musical theater and Tin Pan Alley, the new dream team were determined to venture outside the Mouse House's comfort zone.

The Lion King OST boasts everything from carefree novelty sing-alongs ("Hakuna Matata") and emotive showstoppers ("Can You Feel The Love Tonight") to campy villain songs ("Be Prepared") and rumba rockabilly ("I Just Can't Wait To Be King"). And then there's Zimmer's instrumental pieces that typically begin with cinematic strings before building up to a Zulu choir crescendo, immediately transporting listeners to the vast landscape of Pride Rock.

It Kickstarted Elton John's Second Career 

"I sat there with a line of lyrics that began, 'When I was a young warthog,'" John told Time magazine in 1995 about the inception of The Lion King soundtrack, "and I thought, 'Has it come to this?'"

The pop legend needn't have worried. The song in question, "Hakuna Matata," might not have been his most lyrically sophisticated. But the comic interlude proved that John could put an infectious melody to literally any subject. And alongside his four other contributions, it gave him the impetus to further explore the world of musical theater.

The Brit subsequently reunited with Rice for 2000's Aida, a pop-oriented adaptation of Giuseppi Verdi's same-named opera which earned a GRAMMY for Best Musical Show Album in 2001. And then in 2005, John struck Broadway gold once again with the multiple Tony Award-winning screen-to-stage transfer of ballet drama Billy Elliot. That same year, he also teamed up with regular collaboratorBernie Taupin on the score for Lestat, a musical version of Anne Rice's The Vampire Chronicles.

It Formed Part Of The 2019 Remake 

Proof of just how well The Lion King soundtrack has endured came in 2019 when Jon Favreau's live-action remake borrowed all five of its vocal numbers. The performers were different, of course — see the likes of John Oliver on "I Just Can't Wait To Be King," Beyoncé and Donald Glover on "Can You Feel The Love Tonight," and Seth Rogen and Billy Eichner on "Hakuna Matata." But while Zimmer's reimaginings gave them an additional African flavor, the songs didn't stray too far from the source material.

But even with a starrier cast and a bunch of new compositions and covers, the new Lion King OST failed to strike the same chord with the cinemagoing public, selling just a fraction of its predecessor. Even Beyoncé's flagship single "Spirit" failed to peak any higher than No. 98 on the Hot 100. Sometimes, the originals truly are the best.

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