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Songbook: How Mariah Carey Became The Songbird Supreme, From Her Unmistakable Range To Genre-Melding Prowess
On the 25th anniversary of Mariah Carey's career-redefining 'Butterfly,' GRAMMY.com digs into every album and song that made her the unofficial Queen of Christmas and the pop queen of her generation.
Mariah Carey's personal favorite title might be "Queen of Christmas," but she has plenty more to her name: Five-time GRAMMY winner, Songwriters Hall of Fame inductee, record-breaking chart-topper, and bonafide superstar — among many more.
The five-octave vocalist almost instantly became a household name upon her debut with 1990's "Vision of Love," which marked her first No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100. Carey has since landed an astounding 19 atop the chart (only one behind the record-holding Beatles), and sold more than 200 million albums worldwide.
But Carey's long list of achievements didn't come without hard work. The Long Island native spread herself thin between waitressing, beauty school and singing backup for Brenda K. Starr, all the while penning her own music with hopes of making it as an artist herself. Then, with the help of Starr, Carey's demo tape ended up in the hands of music mogul Tommy Mottola and the rest, as they say, is history.
After starting out her illustrious career with five multi-platinum albums in a row — including her smash holiday album Merry Christmas — Carey decided that a new musical direction was long overdue. And with that, on Sept. 16, 1997, Carey released her self-proclaimed magnum opus: Butterfly.
With contributions from Diddy, Q-Tip, Bone Thugs-n-Harmony, and Dru Hill, Butterfly leaned heavily toward R&B and hip-hop compared to Carey's previous works. While a couple of tracks allude to Carey and Mottola's deteriorating marriage, at its core, Butterfly is a coming-of-age story through the lens of a young woman who is finding her voice, becoming more independent, and enjoying her newfound liberation.
In fact, Carey loves Butterfly so much, she's releasing eight bonus tracks on Sept. 16 to commemorate the anniversary. GRAMMY.com is also getting in on the celebration, revisiting the hits, trailblazing remixes, holiday tunes, and musical risks that made the Songbird Supreme one of the most imitated vocalists and influential artists — and why her catalog remains a blueprint.
The Impressive Start
Swiftly amassing a string of No. 1 and top 10 hits, including "Vision of Love," "Can't Let Go," and "Dreamlover," Mariah Carey was on the fast track to becoming one of the top-selling artists of the '90s before the age of 25.
Released in 1990, Carey's eponymous debut studio album spawned an impressive four Hot 100 chart-toppers: "Vision of Love," "Love Takes Time," "Someday," and "I Don't Wanna Cry." Carey's five-octave range and signature whistle register made the then 20-year-old an instant success. But her producing and songwriting chops — unbeknownst to many at the time — set her apart from fellow divas Whitney Houston and Celine Dion.
To capitalize off the success of her debut album, Carey churned out her second studio effort, Emotions, a few months after earning her first two GRAMMY Awards in 1991. (She took home Best New Artist and Best Pop Vocal Performance, Female for "Vision Of Love.") For Emotions, Carey enlisted C+C Music Factory's Robert Clivillés and the late David Cole for the LP's uptempo tunes, including "Make It Happen," as well as the lesser-known tracks "You're So Cold" and "To Be Around You."
The title track became Carey's fifth No. 1 single. With this feat, she's the only artist to have her first five singles soar to the top of the Hot 100.
In 1993, following two multi-platinum albums and a flawless MTV Unplugged performance, Carey welcomed the biggest blockbuster success of her three-decade career: Music Box. Sonically, the LP remains the most pop-leaning of Carey's discography, with the exception of gospel-infused "Anytime You Need a Friend," the album's final single. Perhaps most prominently, Music Box birthed "Hero," one of Carey's signature songs that even the most casual fans can probably recite word for word.
The R&B Period
While Butterfly is cited as Carey's transition from mostly pop music to R&B and hip-hop, 1995's Daydream was her first venture in those worlds thanks to collaborations with Boyz II Men ("One Sweet Day") and Jermaine Dupri ("Always Be My Baby"). "Underneath the Stars" pays homage to Minnie Ripperton, while "Long Ago" echoes Zapp & Roger's "More Bounce to the Ounce" bassline.
Daydream is also notable for kicking off Carey's long-standing tradition of autobiographical album closers. "She smiles through a thousand tears," Carey laments in the second verse of "Looking In," her most personal song at the time. The song served as an important shift for Carey, as it detailed her feelings of unhappiness and "adolescent fears" — despite having a highly successful music career — and showed a deeper side of the singer's songwriting abilities.
Ahead of Butterfly's 25th anniversary, Carey wrote on Instagram that it's her "favorite and probably most personal album." Butterfly's lead single "Honey" and final single "My All" earned Carey two more No. 1s, but the true highlights are within the deep cuts and other singles. Despite receiving little promotion, "The Roof (Back in Time)" and "Breakdown" quickly emerged as fan favorites.
Along with a more mature sound, Carey presented a sexier image, as evidenced in the James Bond-themed music video for "Honey" that takes the album's empowerment theme a step further. She did that lyrically as well with the Missy Elliott co-written track "Babydoll," which contains some of Carey's most sensual lyrics.
As the singer noted herself, Butterfly is also deeply personal. Carey recently shared that the album represented a "pivotal moment" in her life following her separation from Mottola, whom she divorced in 1998. She reportedly once stated that she penned the title track "wishing that that's what [Tommy Mottola] would say to me," and "Close My Eyes" intertwines the stories of Carey's tumultuous childhood with her strained marriage. What's more, Butterfly's closing track, "Outside," chronicles her struggles growing up as a biracial person.
Carey continued her foray into more urban musical styles on 1999's Rainbow. She joined forces with Jay-Z for the first time on lead single "Heartbreaker," which also received a high-energy remix with Elliott and Da Brat that featured an interpolation of Snoop Dogg's "Ain't No Fun (If the Homies Can't Have None)" — further displaying her hip-hop sensibility.
Rainbow, of course, closed with a diaristic song — the gushing "Thank God I Found You," inspired by Carey's then-relationship with Latin star Luis Miguel — but she also sprinkled super-personal tales throughout the album. Ballads like "Can't Take That Away (Mariah's Theme)" and "Petals" offered fans an even deeper glimpse into Carey's personal life.
The (Semi) Forgotten Years
Carey ushered in a new decade by making her big-screen debut in the 2001 movie Glitter. The accompanying soundtrack paid tribute to the '80s, including the Cameo-sampling "Loverboy" and covers of Cherelle's "I Didn't Mean to Turn You On" and Indeep's "Last Night a DJ Saved My Life."
At the time, Glitter marked her lowest first-week sales, despite showing artistic growth. Carey eventually got #JusticeForGlitter, though, as the 12-track LP is hailed as a gem among Carey's most loyal fans — thanks to classic, yet overlooked ballads like "Never Too Far" and "Reflections (Care Enough)." (A #JusticeForGlitter campaign even sparked on social media in 2018, helping the album top the iTunes album chart 17 years after its release.)
In addition to Glitter's rather disappointing release, Carey was dealing with her own personal struggles: In July 2001, the singer was hospitalized for exhaustion, and in July 2002, she lost her father to cancer. She chronicled those hardships in 2002's Charmbracelet. "And if you keep falling down, don't you dare give in," she sings on opener "Through the Rain."
That same resilience and vulnerability can be heard in "My Saving Grace" and "Sunflowers for Alfred Roy," the latter of which is named after Carey's father. Elsewhere, Carey flexes her ability to excel in any genre, experimenting with jazz ("Subtle Invitation") and hard rock (a cover of Def Leppard's "Bringin' On the Heartbreak").
After two back-to-back underperforming albums with Glitter and Charmbracelet, it became easy for critics to write off Carey — that is, until the spring of 2005, when The Emancipation of Mimi arrived.
Following a moderate hit in lead single "It's Like That," second single "We Belong Together" proved that Mariah Carey the Chart Queen was back. Not only did the ballad spend 14 consecutive weeks at the No. 1 spot, but it was later crowned the "Song of the Decade" by Billboard.
But Carey's reign didn't end there. Follow-up singles "Don't Forget About Us" and "Shake It Off" skyrocketed to No. 1 and No. 2, respectively. The album also earned her three more GRAMMYs at the 2006 GRAMMY Awards: Best Contemporary R&B Album, as well as Best R&B Song and Best Female R&B Vocal Performance for "We Belong Together." (She earned 10 nominations total in 2006 and 2007.)
The success continued with 2008's E=MC² and 2009's Memoirs of an Imperfect Angel, which spawned another No. 1 ("Touch My Body" from E=MC²) and a top 10 hit ("Obsessed" from Memoirs). The albums contain some of Carey's most carefree material ("I'm That Chick"), as well as vivid storytelling ("Betcha Gon' Know (The Prologue)") and a taste of her sense of humor ("Up Out My Face").
In the 2010s, as music streaming continued to disrupt the industry, Carey once again proved her staying power, earning two top 5 albums — 2014's Me. I Am Mariah… The Elusive Chanteuse and 2018's Caution — and a top 20 hit with "#Beautiful," featuring then-rising R&B star Miguel.
The Remixes And Rarities
Carey is so dedicated to the art of the remix that she put out a double-disc project, The Remixes, in 2003. But she displayed her remix mastery nearly 10 years before that release, with the Bad Boy version of the Daydream hit "Fantasy" in 1995. When the late ODB growls, "Me and Mariah go back like babies with pacifiers" over a thumping Tom Tom Club-sampling bassline, Carey showed there were no boundaries to her music.
Over the decades, Carey has also teamed up with legendary DJs Shep Pettibone and David Morales for club versions of some of her biggest hits, including 1990's "Someday" and 1993's "Dreamlover." When it comes to her best hip-hop reimaginings, standouts include "Thank God I Found You" (Make It Last Remix), "Always Be My Baby" (Mr. Dupri Mix), and "I Still Believe/Pure Imagination" (Damizza Remix), the latter of which features a genius Willy Wonka interpolation and is a true testament to Carey's artistry.
As for B-sides, longtime fans treasure Music Box's "Do You Think of Me" and "Everything Fades Away" and "Slipping Away" from the Daydream sessions. In 2020, they were treated to The Rarities, a double-disc collection consisting of more B-sides and unreleased material collected throughout the decades, including a heartfelt cover of Irene Cara's "Out Here on My Own" and the original mix of "Loverboy," both recorded during the Glitter era.
The Christmas Magic
Fresh off the success of her first headlining tour, Carey was at her commercial peak when she tried her hand at Christmas music in the second half of 1994.
As expected, the now-iconic Merry Christmas is packed with festive classics like "Silent Night," "Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)," and "Santa Claus Is Comin' to Town." But it's the original "All I Want For Christmas Is You" that emerged as a new holiday standard. And that holds true even more than 25 years after its release: In December 2021, the song became the first to top the Hot 100 four chart years in a row — 2019, 2020, 2021 and 2022 (it held the top spot on the Jan. 1-dated chart).
Carey released Merry Christmas II You, an aptly titled sequel to Merry Christmas, in 2010. The album includes underrated singles "When Christmas Comes" (which was re-released as a duet with John Legend in 2011) and "Oh Santa!," which she performed alongside Ariana Grande and Jennifer Hudson during her star-studded 2020 Christmas special on Apple TV+.
The timeless success of "All I Want For Christmas Is You" earned Carey the unofficial title of "Queen of Christmas," but her extensive catalog and artistic versatility prove she's an icon outside of her holiday throne. Mariah Carey melded genres, influenced a generation of vocalists, and became the first artist with No. 1 singles across four decades — solidifying a legacy as the true Songbird Supreme.
Photo: David Crotty/Getty Images
Mariah Carey Tells Fans Fire Music Is Coming With New Album 'Caution'
The sultry R&B/pop superstar has announced she will release her 15th studio album next month – what will she bring us this time around?
Never one to do things quietly, the GRAMMY-winning R&B/pop diva with the angelic voice Mariah Carey came boldly onto the scene in 1990 with her GRAMMY-nominated debut self-titled album. At the 33rd GRAMMY Awards she took home her first two wins: Best New Artist and for Best Pop Vocal Performance, Female for "Vision Of Love," which she performed on the GRAMMY stage. The song was the album's first single and Carey's first No. 1 song. Since taking center stage at the beginning of the '90s the star hasn't looked back, releasing 13 studio albums and plenty of hits over the years. Four years after the release of her last album, she has announced that her next one is a month away. What will she serve up on her 15th LP?
The star recently shared on Twitter that her latest album is called Caution and will be released on Nov. 16, 2018. We first got a hint of a new album on Sept. 13 when she announced an album was in the works and released the lead single, "GTFO." The album's second single, "With You," followed on Oct. 4.
On "GTFO" she confidently asks a soon-to-be-ex lover "How 'bout you get the f* out?" in breathy vocals over a slow, melodic beat by GRAMMY-winning producer Nineteen85. "With You" feels like a classic Carey R&B love song with her angelic vocals backed by snapping and a melodic slow jam groove produced by hip-hop beat maker DJ Mustard, who lets her voice shine on an uncharacteristically mellow track for him. These songs hint that her latest release will give us songs that not only showcase her incredible vocal range and versatility, but also give us both nostalgia-inducing tracks as well as radio-ready hits.
"GTFO" gives us a taste of some of the new flavor that she is bringing to her new album, singing the song's coy lyrics completely in more-understated breathy vocals without belting any big high notes, not even during the chorus. It's a catchy, playful breakup song, as she confidently sings "get the f* out/how 'bout you take your tings and be on your merry way?/Fly off with the wind, bye bye baby/How 'bout you scusami, Mimi'll call you a valet."
The song was co-written and co-produced by Jeff Jefferies aka Nineteen85, who is half of OVO R&B duo dvsn and is responsible for producing some of Drake's biggest hits, including the GRAMMY-winning mega-hit "Hotline Bling." On the Drake's song "Emotionless" from his latest album, Scorpion, he samples Carey's lyrics from remixed classic hit "Emotions." Hopefully Jefferies has some catchy hits up his sleeve for Carey, and maybe even brings in some OVO artist surprises.
Carey has released some great collabs over the years, a majority with R&B and hip-hop artists, including Boyz II Men on heartfelt slow jam "One Sweet Day" from 1995's Daydream and Jay-Z on the upbeat classic belter "Heartbreaker" from 1999's Rainbow. We can only hope that the new album will offer some new, soon-to-be-classic hits with some of our other favorite artists.
Her most recent album, Me. I Am Mariah… The Elusive Chanteuse, released in 2014, had more collab tracks than usual for her, which could perhaps point towards some hot features on Caution. The deluxe edition of the 2014 album had six songs with other artists, including rappers Nas, Fabolous, Wale and R. Kelly as well as R&B singers Miguel and Mary J. Blige. The album's lead single, "Beautiful," has Miguel and Carey singing a soulful, feel-good duet, while "Dedicated" features a bounce-y, electronic-infused hip-hop beat with a verse from Nas. Seeing that she worked with big-time hip-hop producers on the new album's lead singles, we can only hope that they not only offered their production genus to more of the tracks, but perhaps brought some of their friends into the studio as well.
Fans only have to wait a month for the full dose of new music from Carey, but until then we will send our prayers to the music gods that the album will feature all of our dream collabs, perhaps some old and new friends, and offer up some new favorite songs, with some to slow dance to and others to belt out in the shower.
GRAMMY Insider: Mariah Carey, Tim McGraw, Taylor Swift, Halestorm, Bob Dylan, Kanye West, And Usher
All the GRAMMY winners news, including who will take the stage to perform on the Fourth of July
(The GRAMMY Insider keeps you up to date about news on your favorite GRAMMY winners, including new album releases, tour updates, notable TV appearances, interviews, and more.)
Fourth Of July Music
The "37th Annual Macy's 4th Of July Fireworks" spectacular will air from New York at 5 p.m. PT/8 p.m. ET and feature a fireworks show directed by Usher, and performances by Nick Cannon, Mariah Carey, Selena Gomez, Tim McGraw, and Taylor Swift. … Barry Manilow will take the stage during "A Capitol Fourth — America's Independence Day Celebration" from Washington, D.C., at 5 p.m. PT/8 p.m. on PBS. … For more Fourth of July music, check out our GRAMMY playlist.
Lists And Polls
She's been previously voted as one of the hottest female singers of all time, but who does Cher fancy? During a recent appearance on "Watch What Happens Live," the vivacious songstress engaged in a game of "Truth or Cher" with host Andy Cohen, during which she revealed that actor Tom Cruise ranks high on her favorite lovers list. "Well, he was in the top five," said Cher. "It's not a long list, it's a good list." … The fans have spoken and Taylor Swift ruled the 2013 edition of Billboard's Mid-Year Music Awards poll in three categories: First-Half MVP, Favorite Billboard 200 No. 1 Album for Red and the voter's favorite live show of 2013. Other GRAMMY winners who dominated poll categories included Beyoncé, Jay-Z, Pink, Fun.'s Nate Ruess, and Britney Spears.
The late Amy Winehouse is being commemorated with a new exhibit at the Jewish Museum in London. Created in collaboration with Winehouse's brother, Alex Winehouse, the exhibit features intimate items owned by the singer, including the actual list of songs on her "chill-out tape."
Nine Inch Nails are rivaling Kanye West for the most epilepsy-inducing music video with the release of the visual component to their new single "Came Back Haunted." Directed by filmmaker/musician David Lynch, the video features flashing images of human insects, strange faces and frontman Trent Reznor.
Kanye West took a walk on the wild side with his new album Yeezus, and it has garnered praise from none other than Lou Reed. In a review for TheTalkhouse.com, Reed wrote that the album is a mix of "supreme beauty … greatness … [and] the same old s*," and that West "really, really, really is talented." "No one's near doing what he's doing, it's not even on the same planet," he added.
News is out that the electric guitar with which Bob Dylan shook up the folk world will be auctioned later this year and is expected to bring in $500,000. The Fender Stratocaster that Dylan played at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965 is being auctioned by owner Dawn Peterson, who showcased the guitar on an episode of PBS' "History Detectives," where she got the estimate. After the PBS episode aired, Dylan reportedly claimed ownership, but a deal was worked out for Peterson to auction the guitar, preventing the whole thing from being tangled up in red (tape).
Pianist Keith Jarrett is among four artists named to the 2014 National Endowment for the Arts' Jazz Masters class. Jarrett's classic 1975 live album, The Köln Concert, was inducted into the GRAMMY Hall Of Fame in 2011.
Does winning a GRAMMY make you rich? Not necessarily, according to recent GRAMMY winner Lzzy Hale of Halestorm. "It's all been great, but there's a lot of people who are like, 'Wow, they're rich,'" she told Pulse Of Radio. "No, no, the GRAMMY didn't come with a million dollars. We just got a statue."
U2 at 2006 GRAMMYs
U2 at 2006 GRAMMYs
GRAMMY Rewind: Watch U2 Win Album Of The Year At The 2006 GRAMMY Awards
Watch U2 accept the high honor of Album Of The Year for 'How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb' at the 48th GRAMMY Awards in 2006
For the latest episode of GRAMMY Rewind, please join us in celebrating U2 bassist Adam Clayton's 60th birthday today, March 13, with this look back at one of the legendary rock band's GRAMMY highlights. At the 48th GRAMMY Awards in 2006, the Irish rock legends took home five golden gramophones, including for the high honors of Song Of The Year and Album Of The Year.
Below, watch U2 accept the Album Of The Year GRAMMY for their 11th studio album, How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb, with a charming speech where Bono shouts out fellow Album Of The Year nominees Kanye West (Late Registration), Mariah Carey (The Emancipation of Mimi) and Gwen Stefani (Love. Angel. Music. Baby.).
As Bono, Clayton, The Edge and Larry Mullen Jr. approach the stage to accept the award, fellow Album Of The Year nominees Paul McCartney (Chaos and Creation In The Backyard) and West, dressed in a fierce lavender tux, congratulate the band.
"This is our second Album Of The Year, but we've lost two, Achtung Baby and All That You Can't Leave Behind, so now it feels that Kanye, you're next. [He's] a great artist that's been on the road with us [on the Vertigo Tour], [he's] extraordinary," Bono said on stage, rocking his signature tinted rimless shades with a cowboy hat and leather jacket. After also sharing complements for Carey and Stefani, he adds: "This is really a big, big night for our band."
"If ever there should have been a record called 'Sometimes You Can't Make It On Your Own,' it should've been this one," Clayton added. "We had a lot of producers; Danny Lanois, Brian Eno, Flood, Nellee Hooper, Jacknife Lee, Carl Glanville, Chris Tomas and our friend Steve Lillywhite."
The GRAMMY-winning album was released on Nov. 22, 2004, including classic hits "Vertigo," "Sometimes You Can't Make It On Your Own" and "City Of Blinding Lights." The five GRAMMYs it helped the band win include Best Rock Album and Song Of The Year and Best Rock Performance By A Duo Or Group With Vocal for "Sometimes You Can't Make It On Your Own."
Music Saved My Life: Mental Health Awareness Month 2018
Recognize and celebrate the healing power of music for our mental health
May is Mental Health Awareness Month.
Every year since 1949, the entire month has been reserved to raise awareness about the importance of managing mental health, shed light on the universal struggle of depression, anxiety and other aspects of mental well-being, and encourage people to reach out for help.
The Recording Academy recognizes the healing power of music and how the indescribable feelings of the right song at the right time can be both a sonic salve and an emotive line of communication that tells a listener, "No, you truly are not alone."
Throughout May, we will share important quotes and stories from artists who have made the choice to speak publicly about how their mental health has directly affected their lives, and how the healing power of music has helped them on their path toward a more peaceful, present and mindful life.
Check back daily for inspirational messages from your favorite artists, and each week for more expansive stories about how musicians have addressed their mental health. You'll learn how some of your favorite artists have benefitted from the healing power of music in their own lives, which we hope will serve as inspiration in yours.