“Emotions” helped catapult Mariah Carey’s superstardom “higher than the heavens above”

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September 13, 1991

Mariah Carey found huge success with her debut album, largely due to ballads that showcased her phenomenal voice. When it came time to release her follow-up album (Emotions), Carey had several goals in mind. One was to create an album that had more of a Motown influence, and another was to set-up a career with longevity. The first single from Carey’s second album was the title track “Emotions.” In an interview for the The Washington Post, Craig Seymour mentioned to Carey that “Emotions” was important in establishing her as more than a ballad singer, and in fact her lead singles for the next 10 years would be more uptempo in nature. Carey is a great crafter of pop songs and is responsible for many ’90s pop gems that also incorporate other styles of music.

Carey worked with C&C Music Factory (Robert Clivilles and David Cole) for some of the songs on her second album, including the title track. Separately Carey and Cole came up with a groove inspired by the group The Emotions, whose biggest hit was “Best Of My Love.” Some critics denounced “Emotions” for sounding a lot like “Best of My Love,” apparently missing the point of the title of Carey’s song; Carey and Cole intended the song as an homage. Carey, Clivilles, and Cole set the ’70s disco groove in a ’90s house framework, thus bridging styles and decades.

“Emotions” definitely helped listeners see (well, hear) Carey as more than a ballad singer, and in a way it helped create its own template for Carey; future singles like “Dreamlover” and “Fantasy” are also perfectly crafted songs that mix genres and are unabashedly romantic in their lyrical content. In regards to “Emotions” specifically, Stylus‘ Andrew Untergerger calls it one of the “most blissed-out, utterly delirious” love songs anyone produced in the ’90s. Devon Powers of Pop Matters calls the track “one of the strongest of her early work,” noting that “each verse is peppy and playful.” SoulBounce echoes that description in calling the song a “joyful romp.”

“Emotions” makes heavy use of Carey’s famous whistle notes, but this time there is real purpose; as Entertainment Weekly’s Arion Berger wrote, Carey’s whistle notes on the song make emotional sense as they convey that Carey is “too overwhelmed to put her passion into words.” In the rush of infatuation and at a loss for words, she has nowhere to go but up. And in fact, in a 1991 live MTV performance of the song, Carey would hit a note so high it made the Guinness Book of World Records. Not surprisingly “Emotions” would also earn Carey a Grammy nomination for Best Pop Vocal Performance, Female. In a 2015 piece, Entertainment Weekly staff called the vocal “Legendary.” Jennifer Still of Bustle commented about listeners, “Don’t pretend you don’t try it every single time.” It’s no wonder it’s nearly a Vine rite of passage to post a video attempting the feat.

The music video for “Emotions” was directed by Jeff Preiss and conveys the joyous feel of the song as Carey and her friends “romp’ around town. The video also features color desaturation, presumably to give the video the raw feeling of a home movie.

Commercially “Emotions” was a big hit for Carey. The song went Gold, and it spent 3 weeks at #1. In getting to #1, the song helped Carey break a chart record as she become the first artist to have their first 5 singles hit #1 on the Hot 100. That record still stands.

Over 20 years since its release, the current generation of pop singers have shown the popularity of “Emotions” endures. Ariana Grande covered the song in a move that increased both her profile and her credibility as a singer. Jessie J performed the song several times, including at Rock in Rio in 2013, and also posted a video on Instagram of her lip syncing to the song. What it all proved in the end, though, is that no other singer has the combination of technical prowess and vocal presence of Carey.

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