Music Box: Mariah Carey’s first Diamond Moment

By 1993 Mariah Carey had established herself as the Pop “It” girl in the United States. With six #1 singles on the Billboard Hot 100, an acclaimed MTV Unplugged performance and over 15 million records sold, she was already a rising star. However, her career was destined to reach new heights with her next album. On August 31, 1993 Columbia Records released Mariah’s third studio album: Music Box.

Pop Princess

Mariah had worked on the album over the spring and summer of 1993, while planning her wedding to Tommy Mottola. The diva and the CEO of Sony Music married on June 5, 1993 in a lavish, star-studded ceremony in New York City and went to live in upstate New York in a multi-million dollar mansion. It seemed like Mariah’s fairytale was complete, happy ending and all.

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For a “bridal” album, Music Box isn’t exactly a “happily, desperately in love” record. In fact, similarly to Mariah’s other post-marriage album, Memoirs of an Imperfect Angel, the songs are quite somber. Heavy on the ballads, Music Box‘s tracks reflect on love from a break-up standpoint or long for a love that was or could be. Only the upbeat “Now That I Know” was potentially dedicated to her then-husband.

The Music Box

Musically, the songs contain some of Mariah’s finest melodies. She paired with Walter Afanasieff for most of the album, while she worked with Dave Hall and David Cole and Robert Clivillés of C&C Music Factory for her uptempos. Mariah’s first collaboration with Babyface was also on this album.

It’s Mariah’s ear for melody that makes this album a classic. Let’s face it, if it weren’t for her, most of these songs would be dated and cheesy, but the arrangements (most importantly, the vocal arrangements) elevate them. That is why even if it’s Mariah’s most Pop/Adult Contemporary album, it holds a particular place in her catalog for her fans.

The title track was perhaps her sweetest, most gentle vocal up until to that point. Walter Afanasieff once recalled in an interview that Mariah wanted a specific keyboard sound that was inspired by George Michael’s Faith album for this track. The impeccable use of her softer register conveys the impression that she’s the ballerina spinning atop the music box, singing instead of doing ballet.

The other ballads are more bombastic, but nonetheless nuanced. “Just to Hold You Once Again” and “All I Ever Wanted” start on the low, but reach the heavens on their climax in an explosion of controlled power and resonance.

She also delivered flawless vocals on the album’s uptempo tracks. “I’ve Been Thinking About You” is a vocal bop that’s worthy of repeated plays if only for Mariah’s rich and full instrument being on display. In the same vein, “Now That I Know” sees Mariah effortlessly glide over synths and a joyful thumping beat. Then, of course, there’s the lead single.

Iconic Singles

Four singles were commercially released from the album. Dreamlover led the campaign in July, with its funky beat and breezy melody. The song was built on a sample of “Blind Alley” by The Emotions with a Hammond organ that adds that sweet touch it needs. The music video, filmed in upstate New York features Mariah’s first recognisable look: the jean shorts and flannel.

David Morales also produced Mariah’s first, iconic re-sung dance remix for this song.

That summer Mariah also recorded a special concert at the Proctors Theatre that became a Thanksgiving TV special on NBC.

During the fall Columbia released “Hero” as the second single. The song was originally written for Gloria Estefan, intended for the soundtrack to the movie of the same name. Upon hearing the track, Tommy Mottola convinced her to keep it for herself and it became one of her biggest hits and signature songs. Its uplifting message of hope has resonated with fans worldwide for 25 years, making it an absolute staple in Mariah’s concert setlists. Yet another iconic image came out of the music video: Mariah looked stunning in her black gown and curls singing this song for the audience at Proctors.

The third single was a cover of Badfinger’s 1970 soft rock single “Without You,” later made popular by Harry Nilsson. Mariah has stated that the song was one of her favorites growing up and that is why she decided to record her own version. The poignance of her low register at the beginning of the song and the dramatic production make it one of her greatest performances. The cover is still today Mariah’s biggest international hit and topped the charts in many countries around the world.

The double A-side included on the “Without You” single was “Never Forget You,” written and produced by Mariah and Babyface. The nostalgic ballad has a slight R&B feel to it, even though a soft Country twang can be detected. The lyrics could be interpreted as either being about someone a lover who’s left or a dearly departed one, which allows for different interpretations.

The fourth and final single was the Gospel-infused “Anytime You Need a Friend.” The song is a Maria fan favorite for its soulful nature. The astonishing background vocals resemble a whole gospel choir, but were in reality arranged by Mariah herself and her background vocalists in the studio. The track is also famous for its two remixes: a dance one by C&C and an R&B one that both feature re-sung vocals by Mariah.

Commercial Breakthrough

There’s much to say about Music Box‘s commercial performance, but the one thing that’s worth acknowledging first and foremost is how this album gave Mariah her first break in many markets around the globe. The success of “Without You” helped the album sell an estimated 26 million copies worldwide. Music Box became, and still is today, her most successful album ever in this sense.

In the US it was certified Diamond by the RIAA for shipments of 10 million copies to retailers. “Dreamlover” and “Hero” were both #1 hits at Top 40 radio and on the Billboard Hot 100 (8 and 4 weeks respectively), “Without You” also reached #3 in early 1994 and continued her streak of consecutive top 5 singles. “Dreamlover” still holds the record for the highest debut at Pop radio (#12).

Elusive Bonuses

Even though they’re not included on the album, we cannot refrain from talking about the two B-sides that came from the Music Box sessions. The first is “Do You Think of Me,” a sultry R&B ballad included on the “Dreamlover” single, where Mariah wonders about a lover’s most secret thoughts. Its sound is probably the reason why it was excluded from the original tracklist as it would feel out of place.

The other is the “Hero” B-side, and international bonus track, “Everything Fades Away.” There’s been speculation about its exclusion because it definitely fits the sound of the album. However, the lyrics are a bit too dark for a newlywed and the vocals more subtle than the rest of the songs. It is plausible that Columbia wanted to steer Mariah towards bombastic balladeer territory, so this track would work against this image.

Our Beloved Hero

Mariah’s fans certainly cherish this album for what it meant to her career. “Hero” is the perfect example of why Mariah has always been able to reach a broad audience and touch people’s hearts. She is the hero to so many of us fans because her voice, her lyrics and melodies are the soundtrack to our lives. We are forever grateful to her for all she’s given to us and we anticipate what’s next with trepidation.

Happy Anniversary!

Stream the Music Box album on Spotify:

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