Thu. Jun 13th, 2024

Mariah Carey on Her Unprecedented Billboard Chart Success: ‘It’s a Little Hard to Wrap My Head Around’

By Michael May 23, 2024

Mariah Carey has notched the most Billboard Hot 100 No. 1s, 19, among soloists in the chart’s history. She has co-written 18 of those songs (her No. 1 haul rounded out by her 1992 MTV Unplugged cover of the Jackson 5’s “I’ll Be There”) and shares insights into her songwriting process in the new Audible Original Portrait of a Portrait, released Thursday (May 23).

The recording marks the 40th in the storytelling platform’s Words + Music franchise, which originated in January 2020.

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While encompassing Carey’s career, which launched with her first Hot 100 No. 1, “Vision of Love,” in 1990, the recording delves deep, per the title of the latest edition, into the song “Portrait” from her most recent studio LP, 2018’s Caution. It also premieres a house remix of the track, transforming the ballad into an extended club anthem.

“It gave me the ability to talk about these lyrics, which I haven’t done,” Carey says at the close of the Audible Original. “So it’s been a cathartic experience for me.” (“And I hope it’s been … whatever experience you were looking for, hopefully you got it. And if you didn’t, I don’t know what to tell you,” she says with a laugh.)

Among Carey’s biggest chart honors, beyond her record sum of Hot 100 No. 1s among solo acts, her modern classic carol “All I Want for Christmas Is You” reigns as the top title in the history of Billboard’s Holiday 100 chart. She is also the only artist with three songs to top the Hot 100 for at least 14 weeks each: “One Sweet Day” with Boyz II Men (16 weeks, 1995-96), “We Belong Together” (14, 2005) and her yuletide standard, originally released in 1994 (14), while her 93 total weeks atop the Hot 100 mark the most among all acts.

Plus, Carey earned top honors in the Dec. 25, 1999, Billboard issue, in which she was ranked the No. 1 pop artist of the ‘90s and “One Sweet Day” reigned as the decade’s biggest Hot 100 hit. In the Dec. 19, 2009, issue, “We Belong Together” was crowned the leading Hot 100 entry of the ‘10s.

Additionally, Carey has sold 56.1 million albums in the U.S., according to Luminate, six of which have topped the Billboard 200. Her songs (as the sole billed lead artist) have drawn a colossal 85.4 billion in radio airplay audience and 9.4 billion official on-demand U.S. streams.

Mariah Carey

Upon the release of Portrait of a Portrait, Carey spoke with Billboard about the different sides of her songwriting, whether she’s been able to tell which of her songs would become her biggest hits, and her vaunted place in Billboard chart history.

Beyond your voice, and so many songs overall, what does it mean to you to have your songwriting, and lyrics, specifically, praised?

I think that’s amazing. Depending on who I’m writing with or just writing by myself, it’s something that I love to do so much. Sometimes I just don’t care [about credit], because I know what I do.

What do you get, personally, out of writing lyrics? What is the reason you write?

It’s hard to explain … and that’s the first line of the song I wrote called “Outside” [from Carey’s 1997’s album Butterfly]: “It’s hard to explain.” It’s really something that … I wouldn’t be happy with my life if I didn’t do. And I don’t just do it for the credit or anything else. I do it because I love to do it.

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Some songwriters say that songs are channeled through them, as much as a writer actively creates them.

I agree with that. It is that. Even with a melody, you’re coming up with this melody … and it’s coming through you. Same with the lyrics that go with it.

How much of you, of who you are, do you think that you’ve revealed in your lyrics? You’ve shared everything from misery, as you joke about in the Audible recording, to merry …

I think … it’s a lot. [Chuckles] There can be songs that are merry and that show a specific side of me, and then there are songs that are, I joke, using this word “miserable” … me and my friend made this up when we were editing something. We were like, “Put the misery in!” But it’s true … it’s just a little element that you add to the song.

“Portrait” – there’s a line: “pushing past the parasites.” I put that in and I almost didn’t, [thinking] “Is that too much?” “Is that too intense?” But then I said, “That is exactly what I’m going through” at the time. “There are some people in my life that not good people, and that’s what’s happening.” So I just sometimes feel like it’s OK to be absolutely real.

In my song “Looking In” [from 1995’s Daydream], it’s, “You look at me and see the girl that lives inside the golden world, but don’t believe that’s all there is to see, you’ll never see the real me.” It starts out that way and then goes into, “She smiles through a thousand tears and harbors adolescent fears/ She dreams of all that she can never be/ She wades in insecurity and hides herself inside of me.” That’s not even the whole first verse … but that’s how I felt at the time. So I have to just be who I am. Sometimes it’s just the right course to take.

That seems to be what makes you, and any artist, relatable. We’ve seen that especially with social media. Maybe years ago, the idea of entertainment was of perfection, all the time. But people can take comfort in knowing that everyone goes through the same struggles. A psychology analysis you weren’t necessarily looking for …

I like it, I like it.

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You note in the Audible Original that you’re aware that sometimes you’re attempting to write or co-write a hit. Other times, it’s more about what you want to write, such as more spiritual songs, potential album cuts, and not thinking so much about single releases and the business. About the first part of that: Do you know when you’ve written a hit?

Sometimes you’re like, “This feels like a hit,” but I don’t always say that. I don’t want to jinx it. [Laughs]

Certain times I’ve said, “Oh, this is definitely a hit.” Other times, like you said, certain songs, the spiritual songs, you don’t think, “This is going to be a hit,” but it might be your favorite, or a fan favorite.

A song can be a hit even to one person, and can mean so much.

Right.

Not to get you to brag, but can you think of any songs that you had a good idea would be big chart hits after writing them?

I didn’t always know what a big song was. Like, “This is going to be No. 1 for eight weeks!” I felt that “Fantasy” was going to be a big record, but who knows?

Looking at your transition of lead singles, from 1991’s “Emotions” to 1993’s “Dreamlover,” “Fantasy” in 1995, “Honey” in 1997 and more, it seems like you’ve always been on the pulse of where hit music is, watching trends and also setting them, moving sounds forward.

I think so. I think I would always be like, “I want to write a song like this,” and then take my time, do it and luckily have a moment that was very successful. Then again, I would have a song like “Butterfly” and it didn’t get released [as a commercially available single at the time] and it didn’t really do any kind of big numbers on the charts. But I loved it and I think a lot of my die-hard fans loved it and it really was meaningful.

Hopefully you might like a couple of geeky Billboard-related stats, as they also tie in so perfectly to your history: Nov. 1, that’s when the holiday season, of course, starts – not sure if you knew, but that’s Billboard’s birthday, as well, back in 1894.

No! I didn’t know that.

… and Aug. 4, when “Vision of Love” hit No. 1 on the Hot 100 in 1990, that’s the Hot 100’s birthday, in 1958.

I love that.

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“All I Want for Christmas Is You” going to No. 1 on the Hot 100 each year since 2019 reflects how much people love that song and holiday music overall. It was obviously already beloved, but streaming helped push it to the top at last. Had the technology existed earlier, it might’ve been No. 1 many more years before.

That’s amazing, to think of it like that.

What does it mean to you to have 19 Hot 100 No. 1s, the most among soloists and just one below The Beatles’ record 20?

I don’t know what I think about that! [Laughs] I don’t know. I think it’s astonishing.

On one level it’s like, “[I] don’t really care.” But it’s not. To have 19 No. 1 singles and be one away from The Beatles … I don’t know how I can’t acknowledge that. One away from The Beatles … that’s a lot. I think it’s a little hard to wrap my head around.

By Michael

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