Mariah Carey, born on March 27, 1969, is a renowned American singer, songwriter, record producer, and actress. She is often referred to as the “Songbird Supreme” by Guinness World Records, known for her exceptional vocal range spanning five octaves, melismatic singing style, and distinctive use of the whistle register. Mariah Carey has left an indelible mark on popular music, influencing contemporary vocal styles and bridging the worlds of hip-hop and pop music through her collaborations and popular remixes. Her holiday music, especially the 1994 hit “All I Want for Christmas Is You,” has earned her the title of the “Queen of Christmas” and is the best-selling holiday song by a female artist.
Mariah Carey’s rise to fame began in 1990 with her self-titled debut album, guided by Columbia Records executive Tommy Mottola, whom she later married in 1993. She achieved a remarkable feat by having her first five singles reach number one on the Billboard Hot 100, starting with “Vision of Love” and ending with “Emotions.” Her albums “Music Box” (1993) and “Daydream” (1995) solidified her global success, featuring hits like “Dreamlover,” “Hero,” “Without You,” “Fantasy,” “Always Be My Baby,” and “One Sweet Day,” which topped the US Billboard Hot 100 decade-end chart for the 1990s. After parting ways with Mottola, she embraced a new urban image and incorporated hip-hop and R&B elements with the release of “Butterfly” (1997). By the end of the 1990s, Billboard recognized her as the most successful artist of the decade in the United States. She left Columbia Records in 2001 after an impressive run of eleven consecutive years with US number-one singles and signed with Virgin Records.
Following a highly publicized breakdown and the underwhelming reception of the film “Glitter” (2001) and its soundtrack, Virgin Records terminated her contract, leading her to sign with Island Records the next year. After a period of relative underperformance, Carey made a triumphant return to the top of the charts with one of the best-selling albums of the 21st century, “The Emancipation of Mimi” (2005). The album’s second single, “We Belong Together,” dominated the US Billboard Hot 100 decade-end chart for the 2000s. Mariah Carey’s career also included ventures into acting with roles in films like “Precious” (2009), “The Butler” (2013), and “The Lego Batman Movie” (2017). She served as an American Idol judge, starred in the docu-series “Mariah’s World,” performed in multiple concert residencies, and authored her memoir, “The Meaning of Mariah Carey” (2020).
Mariah Carey stands as one of the best-selling music artists globally, with over 220 million records sold. She has received numerous accolades, including induction into the Songwriters Hall of Fame, recognition in the National Recording Registry at the Library of Congress, and an honor in the Long Island Music and Entertainment Hall of Fame. VH1 ranked her as the second greatest woman in music in 2012, and Rolling Stone placed her as the fifth greatest singer in 2023. Billboard acknowledged her as the top-charting female solo artist, both in terms of albums and singles. She holds the record for the most Billboard Hot 100 number-one singles by a solo artist (19), a female songwriter (18), and a female producer (15), spending a record 91 weeks atop the chart. Mariah Carey is the highest-certified female artist in the United States and ranks 10th overall, with 74 million certified album units. Among her many awards are 5 Grammy Awards, 10 American Music Awards, 15 Billboard Music Awards, and 12 Guinness World Records.
Mariah Carey was born on March 27, 1969, in Huntington, New York. Her unique name is derived from the song “They Call the Wind Maria,” originally from the 1951 Broadway musical “Paint Your Wagon.” She is the youngest of three children in her family. Her mother, Patricia (née Hickey), is a former opera singer and vocal coach of Irish descent, while her father, Alfred Roy Carey, is an aeronautical engineer with African-American and Afro-Venezuelan heritage. The Carey surname was adopted by her Venezuelan grandfather, Francisco Núñez, after he immigrated to New York. Patricia’s family disowned her for marrying a black man, and racial tensions made it challenging for the Carey family to integrate into their community. They faced acts of discrimination, including the poisoning of their family dog and the setting of their car on fire. After her parents’ divorce, Mariah had limited contact with her father, and her mother worked multiple jobs to support the family. Mariah Carey spent a significant amount of time at home alone and began singing at the age of three, often imitating her mother’s renditions of Verdi’s opera “Rigoletto” in Italian. Her older sister Alison went to live with their father, while Mariah and her elder brother Morgan remained with their mother.
In elementary school, Mariah excelled in the arts, particularly music and literature. She started writing poetry and lyrics during her time at Harborfields High School in Greenlawn, New York, where she graduated in 1987. Mariah began her vocal training under her mother’s guidance. Even though her mother was a classically trained opera singer, she never pressured Mariah to pursue a career in classical opera. Mariah Carey has fond memories of her mother, saying that she was never pushy and never asked her to adopt a more operatic style. Mariah deeply respects opera but says it didn’t influence her own style.
During high school, Mariah Carey often missed classes due to her work as a demo singer, earning her the nickname “Mirage” from her classmates. She was involved in the Long Island music scene, collaborating with musicians like Gavin Christopher and Ben Margulies, with whom she co-wrote material for her demo tape. After moving to New York City, she took on part-time jobs to cover her rent and completed 500 hours of beauty school. Mariah rented a one-bedroom apartment in Manhattan, sharing it with four female roommates. She landed a job as a backup singer for freestyle singer Brenda K. Starr.
1988–1992: Career beginnings, debut album and Emotions
In December 1988, Mariah Carey had a fateful encounter with destiny. She attended a music executive’s party with Brenda K. Starr, where she handed her demo tape to the head of Columbia Records, Tommy Mottola. After listening to her tape during the car ride home, he was so impressed that he immediately instructed the driver to turn back to find her. Carey had already left the event, and this set off a real-life Cinderella story as Mottola spent two weeks searching for her. Another record label also expressed interest, sparking a bidding war for her talents. Ultimately, Tommy Mottola signed Mariah Carey to Columbia Records and brought in producers like Ric Wake, Narada Michael Walden, and Rhett Lawrence for her debut album.
Columbia Records saw Mariah Carey as their leading female artist, positioning her to compete with Whitney Houston of Arista Records and Madonna from Sire Records. On June 5, 1990, Carey made her debut public appearance at the 1990 NBA Finals, where she sang “America the Beautiful.” The standout moment was her piercing whistle note near the song’s conclusion, which led CBS Sports anchor Pat O’Brien to declare, “The palace now has a queen.”
Columbia Records invested over $1 million in promoting Mariah Carey’s debut studio album, aptly titled “Mariah Carey.” After a slow start, the album eventually claimed the top spot on the Billboard 200 for eleven consecutive weeks. Carey’s exposure at the 33rd Annual Grammy Awards, where she won Best New Artist and Best Female Pop Vocal Performance for her single “Vision of Love,” propelled her to stardom. The album’s singles, including “Vision of Love,” “Love Takes Time,” “Someday,” and “I Don’t Wanna Cry,” all reached number one on the US Billboard Hot 100. “Mariah Carey” was the best-selling album in the United States in 1991 and achieved global sales of 15 million copies.
The following year, Carey co-wrote, co-produced, and recorded her second studio album, “Emotions,” which she described as a tribute to Motown soul music. She collaborated with Walter Afanasieff, Robert Clivillés, and David Cole from the dance group C+C Music Factory. However, her working relationship with Ben Margulies deteriorated due to a dispute over songwriting royalties, leading to a lawsuit against Sony, Columbia’s parent company. “Emotions” was released on September 17, 1991, with the title track becoming Carey’s fifth chart-topper on the Billboard Hot 100, making her the first artist to achieve this feat with their first five singles. While critics praised the album’s content, it was also criticized for being calculated and lacking originality. Despite selling eight million copies worldwide, “Emotions” did not reach the commercial and critical heights of her debut.
At this point, Mariah Carey decided not to embark on a world tour to promote the album. She cited stage fright and the vocal challenges of her material, which led to speculation about her being a “studio artist” incapable of reproducing her perfect pitch and 5-octave vocal range in live performances. In response to these rumors, Carey booked an appearance on MTV Unplugged, a show that featured artists in a stripped-down, acoustic setting without studio enhancements. Just days before the taping, Carey and Afanasieff decided to include a cover of the Jackson 5’s 1970 song “I’ll Be There” in the set-list. On March 16, 1992, Mariah Carey delivered an intimate seven-song performance at Kaufman Astoria Studios in Queens, New York, which was praised as a “vocal Tour de force.” Her live version of “I’ll Be There” became her sixth number-one single on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. Sony seized on its success and released it as an EP, earning triple-Platinum certification by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) and Gold and Platinum certifications in several European markets.
1993–1996: Music Box, Merry Christmas, and Daydream
Following the relative commercial disappointment of “Emotions,” Mariah Carey’s next release was aimed at the adult contemporary and pop-friendly market. “Music Box,” produced by Carey and Walter Afanasieff, marked the beginning of a songwriting partnership that would continue until her 1997 album “Butterfly.” When “Music Box” was released on August 31, 1993, it received mixed reviews from music critics. Some critics derided Carey’s songwriting as clichéd, and her vocal performances were criticized for being less emotive and somewhat lazy in their delivery. Despite the criticism, the album achieved commercial success. The first two singles, “Dreamlover” and “Hero,” both reached number one on the US Billboard Hot 100, becoming Carey’s seventh and eighth chart-toppers in the United States. Additionally, her cover of Badfinger’s “Without You” was a breakthrough in Europe, becoming her first number-one single in Germany, Sweden, and the United Kingdom. “Music Box” remains one of Mariah Carey’s best-selling albums, with worldwide sales exceeding 28 million copies.
In mid-1994, Mariah Carey recorded and released a duet with Luther Vandross, covering Lionel Richie and Diana Ross’s “Endless Love.” She then released “Merry Christmas” on November 1, 1994, which became the best-selling Christmas album, with global sales of over 15 million copies. The album’s lead single, “All I Want for Christmas Is You,” has become a holiday standard, maintaining its popularity year after year. By October 2017, it ranked as the 11th best-selling single in modern music. In 2019, 25 years after its release, the song finally reached number one on the Billboard Hot 100, and it has continued to do so every December since. It’s the first song in history to hold the top position in more than two different chart years, and it’s the longest-running holiday number-one song, spending 12 weeks at the top of the Billboard Hot 100.
Mariah Carey’s fifth studio album, “Daydream,” marked a shift in her creative control over her career, which led to tensions with Columbia Records. The album leaned heavily towards R&B and hip-hop, departing from her pop roots. Critically, “Daydream” was praised as her best work to date. The New York Times named it one of the best albums of 1995, highlighting her refined songwriting and a more relaxed and sexy style. The album’s lead single, “Fantasy,” made history by becoming the first single by a female artist to debut at number one on the Billboard Hot 100. The second single, “One Sweet Day,” a collaboration with R&B group Boyz II Men, held the number-one position on the Billboard Hot 100 for a record-breaking 16 consecutive weeks, becoming the longest-running number-one song in the history of the charts at the time. The third single, “Always Be My Baby,” became Carey’s eleventh chart-topper, tying her with Madonna and Whitney Houston for the most number-one singles among female artists at the time.
“Daydream” became Mariah Carey’s biggest-selling album in the United States and her second album to be certified Diamond by the RIAA, following “Music Box.” The album maintained her dominance in Asian music markets and sold over 2.2 million copies in Japan alone, with global sales exceeding 20 million copies. “Daydream” and its singles received six nominations at the 38th Grammy Awards. Despite being a favorite to win top awards, Carey left the ceremony empty-handed, commenting, “What can you do? I will never be disappointed again.”
In early 1996, Mariah Carey embarked on her first international string of concerts, the “Daydream World Tour,” with seven dates spanning Japan and Europe. Forbes named Carey the top-earning female musician of 1996, earning an estimated $32 million.
During the recording of “Daydream,” Carey also worked on the alternative rock album “Someone’s Ugly Daughter” by the band Chick. She contributed writing, production, vocals, and art direction. Because Columbia Records refused to release the album with Carey’s lead vocals, her friend Clarissa Dane became the face of Chick, with Carey’s vocals layered on top. Carey also directed the music video for the Chick song “Malibu.” According to Carey, she was experimenting with the breezy-grunge, punk-light style of popular white female singers at the time, and her contributions to the album remained secret until the release of her 2020 memoir, “The Meaning of Mariah Carey.”
1997–2000: New image with Butterfly, and Rainbow
Mariah Carey’s musical evolution continued with a shift away from pop and adult contemporary ballads, embracing hip-hop and R&B elements in her music. “Butterfly,” released in 1997, marked a significant change in her life as she separated from Tommy Mottola after four years of marriage. Carey described Mottola as increasingly controlling, and her newfound independence fueled her creative energy. She considered “Butterfly” her magnum opus and a turning point in her life and career. The album introduced a more subdued singing style, characterized by breathy vocals. Some saw her reduced use of her upper vocal range as a sign of maturity, while others questioned whether it hinted at waning vocal prowess.
The album’s lead single, “Honey,” marked Carey’s first music video since separating from Mottola and introduced a more overtly sexual image. “Butterfly” became Carey’s best-reviewed album, exploring more mature lyrical themes. Rolling Stone noted that while Carey hadn’t entirely abandoned her previous balladry, the predominant mood was “coolly erotic reverie.” AllMusic’s editor, Stephen Thomas Erlewine, praised Carey’s sultrier and more controlled vocals and noted her continuous improvement as an artist. “Honey” and “My All,” the album’s fifth single, both reached the top of the Hot 100 chart, making Carey the female artist with the most number-one singles in the chart’s history. Despite its commercial success, “Butterfly” didn’t reach the sales heights of her previous albums, “Music Box” and “Daydream.”
Following her “Butterfly World Tour,” Carey participated in the VH1 Divas benefit concert in April 1998 alongside other renowned artists. She also began working on a film project originally titled “All That Glitters,” later renamed “Glitter” in 2001, and contributed songs to various projects, including “Men in Black” (1997) and “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” (2000). When “Glitter” faced production difficulties, Carey postponed the project and began writing material for a new album. Sony Music executives insisted that she prepare a greatest hits collection for the holiday season. The album, titled “#1’s” (1998), included a cover of Brenda K. Starr’s “I Still Believe” and a duet with Whitney Houston, “When You Believe,” featured on the soundtrack for “The Prince of Egypt” (1998). “#1’s” became a sensation in Japan, selling over one million copies in its opening week and making Carey the only international artist to achieve this feat. It sold over 3.25 million copies in Japan in its first three months, setting a record as the best-selling album by a non-Asian artist.
With only one album left to fulfill her contract with Sony and a strong desire to separate herself professionally from the record label her ex-husband still led, Carey completed the album in three months in mid-1999. Titled “Rainbow,” the album marked a departure from her longtime writing partner Walter Afanasieff, instead collaborating with producers like David Foster and Diane Warren. The singles “Heartbreaker” and “Thank God I Found You” both reached number one on the Billboard Hot 100. Additionally, her collaboration with Irish boy band Westlife on a cover of Phil Collins’ “Against All Odds (Take a Look at Me Now)” became her second number-one hit on the UK charts. “Rainbow” was released on November 2, 1999, and achieved the highest first-week sales of her career at the time, though it debuted at number two on the Billboard 200.
During this period, Carey’s relationship with Columbia Records became increasingly strained, leading her to post messages on her website, sharing inside information with her fans about the dispute and instructing them to request “Can’t Take That Away (Mariah’s Theme)” on radio stations. Ultimately, the song received limited and low-promotion release. “Rainbow” received generally positive critical reception, with many considering it a progression from her previous album, “Butterfly.” However, it became her lowest-selling album up to that point in her career.
In April 2000, Carey participated in another VH1 Divas concert, paying tribute to Diana Ross.