At this point, Mariah Carey's 1994 album Merry Christmas is a classic. She has a five-octave range that's so powerful it's absurd, and during Christmastime, it's almost impossible to flip channels or make a last minute Target run for wrapping paper without hearing her soaring vocals.
From the moment she released her first album in June 1990, Mariah's voice was applauded. Even people who hated her debut album knew that she had an amazing range and a beautiful tone. Her first single, "Visions of Love," was almost universally praised.
But what did music critics write about this new vocal powerhouse? What did they expect would come of her career? What did Mariah say she wanted from her work? Here are some of the earliest mentions of Mariah Carey I could dig up in a LexisNexis search:
Mariah Carey's self-titled debut album came out 25 years ago—June 12, 1990. She hadn't been a Disney star, and until her first single, "Visions of Love," she was a completely unknown twenty-year-old. Her record label, Columbia, ran a massive press campaign to push Mariah into the mainstream media. Dennis Hunt penned one of the first-ever profiles of Mariah for the Los Angeles Times; it was titled "Whether the Style's Gospel or Soul Mariah Carey Sings a Heavenly Song."
"The first single, "Vision of Love," shot up into the Billboard Top 40 in just a few weeks—impressive for a singer who was totally unknown a month ago. […]Like Taylor Dayne and Lisa Stansfield, Carey is a white singer who has a black vocal style. Carey, though, is the best of the lot with range and power not heard perhaps since Jennifer Holiday surfaced in the mid-80s."
Interesting that Hunt compares Mariah to white singers. Critics would do this over and over again in early reviews: describe her as a white woman. "It seems that most people don't know much about interracial children," Mariah, who is black and Venezuelan on her father's side, told USA Today in the '90s.
Nowhere in the article does Whitney Houston's name come up. But soon, the two would be inextricably linked.
In July 1990, Stephen Holden wrote a piece for The New York Times comparing Mariah Carey to Whitney Houston and Anita Baker:
Ms. Carey has a strong, steely voice reminiscent of Whitney Houston's that projects an almost Olympian invincibility. […] Ms. Carey seems to have everything it takes to become successful quickly. One hopes that mass popularity won't constrain her to pop formulas, and that if she does break away, the break does not entail the sort of compromises that made [Anita] Baker's album such a disappointment.
Holden was one of the first critics to realize that Mariah's voice was capable of more than the box her album placed her in, something that other critics would eventually pick up on as Carey herself started voicing her dissatisfaction with the album.
No one, it seemed, could listen to Mariah Carey without hearing women who came before her, like Lisa Stansfield and Whitney Houston. Here's what Alan Niester wrote for The Globe and Mail:
Add to her remarkable range the fact that she sings with strength and emotion, and it's obvious that Carey is a talent worth watching. But at this point, how she sings is much more impressive than what she sings. She is still searching for her own style. Many of the numbers here (particularly There's Got To Be A Way and Alone In Love) are reminiscent of Whitney Houston (obviously a major influence). But shades of Lisa Stansfield (Someday) and The Pointer Sisters (You Need Me) also shine through.
In their reviews of the month, Melody Maker took a bold stance and completely panned Mariah Carey's platinum debut album. The review doesn't hold up well—starting off with a brusque gratefulness for Mariah's appearance ("If there's one word we use too much in these pages it's "goddess." We admit it. But it's not our fault MARIAH CAREY looks like she does") and rapidly descending into a brutal review:
With "Vision of Love" she managed to wassail a ditty of stirring, plush performance. […]The subsequent platinum album sucked and the new single is truly appalling (come back Whitney), but for about a day and a half this summer 20-year-old Mariah Carey was the greatest woman alive. Which is quite something, wouldn't you agree?
Here again we see a Whitney reference, but in quite a different light. Instead of saying that Mariah is ripping off Whitney or the next Whitney, Melody Maker just doesn't want to hear Mariah Carey anymore. This was not uncommon. Several old reviews I read compared Mariah to Whitney, deeming her a lesser version—preferably one that would go away.
But: Mariah is still topping the charts, and Melody Maker died in 2000 when it merged with its arch-rival publication New Musical Express.
In an article titled "Building the Perfect Diva," Rob Tannenbaum wrote about the construction that went into Mariah Carey's debut album. He details how Columbia constructed an album for Mariah to make her as profitable as possible and grabs a gem of a quote:
And how did Carey, who describes herself as strong-willed, feel about having her music so carefully monitored by Columbia? Initially, she says, she asked to produce the record with Ben Margulies, her longtime writing partner. "I wasn't open to working with a superstar producer,'' she says. She was also wary when asked to collaborate on additional songs with her producers and worried that Narada Michael Walden might make her music "too schmaltzy," an apparent reference to his work with Whitney Houston.
Here we have Rolling Stone implying a dig from Mariah Carey at the woman she is constantly compared to. "Too schmaltzy," a woman who would later perform "All I Want for Christmas is You" with Justin Bieber, said.
Every week in the 1990s, Dennis Hunt ran a "Pop Album Chart" column where he listed the top 5 albums (and a notable album) of the week, and added a paragraph of commentary. In June, when Carey's album was released, Hunt said that the "young white soul-singer Mariah Carey is already getting votes as newcomer of the year." In December he wrote:
But even a No. 1 single of the album's title song, "I'm Your Baby Tonight," isn't helping to sell Whitney Houston's album, which slipped another notch to No. 4. The irony is that Mariah Carey, who's accused of being a Houston sound-alike, has an album, "Mariah Carey (No. 3), that's selling better than Houston's even after being on the chart six months.
Despite the early criticism and concerns that Mariah Carey might just be a Whitney Houston knock-off, Hunt could see something in December 1990 that's completely evident now: Mariah Carey is undeniably, unstoppably popular.
First Reviews is a series that finds and evaluates early critiques of now-popular and well-respected artists.
Kelsey McKinney is a culture staff writer for Fusion.