Rewind: The Fantasy & Heartbreak Of Mariah Carey's 'Daydream'


If you want to know Mariah Carey's mindset circa 1995, then lend ear to Daydream's coda, "Looking In". Laden with soft strings and windy howls, the piano-backed ballad is haunting, brooding, Gothic in its tone. It's about as open-ended as one could expect to close an album with as it rests in a state of suspension, the last note and word echoing coolly. Reading between the lines it's pretty clear that Mariah's then-quarter-life was in crisis mode. At a creative crossroads she was, feeling trapped and misinterpreted in her chanteuse persona, now aware of the public's perceptions and expectations of her. But on a more personal note, Mariah was a lady who was truly singing the blues:

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 

//

It seems as though I've always been somebody outside looking in 
Well here I am for all of them to see
But they can't take my heart from me and they can't bring me to my knees 
They'll never know the real me

So who was the 'real' Mariah Carey? In a way, Daydream plays tug-of-war with that question.

By the mid-1990s Mariah Carey was living inside the "golden world" with #1 hits, chart-topping records, and a peerless five-octave voice that had her in diva duels with such vocal luminaries as Whitney Houston and Aretha Franklin. Still, like Houston and Franklin, Carey was more than her voice. She was a songwriting talent who was as intimate on paper as she was live in concert, with a personality that was a mix of cotton candy spun softness and the concrete tough talk of her Long Island upbringing. Even with four albums under her glittery belt, Mariah had yet to emerge behind that vocal gift of hers, with marketing tactics still about as ambiguous as her racial background provided.

The goal was to make Mariah "the next Whitney Houston", a tag that Mariah herself no doubt abhorred, not because she felt animosity towards Houston (in later years, the two songstresses would eventually became good friends and collaborators), but at the time Mariah was growing tired of the "America's Sweetheart" persona her then-label Columbia and then-husband and Sony Music chieftain, Tommy Mottola were trotting out. Mariah, a self-professed hip-hop and gospel head, wasn't content to play the supper crowd with maudlin, gimmicky adult contemporary and pop showstoppers, she was ready to take her music to new plateaus and extend herself to a wider audience. In discussion about her tussles over her image with Columbia Records, she divulged to Entertainment Weekly in 2001: "Everybody was like 'What, are you crazy?' They’re nervous about breaking the formula. It works to have me sing a ballad on stage in a long dress with my hair up."

While Mariah would keep the figure-clinging glitz gowns a signature garment of choice, she was through trying to water-down the soulful quality of her sound and the obvious Black-American lineage that interviewers tended to quiz her about or even at times completely erased from the equation. Still she switched lanes with caution, careful to not voice too many drastic changes to her music as her marriage to Mottola was in a fragile state, evident on how their relationship troubles spilled over into Daydream's creative process, no doubt causing Mariah to compromise more than she was willing to.

The duel of the 'marketed Mariah Carey' and the 'real Mariah Carey' came to a head once Daydream was released, once Mariah released "Fantasy". Featuring a ambitious sample of Tom Tom Club's 1981 classic, "Genius Of Love", and bass-heavy hip-hop-inspired hooks, "Fantasy" brought out the edge in Mariah's vocal and songwriting game landing her yet another #1 single, this giving her the much-needed turning point in her career.

If the track wasn't transitional enough, Mariah then took it a step further as when the track was remixed in the hands of of Sean "Puff Daddy" Combs ("Diddy" to all you youngsters now) with a feature by Wu Tang Clan's Ol' Dirty Bastard, "Fantasy" became a hip-hop staple, reviving the way R&B slapped skins with the hip-hop market, recalling its past summit meetings of when Jody Watley asked Eric B. & Rakim to be her "Friends", Afrika Bambaataa and James Brown voiced "Unity", and when Teena Marie rapped about that "Square Biz". Though it's evident Mariah wasn't the first to do this type of narrative, what gives her every right to shine her pop queen crown is that not only would she refine the structure for herself with even bolder pronouncements, but would refurbish the R&B and pop soundscapes for later curators in the future.


Not done yet, Mariah threw another R&B curve ball with "Always Be My Baby", Daydream's third successful #1 single. It's a sweeter take than the sensual "Fantasy" as it reminisces on love being found and lost, in a most heartfelt and wistful way. With saccharine street corner styled doo-wops and rhymes, it doesn't play so innocent nor is sugary enough to erode your enamel as the co-penmanship of Jermaine Dupri and Manuel Seal Jr. pepper in a little bit of hip-hop beats ever so finely, with long-time background singers, Kelly Price, Melondie Daniels, and Shanrae Price rounding out the aesthetic.

It too received the remix treatment as Dupri refashioned the track "So So Def style", adding the vocal talents of Da Brat and Atlanta R&B quartet, Xscape to the pot, topping it off nice and smooth with a flavorful sample of S.O.S. Band's "Tell Me If You Still Care".


Try as her label and Mottola did to water her down with monochrome material, Mariah always came through with her biting vocal agility that consisted of variant frequencies and pitches, her taste similar when we put her songwriting under bifocals. Who would think to use such literary words like "heady", "transcending", "reverie", or even give a melody to such a pesky adverb like "inevitably" in popular pop? Who would pen such concise, free-flowing hooks like the ones heard on "Always Be My Baby" and "Fantasy"? Only Mariah Carey would.

The massive "One Sweet Day" is one such example of attempting to keep Mariah so blasé that it ends up backfiring. It's an assured, somewhat smarmy, wildly over-the-top ballad, co-written with the guys of Boyz II Men at a time where they were all dealing with deaths in their friendship circles --- Carey losing collaborator and friend David Cole of C+C Music Factory; the Boyz grieving over the lost of their road manager, Kahlil Roundtree.

On first glance "One Sweet Day" had all the accouterments of being a big, chart-topping ballad with its elongated vocal runs and inspirational-heavy lyricals, but Mariah and Boyz II Men keep the ballad from preening too much in the mirror due to how seamless their voices join together, sounding about as natural as if it was administered by heaven's angels themselves. The result of such a momentous collaboration would gift Mariah with her 10th #1 (Boyz II Men their 4th #1), and make it the longest running #1 single in history as its consecutive 16 weeks atop the charts hasn't been challenged to date.


Her penchant for the tonal excitement of gospel's swells and hums are threaded throughout Daydream just a much as heard previous on 1991's Emotions and 1993's Music Box. She continues to share the love with writing partner Walter Afanasieff, and the two of them catch the spirit on "When I Saw You" and "I Am Free", two spacious ballads that both boast Mariah's signature vocal builds and grandiose proclamations of love. She vocally thrills similar, but to greater effect, on her cover of Journey's 1982 rock ballad classic, "Open Arms", matching the sincerity of Steve Perry's original vocal, but tapping into a little of her own rhythm n' blues. Critics disliked it because it tampered with that 'good ol' white boy rock' formula, but Mariah has never been afraid to re-fix classic rock anthems from the likes of Bad Finger, Def Leppard, and Foreigner and fashioning them as her own.


Not as cloying, the sublime storytelling of "Underneath The Stars" paid homage to the soul of yesteryear as it lounged in dewy remembrance about young summer love, while Babyface added some depth and grit with the sensual, "Melt Away" where Mariah dips down into the deeper registers of her voice, easing out one of her sexiest performances by far, well, until "Babydoll" and "Bliss" would slink in a few years later, that is. It's one of those tracks that baffles me because it had 'hit single' written all over it, and would've no doubt given Toni Braxton and even SWV a run for their money, but it was foolishly left to linger in the latter end of the album when its one of Mariah's least 'showy' and most effective vocal performances by far.

Somewhat overlooked is "Fantasy (Sweet Dub Mix)", which once again provides evidence to how Mariah's material is flexible, prismatic even, as it can take on new life by just a flip of a genre. House producer and DJ, Dave Morales is behind the remixing wheel this time, and he turns the hip-hop styled track into an excellent deep house cut. Not only did this 'dub mix' position Morales as one of Mariah's key remixers, but it crowned Mariah with a brand-new persona: Queen of the Remixes. Fans and lambs are well aware of this appellation as our hard drives are loaded with multiple versions of our favorite Mariah songs --- as one can never have too many versions of "Heartbreaker" or "Someday" on hand. I've often found that if I didn't particularly like a Mariah song (I know, blasphemy!) I take comfort in knowing that a remix version of it will always come through.

As Daydream was the first Mariah Carey album I ever purchased at the ripe age of nine (!), I wasn't too young to hear how conflicting this album is. Front and in the spotlight, Mariah is still the supreme balladeer she cultivated praise for, but waiting in the wings, in the fringes of Daydream's tracklist is a moodier, nocturnal Mariah. With each listen, I can't help but notice the obvious duel going on with these "two faces of Mariah", how she is attempting to comply to what her management team believed was best for her to gain hits on one song, but on other songs she is feeling freer to experiment and figure out what she believes is best for herself. The contrast of gritty numbers like "Long Ago" and the chocolate malt stranded-at-the-drive-thru anthem, "Forever" are too glaring to not notice, with Mariah was attempting to be two different vocalists for too many different people as she wheeled from being a member of TLC one minute to an Olivia Newton-John the next.

Still, as transitional, game changing, and as experimental as Mariah had fought to be on Daydream the fruits of the album's labor weren't awarded as thought, as the album was nominated for several Grammy Awards in 1996, including Album Of The Year, but in a shocking twist, Mariah managed to go home empty-handed. The snub felt like a backhanded response to the extensive promotional push Daydream received and the immense lauding from fans and critics alike. It was as if the music industry was sending a message, a clear message that they wanted to knock the 'golden girl of pop' down a few pegs. As the camera zoomed in on Mariah throughout the night, her smile getting more forced by the minute, it was obvious that Mariah was on the right track to her transition, as there is nothing like good ol' rejection to provide new found perspective towards one's artistry.

Daydream, in a sense, didn't really need to be lauded by the ornament of awards to view its triumphs, as the album in the end proved that Mariah wasn't just a pretty face with a pretty voice, that she wasn't the "poor little mixed girl" who was only being touted as some record mogul's "hot trophy wife". Daydream is the building of the cocoon so to speak, gearing up for the ultimate transformation as 1997's Butterfly would follow, and emerge vivid, spreading its wings to take Mariah where she truly wanted to be artistically. If anything Daydream gave Mariah permission to gain her independence from the man who had handled and dictated her career from day one, as well as clued her record label to the fact that they weren't dealing with a "great singer" anymore, but a great artist who knew to position herself behind the wheel when it came to the cultivation of their projects in order to give it the right kind of authenticity one craves in making effective art.

We'll have to wait for the real memoirs of an imperfect angel before we can get all the clear details of Mariah's stance during this transitional time, but so subtle does Daydream open that doorway to allow us to 'look in' and see the artistic and emotional state of the golden girl, and prepare for the ultimate flight in a pop diva's coming-of-age.
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