How many times a day do you think Mariah Carey? Fifty? A thousand? It would be easier for me to count the moments when I’m not thinking about her. I can get lost in thought for hours at a time just reflecting on her mighty voice, the graceful and seemingly effortless way she moves up and down vocal registers, the spirit-renewing properties of her wail. But, crazy as it sounds, sometimes I’ll be cleaning my room or eating some french fries and realize that I have forgotten, momentarily, how amazing Mariah Carey is. Just for a second. Then I’ll remember “Vision of Love,” and all will be right with the world once more.
This juggernaut of a song was the first track on Mariah’s first album, released in 1990, as well as her first single. It’s what announced the arrival of the natural-born diva (her mother was an opera singer) and Long Island native, then 20 years old, to the world. It won a Grammy for the best vocal performance by a woman, and deservedly so: The way Mariah’s voice twirls its way through every word is a marvel. Her signature melisma—packing several notes into one syllable of text—has become a cultural touchstone, and has influenced countless divas in her wake: Beyoncé, Christina, Ariana, and me when I’m home alone, serenading my cats with my heinous vocalizing. Although this kind of expressive riffing wasn’t really new at the time—it had been heard in gospel church choirs and in the mainstream hits of soul icons like Otis Redding and Gladys Knight for decades—the technique became ubiquitous in the pop world after Mariah and Whitney Huston started slaying everybody with their ferocious vocal gymnastics in the early ’90s.
“Vision of Love” features one of the most incredible examples of melisma ever recorded. It’s the song’s coda, a moment that I will flawlessly transcribe for you right now: “and it was allllllooowahallllllllllllllllllhawuhuhoowhaohooohuooo that you turned out to beeeeeeeeeeyiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiieeeehuheeeuh yeah mmmhmm.” The whole thing lasts roughly 24 stupefying seconds, and even in this day and age, when a similar kind of wahawho-ing is an inescapable part of every TV singing competition and most renditions of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” this final flourish is always astounding to my ear. Mariah’s melisma is clear, strong, and confident. I hear passion in her riffing, not affectation. It’s like she’s swept up in the music, and, as a result, so am I.
Mariah is also, of course, known for her five-octave vocal range and her ability to reach notes beyond the seventh octave. Honestly, I can’t fully comprehend all of the implications of that biographical information because I’m not that familiar with music theory, but I do know that it basically translates to “this woman can sing really, really good and also really, really high.” Although “Emotions,” a single from her second album, is arguably the most sensational illustration of her range (almost to the point where you’re like, “OK, Mariah. I get it. Your vocal cords are made of divine epithelial tissue and surely glisten with heavenly mucus. You win”), it’s that singular high-note melisma in “Vision of Love” that gets me feeling emotions deeper than I ever dreamed of. The notes are perfectly and logically mixed into the song’s climax and seem like a release of feeling—not just a demonstration of her talent. The moment has the power to move hearts, make household pets lose their shit (not because they’re freaked out, but because they love it), and pushes the song over the top, transporting it from catchy and pretty to breathtaking.
Obviously, this is a love song, and if you have an unrequited crush or just an overwhelming desire for true romance, cue up “Vision of Love” and allow Mariah to give that pining some purpose. I’ve happily been with the same guy for eight years now, so the only real pining I do these days is for Wendy’s half-pound cheeseburgers. But I also happen to be the former Countess d’One-Sided Infatuation, and I remember vividly and mortifyingly what it felt like to come home from school, collapse on my bed, and listen to some maudlin or soul-stirring ballad as I yearned in earnest. “Someday,” “Dream Lover,” “Emotions”—in middle school, Mariah provided the soundtrack to all of my anguish.
But “Vision of Love,” with its wistful melody and ethereal vocals, is, hands down, THE BEST song for when you’re lamenting the state of your love life and are either genuinely desolate or so wrapped up in your own melodrama that you’ve convinced yourself that you’re genuinely desolate. “Prayed through the nights,” she sings, “felt so alone, suffered from alienation, carried the weight on my own”: the sentiment is painfully relatable. But this isn’t some mopey dirge. “It took so long,” she goes on, “till I believed somehow the one that I needed would find me eventually.” These words are about hopes and dreams and how they sustain us when we’re low. The song swells to greater and greater sonic and emotional heights as Mariah’s tone dips, sometimes turns a little guttural, and then soars. It’s invigorating. It’s really the perfect choice for when you’re alone in your bedroom, seeking catharsis through lip-syncing. “Vision of Love” on repeat helped me take the heartache of my star-crossed middle-school obsessions with David Duchovny and two trumpet players from the school band and, with my fists clenched, eyes closed, and head shaking, turn it into strength. That sounds like a joke, but I assure you, those crushes were deadly serious.
This said, I don’t think that this song is necessarily about romantic love. Some people say it’s about Mariah’s relationship with God, which makes sense when you consider lines like “I’m so thankful that I received the answer that Heaven has sent down to me.” But it could just as easily be about the deep soul connection you have with a best friend (in fact, one day I’ll probably sing this song at my best friend Susie’s wedding so that she remembers that I’m her true love, not some husband guy) or the unconditional adoration that a parent has for her kid (in the Mariah Carey fan fiction that I write in my mind, she belts out this song to dem babies). On the most essential level though, it’s about visualizing something better for yourself and not giving up on that idea. Love is warmth, a feeling of intense positivity. So having a “vision of love” is like saying, “I know that I’m going to make it through whatever bullshit is weighing me down right now” and then letting that thought guide you through your problems. And for delivering that very simple but profound message, Mariah Carey and “Vision of Love” are literally the best thing ever. ♦