It was October 3, 1995 when Sony released Mariah Carey’s fourth studio album, Daydream.
Mariah was at the peak of her career in 1995: the Music Box album had broken her through a lot of international markets she hadn’t conquered before and Merry Christmas had become yet another success, destined to be a seasonal classic. It was only natural that the next album would be a big hit and that’s exactly what happened.
Daydream debuted at #1 upon its release and went on to sell more than 20 million copies Worldwide, earning a Diamond certification in the US for shipments of 10 million copies to retailers. Its singles were huge hits as well: between the fall of 1995 and the spring of 1996, Mariah spent 26 weeks at #1 on the Hot 100 with three of the four singles that were released from the album. “Fantasy” debuted at #1, and stayed for 8 weeks. “One Sweet Day” quickly followed; the iconic duet with Boyz II Men also debuted at #1 and became the longest running #1 hit in history – holding the pole position for 16 weeks. With no signs of slowing down, the third single, “Always Be My Baby,” helped Carey linger on at #1 for two more weeks to round out her total of 26. She was unstoppable.
Commercial success isn’t, however, what makes Daydream an iconic album. It’s the songs that make it an undeniable classic in Pop music. This is the album that helped freshen and revamp Mariah’s sound, while still maintaining all the ingredients that had made her a reliable force in the music industry. We have abundantly talked about the impact of “Fantasy” and its remix in honor of its 20th anniversary, for example, so we’ll just skip that and dedicate a bit more time to the rest of the tracks on this album, which are often, unfairly overlooked in the big picture.
Something that people don’t pay attention to is how the cover and title mirror the music for instance. There is no real proof that when Mariah started working on the album she had a specific concept in mind and she’s never discussed this, but she certainly chose a title that reflected the theme and sound of several songs. The album cover, shot by Steven Meisel, also captured her expression as if she were lost in her thoughts, daydreaming.
Many of the lyrical ideas on the album recall the concept of rêverie, reflection and imagination: “Fantasy” is obviously about imagining to be with someone, “One Sweet Day” is about the hope to be reunited one day with the “friends we’ve lost along the way;” on “Underneath the Stars” Mariah reminisces about a past romance and her feelings are “so heady and sublime,” on “Long Ago” she “[drowns] in thoughts of yesterday,” “Melt Away” deals with being so overwhelmed by love and passion to the point of almost falling into a trance, while “When I Saw You” recalls the first encounter with a lover “transcending space and time.”
These lyrics are also enhanced by the productions and arrangements, which make the listening experience even more ethereal. Once the funky beat of “Fantasy” is over, the pace of the album slows down, inviting us to lay down and dream with Mariah. “Underneath the Stars,” the second track, begins with a fluttering keyboard sound and Mariah’s sweet whispery vocals paint such a vivid scene in the listeners’ minds that it’s impossible to resist. The sweet 70s groove and the high notes in the background are a nod to Minnie Ripperton’s work, whom she’s cited as an influence.
“Open Arms,” a cover of the 1982 Journey single, starts with a gentle acapella intro before bursting into the power ballad sound of the original. The Gospel-tinged “I Am Free” complete with a organ sound throughout, is a spiritual reflection about the relief provided by faith. “Long Ago” has a “dark fairytale” songwriting style and Mariah’s vocals recall a state of inebriation caused by the memories. “Melt Away,” her second collaboration with Babyface, is a sultry R&B ballad where she displays the richness of her lower register. “Forever” opens with an almost Country riff, before revealing a 1950s chord progression and sentimental lyrics, made grand by the powerful vocal performance. The sparse Dance chords of the “Daydream Interlude” then reprise the theme introduced by “Fantasy” at the beginning of the record and pick the pace up a bit.
The album closes with “Looking In,” a self-reflective piano ballad about the contrast between Mariah Carey the person and the perception the public and media have of Mariah Carey. “The girl who lives inside the golden world” gives the listeners a glimpse into how she feels inside and how she deals with the scrutiny she’s under, promising that she’s not “disenchanted.” This was the first time Mariah had included such a personal song on one of her albums and it probably encouraged her to open up more about her emotions in her later work. The cryptic last line “they’ll never know the real me” is for the most part still true, 20 years later, because there’s always going to be some distance between the person and the public figure, and no matter how much we judge and speculate, there are some things only Mariah Carey can understand and know about herself.
“Looking In” is a statement veiled by the vulnerability of the harbored “adolescent fears” Mariah wrote about in the song. It’s not a coincidence that she genuinely teared up during her first and only live performance (so far) of the track in 2013, because its lyrics are deeply tied with her experiences. Besides, the “golden world” would often prove to be a daydream interrupted by the challenges she’s had to face in the real, cruel world.
In retrospect Daydream is probably her most recognisable album because it has everything that makes an album a Mariah Carey album: the sweet Pop records, the catchy hooks, the big ballads, the powerful vocals and that pinch of R&B influences thrown in for good measure. It was, however, the important first step toward her metamorphosis, a new phase of her career that would begin just two years after Daydream’s release; and probably the last time Carey managed to truly have mass appeal as an international superstar. That’s why millions of fans all over the world are going to celebrate this milestone today and cherish all the good childhood memories tied to the music. Happy Anniversary, Daydream!