Mariah Carey’s “Vision of Love” is the most influential vocal performance of all-time.

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In May of 1990 Long Island native Mariah Carey “realized a dream, and visualized the love that came to be“.  “Vision of Love,” her “first single – ever,” was released in advance of her self-titled debut album. “Vision of Love” spent 4 weeks at #1 on the Hot 100 that summer, the longest run of any song that year. Lyrically “Vision of Love” seems to be a love song about finding a soul mate, and in fact the NY Daily News named it one of the 100 greatest love songs.[1] Carey has said, though, that the song was written in reaction to struggling for a while and then landing a record deal. Musically the song opens with some sci-fi-like synths before moving into electric piano chords that Sasha Frere-Jones of The New Yorker describes as “reminiscent of early Billy Joel.”[2] While also noted for doo wop elements and a slow dance shuffle that didn’t quite sound like anything on radio at the time, the song Elysa Gardner of USA Today calls a “lush debut vehicle”[3] was more notable for the incredible vocal display put on by Carey. Julianne Shepherd asked in Vibe, “Who can forget the first time they heard” Mariah’s voice on the song?[4] In talking about the song to VH1, singer Paula Cole noted, “Her voice was spectacular.”[5] Carey would win the Grammy for Best Female Pop Vocal Performance in 1991 for “Vision of Love” over famed veteran singers like Bette Midler and Whitney Houston. Cheryl ‘Salt’ James told VH1, Carey “put herself on the map with that song.”[6] More than announcing Carey’s arrival, though, with time “Vision of Love” has revealed itself to be arguably the most influential song of all-time vocally. It forced people to stop what they were doing and listen, and it changed the way many people, particularly female singers, approached music. Devon Powers of Pop Matters writes, “From its first few moments, the song demands to be legendary.”[7] LA Weekly named it the #5 female pop song of all-time.[59] Over the past 30 years countless singers have referred to “Vision of Love” as the song that made them want to sing, a teaching tool for how they learned to sing, a song they performed when they were growing up, and a song that got them through tough times.

Official music video, 1990

In fact some of our greatest current vocalists have cited “Vision of Love” as the song that made them want to become singers. Superstar Beyoncé told MTV after hearing “Vision of Love” for the first time, “I knew it, my mind was made up – I had to be a singer.”[8] Hit maker and The Voice judge Christina Aguilera has said, “[W]hen I discovered Mariah Carey and ‘Vision of Love’, that was a breath of fresh air, and I adored her from that moment on and idolized her.” Entertainment Weekly reports after hearing “Vision of Love” Aguilera also told her mom, “I just found the greatest person in the world!”[9] Grammy winner Kelly Clarkson saw Carey sing “Vision of Love” on Arsenio Hall’s talk show and “became, like, literally obsessed.” Clarkson told Nightline, “I was just flipping out, ‘Who is she?'” Clarkson said she later chose to sing “Vision of Love” for her first choir solo.[10] After the performance, Clarkson knew she wanted to be a singer.[11] When asked by i-D what song made her want to do music, global icon Rihanna responded “Vision of Love.”[12] Rihanna echoed that statement on The View in saying her love for Carey is what confirmed that she wanted to be a singer. Grammy nominee and The Sing-Off judge Sara Bareilles told VH1 that she “felt as a vocalist really inspired by ‘Vision of Love.'” Bareilles said her dad bought the cassette of the song and they would listen to it over and over. As a singer, Bareilles was blown away by Carey’s vocal performance.[13] Pop singer Natasha Bedingfield also listened to Carey on repeat to “marvel” at her combination of tone and power.[14] R&B icon Brandy told B96 that Carey is “the reason why I’m singing” and said she sang “Vision of Love” and Whitney Houston’s “Greatest Love of All” to land her record deal with Atlantic.[15] Brandy had previously sung the same two songs in an audition for Star Search.[16] Geri Halliwell said she “pretended to be Mariah Carey” in her audition to become a member of the Spice Girls.[17] Soul singer Marsha Ambrosius sang “Vision of Love” at the first talent contest she won.[18] These examples all show how Carey, and “Vision of Love” in particular, has helped produce some of the biggest acts in various music genres and provides the framework for why famed producer Ron Fair calls Carey a “hugely important pop singer.”[19]

Live at the Arsenio Hall Show, 1990

In addition to pop and R&B singers, plenty of female artists from other genres have also been inspired after hearing Carey and “Vision of Love.” Dirty Projectors’ lead singer Amber Coffman’s first album was Mariah Carey’s debut.[20] Nite Jewel also sang to Carey’s music as a kid (and still does).[21] Ferren Gipson of Pandr Eyez has said Carey’s music was some of the first she sang as a kid.[22] Before an early retirement due to vocal cord issues, blues singer Renee Austin said she didn’t have any formal lessons but played Carey and Whitney Houston records and tried to be them. My Midnight Heart creator Angélica Allen says, “Mariah is where I started, musically.” She says Carey’s first two albums were the first she listened to and that she “memorized all the words and every ad lib.” Allen says Carey, along with Trent Reznor, shaped her into the artist she is today.[23] Eden Espinosa of the original Broadway cast of Wicked said she started belting when Mariah came out and would “try to emulate everything that she did.”[58] Claire Boucher, more famously known as Grimes, wrote the first time she heard Carey it “shattered the fabric of my existence” and she started Grimes.[24] Grimes told Canada’s MusiquePlus that she learned to sing by imitating Carey.[25]

As Grimes’ statement reveals, “Vision of Love” not only inspired many females to sing, it also influenced the way they sing. In particular, “Vision of Love” is famous for two vocal parts: a C7 note Carey hits in what is known as a “whistle register,” and then her final reading of “all that you turned out to be” during which Carey decorates single syllables with strings of notes. The latter reading is what Beyoncé referred to when she told the BBC that, “‘Vision of Love’ was one of the first songs I heard when I was a kid where I heard all of these riffs and I was like, ‘How does she do that?’” Beyoncé said she was fascinated by the amount of notes Mariah squeezed into that one little bar, “And that’s kind of when I started trying it and it’s something that I love to do in my music, but she completely inspired me.”[26] The riffs Beyoncé refers to are an example of melisma. Frere-Jones wrote in The New Yorker that, “‘Vision of Love’ is the Magna Carta of melisma.” Beyoncé also told Frere-Jones that she started doing “runs” after hearing “Vision of Love.”[27] Nelly Furtado told MTV Mariah Carey was the first singer she got into when she was about 12. That was when Carey released her debut album. Furtado says Carey, “kind of taught me how to sing ’cause, you know, couldn’t really afford singing lessons. So, I would just listen to Mariah Carey’s CD over and over again, and learn all her lyrics.” American Idol winner Jordin Sparks has said Mariah influenced the way she sings and said she used to try to copy Mariah’s vocals.[28] She told People magazine that Mariah’s debut is one of the albums that changed her life and that “I try to sing the exact same way.” Singer and One Tree Hill actress Bethany Joy Galeotti said she “learned a lot about singing from listening to Mariah Carey. I would sing to her [albums] and try and get all her riffs and stuff.”[29] It’s no surprise, then, that Kyle Anderson of Entertainment Weekly wrote “’Vision of Love’ introduced a new era of R&B that ruled the radio in the ’90s.” Complex dubbed Carey’s debut “the album that launched a million runs” when they chose it as one of the 50 best R&B albums of the ’90s.[30] The whistle note Mariah hits in “Vision of Love” is what Powers calls the song’s “eye-popping moment.” Powers notes it is sung so high it seems “humanly impossible” but that Carey sings “as effortlessly as if she were speaking her name.”[31] As recently as 2013 popular singer Ariana Grande drew comparisons to Carey for using whistle notes in her hit “The Way.” Grande tweeted love for “Vision of Love” in 2012[32] and has called Mariah an “inspiration” and “the greatest female vocalist.”[33] Tamar Braxton, whose whistle notes also draw parallels to Carey, has repeatedly mentioned the influence Carey had on her.[34] Mariah’s influence extends further than pop and R&B music, though, as Broadway singer Eden Espinosa has said she “started the whole belt thing when Mariah Carey came out.”[35] It’s no wonder Slate’s Jody Rosen has called Carey “the most influential vocal stylist of the past two decades.”[36]

Live at MTV Unplugged, 1992

It’s no surprise, then, that Carey’s vocal influence can be heard in singing competition shows, too. Rich Juzwiak wrote for Slant that “Vision of Love” was “a vision of the future world of American Idol.”[37] Considering season 1 winner Clarkson performing “Vision of Love” in a choir solo led to her being a singer and season 6 winner Sparks has listed Mariah as a big influence, it’s no surprise that many Idol contestants have sung “Vision of Love” on that show and other venues. Famed season 1 contestant Tamyra Gray sang “Vision of Love” in her initial audition before the judges.[38] Maybe the most recognizable American Idol moment involving “Vision of Love” was the season 8 sing-off on the song between infamous contestant ‘Bikini Girl’ and judge Kara DioGuardi. A YouTube search of season 11 runner-up Jessica Sanchez reveals her singing “Vision of Love” as a young teenager.[39] In writing about Carey’s influence Rosen noted “Exhibit A is American Idol.”[40] Other American Idol contestants as well as singers on The Voice (in both the United States and the United Kingdom) and The X-Factor have sung “Vision of Love” or have sung other songs in a style clearly influenced by “Vision of Love.” This influence shows in their recorded material, too. For example, Richard Rischar, among others, noted the similarity in vocal and production of early Clarkson single “The Trouble With Love Is” to “Vision of Love.”[41] Record executive Jimmy Iovine asserts “most people going on these shows want to be Mariah Carey.”[42] SoulBounce stated that “’Vision of Love’ pretty much ‘birthed’ a whole generation of pop and R&B reality competition singers.”[43] In naming Carey one of the 100 greatest singers of all-time, Rolling Stone stated that her “mastery of melisma… inspired the entire American Idol school…and virtually every other female R&B singer since the Nineties.”[44]

Live at Madison Square Garden, 1995

Those contestants likely grew up belting “Vision of Love” around the house and other similar settings. While Kelly Clarkson sang “Vision of Love” in a choir concert, P!nk told Oprah Winfrey she would sing “Vision of Love” at parties.[45] Nicki Minaj has said she listened to Carey, and “Vision of Love” in particular, when she was young. Minaj would sing Mariah songs in the mirror with her mother.[46] Rihanna has talked about frequently singing “Vision of Love” in the shower “with my toothbrush as my microphone.”[47] She told Ellen DeGeneres that Carey is the celebrity she looked up to and identified with the most.[48] Rihanna has said, “’Vision of Love’ is my favorite Mariah Carey song, but they just all seemed so powerful. I remember just watching the videos, and that’s what really sold me.”[49] YouTube sensation Tori Kelly sang “Vision of Love” in winning her first talent competition.[50] She would later sign a record deal with Capitol Records.

Live on Good Morning America, 1990

As previously mentioned, Carey wrote “Vision of Love” in reaction to finally landing a record deal. The lyrics express a theme that would show up in future Carey songs; the belief that humans can persevere and that good fortune will come. It’s understandable, then, that many artists have also spoken about the emotional impact “Vision of Love” had on them. R&B legend Mary J Blige told Barnes & Noble, “Mariah Carey’s music saved little ghetto children’s lives. Songs like “Visions of Love” gave us hope and we would sing those songs and try to hit every note like Mariah — which we can’t.” Blige said Mariah has played a big part in her life.[51] Singer Anastacia has said “Vision of Love” is her favorite song from the ‘90s and that she’s affected by every note Mariah sings.[52] Michael Slezak of Entertainment Weekly calls the song, “a near-religious listening experience.” That is echoed by something R&B singer Nivea said. She saw the same performance of “Vision of Love” on Arsenio Hall’s show that Clarkson mentioned, and she, too was emotionally impacted and was inspired to become a singer. She recalled to Yahoo! Music that, “I was watching ‘The Arsenio Hall Show,’ and Mariah was performing ‘Vision of Love.’ The way she projected her voice, she just had so much power. I knew then that I wanted to make people feel the way she made me feel. I bought all her albums and learned all the songs. That’s all I would do all day long sing Mariah Carey songs.” UK singer Lucie Silvas, who wrote music for the TV show Smash, told Guardian Unlimited she was similarly enraptured. “I was obsessed. I remember the moment I first heard ‘Vision of Love,’ then I saw this white girl with a black voice on television, and everything about her bowled me over. You could relate to her and yet she was a magical icon, and throughout my school days all I dreamed of was being like Mariah Carey. She sang with a gospel choir around her, which was always my dream. I just wanted to be her.” This impact isn’t surprising because there is scientific proof of the effect “Vision of Love” has on the listener. A 1998 study done by Tiffany Field, Antigona Martinez, et al of the Touch Research Institute showed that “Vision of Love” is a song that has positive effects on the physiological and biochemical measures related to depressed female adolescents.[53]

Live on Saturday Night Live, 1990

Along those same lines, some of our greatest male hip-hop artists related to “Vision of Love” and used the emotional impact of the song as a way to help them get through tough times on the streets and in prison. Snoop Dogg has said he tells Mariah this story: “When I was locked up in jail, that song ‘Vision of Love’ was the hottest song in the world.”[54] Jay-Z also told Mariah he listened to the song while in prison and that other inmates told him the song was special.[55] Jay-Z also heard the song in the “back woods somewhere…so I knew it went all the way.”[56] 2Pac was helped by the song, too. Digital Underground member Shock G, who produced 2Pac’s song “I Get Around,” wrote in the 2008 book Tupac Remembered that, “Pac had a thing for Mariah Carey’s song ‘Vision of Love.’ You always knew Pac was sad if you walked by his room and he was playing it. He had a tape with it playing over and over again.”

Live on Showtime at the Apollo, 1990

Bill Lamb of sums it all up in writing that “Vision of Love” is “simply one of the most stunning debut releases ever by a pop recording artist.”[57] There is no doubt that, for better or worse, “Vision of Love” had a tremendous impact on musicians across all spectrums. Indeed, Mariah Carey had a “Vision of Love,” and her vision, her sound, defined all that those who followed her turned out to be

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Rischar, Ricard. “One Sweet Day: Vocal Ornamentation and Style in African American Popular Ballad, 1991-1995.” (Ph.D, diss. University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, 2000)

Rischar, Richard. “A Vision of Love: An Etiquette of Vocal Ornamentation in African-American Ballads of the Early 1990s.” American Music. Vol. 22, No. 3 (Autumn 2004), 407-443.

O’Dair, Barbara. Trouble Girls: The Rolling Stone Book of Women in Rock. New York: Random House, 1997. Print.











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[41] Rischar, Richard. “A Vision of Love: An Etiquette of Vocal Ornamentation in African-American Ballads of the Early 1990s.” American Music. Vol. 22, No. 3 (Autumn 2004), 407-443.












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