“Hero,” the second single from the 1993 album Music Box, is not among Mariah Carey’s favorites. It is, however, several million people’s favorite. The song may strike some as banal, boring and clichéd mainly due to its simplistic lyrics of looking inside your heart and not being afraid of what you are. Mariah herself has expressed dissatisfaction over the song repeatedly, so there ought to be very little doubt as to this song’s place in her heart (at the bottom, together with songs like “Prisoner”). Given all that, “Hero” remains an essential song in her stellar career.
I suppose if you were a music critic trying to write an insightful piece about a pop song on a pop album from a pop artist, attempting to explain the narrative behind a song like “Hero” would have required a massive feat of sarcasm reining in. It wasn’t too shocking then for Mariah to acknowledge the critics who denounced the songs’ merits (e.g. a song that saves lives) in favor of sparkly snark. But for the acknowledgement to come directly from her mouth, i.e., “Hero” as a ‘shmaltzy piece of garbage’, is enough to make a grown fan cry.
In Tommy Mottola’s memoir “Hitmaker: The Man and His Music,” Mariah’s ex-husband tells as much: Mariah is not crazy about her 8th Billboard Hot 100 #1. He said she didn’t want to be seen with her friends, the gangsta rappers, hanging out in the backyard jamming to a song like “Hero.” At the time, Mariah was beginning to explore the boundaries of creative freedom, but control was then still too elusive to pursue.
But you don’t need to have read the Mottola memoir to know about Mariah’s feelings for “Hero.” If all 18 of her number 1 hits were her children (and they are), it would surprise no one that the child she adores the least is also one of the most successful and also one of the brightest. As a dutiful mother of such an outstanding child, she feels the need to dress this kid up in an assortment of grandiose outfits to show to her friends. It is, nevertheless, one of the children that brings home the most medals from school. It is the child that the teachers at school fawn over, and through no fault of that child’s own, too. The child is all grown up and its mother seems at peace.
Because “Hero” is such a precious child, it became one of her most frequently performed songs. According to its co-writer Walter Afanasieff, a more difficult version was recorded with Mariah doing things that probably would have made it an even more difficult song to sing. Due to some judicious choices by her then handlers, a relatively tamer version was unleashed to the public. We know Afanasieff wasn’t lying because in several performances of the song, Mariah can be seen exerting even more vocal acrobatics than what is heard on the single version such as in this showstopping performance in Tokyo:
The song has been re-recorded and re-released on several compilation albums. Most notable of these are the re-purposed version in 2001, “Never Too Far/Hero Medley” and a version with new vocals which appeared on The Ballads. It is a song that is so universal, you can substitute its actual meaning for every conceivable life event that calls for self-empowerment. The lyrics are deceptively simple, the way it ought to be. It is a song written to inspire courage in your own heart, and for a song that set out what it needed to do, maybe ‘look inside you and be strong,’ etc, are all that need to be said.
Musical legends such as Michael Jackson and Whitney Houston are remembered for their towering presence in the world of music. Their memory should not be reduced to a single song, a dance step, or a million-selling album, but in a brief moment of grief, when realization of their absence hits you in full force, that single unforgettable act of sheer artistry is all you can recall. When Whitney Houston passed away, we remembered her for her untouchable performance of “I Will Always Love You” and for Michael Jackson, it was “Thriller.” For Mariah, it could be “Hero.”
In the liner notes of #1 to Infinity, she has this to say about the song:
‘I guess this is the song that people associate with me the most. Over the years I’ve grown to love performing it. I sing it differently each time because I am singing it directly to people’s hearts.’
It seems Mariah finally realized the futility of resisting “Hero’s” charms, its resonance, its ability to touch the hearts of many. She finally learned that “Hero” is and always will be the song that anyone who has ever heard music will think of when they think of Mariah Carey, and that it is not an entirely bad thing if they do. When she wrote the above notes in her latest greatest hits album, perhaps she finally looked inside her heart and saw the truth, because, Lord knows, for her many fans who may be facing the world alone, “Hero” is one of the realest things Carey has ever written. And, while she may be singing to her audience, for many, the “Hero,” in fact, lies in Mariah herself.