For over three decades, Mariah Carey has cranked out record-breaking number-one hits that set towering standards and were masterclasses in vocal expertise. Besides gifting us with her own self-penned classics, like “Fantasy” and “We Belong Together” (and soooo many more), the songstress has also lent her voice to the classics originally made famous by other artists. From the Jackson 5’s tenderhearted “I’ll Be There,” to Journey’s “Open Arms,” and even Cherrelle’s funky “I Didn’t Mean To Turn You On,” Carey’s covers certainly range in style but are still graced with that distinctive magical Mariah-touch. One of the singer’s most unexpected, yet finest covers is her 2002 rendition of Def Leppard’s “Bringin’ On The Heartbreak.”
The song, released on June 2, 2003, as the third and final single off of the superstar’s ninth studio album “Charmbracelet,” originally appeared on the British rock band’s 1981 album “High ‘n’ Dry.” Written by band members Steve Clark, Pete Willis, and Joe Elliott, “Bringin’ On The Heartbreak” only reached a peak of #61 on the Billboard Hot 100, a stark contrast from a majority of the more successful hits Carey’s chosen to cover on her other albums. Released through Island Def Jam Records and Carey’s own (now defunct) record label, MonarC Entertainment, “Heartbreak” wasn’t any more commercially successful in Carey’s hands, but was well-received by critics and even the song’s creators.
Lead singer Joe Elliott recounts that he heard Carey became interested in covering the band’s song after she heard it playing during a photoshoot. “I think she did a great version of it,” he told Rolling Stone in 2019. Def Leppard’s guitarist Phil Collen described Carey’s version as “genuine,” stating, “She’s on our side and it’s an honour she’s done it.” Other reviewers were appreciative of Carey’s surprising transformation from pop to rock star. Praising its live instrumentation, Sal Cinquemani of “Slant” labeled the track as “daring.” After all, it’s not every day a diva like Carey trades in her stilettos for a guitar.
“Gypsy, sittin’ looking pretty / A broken rose and laughing eyes…” are the first lines elicited by Carey’s airy but fervent vocals as she swoons over a somber piano and soft guitar strings. While Leppard’s original version begins with an immediate clash of electric guitars and drums, Carey’s version takes you on a journey of suspense – a gentle, almost whispered start, with a ferocious ending. “The record had a crescendo, so we started out in one place and ended up in a really big epic moment,” Carey said about the song during a 2002 promo interview. Though the five-octave crooner, who’s cemented her musical legacy with innumerable pop/R&B hits, surely wouldn’t be first in mind for a rock ‘n’ roll selection, Carey’s rendition of “Heartbreak” further proves that her voice can fit seamlessly within any musical genre. And, her glass-shattering high note towards the song’s finish – the one Elliott said makes “Minnie Riperton sound like Tom Waits” – could actually be mistaken for an electric guitar squeal. The diva’s voice is indeed an instrument. Everything else around it is just background noise.
Though the 2003 release of “Heartbreak” was the first rock single that the self-proclaimed “elusive chanteuse” publicly took credit for singing, it was not her first foray into the genre. Carey later revealed in her 2020 memoir, “The Meaning of Mariah Carey,” that she recorded an alternative rock album during the recording of her 1995 studio album, “Daydream.” The secret album, titled “Someone’s Ugly Daughter,” was released under the band name, Chick. Carey wrote, produced, and sang each track from the album, enlisting her friend Clarissa Dane to sing over her voice as a means of disguising it. Carey, however, has hinted about the album in the past. “I’ve written some alternative things that nobody knows about,” she revealed to Craig Seymour, in 1999, saying, “I’m a musical person.” Unfortunately, “Someone’s Ugly Daughter” is still not available on any music platforms. But honestly Ms. Carey, it’s time for the world to become reacquainted with the much more elusive, “Punk-riah.”
A music video for “Bringin’ On The Heartbreak,” directed by Sanaa Hamri, was shot in Los Angeles in early 2003. Inspired by the 1979 film, “The Rose,” the song’s video chronicles the pressures of a renowned rock star, one who is adored by the world but struggles to find her own inner peace – much like the film’s protagonist Mary Rose Foster, played by the legendary Bette Midler. Dressed like a vampy Stevie Nicks, Carey is draped in headscarves and hippie beads but stays true to character by leaving her enviable physique on full display. Shots of her being swarmed by screaming fans, backed by close-ups of a saddened starlet and clips of a risqué love scene between her and model Damon Willis in the sheets, all lead to the video’s finale, where – much like Rose – Carey is performing onstage for her doting followers, with Randy Jackson on bass and Dave Narravo shredding his guitar. Though the song’s style and video are not on brand of the familiar “Mariah Carey” archetype, they certainly coincide with the tales of this diva’s storied career.
The song’s parent album, “Charmbracelet,” was released during a rather unsuccessful and complicated period for the music icon. After closing out the ’90s as the best-selling artist of the decade, with at least one number-one single in each year, Carey entered the new millennium with her own personal heartbreak. Freshly divorced from the then-CEO of Sony Music, Tommy Mottola, Carey signed a record-breaking contract deal with Virgin Records ahead of the release of her 2001 motion picture debut, Glitter. Following a series of setbacks and delays brought on by Carey being hospitalized for exhaustion, the film and its accompanying soundtrack were commercial failures and panned by critics. Ultimately, the superstar was bought out of her contract by Virgin Records. It was “a complete and total stress-fest,” according to Carey. “I made a total snap decision which was based on money and I never make decisions based on money. I learned a big lesson from that.”
The following year, the songstress jetted out to Capri, Italy, where she began writing and recording fresh material for a new album before even being signed to a new label (ultimately choosing Island Def Jam). Carey not only found a new home with another record company but also launched her very own record label – MonarC Entertainment (which was abandoned in the summer of 2004). In the wake of commercial blows, critical mockery, and record label confusion, Carey’s father passed away shortly after the two had reconciled after years of not speaking to one another. She honored her late father with the song, “Sunflowers For Alfred Roy,” on “Charmbracelet.”
“Charmbracelet” (released December 3, 2002) was not the commercial comeback Carey had intended it to be, however. The album peaked at number three on the Billboard 200 Albums Chart, while all three of its subsequent singles received shockingly poorer chart success than Carey was known for. “Bringin’ On The Heartbreak” reached #25 on the U.S. Adult Contemporary Chart, but managed to peak at #5 on the Billboard U.S. Dance Club Songs, thanks to its club remixes. The song was performed on several television programs, including “The Today Show” and Mexico’s child fundraiser program “Teletón,” as well as on the album’s supporting tour, “The Charmbracelet World Tour.” Carey’s future, though, was anything but heartbreaking. The Grammy winner returned to her former glory with her 2005 comeback album, “The Emancipation of Mimi,” and eventually broke Elvis Presley’s record for having more number-one hits than any other solo artist in music history. Over the decades, she has completely transformed herself into the quintessential symbol of Christmas. Her years of heartache are certainly long gone.
Although Carey’s rendition of “Bringin’ On The Heartbreak” didn’t match the success of her most beloved covers, it certainly speaks to her musical diversity. With a song catalog that practically shimmers from catchy pop melodies and honeyed vocals, “Heartbreak” is a rock ‘n’ roll rarity. For both the likeliest and unlikeliest of song choices, a voice like Carey’s is always the perfect fit. But be warned – when Mariah Carey covers your song, it just isn’t your song anymore.