The Hero That 2020 Needed: Mariah Carey

John Antonucci
13 Min Read

To say that the year 2020 has been a disaster would be an understatement. We’ve been living through a pandemic, fighting for our lives, our jobs, our safety, and our sanity. Though no one thing could fully distract us enough from the horrors of the time, it’s vital to cling to something that alleviates us from the unceasing dark cloud of this awful year, especially now during the holiday season. Many turn to family. Many turn to friends. Many turn to Netflix and binge-watching. Many turn to their own personal hero – enter Mariah Carey.

Mariah Carey has treated her fans to lots of thrills during this – as she would call it – “bleak” period. She celebrated her thirtieth anniversary in the music business this year, marking #MC30 on her social media platforms and granting her trusted fandom – the “Lambily” – with special remixes and performances of some of her biggest hits. In September, she released The Meaning of Mariah Carey, her New York Time’s #1 best-selling memoir. This was then followed by The Rarities, a compilation album of all unreleased material from throughout Carey’s illustrious career. And lastly, she showered us all with some much needed holiday joy with her very own Apple TV+ musical, Mariah Carey’s Magical Christmas Special, accompanied by its own soundtrack, featuring Carey’s original perennial classics and the new remixed version of her 2010 bop, “Oh Santa!,” with Ariana Grande and Jennifer Hudson. (I also highly recommend you checking out her rendition of “Sleigh Ride,” a new Carey Christmas classic.)

But before all this, Mariah Carey was another perfectly apt member of the pantheon of living legends, with a career imitated by a few and envied by all. Her music has served as the soundtrack to our first kisses, our saddest heartbreaks, our victories and pity parties, and, of course, our Christmas festivities. Some of the gems in Mimi’s musical treasure trove go far beyond deeper than just a poignant expression of the matters at hand, but encompass the desires and words of encouragement we search for (and often can’t articulate) in our times of need. Safe to say, we could all use a little bit of that encouragement these days, and letting Mariah Carey do all the talking – well, that’s just an added bonus. Here’s how Mariah Carey crafted the most applicable and empowering theme song for 2020, nineteen years before we even knew we needed it.

It all started in 1993, to be exact. Carey was riding high off of the massive success of her third studio album, Music Box, and its lead single “Dreamlover,” which went on to become the singer’s seventh number one hit on the Billboard Hot 100. In October of that year, Carey released the second single from the album, a song that would prove to be both enduring and career-defining for the songstress. That song was “Hero.”

“Hero,” written by Carey, not only marked the diva’s eighth number one hit, but earned her into the hearts of plenty more than the ones she had already won over with her once-in-a-lifetime voice. The song’s message of hope and inspiration has transcended its place in pop music by remaining an ideal choice of song for any significant occasion – funerals, weddings, graduations, holidays, etc. Carey has even performed the song during some of the most memorable moments in history, like at the 2009 inaugural ball for President Barack Obama and even in her own home during televangelist Joel Osteen’s 2020 virtual Easter service, in which Carey dedicated her performance to the frontline workers in the midst of the coronavirus outbreak. Ironically, Carey has stated that she had not taken a liking to the song at first, deeming it too “schmaltzy.” But, her fans reacted differently towards the power ballad, which resulted in Carey’s own appreciation towards the song growing over time and earned “Hero” a landmark spot in every Mariah Carey concert that’s followed since. “Hero” has become an anthem for adversity and survival – reminding us all that when the going gets tough, we still possess the strength we need to push forward. In times of doubt, we all need a hero, and Mariah Carey became that for many with the lines, “And you’ll finally see the truth / That a hero lies in you.”

Fast forward to 2001: Mariah Carey is grappling with the aftermath of her chastised Glitter project. It was a heavy time for Carey personally, and for all the wrong reasons. Nonetheless, the Glitter soundtrack provided some of the most underrated tracks of Carey’s entire discography (ahem, “Loverboy”), but one song had all the ingredients to becoming the modern day “Hero.” That song was “Never Too Far.”

“Never Too Far” was created by Carey and the legendary production duo, Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis. Released as the soundtrack album’s third single, “Never Too Far” lyrically evokes themes of faith and assurance reminiscent of those found in some of Carey’s earlier works. It’s a tender ballad that elicits undeniable chills from Carey’s vocal delivery and pledging to finding solace in the memories of what used to be. If “Hero” was about one’s own power, “Never Too Far” was a thank you to someone else’s. “I won’t let time erase / One bit of yesterday / ‘Cause I have learned that nobody can take your place,” Carey affirms. The sentiments of “Never Too Far” are a gentle reminder to hold fast to the moments and people in our lives, as they can be taken away from us at any given minute. Kleenex, anyone?

“Never Too Far” came at a difficult time, not just for Carey, but for America. The single was released on October 23, 2001, but merely a month prior, on September 11, the country witnessed the deadliest terrorist attack in human history. The attacks resulted in nearly 3,000 deaths, as well as the collapse of New York’s historic Twin Towers.

America was in turmoil, but vowed to rebuild. If anything good had resulted from this existing nightmare, it was the unity that people formed from their shared fears, compassion, and willingness to overcome the hate that was spewed towards their country and neighbors. Everyone had been affected by this tragedy, from New York and beyond. All the other headlines, and dramas, and Hollywood jabber became background noise at this point. But still, many artists pulled together to offer a show of gratitude for the first responders and a stretch of sympathy for all of America. In an attempt to render support and care on her part, Mariah Carey released a medley of two of her own songs to benefit those impacted by the devastations. That song was the “Never Too Far/Hero Medley.”

The medley (released December 11, 2001) consisted of the first verse and chorus of “Never Too Far,” and the first verse, chorus, and bridge of “Hero,” all of which being re-sung by the music icon. The “Never Too Far/Hero Medley” was released as a charity single, with all of its proceeds going towards the Heroes Fund, an aid benefit for the victims of 9/11, their families, police officers, and rescue workers.

After a short hiatus from the public eye, Carey marked her return to the stage on September 21, 2001 with a performance of “Hero” for the America: A Tribute to Heroes telethon, followed by a series of television performances in the following months of the updated medley version. In October 2001, Carey took part in the United We Stand: What More Can I Give benefit concert to perform the medley, in addition to kicking off her own holiday television special with the charity single. The primetime event, titled A Home For The Holidays With Mariah Carey, aired on December 21 and featured more performances by the Queen of Christmas, and others by Destiny’s Child, Enrique Iglesias, and Josh Groban. Doing what only Mariah Carey does best, she offered us all a sprinkle of holiday cheer, even when it was hardest to find.

The “Never Too Far/Hero Medley” fuses two of Carey’s most powerful pieces together, ending in the most comforting and tear provoking serenade. One does not need to be the slightest bit aware of both song’s origins to appreciate the freshly unified version of the tracks. As if both songs all on their own don’t fiddle with the heartstrings of even the strongest, the medley is what intensifies the emotions at their fullest.  

Carey is defiant in the song, not only strengthening, but sympathizing right alongside us. It’s lyrical focus of consolation is all the more reassuring, thanks in part to the song’s progression from melodrama to cosmic finish carried out by Carey’s impeccable belts and runs. Like the chanteuse, the song dazzles with delicacy and charm, with her outro of “You’re never too far” being sung in her signature upper whistle register sounding truly ethereal.

Though the single was not a commercial success (peaking at only #81 on the Billboard Hot 100), the “Never Too Far/Hero Medley” was not intended to sell, but to heal. If there was a song that could help us get through the hardships of life at that moment, it was the “Never Too Far/Hero Medley.” If there is a song that can help us get through the hardships of life at this moment, it’s still the “Never Too Far/Hero Medley.”

Here we are again, back in turmoil. Back in fear. Back to looking for hope. Back to being riddled with anxiety, but still powering through. Or, at least trying to. It’s times like these when the real heroes are needed, and deserve more than just a thank you. But, if a simple song can muster the words of praise to honor the workers and fighters of these ghastly times, then this overlooked Mimi medley will do the trick. Mariah Carey is here to remind us all that a hero is truly never too far away. 2021 isn’t too far away, either.

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John is a writer for the magazine, with a great love and affection for music of the 80's/90's. His favorite artists include Mariah Carey, Janet Jackson, Michael Jackson, Whitney Houston, and Prince. Born and raised in New York, he has a bachelor's degree in Arts Management from SUNY Purchase, as well as further certifications from NYU-Tisch School of the Arts.