Looking Into Mariah Carey’s ‘Music Box,’ at 30
Jun 18, 2023
A music box is as it sounds: a beautiful, usually wooden, box that plays music if you open it and turn its mechanical, winding key. Before recording technology made music readily available to the masses, music boxes were prized possessions treasured by their keepers for the gift of song harbored inside.
In the summer of 1993, 23-year-old, Long Island native Mariah Carey titled her third studio album Music Box.
Released on August 31, just two months after her lavish wedding to Tommy Motolla, the 44-year-old CEO of her record company, Sony Music, the album would go on to surpass the success of its predecessors. Yielding two #1 singles in the United States and another worldwide, and earning the coveted Diamond certification from the Recording Industry Association of America for shipping ten million copies, Music Box took Carey’s career to the next level. Professionally, Carey was soaring, but personally, it was the beginning of a stifling situation.
Perhaps that’s why Carey titled the album Music Box. On her eponymous debut album, she and executives curated a perfectly packaged vocal showcase that offered a sample of what the inevitable diva could do in various genres.
With her more R&B-leaning sophomore album Emotions, Carey seemed intent on proving herself as a serious songwriter/producer and soulful singer.
By her third, one would expect Carey to be given more freedom to express herself as an artist. After all, she had already written five #1 singles and sold nearly 20 million records at that point. Oh, and she was married to the head honcho.
Instead, Music Box is a subdued album by a stifled songbird. The most interesting work recorded during the Music Box sessions was left in the vault, regulated to bonus track status, or had Carey’s more “risky” ideas removed.
What made it onto the set features some of the strongest melodies and most impressive vocal performances of Carey’s career, hampered by the confines of the Pop box she had been placed into.
Her songs could only escape if she satisfied the corporate hands in control of her music box. Still, Carey’s true artistic aspirations managed to slip through its seams, leaving notes hinting at the pioneer who’d soon be liberated.
Critics at the time similarly noted Music Box’s strengths and shortcomings. In an Entertainment Weekly review, David Browne called it her best album but criticized its lack of depth, saying “Carey must ahve [sic] had her share of personal setbacks, disappointments, and observations about the plebeians lurching through life outside her Manhattan apartment. But it’s impossible to tell.” For Rolling Stone, Stephen Holden similarly juxtaposed the album’s greatness and glossiness, saying, “Her singing, trimmed of some of the frills that seemed gratuitous in the past, measures up to the forever-and-a-day sentiments and their glittering, gift-wrapped surroundings,” and calling it a “precisely calculated” blockbuster, but noting its cliched lyrics.
In retrospect, Music Box holds artistic significance in Carey’s career because of the glimpses it gave into the sounds she would soon explore. Its lead single, “Dreamlover” was the catalyst for that. Co-written and co-produced alongside R&B producer Dave “Jam” Hall, who gained notoriety after producing Mary J. Blige’s debut album What’s The 411?, the original “Dreamlover” was said to be much less Pop. According to Fred Bronson’s Billboard Book Of Number 1 Hits, Motolla asked Carey’s frequent collaborator Walter Afanasieff to add some more elements to the production, resulting in the final version. Sampling “Blind Alley” by The Emotions, Carey flexed her love and knowledge of Hip-Hop for the first time – it was the same track sampled by Big Daddy Kane in “Ain’t No Half-Steppin’.” While she wasn’t allowed to create a proper Hip-Hop remix this go-round, she did record a groundbreaking House remix for “Dreamlover,” featuring entirely re-sung vocals, with legendary House DJ and remixer David Morales. This full-on commitment to the genre would result in several more collaborations between Carey and Morales and inspired many other Pop divas to do the same.
Elsewhere, Carey tried where she could to emulate the R&B, Soul, and Hip-Hop sounds that inspired her. For “Anytime You Need a Friend,” while its album version is your standard ballad, it received multiple remixes.
On the Soul Convention Remix, Carey stripped the production down a bit and recorded a more soulful vocal. On the C&C Club Version, she once again drew on House music as an inspiration, as well as gospel. For her Babyface collaboration “Never Forget You,” she enlisted a then-on-the-rise Jermaine Dupri to remix it with a harder, hip-hop-inflected beat.
The pair would go on to collaborate dozens of times following their first official collaboration for her 1995 album, Daydream.
In 2020, Carey opened her vault to unearth some never-before-heard tracks for a compilation album titled The Rarities. One of them, “All I Live For,” was recorded for the Music Box sessions but was unfinished.
For its 2020 release, Carey finished the New Jack Swing-inspired track. Bursting with energy and personality, the bouncy track outshines most of what was actually included on Music Box. Also on The Rarities were two more Music Box tracks.
First, a b-side from the “Dreamlover” single titled “Do You Think Of Me” further showed Carey’s love for the 90s R&B sound. Carey co-wrote and co-produced the track alongside R&B producer Cory Rooney, Fat Boys rapper Prince Markie Dee, and Afanasieff.
The dreamy R&B song sounds fresher and more soulful than most of what was included on the album, and its lyrics are certainly more interesting – passionate, and sensual.
Next and similarly emotional and atmospheric is “Everything Fades Away,” which was included on international editions of Music Box, and is certainly the most emotional track from the era. With its poetic and seemingly personal lyrics, the song gives a glimpse into the lyrical prowess that would become more evident in Carey’s later work.
It would be remiss to discuss Music Box and not mention “Hero.”
One of Carey’s signature songs, it has become a torch song for Carey, fans, and in significant historical moments. In 2001, Carey sang it following the September 11th attacks.
In 2009, she sang it at President Obama’s Inauguration Ball. Most recently, she sang it during a pandemic telethon in 2020. Back in 1993, she gave the song its inaugural cause, right here at home.
In December 1993, there was a tragic shooting on the Long Island Railroad, killing 6 people and injuring 17 more. At the time, Carey announced she’d donate proceeds from “Hero” to the victims’ families.
Carey also marked another milestone in December 1993. During her hometown show at Madison Square Garden, on her first-ever tour, she also marked another first.
Especially for that show, she performed a cover of “Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town” – her first time singing a Christmas song at The Garden. Decades later, she’s become synonymous with Christmas and performed sold-out Christmas shows at the historic venue in 2019 and 2022.
While the Music Box title may be symbolic of Carey’s situation at the time, it’s also the title of one of the album’s tracks.
The gorgeous ballad seems like a love song, but reading between the lines, it may actually be an ode of gratitude to music itself – the force that turned a girl from Long Island, into Mariah Carey, a Long Island musical “Hero.”