Mariah Carey Popularizes Melisma with Debut Single


It was a New York moment for Mariah Carey, the first time she heard herself on the radio. The Long Island native told about the first time she heard her breakthrough single “Vision of Love” on the radio, but more importantly, she remembers it being a revolutionary moment.

“I was in Manhattan, with a friend, and I was listening to the radio when the song came on the radio,” Carey recalled. “I never thought that that single, it was ‘Vision of Love’ which would be a No. 1 song, would turn out to be something that people would associate with me because it didn’t sound like what was happening in radio at that moment, musically. And yet, it worked. Thank God.”

When she says it didn’t sound like what was happening at the moment, Carey refers more to the vocals than the production, the latter being fairly typical of late ’80s adult contemporary pop (the single was released early in 1990). But her use of the highest register of human voice, the whistle register, was extremely unusual.

Carey’s vocal stylings on that track, along with others from her debut album, helped popularize use of the melisma in popular music — that is, the style of singing in which the performer stays on one syllable of text while hitting several different notes. It would become a hallmark for performers who followed her, including Christina Aguilera, Beyoncé and Ariana Grande.

The rest, as they say, is history. “Vision of Love,” which was co-written by Carey and Ben Margulies, would go on to be nominated that year by the GRAMMYs for Song of the Year and Record of the Year, and won her the Best Female Pop Vocal Performance award.

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