Pop Heroism, One Song at a Time
Written by Mariah Carey, Dave Hall, and Walter Afanasieff
From Music Box, Sony Records, 1993
An earlier version of this V-C-V first appeared on pcmunoz.com on January 17, 2006
I love Mariah Carey for all kinds of reasons. For starters, she's a technically amazing vocalist, capable of notes most vocalists can only hope to reach via a healthy dose of "digital assistance". She's also a steely, determined artist who wouldn't let consecutive project failures and public embarrassments defeat her spirit. And of course, I appreciate that she's a serious, savvy songwriter, who has worked with everyone from Carole King to Kanye West. After a rough patch around the year 2001, Carey spent a few years as the butt of mean-spirited (read: hatin') jokes and undeserved write-offs. Fans like myself were not surprised at all when she re-emerged on the scene in 2005 with a wildly successful straight-out R&B album, The Emancipation of Mimi, a spectacular platter of choice grooves, killer vocals, and a fun vibe that recalls the '90s hit I will discuss here, "Dreamlover".
"Dreamlover" is pure, frothy pop. It flows along so sweetly and lightly, it's easy to dismiss the wide-eyed innocence which the lyric imparts. With her talk of rainbows, charm bracelets, music boxes, and butterflies, I've always thought Mariah Carey seems to possess a kind of little-girl spirit which most female songwriters don't dare conjure, for fear of being pigeon-holed, stereotyped, or mocked by "serious" songwriting peers and critics. One might conjecture that Carey's use of these images is simply a calculated manipulation of her focus-group tested demographic (young females), or, worse, an indication of a kind of stunted emotional growth, but I happen to be of the opinion that she really likes that kinda stuff. Her covers of Journey's "Open Arms" and Def Leppard's big-haired suburban classic "Bringin' on the Heartbreak" support this theory, as far I'm concerned. Carey's penchant for this imagery of course completely precludes her from ever earning the type of indie-cred heaped upon more appropriately-cool songwriters like PJ Harvey, Ani DiFranco, or the early, pre-pop-stardom-grab incarnation of Liz Phair, but it certainly does not warrant automatic dismissal of her work as an artist.
Some of Carey's older recordings are bathed in a kind of gauzy prettiness that isn't always to my taste, (even if her singing is outstanding throughout), but "Dreamlover", produced by Carey with Dave Hall and Sony hit-maker Walter Afanasieff, has a rhythmic flair that keeps things pumping. The lyrics also contain some memorable lines. I've always liked the first few lines of the second verse, which are an interesting mix of innocence and very grown-up cynicism and world-weariness: "Don't want another pretender / To disillusion me one more time / Whispering words of forever / Playing with my mind..."
The rest of the lyric is a description of, and a call for, the mythic Dreamlover; someone to take her away, to "rescue" her. Fluffy-seeming stuff, to be sure (and possibly cringe-inducing for some folk), but very possibly also an expression of the simplest of romantic dreams: to find the "right" person; someone who makes you feel taken care of, loved, safe. Musically, a funky beat drives the thing, Afanasieff's Hammond B3 flourishes add an old-school vibe, and Carey's layered vocals coo and caress your ears. I'm a fan of her ultra-high frequency vocal "whistle", and she puts it to good use here, as a harmony on the extremely catchy musical hook, which incorporates a sample of the Emotions' "Blind Alley", written by soul man David Porter. I'm aware that Carey has been unfairly blamed for every over-singing female vocalist since 1990, but the truth is, she is never crass in the use of her amazing instrument. On "Dreamlover", especially, she keeps a close, tasteful rein on the acrobatics.
If you are a fan of female singer-songwriters, but have stayed away from Mariah Carey out of disdain for the pop machine (or Maxim photo spreads), I encourage you to give her a chance, especially if you have a soft spot for R&B. Start with the 2005 killer-comeback, The Emancipation of Mimi, which in my opinion is one of the finest R&B discs of the decade. You can then navigate through her back catalog and find other nice things, including "Dreamlover" and the majorly-maligned (even somewhat by Carey herself) Glitter project, which has some very cool sonic references to '80s R&B and a lovely ballad, "Lead the Way." You're bound to find something you can dig.
And who knows... you may even develop a new respect for unicorns, rainbows, and charm bracelets, too.