Mariah Carey
Mariah Carey
Deborah Feingold/Getty Images

Mariah Carey on Being the Top Female Solo Artist of All Time and Loving All Her 'Little Song Babies'

"Here's the thing,” says Mariah Carey. “Do you know which chart it went No. 1 on first?”

She’s referring to “Fantasy,” her bubbly 1995 single that became the first song from a female artist to ever debut at No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100. As Carey is quick to point out, that certainly wasn’t the only chart it topped upon release. “There were many different remixes of that song,” she continues. “My favorite version is the Bad Boy remix featuring Ol’ Dirty Bastard. I know that [drove the song] to No. 1 on the hip-hop charts, and the original went No. 1 on the pop chart -- but I’m not sure which one I found out about first.”

The song actually topped the Hot 100 and Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs simultaneously (it did top R&B/Hip-Hop Airplay before Mainstream Top 40). But Carey could be forgiven for a slight memory lapse: For the top solo female artist of all time, “Fantasy” is just one in a long line of record-setting chart achievements. She is the solo artist with the most No. 1 hits on the Hot 100, the only female artist to have three songs debut at No. 1 on that chart and the artist who has spent the most time at No. 1 (79 total weeks). For 23 years, “One Sweet Day,” her collaboration with Boyz II Men, held or shared the record for most weeks spent atop the chart -- until Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road” came along.

It’s a heady list of accomplishments, but for the chanteuse herself, one simple truth rules. “Look, I’ve devoted my life to this career and writing songs,” says Carey, 49. “Obviously I have my own babies now. But these are my little song babies.”

You’re the top-charting female solo artist in history -- how does that make you feel?

Oh, my God. To see the success on all the different charts, to hear you say that is mind-blowing. I never, ever dreamt of this when I first started. I just wanted to hear my songs on the radio.

Three of your 18 No. 1s are collaborations. Did they teach you anything about yourself as a performer that you didn’t already know?

I’ve done a lot of different collaborations with all types of artists -- “One Sweet Day,” obviously. “Heartbreaker” featuring JAY-Z was a really monumental No. 1 for me, because I was coming out of a certain era at Sony and figuring out what I was going to do from there. Even before that, when I collaborated with Luther Vandross on the remake of “Endless Love,” it didn’t go to No. 1, but I learned so much from him.

It’s pretty amazing to look at these moments and say, “Wow, I was able to work with people that I loved,” even on songs that didn’t necessarily chart, like “The Roof” featuring Mobb Deep -- one of my hardcore fans’ favorite songs. I don’t know that these things taught me anything necessarily different about myself as an artist except that I needed to trust my own instincts, you know what I mean? It really feels good to see, OK, this is where music was going, and I knew it, and I wasn’t trying to fit into something -- I was searching for my own creative autonomy.

You’re also such a prolific writer and producer -- does it mean something different when a track you wrote and produced goes to No. 1?

Songwriting and producing, being in the studio, that is my favorite thing on earth. When you see the video for “One Sweet Day,” for example -- we came together as songwriters, and we documented the whole thing. The cameras were there. We wrote the song together, the whole thing that day. I mean, I don’t want to count years, but for it to be the longest-running No. 1 for, what was it, 23 years? It’s kind of an incredible accomplishment for me as a songwriter.

When I look back on the songs that I’ve written that have become part of people’s lives, that’s what makes me the most proud. “All I Want for Christmas Is You,” the constant presence at Christmastime -- to feel that as someone who loves Christmas so much, I can’t even explain. And then I think about “Hero,” which I performed at the Tribute to Heroes during the 9/11 tragedy: It was a song that I had written and debuted on a Thanksgiving special, and it went to No. 1 and has become kind of synonymous with me. I don’t think many people realize I wrote that song, either -- because most people aren’t necessarily writing their songs. But I wouldn’t feel complete as an artist if I didn’t.

How has your own definition of success changed?

It means the same thing that it has always meant: You have to be able to sit back and say, “Wow, I had some success here, and let me not bask in it but at least be aware of it.” In the beginning of my career, it was so much about pushing forward and pushing through obstacles and adversity that I didn’t get to take in the moment that much.

This past year, with the whole “Obsessed” challenge when it reentered the charts -- do you know what I’m referring to? I have 8-year-old twins, and they’re not allowed to watch TikTok yet, but they’re sitting there watching all these 13-, 14-year-old kids doing this little “Obsessed” [dance] challenge, which took on a life of its own. It became a thing. It had a huge resurgence.

Speaking of your kids -- do they have a favorite among your many No. 1s?

I quiz them on a lot of different people’s songs -- Stevie Wonder, Aretha Franklin, Michael Jackson, Prince. They’ll get it right. And they can recognize my voice. They love “Always Be My Baby,” “All I Want for Christmas Is You,” “We Belong Together.” They surprise me with the songs that they know. They’ve been to a lot of the shows -- you always think they’re on their iPads rather than paying attention, but I guess they’re paying attention!

This article originally appeared in the Nov. 16 issue of Billboard.

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