Intensities in Ten Suburbs

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Songs We Take for Granted: Mariah Carey & Boyz II Men – “One Sweet Day” (1995)

Posted by Andrew Unterberger on April 9, 2008

Sorry, I never told you…

As you may or may not have heard (and due to the chart-slacking at this end, I’m ashamed to say you certainly haven’t heard it here), Mariah Carey’s “Touch My Body” leapfrogged to #1 on the Hot 100 last week. This is notable both for being the first #1 single for Jack McBrayer and the 18th #1 single for Miss Mariah, thus surpassing Elvis’s 17 and giving her the second-highest tally of chart-toppers of the Rock era. Carey is now a mere two singles away from tying the Beatles’ record of an even 20 gold medals, which she could theoretically be looking at taking before the year is up.

Of course, Mariah’s place in chart history is assured even if she never releases another single, thanks to a little single called “One Sweet Day”. Her duet with Boyz II Men topped the charts in December of 1995 and stayed at pole position until March of the next year, a 16-week reign in total that easily snapped the rock-era record for length spent on top the top 100. It’s a run that has proven to be almost as unassailable as the ’72 Dolphins’, as such chart-busters as Los Del Rio’s “Maccarena,” Elton John’s “Candle in the Wind 1997” and indeed, Mariah’s own “We Belong Together” all tapped out at 14 weeks, the previous record and a seeming cap on the American public’s tolerance for a totalitarian pop regime. Especially with new iTunes-influenced chart trends favoring shorter runs at the top (though not quite short enough, as evidenced by the ’08-starting hydra of “No One” and “Low”), it’s unlikely that “One Sweet Day” will see its record toppled any time soon, if it ever conceeds it at all.

Yet for all this chart history–“One Sweet Day” remains an oddly anonymous song in the greater scheme of pop music. No doubt, it was a mega-hit–about a half-year before I really started paying attention to pop music, but residual enough throughout the next year or so that I certainly am no stranger to it. But I doubt it would rank as the best-remembered song by either artist, and it’s a song you barely ever hear on the radio (OK, admittedly, I don’t listen to enough soft-rock or AC top 40 to really vouch for that, but I’ve listened to the XM 90s station a ton, and skipped around plenty elsewhere, and can’t remember the last time I heard it). I was even listening to it on a mix I had made recently, and I couldn’t recognize it until the dulcet opening tones of That Guy From Boyz II Men dawned the revelation on me. Can you name a single movie, TV show or other song to reference it? It just doesn’t seem to happen much.

To explain why this is, it’s important first to address why “One Sweet Day” was such a chart smash to begin with, and the biggest reason for that is simple math. Individually, to say that Mariah Carey and Boyz II Men were the two biggest pop powerhouses that Billboard saw in the 90s would be an egregious understatement. Mariah notched a #1 hit in every year that decade, another chart feat she can claim as solely her own, while with “One Sweet Day,” Boyz II Men eclipsed a chart-topping record that they themselves had achieved with the 14-week run of “I’ll Make Love to You,” which only beat by one week the record they had set earlier that decade with “End of the Road”‘s 13 weeks on top. Mariah and the Boyz had already lodged 69 weeks on top of the charts by the time of “One Sweet Day,” or roughly 30% of the decade thusfar. For these two super-powers to team up at the respective peaks of their chart successes…frankly, 16 weeks practically seems like a lowball estimate.

But to say that starpower was the only reason for this song’s success would be to sell it incredibly short, especially when considering the underwhelming #15 peak of “When You Believe,” Mariah’s 1998 duet with Whitney Houston that the pro chart analysts (assuming such a profession exists) expected to be “One Sweet Day” redux in chart terms. To me, serendipity has a lot to do with it as well. The story behind “Day” is that supposedly Mariah was writing a song devoted to late deceased collaborator David Cole (of C&C Music Factory fame) while the Boyz were also writing a tribute to their recently murdered manager, and the songs happened to be similar enough to be combined into “One Sweet Day.” It seems like the kind of song to me that couldn’t really be planned, that it just had to come about as a sort of miraculous confluence of circumstances and talents–watch the video, which essentially portrays the song as the product of a bunch of friends hanging out and becoming overcome with the power of song.

Listening to it, you wouldn’t doubt it for a second. In all this talk about chart statistics, you forget there’s a reason why Mariah & the Boyz were as big as they were in the mid-90s–vocally, both were almost completely without peer in the pop and R&B world. Both occasionally recorded middling material, but when they were given great songs to work with–Boyz with “It’s So Hard to Say Goodbye to Yesterday” and “End of the Road,” Mariah with “Vision of Love” and “Emotions” (and countless others, really)–the results were simply staggering. “One Sweet Day” is that rare collaboration between powerhouse artists that not only compromises neither, but actually enhances the appeal of both. Listening to the Boyz twisting their gorgeous harmonies around Mariah’s high-register belting, especially in the song’s climax…it’s every bit as awe-inspiring as it should be.

And lest we forget, they got a great song to work with. It was almost destined not to age well, for several reasons, not the least of which is the super-90s production (which is starting to make stuff like Phil Collins and Mr. Mister sound timeless by comparison)–the lite piano, reverbed and echoed drums, airy synths…all that’s missing in the Definitive 90s Big Ballad checklist is the “Un-Break My Heart”-style flamenco guitar seasoning. But perhaps more detrimental to the song’s legacy is the subject matter, which kind of gets it stuck in a thematic pop music black hole. Generally, huge big-name ballads like this best endure in one of three forms–graduations, slow dances and choirs. Graduations can’t really touch it because it’s not that inspirational or blankly nostalgic, slow dances can’t go anywhere near it because generally eulogies make for lousy make-out music, and choirs…well, if you’re gonna even consider rolling the dice on “One Sweet Day,” you better make sure you got a world class fucking group of singers behind you, because otherwise it’ll sound unbelievably embarrassing.

But even though it’s not gonna be a daddy-daughter wedding dance anytime soon (or at least it definitely, definitely shouldn’t be), it’s definitely one of the more powerful ballad hits of the decade. When it comes to conveying hurt, there is really no competing with Mariah Carey (in fact, the only decent criticism I ever heard of “We Belong Together” was someone essentially complaining that she can’t honestly expect us to believe that her love was really good enough to deserve a song that emotional) and the Boyz can certainly hold their own, so they can take a line like the opening (and closing as well–underused tactic) “Sorry I never told you / All I wanted to say” and make it sound not only unbelievably heartfelt but completely personal and even sort of surprising. This isn’t an eye-roller Whitney Houston ballad, it’s a song where the lyrics actually have the potential to help the song’s appeal.

Really, though, “One Sweet Day” is your classic GTTC (Get To The Chorus) song. And boy, is it a doozy, kicking off immediately in full gear (“AANNNNDDDD IIIIIII KNOW YOU’RE SHINING DOWN ON ME FROM HEA-VUHN!!!”) and doing a shockingly satisfactory job of being weighty enough to anchor a song with aspirations this huge. It strikes a tone both extremely saddening and impressively life-affirming, which was probably the point of the song all along, so good on them for that. The fact that it modulates up (goes to a higher key–y’know, like in “Living on a Prayer”) for the end as the song goes into overdrive, Mariah and the Boyz’s vocal calisthenics becoming almost physically exhausting in their emotional outpouring, is too perfect–this isn’t a song worried about shying away from cliche and sentimentality, and it’s all the more powerful (and was all the more successful) for it.

It’s not my favorite song by either artist by any means–for me, that’s quite a distinction to begin with, and the song’s occasionally cringe-worthy production hurts it too much in the end when compared to superior productions like “Fantasy” and “Water Runs Dry”. But it still sounds to me today how it always has–an almost magical one-off collaboration that does indeed sound like it was blessed from beyond, and an entirely worthy record chart-topper that has, against all odds, become severely underappreciated.

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2 Responses to “Songs We Take for Granted: Mariah Carey & Boyz II Men – “One Sweet Day” (1995)”

  1. Jonathan said

    Things I learnt today:

    “I’ll Make Love to You” and “End of the Road”? Apparently different songs.

  2. Ian said

    This song was also the subject of a really funny joke on “Daria” that I can’t quite remember correctly.

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