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10 Years, 100 Songs: #66. “Wait a Minute, This is Too Deep, I Gotta Change the Station…”

Posted by Andrew Unterberger on July 29, 2009

Over the final months of our fine decade, Intensities in Ten Suburbs will be sending the Naughty Oughties out in style with a series of essays devoted to the top 100 songs of the decade–the ones we will most remember as we look back fondly on this period of pop music years down the road. The archives can be found here. If you want to argue about the order, you can’t, because we’re not totally sure what the qualifications are either. Otherwise, sit back and enjoy.

It’s almost impossible to underestimate just how much Mariah Carey owned the 1990s. She hit #1 for the first time with “Vision of Love” in the summer of 1990, and from there, her dominance was as thorough for the next decade as any other artist to put mouth to microphone. In fact, she had at least one single on the top of the charts in every single year of the decade–the only artist to ever accomplish such a feat. And she did it in all forms, with balladry (“Vision”), sticky-sweet dance-pop (“Heartbreaker”), hip-hop hybridization (“Honey”) and classic soul (“I’ll Be There”), and on all frequencies, including blissful (“Fantasy”), nostalgic (“Always Be My Baby”), grieving (“One Sweet Day”) and heartbroken (“My All”). Not all of her songs were great, but many of them were, and the ones that weren’t could still skate by just on the sheer wonder inspired every time she sang, cooed, cried, sighed, belted or gasped a single note’s worth–quite possibly the greatest voice to ever grace modern pop music.

But by the new millennium, Mariah had a problem–and its name was Glitter. It’s hard to remember if Mariah was quite so nuts before the movie came out, but after it did, and flopped in just about every way conceivable (the movie, her performance, even the soundtrack album), it seemed like Mariah just fell more out of touch every day, always just a step away from a full-on meltdown, and as evidenced by an infamous Total Request Live cameo, occasionally not even that far. She gained weight, she lost confidence in her voice, and next album Charmbracelet probably sold about as many copies as the latest Deborah Cox album. For a performer who had spent the previous decade as one of pop music’s true infallibles, it was fairly disheartening to see Mariah Carey seem to lose her innocence and her mind in such rapid succession. It didn’t seem very likely, but privately I think we all hoped that she had at least one comeback in her. Well boy, did we get one and then some, in the form of the miserable masterwork “We Belong Together.”

Mariah was always at her best while singing at her emotionally rawest. When you think of most of her all-time best singles, they almost suggest a manic-depressive personality in their polarization, either deliriously ecstatic (“Fantasy,” “Emotions,” “Dreamlover”) or cripplingly morose (“Breakdown,” “One Sweet Day,” her “Without You” cover). And when you think about it, it makes sense–after all, Mariah was given the gift of an instrument that was capable of articulating emotional extremes in a way that 99.999999% of the human population simply could not ever achieve using just their mouth and vocal chords. To use it for anything less seems almost wasteful. Think about it like this–would you be content with watching LeBron James just playing fundamentally sound basketball, hitting mid-range jumpers, finding open teammates and playing lockdown perimeter defense? Of course not. You want to see him throwing down rim-rocking dunks, threading no-look passes between defenders and swatting away potential fast break layups from out of nowhere–because he’s one of just a handful of human beings on the planet who can do these things. For Mariah, ambiguity and subtlety were never even really much of an option.

That’s why “We Belong Together” made so much sense from the first time you heard it–because unlike so many of the mediocre singles Mariah had delivered to a disappointed fanbase over the first few years of the decade, it actually went full-throttle for the 10.0. Which is not to say that she was belting every line to the rafters–in fact, many saluted Mariah’s restraint over most of the verses and the early choruses, and rightly so. But rather, that old visceral surge and urgency was there the whole time–she was once more looking to plumb her deepest resources of emotion, to make listeners feel in a stronger way than any other song on the radio would be capable of doing, simply for the mere fact that someone besides Mariah Carey was singing them. Moaning about a lost love and her unfathomable desperation to reunite with him, Mariah finally, for the first time in lord knows how long, seemed to actually care again.

Now, the fact that the song also happened to be brilliantly written, lyrically and structurally, helped the cause just a little bit. The first verse takes things relatively calmly, with Mariah simply lamenting the departure of her loved one, and berating herself for allowing it to happen (“I didn’t know nothing / I was stupid, I was foolish / I was lying to myself”). The second verse is when things really start to get interesting, when alone and restless at night, Mariah turns to the radio for comfort. She first hears Bobby Womack (“If you think you’re lonely now…”) but realizes she’s too fragile to handle it (“Wait a minute, this is too deep / I gotta change the station”). She finds no solace on her next attempt either, though, as she’s confronted with Babyface’s “Two Occasions” (“I only think of you…”), to which she can’t even listen to a whole line before filling in the rest with her own situation. As everyone already knew and High Fidelity had confirmed, when you’re in romantic misery, the radio can only exacerbate things by making each and every song it plays seem like it’s about you and your relationship alone–a situation that just about everyone listening can recognize, and one which make Carey’s pain all the more vivid. Chances are, if you remember one thing about “We Belong Together,” this verse would be it.

But Mariah isn’t through with expressing just how broken she is without her beloved–not by a damn sight. There’s a line towards the end of the second verse–“The pain reflected in this song / Ain’t even half of what I’m feeling inside”–which I find damn near terrifying. Uh, not even half? Really? You kinda sound pretty put out as is, MC. But indeed, just in case you continued to doubt her, she demonstrates by taking things up that extra notch on that final chorus, scaling up an octave and setting her phaser to stun. The song’s chorus–previously a melancholy, defeated “When you left, I lost a part of me / It’s just so hard to believe / Come back baby, please, ‘coz we belong together”–is suddenly transformed into a show-stopping, heart-bursting “WHEN! YOU! LEFT! I LOST! A PART! OF ME!!! / IT’S JUST SO HARD TO BE-LIEVE!! / COME BACK, BABY, PLEASE!! / ‘COZ WE BELONG TO-GE-THERRRRR!!!!!” It’s Mariah firmly in the red zone, and there are few sounds more exhilerating to be found in pop, even in the Naughty Oughties.

The public took notice, to say the least. After an underwhelming reaction to “It’s Like That,” the disappointing lead single from The Emancipation of Mimi, “We Belong Together” reversed MC’s commercial performance for the rest of the decade, as it soared to the top of the charts and seemed to stay there for the entire summer–14 weeks in all, a mere two weeks away from the all-time record, set by her own “One Sweet Day” back in ’95-’96. From there, Mariah was officially “back,” hanging around with worthy follow-ups “Shake It Off” and “Don’t Forget About Us,” and selling six million copies of Emancipation–roughly the sales equivalent of 15 mil from when she was at her commercial peak. She’s let down a little as the decade’s wore on, with “Touch My Body” being a disappointing comeback, but with an album with R&B magic man / IITS pop crush The-Dream in the works, my hopes are high for her decade’s end–“I think it’s about just writing an album that includes the focus of all the hits that she’s had,” said Mr. Nash. “So it’s basically like we’re trying to make a greatest hits album without using the greatest hits.”

Just make sure to go for the gold at least a couple of times, Mariah–nearly twenty years since “Vision,” and still, nobody does it like you.

(Have any thoughts or rememberances of this song? Want to correct our lyrics or call us out for relying too much on Wikipedia? Please feel free to leave a comment here, or (gulp) Tweet us about it at Your input is lusted after and appreciated.)

The List So Far:

100. Green Day – “Jesus of Suburbia”
99. The Ying Yang Twins – “Wait (The Whisper Song)”
98. Crazytown – “Butterfly”
97. Taylor Swift – “Teardrops on My Guitar”
96. The Fray – “Over My Head (Cable Car)”
95. Fergie – “Fergalicious”
94. Lidstrom – “I Feel Space”
93. Chevelle – “Send the Pain Below”
92. T-Pain f/ Yung Joc – “Buy U a Drank (Shawty Snappin’)”
91. The Arctic Monkeys – “I Bet You Look Good on the Dancefloor”
90. Cassie – “Me & U”
89. Nelly Furtado – “Maneater”
88. Mike Jones f/ Slim Thug & Paul Wall – “Still Tippin’”
87. Bat for Lashes – “Daniel”
86. The Darkness – “I Believe in a Thing Called Love”
85. Dynamite Hack – “Boyz n the Hood”
84. DJ Khaled f/ T.I., Rick Ross, Fat Joe, Birdman, Lil’ Wayne & Akon – “We Takin’ Over”
83. Matchbox20 – “Bent”
82. The Game f/ 50 Cent – “Hate It or Love It”
81. 311 – “Amber”
80. 3 Doors Down – “Krptonite”
79. Nas – “Made You Look”
78. Royksopp – “Eple”
77. The Pussycat Dolls – “Don’t Cha”
76. DMX – “Party Up (Up in Here)”
75. Junior Senior – “Move Your Feet”
74. Twista f/ Kanye West & Jamie Foxx – “Slow Jamz”
73. The Streets – “Weak Become Heroes”
72. Jimmy Eat World – “The Middle”
71. The Yeah Yeah Yeahs – “Maps”
70. Snoop Dogg f/ Pharrell – “Drop It Like It’s Hot”
69. Alice DeeJay – “Better Off Alone”
68. Xiu Xiu – “I Luv the Valley OH!”
67. Incubus – “Stellar”
66. Mariah Carey – “We Belong Together”

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