In Hear This, A.V. Club writers sing the praises of songs they know well. This week, in keeping with the site’s 1995-centric theme, we’re talking about songs from that year.
“One Sweet Day” captured lightning in a bottle when it was released in November of 1995. A mix of megastar Mariah Carey, mega-group Boyz II Men, and lyrics about how undeniably sad the AIDS epidemic is, “One Sweet Day” is like one of those movies that seem written just to get a Best Picture Oscar. And yet, the song’s genesis was pretty pure: After Carey’s friend and collaborator David Cole died, she began working on a song in tribute. She had the chorus down when she just happened to run into Boyz II Men who, it turned out, were working on a similar idea for a road manger who died due to similar circumstances. A merger was born, and the juggernaut emerged.
Watch the video, listen to the song, and it’s clear that “One Sweet Day” is a 4:45-long window into 1995. Those shorts! Those glasses! The awareness of the AIDS epidemic! Boyz II Men in general! Mariah Carey looking all sweet and fun! Though the track was made a little under 20 years ago, everything about it screams dated. It’s weird how years move on and how, though we know the words of a song even now, the world that song may have represented has long since disappeared. That doesn’t always happen—some songs are timeless, and this one might be to some people—but some tracks can get quickly swallowed up by the sands of time.
Still, though, it’s pretty saccharine—just due the nature of its origins and the demands of the mid-’90s hit machine—and “One Sweet Day” is a near-perfect slow jam, even now. As the song’s low-key video demonstrates, Carey and company obviously meant the words they were singing, hopeful that they’ll be reunited with their beloved pals someday, somewhere. Beyond that, it’s a song about how life can change you, and how, after a big loss, your perspective can go through a catastrophic shift. Add some swelling piano and a little bit of backing strings and you’ve got a tearjerker on your hands.
That kind of universal sentiment obviously rang true to millions of people, with the song topping the charts for 16 straight weeks from December 2, 1995 to March 16, 1996. (That’s a Billboard record to this day.) It also moved about 2 million copies—not a small feat for a single, especially considering that in 1995 if you wanted to buy a single you had to actually go out and pick up a CD with one or two dinky tracks on it, plus maybe a few throwaway remixes. (The U.S. CD of the “One Sweet Day” single had five different versions of the song on it—album version, “sweet a cappella,” “a cappella,” “Chucky’s Remix,” and a live version.)
“One Sweet Day” also confirmed that Carey and Boyz II Men were capital-S stars, something that was hardly in dispute at the time. Carey also pulled down the second most popular single of 1995, “Fantasy,” while Boyz II Men had already spent three weeks of 1995 atop the Billboard Hot 100 with “On Bended Knee.” The group never reached those heights again, with its next album, 1997’s Evolution, being both a critical and commercial disappointment, moving a mere 3 million copies. Now, Boyz II Men is down one of its men and tours occasionally, most recently with New Kids On The Block.
Carey is an entirely different story. She long ago left behind the sweet little girl who threw on some Daisy Dukes and a baby tee to record “One Sweet Day.” She’s an icon now, a mother to millions of her “butterfly” fans and to two kids of her own. She sells energy drinks, sits on the American Idol panel, and is currently in the middle of a months-long residency at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas. She took “One Sweet Day,” along with a bunch of other sweetheart material, and turned that into the Mariah Carey industry. Like Whitney Houston before her, she’s figured out how to make a living out of being so emotional.