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Mariah Carey's No. 1 streak is on the line

(ran GB, TP editions)

Never underestimate a diva's need to dominate. Take Mariah Carey.

Close followers of pop may have noticed that Columbia's corporate queen hasn't put a single into commercial release for six months now, an unusually long time for a star with a vital album out (Butterfly, released in October).

According to sources, here's why: Carey didn't want to risk breaking a string of chart smashes she's managed to maintain for more than two years. In that time, every single released by Carey went No. 1 on Billboard's Hot 100. That's four in all: Fantasy, One Sweet Day, Always Be My Baby and Honey.

By winter, Columbia was eager to release another single for Carey, choosing the title song, Butterfly. But according to an informed source, "It didn't get good call-out research from radio stations. They couldn't get all the stations to play it at the same time, and it would have certainly failed to go No. 1. They didn't want to risk breaking her record."

(A Columbia spokesman denies this motivation, saying: "The Honey single was still selling well, so we didn't feel the need to sell another piece of product.")

Regardless, no song could possibly snare the No. 1 spot for most of the winter because Elton John's Candle in the Wind had that position sewn up. So Columbia held Butterfly back from the retail. (Only songs sold commercially can appear on the Hot 100.)

A few months ago, Columbia tested the waters again with Breakdown, working it at Rhythmic Top 40 stations. Again, the song didn't have the goods to cross over and go all the way.

This week, Carey finally risks breaking her record by putting out the ballad My All backed with Breakdown, for a possible double whammy. An industry source says, "I wouldn't put it past Columbia to do everything, including selling that song for 29 cents, to get it up there."

So why the anxiety about accepting only the top notch?

"It validates all the hard work the artist has done," says Theda Sandiford-Waller, who covers the singles chart for Billboard. "It also has a major influence in selling records overseas, which is a huge market."

In fact, only 10 to 15 songs go No. 1 each year. By that measure, how have Carey's competing divas fared in No. 1 scores? In general, Celine Dion sells more albums than singles. She's had only two toppers of late: Because You Loved Me in '96 and the current Titanic super-smash, My Heart Will Go On. Whitney Houston enjoyed most of her No. 1's in the late '80s, recently racking up just I Will Always Love You in '93 and Exhale in '95. Madonna also enjoyed most of her top hits in the '80s, though she had Take a Bow in '94 and This Used to Be My Playground in '92. (Her new Frozen stalled at No. 2 because of K-Ci & JoJo's unbeatable All My Love).

By contrast, 12 out of the 17 singles Carey has released have gone No. 1, all in the '90s. No wonder she has kept her claws out for the competition. Contenders, beware!

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