Me, you and Mariah: A re-introduction of sorts

I resented her at first. Like many people listening to pop radio in the summer of 1990, I recall the soaring notes, the skillful gospel inflections, and soaring chorus of “Vision of Love.” The talent on display was undeniable. Yet, after growing up with the mellifluous tones of Whitney Houston did we really need Whitney II?

Many a diva had tried, and mostly failed, to imitate the power and technique Houston wielded and I was unwilling to relent. Further, there was the matter of race. Though Whitney received a lot of criticism from black people for “sounding White” and “lacking soul” we were proud of her achievements. She was not just the ultimate black diva of the era—she was the ultimate diva, period. She crossed over in a way no black female pop singer (even Diana Ross and Donna Summer!) had done before her, and I (we) felt very protective of her legacy.

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Gradually, the details about this new diva Mariah emerged. Though Columbia Records marketed her as a pop artist, and was thus tacitly “white,” she was biracial actually. She had a white mother and an Afro-Venezuelan father and honed her talent listening to Stevie Wonder, Aretha Franklin, the Clark Sisters and other legends mostly associated with African-American music. She was also open about her black, and white, cultural roots with an emphasis on the black musical influences.

Though she was open about her heritage, as a white-appearing singer she was still “suspicious” to some listeners and critics. She had more immediate pop access than many more phenotypically black singers, and as a Columbia Records artist she certainly had more marketing muscle behind her than a lot of other talented soul divas. Regina Belle, a black vocalist signed to Columbia had not really crossed over to the pop audience by 1990. Mikki Howard was still primarily known to the black R&B audience. Veteran divas like Randy Crawford and Phyllis Hyman, who began recording in the mid-1970's, were still striving for greater recognition. Who was this new voice and why was she so special?

For me, these questions remained present, but became less relevant as I continued listening. After “Vision” came lovelorn ballads such as “Love Takes Time” and “I Don’t Wanna Cry,” and the sassy dance tune “Someday.” By 1991, Mariah was the most successful female singer in pop. She won two awards at the 1991 Grammy's, beating out Houston, Bette Midler, Sinead O’Connor, and Lisa Stansfield for Female Pop Vocal Performance, and was a commercial phenomenon. The moment that solidified my interested were her almost ridiculous coloratura notes at the outro of her 1991 dance-pop hit “Emotions” the lead single from her new album Emotions. I had never heard any pop singer reach those heights technically, and on an emotional level, there was something about her exuberance and passion, and virtuosity, that spoke to my 15-year-old ears.  More hits from the album followed, and though I did not watch her 1992 MTV Unplugged episode when it first aired, she and Trey Lorenz’s soulful remake of the Jackson 5’s “I’ll Be There” mightily impressed me. To re-record such a classic and balance respect for the original with a personal flair was hard to pull off and they did it. My understanding is that even Michael Jackson was a fan.

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As high school was ending I began developing other musical affinities including savoring new voices like the sultry tones of balladeer Toni Braxton and the modern girl groups Xscape, Jade, and SWV, whose debut I listened to incessantly on my black cassette player. Still, Carey’s voice always hovered somewhere in the background. My brother lent me his copy of Music Box, which had songs like the fluffy confection “Dreamlover” and the “inspirational” songs like “Hero” and “Anytime You Need a Friend.” If the lyrical themes were too literal, the singing and arrangements were gorgeous. Theoretically, based on demographics, I was supposed to be enjoying Tupac Shakur or Nirvana, but Mariah compelled me more. I remember combing the liner notes and being impressed by her level of creative control. Not only was she the singer, but also a writer, arranger, and producer. This seemed so different from what I remembered about other singers like Houston, Braxton, and Celine Dion. 

The summer before leaving for college, I interned at the local daily newspaper and saved my money well. Within my first semester at Emerson College, I had spent hundreds of dollars on cassettes tapes of the pop music I loved from childhood including Houston, Carey, Michael Jackson, Tina Turner, Taylor Dayne, etc. I shopped mostly at Tower Records, but when my money ran low, I went to great used record stores in Boston, like Mystery Train and Newbury Comics. I was doing my own music education and Carey was part of my curriculum. That winter she released Merry Christmas, whose lead single “All I Want for Christmas is You,” I adored. It was one of the few seasonal songs I could stand to listen to beyond the season. My college friends, many of whom liked more outré music, seemed puzzled by my adoration. When you were in college in the mid-1990s you were supposed to like edgier, darker, more ironic music, but I was adamant that Carey was special. Even when she was obvious, or overwrought, I still forgave her.

In summer 1995, I returned to the internship and continued spending my salary disproportionately on music. I finally bought the MTV Unplugged EP. As impressive as the Jackson 5 cover was, I was impressed by her lean live arrangement of her live version of “Emotions” and transported by the way she and her background singers soared on the Carey and Carole King written soul ballad “If it’s Over.” The audience, whoever they were, applauded righteously. A few months after this purchase, Carey released “Fantasy” in a pop version and a remix featuring rapper Ol’ Dirty Bastard (O.D.B). It was the second song to debut at #1 on the singles chart (after Michael Jackson’s “You Are Not Alone”) and signified something new for Carey. After five years of wholesomeness, there was something funkier and even a bit trashy about the juxtaposition of Carey with O.D.B. I bought 1995’s Daydream the night of its release from Tower and could not wait to run to my dorm room and listen to it, as well as review the liner notes. Shortly after, I reviewed Daydream very positively for the college paper The Berkeley Beacon. I also noticed other reviews, such as Time magazine’s Christopher John Farley noticing something younger, sexier, and more interesting about Carey.

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Daydream was an artistic and commercial apex for Carey spawning three number one hits, earning her multiple awards and nominations, including six Grammy nods, and even a spot on a few year-end Best-Of lists. After five years, she was finally earning the critical respect I felt she deserved. I also felt vindicated in my tastes; even people who loathed pop, and Carey specifically, warmed up to songs like “Fantasy” and “Always Be My Baby.”

1997 began my scholarly interest in Carey. Right before departing Boston for graduate school in Ohio in late August 1997 news emerged that she and her husband, Sony Music President Tommy Mottola, were separating and her forthcoming album Butterfly was the first product of her newfound freedom. Carey, who always seemed upbeat and inaccessible, suddenly seemed more human and vulnerable than ever. Though she led with the hip-hop inflected single “Honey,” promoted via an escapist video of Carey escaping to an island, dancing with a group of sailors, and jumping into the arms of another man at its conclusion, the album was not exactly hip-hop. Mostly she used the ballad form, her greatest strength, to reflect on her childhood (“Close My Eyes”), racial insecurity (“Outside”), and heartache (“Whenever You Call”), co-written with her collaborator Walter Afanasieff. She also managed to blend her style with younger artists including the brilliant “Breakdown” recording with Bone Thugs-N-Harmony, and the taut “Babydoll” co-written with Missy “Misdemeanor” Elliott. Though the album featured hip-hop associated personnel, the album is mostly downbeat. Lyrically, it is also richer in detail and the songs flow into each other with far more deliberateness than her typically singles-oriented albums. There are some meandering melodies, and at times, she barely enunciates, but it feels like her most personal work yet.

I wrote about Carey’s gospel influences in a music course I was taking and built from this blueprint by presenting papers on her music at academic conferences. I decided Carey’s life warranted deeper exploration and made her the focus of my Master’s thesis.  I collected a formidable archive of articles and images, watched her commercially released videos, and became a Carey “expert.” I was simultaneously meditating on the political economy of popular music. She was the rare female pop figure to possess such high levels of creative control. And as a biracial performer she was in an odd position: Though she was marketed as a pop singer with a soulful sound that could appeal to fans of black pop, she had fought with Columbia about integrating more hip-hop into her music and was defeated. That is, until she had earned enough commercial clout to do so; and this apparent “gamble” paid off.  She was a racially ambiguous singer typically read as “white,” who gradually integrated blacker urban influences into her music, as pop music itself was becoming more influenced by hip-hop. Though Mary J. Blige is understood as the queen of hip-hop soul, “Fantasy” and “Always Be My Baby” blended hip-hop, R&B and pop in a quietly transformative way. After Carey’s success in this style Houston embraced it on 1998’s My Love is Your Love, and even Celine Dion started adding R&B touches to her albums.  

Since the late 1990s, Carey’s influence on other singers has grown more apparent (e.g., Christina Aguilera, Beyoncé, Kelly Clarkson, Jessica Simpson) but her struggle to remain relevant has also emerged. Butterfly debuted at number one and had two number one hits but was not the colossal success of her previous albums in sales or in airplay. 1999’s Rainbow just missed the number one pop albums spot, and though she had two big pop/R&B hits from it the set was also perceived as a downturn in sales.  Her experience is similar to other female pop singers who regularly enjoyed robust sales and airplay in the 1990's such as Janet Jackson. In the 2000's Carey struggled personally and professionally to uphold her previous image. Midway through the decade she had a “comeback” with 2005’s Emancipation of Mimi, but has struggled to maintain its momentum as she has matured and as the record industry has adapted to the digital revolution, changing demographics, the decline of brick-and-mortar stores and competing forms of media influence.

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Carey emerged in the midst of “big pop” a period when pop stars regularly sold multiplatinum albums that spawned multiple singles, mostly from the mid-1980s through the mid-1990s. This was the era of mega-selling albums such as Thriller, Can’t Slow Down, Like a Virgin, Purple Rain, She’s So Unusual, Whitney Houston, No Jacket Required, and Faith. She filled a void on Columbia’s roster and provided the label with a reliable commercial anchor who could compete with Paula Abdul, Phil Collins, Whitney Houston, Janet Jackson, Michael Jackson, Madonna and other chart-makers of the early 1990s. She proved herself to be musically adept across age, format and taste cultures during several transitions in pop music. As a relatively self-contained musician, typically in tune with musical trends, her instincts served her well for over a decade. After over 25 years of recording, she has had to confront the artistic quandary for big pop stars:  Their talents gave them an audience, but as audiences shrink and tastes change, they have to figure out how, and if, their talents can keep them in the spotlight. The alternatives are to try to adapt to changing tastes and/or to relinquish the spotlight and simply make the music they want to make rather than competing with contemporary pop.

Pop fame is a remarkably addictive temptation. Legendary performers like Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald Peggy Lee, and Sarah Vaughan all had fallow periods when they tried to stay current. Their natural abilities often clashed with attempts to cover rock material and they eventually returned to the kind of music that made them famous. 

Carey has to figure out how viable she is for present and future audiences.  As a listener I distinguish her career from more traditional divas like Houston and Dion who have always depended more on outside material and producer/executives’ instincts to shape their sounds. She also differs from singers like Jackson and Madonna whose careers depend more heavily on their personae and performing abilities than vocal precision.  Arguably, two promising approaches that continue to constrain her are ambition and risk. First, though pop is full of pretentious “art rock” and “concept albums” that go nowhere, I rarely sense Carey developing her albums conceptually. Beyond writing well-crafted love songs and scoring hits, it is not clear if she is thinking on the conceptual plane that musicians as varied as The Beatles, Bob Dylan, Terence Trent D’Arby, Lauryn Hill, Madonna, Joni Mitchell, U2, or Stevie Wonder have employed. She seems capable to this listener but I am not sure if she believes it.

Second, Carey might benefit from looking at the payoffs for some of pop music’s risk takers. A few examples:

·         After six years of albums featuring orchestras and show tunes Barbra Streisand made peace with modern pop on 1971’s Stoney End and Barbra Joan Streisand adding Carole King, John Lennon, Gordon Lightfoot, Joni Mitchell, Laura Nyro, Randy Newman, and Harry Nilsson to her repertoire alongside of Harold Arlen and Jules Styne. Though she is not a rock singer by any stretch, she modernized her sound finding some folk-pop, R&B, and soft rock that gelled with her sound. She mostly maintained her audience and gained new ones.

·         Donna Summer quickly became the “Queen of Disco” around 1976, and she gradually grew beyond its confines adding conceptual dimensions, and other stylistic influences that peaked on 1979’s Bad Girls. But her finest album was actually 1980’s The Wanderer, a moderately popular but thoroughly accomplished album with touches of rock, new wave, pop, and even gospel that redefined her sound and career for the 1980s.

·         Linda Ronstadt completely upended her image in the 1980s by performing in Pirates of Penzance and La Boheme in New York, recording three standards albums with Nelson Riddle and recording what eventually became a trilogy of Spanish language albums. Though her record label was highly reluctant, she had earned the audience and profits to more than justify these experiments, which ultimately transformed her singing. 1987’s Trio and 1989’s Cry Like a Rainstorm illustrated her enduring commercial appeal even after seemingly abandoning mainstream pop.

·         Madonna had a succession of hit albums and singles from 1983 forward and from these successes came 1989’s Like a Prayer. Though it is clearly aiming for “seriousness” her conceptual reach indicated greater artistic ambitions than being an MTV provocateur. The album’s genuine explorations of religion, sexuality, and family propelled her from an entertainer to an artist and afforded her newfound critical respect without diminishing her commercial appeal.


As odd as it seems to reference albums recorded from 1971-89 this is part of my larger point: Pop musicians of Carey’s generation rarely deviate from established formulas. Daydream was definitely a progression in its blend of hip-hop elements with pop/soul, and Butterfly was even more experimental in many respects. But, there is an element of daring missing from Carey’s repertoire that would help her grow artistically and enrich her critical stature. Whether audiences will follow is less relevant than her potential to lead.

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To enjoy listening to someone like Mariah Carey is a kind of badge of vulgarity, right?

She seems so obvious, so commercial, so pop, so excessive, so shameless, so over-the-top, so obsessive, so slick. Respectable people are not supposed to take pop divas like Carey (and forebears like Whitney Houston, or followers like Kelly Clarkson) “seriously.” Carl Wilson’s brilliant 2007 book on Celine Dion (reprinted and expanded in 2014) Let’s Talk About Love: Why Other People Have Such Bad Taste is one of the best analyses of this subject of musical taste.

In rock and pop critical circles, “Serious” is a term reserved for male singer-songwriters in rock, soul, hip-hop and certain subgenres of country. “Serious” is mostly for music that is not “pop” except when it is. The critical community champions rock and roll for its cultural revolution of bringing black influenced culture to the mainstream. Yet, up until the 2000's, the demographics of rock criticism were incredibly homogeneous and conservative. Few non-white males had the opportunity to gain the national prominence or critical respect of Robert Christgau, Anthony DeCurtis, Jon Landau, Greil Marcus or Dave Marsh to name a few rock critic superstars.

As such, rock criticism’s’ insularity has narrowed the discourse of the aesthetic expressions respectable in mainstream popular music. Rockers, country outlaws, gritty soul men and hip-hop are OK. Women can also enter this club as long as they adhere to these archetypes. When critics accord female pop singer respect, they often write in tones of shock and condescension. Who knew she could do that.

Women who are angry and gritty are admitted to the canon, but other kinds of expression—vulnerability, optimism, ambivalence, buoyancy, sensuality—are harder to trace in the language of pop/rock criticism. The easiest way to address “pop” is to dismiss it as ephemeral drivel. Kelefan Sanneh has addressed this in her 2004 critique of Rockism in the New York Times, and it bears repeating (“The Rap Against Rockism,” New York Times, October 31, 2004, Sec. 2, pp. 1, 32). I disagree with the Rockist perspective on pop, and I have devoted much of my previous writing exploring the kinds of singers and genres critics often dismiss as light, trivial, and irrelevant to notions of “art.” Within this, I have located reservoirs of artistic richness and depth easy to dismiss if you are never encouraged to look.

Among these overlooked figures, Carey fascinates me because her vocal palette, range of skills, and facility with synthesizing influences is highly unusual in the pop world. My observations may sometimes seem defensive or even feature moments of appreciation, but my reading is not a defense or an appraisal. I am raising the question of why it might be useful to examine Carey critically, for I have seen little that convinces me that she is unworthy of study. I will state upfront that she is not conceptual in the vein of a pop artist like Madonna, nor is she renowned as a “performer” in the vein of singer-dance-performer extraordinaire Michael Jackson, to name two pop figures frequently subject to cultural criticism. Some of her contemporaries, notably Mary J. Blige, have stronger “personae” than she has ever mustered. Regardless, I still find her compelling; I always want to know what she it up to presently and next.

Buried within her discography are hundreds of special moments that set her apart. Her 2003 double-disc Remixes is as important to understanding her as her Greatest Hits collection. Her singles and her albums (in the digital era) regularly feature bonus cuts that include unreleased songs or interesting remixes that suggest all kinds of artistic frequencies beyond what you might hear on the radio or watch on a video channel. In the 1990's, she may have seemed like the most conventional, middle-of-the road (MOR) formulaic pop diva, but she was actually a champagne cork ready to be released. Things slowly seeped out on 1995’s Daydream, a pivotal recording where she began to split from MOR goddess to a more modern and believable singer. She aged backwards, embraced hipper styles and grew more sensuous abandoning the kind of wholesomeness that made her songs anthems of beauty pageants, proms and weddings.

Despite the misbegotten notion that she suddenly became “black” when she thought it would sell more records there are few pop singers of her generation more influenced by classic “black” American musical styles—especially gospel and jazz. At her best, her melismatic control, fluid phrasing, call and response arrangements and instrumental choices brilliantly signify to her musical predecessors. Within these, she has also integrated traces of hip-hop seamlessly. The little scat passages in “Dreamlover” and on the dance remix of “Anytime You Need a Friend” hint at vocal prowess yet unleashed. Her background vocal arrangements on songs like “Vision of Love,” “If It’s Over,” “Jesus (Oh What a Wonderful Child),” “I Am Free,” “Outside,” and “Fly Like a Bird” could easily make her a stellar full-time gospel arranger.

Carey’s challenge is the “hint” element. The raw talent is there and when it comes together, it is as brilliant and accomplished as any contemporary post 1980's popular music. Her struggle to pull it all together consistently is part of the appeal. She has accumulated an abundance of micro level ambitions that surface in fragments and patches, rather than the whole we favor in the albums era. I am faithful/hopeful her records have suggested what she can do but that more is to come.

From 2001-2004 she risked becoming a 1990's relic; then in 2005 she turned things around with The Emancipation of Mimi. 2008’s E=MC2 was less impactful though it spawned the requisite big hit (“Touch My Body”) and debuted at #1. Too bad, because in many ways it is a more idiosyncratic and distinctly personal album. If Emancipation re-established Carey as a commercial force in the digital era, E=MC2 allowed her more personal freedom. Rocker Ryan Adams had a very revealing interview that spoke to the odd frequencies she was operating in.

According to Adams, “I feel like Mariah is loosening up, finding herself again. This is a woman who makes amazing albums. She got panned for Glitter, but she was just taking a stab at her 8 Mile, Purple Rain and Xanadu. With The Emancipation of Mimi she figured out how to dig back into songs and jams and not overdo it vocally. Her pride probably got hurt, she had something to prove, she went nah, watch this, I’m going to emancipate myself — and the record demonstrated this. E=MC2 (Island) is a very sexy, cool record. She’s funny, the beats are great, a lot of slow jams. She’s not a pop star; she writes her own stuff, and she really collaborates. Her sampling ideas are well informed; she’s very involved in her recording process. Her records are masterpieces” (“A Dash of Metal and A Whole Lot of Mainstream,” New York Times, October 26, 2008, AR29).

 Though Carey does not need Adams to affirm her, he is a restless eclectic in the manner of Elvis Costello, who has certainly soaked up a lot of pop music in his day. Similarly, Ben Folds, wrote, “She’s got the most amazing voice. Although the production on her new album, The Emancipation of Mimi (Island), may turn some off, I find the sheer talent involved reason enough to listen. I love classic soul ballads like “Mine Again” and “Fly Like a Bird.”' I also like that she's using her voice on this album more like a male singer might, like Prince. She could show off and belt but she’s evolving and doesn’t seem to need to prove herself every bar, so you get the Interpretation of an amazing singer” (“Arty, Twangy and Carey,” New York Times, May 8, 2005, p. A17). 2009’s Memoirs of an Imperfect Angel is even weirder—there are traces of humor, regional slang, and allusions that defy the stereotype of Carey as a pop-soul simpleton. Her most recent studio album, 2014’s wildly eclectic Me. I Am Mariah. The Elusive Chanteuse, was not a big hit, but it also unpeeled some musical and personal layers.

I share all of this because I am working toward a book of cultural criticism on Carey. My interest in exploring Carey’s career as a book project is not to redeem, condemn, preserve or other finite functions, but to illuminate tones and layers people are not hearing. Her racial and ethnic identity, her relationship to different musical genres, the media’s framing of Carey’s professional relationships with men and women, and other related themes, are areas I am excited to explore. I hope this preview leads you to reconsider the familiar.