Mariah Carey, Pervert And Genius
Jane Hu: So, I have a confession. Last night I sang “We Belong Together” at karaoke and am basically forcing you now — the most intelligent Elusive Chanteuse scholar I know — to yak about her. But I don’t really feel that bad since this just happened:
Jen, this video is so #onbrand. It’s like ’90s Mariah unhinged and imported to 2015, replete with texts from exes, speech bubbles, and multi-syllabic adverbs like “truthfully.” The bridge is perfect too: rhyming “Have you ever felt this on your own?” with “Everything you own, boy, you still owe.” #Ooh. #Aah.
Jen Vafidis: God, I laughed so much when I watched the lyric video for this, Jane. It’s such an insane song, but also totally predictable in its insanity. How does she keep writing songs like this? How does she keep finding more ways to be Mariah Carey? I’m almost embarrassed by her, but, as Jim Steinman always says, if you don’t go over the top, you can’t see what’s on the other side.
Hu: It’s the perfect original single to include on a Best Of compilation album. The only person who is allowed to straight up giggle at the outro of a song without judgment is Mariah Carey.
Vaf: Ugh, I love her. She’s the corniest. The part of me that loves Mariah is the same part of me that looks for a KISS FM/Quiet Storm radio station in every rental car I drive. She convinced people to expand the definition of “diva” to include Hello Kitty-themed bathrooms. She’s a pervert and a genius.
Hu: She’s widened the category of diva so much that — and not to say that I can move like Mariah, but also — her bounce/shimmy move is, like, solidly in my dance repertoire? She makes you feel like a princess when you’re moving like a dork. I don’t even know where to start, Jen. With our first Mariah Carey songs? With how she’s an unstoppable business woman? With how “We Belong Together” — a relatively chill song by Mariah standards — is deceptively hard to sing? She is the Chopin of our time.
Vaf: Mariah has a five-octave vocal range, as any major bio would tell you. It takes presidential-candidate-level confidence to step to that.
Hu: While I know she’s not the first pop artist to pull out that head-voice falsetto (RIP Minnie Riperton), I do feel like she kind of owns it now? Like, I get where Leona Lewis and Ariana Grande (both, like Riperton and Carey, women of color btw!) are getting at, but it always just feels like a showy version of “Dreamlover.”
Vaf: This is an Ariana-agnostic column. Minnie Riperton, however, is god-status. Mariah cites Minnie as the reason she ever tried to do that whisper-sing thing in the first place.
Hu: I actually just looked up their names together and found a hundred messages boards that were all “Minnie OR Mariah”? Mariah’s acknowledgment of Minnie’s influence is such a rejection of that tired sexist oppositioning. Though speaking of definitive rankings — I’m pretty sure that’s an impossible task when it comes to Mariah, but am nonetheless feeling pretty validated about how high “We Belong Together” is on this list. So I kind of want to begin there. Is “All I Want For Christmas” #1 for purely kitsch/music video excellence reasons?? I’m not hating!!! I love that song. But, c’mon. “We Belong Together”:
Sampling Bobby Womack and The Deele?? Mariah is seriously too deep (too deep).
Vaf: OK, OK, I love “We Belong Together,” you know this. It’s a comeback record, so there is that pleasurable subtext: Mariah not only belongs with her imagined paramour, she also belongs with us. And the video happens to feature a Downmarket Channing Tatum named Wentworth Kennedy or something, and I certainly can appreciate that, even though the real thing would have been a deadly confluence of elements for me. But I want to come to bat for “All I Want For Christmas,” not that it really needs my help, and not just because I enjoy the main music video. (Remember: there are three.)
Hu: LOL. (lol.)
Vaf: Even for Mariah, that’s remarkably unhinged. For one thing, there’s no other song like “All I Want For Christmas” in her catalogue, on the level of giddiness, and that’s why it deserves some respect; even her Christmas songs don’t really sound like it or achieve the same effect. It’s the Christmas song Phil Spector wishes he had produced, with all respect to Darlene Love. Also: she managed to create a new Christmas standard — against most of America’s will, to hear some nice but wrong friends of mine tell it — and how often does that happen? It just gets more and more popular. And of course, lyrically, it’s so stupid it’s timeless. Honestly, what better thing can you say about a pop song?
Hu: Oooh, that framing is clarifying! “All I Want For Christmas” is ultimately more pop song than Christmas standard, but it’s definitely both. Yeah, I also love the deep desperation that pervades it!!! Actually, I love the desperation in many of Mariah’s songs. “Obsessed,” “Can’t Let Go,” “I Still Believe,” and more recently “Cry,” which features the perfectly selfish line: “I need to hold you until we break.” There’s a near mania to a lot of them, but it’s expertly offset by fluff, honey, glitter. (BTW, one Christmas I bought a friend the soundtrack to Glitter; and then got jealous so bought myself the soundtrack to Glitter. The fact that I know every word to the Glitter soundtrack is…a testament of my love for her.) Mariah manages to be both smooth and frenzied, and the production on her songs often masks excessive content.
Which is why I want to bring us way back to the music video of “Heartbreaker,” which displays a pretty campy — albeit still startling — scene of girl-on-girl violence:
That’s some literal horror and shit happening right there. But Jen! This was the pop culture I grew up on. This music video was deeply informative to my childhood! “We’re gonna go in there and we’re gonna kick his butt! And we’re gonna kick her butt too!!” I can’t help but think that this song was canon for Taylor Swift too, whose “Picture to Burn” seems to cite from it — down to the car.
Vaf: God, you’re right. Also I see shades of this:
Vaf: Maybe when Stephen Holden said Russ Meyer created John Waters, Madonna, and “anything and everything else in popular culture that proudly advertises itself as trash,” he also was talking about Mariah. Although she doesn’t really proclaim herself as trash, per se. But she does create a vulgar character, all tits and ass and emotion, who’s not just selling sex or love but also female power. Plus, she manages to look like she’s having fun the entire time. God, she’s so good at looking like she’s having fun. One of the happiest pop stars, at least by the looks of it. I mean, look at her:
Hu: I think that’s why she’s the best person to sing when you want to belt some heartachey power ballad at karaoke — but also, want to feel, like, not totally bummed and defenseless doing it? One of my favorite upbeat Mariah songs is “Touch My Body,” which is both “let’s have so much fun,” but also, “I have boundaries.” And not just any boundaries: SOCIAL MEDIA BOUNDARIES. The way she briskly chirps “touch my body” and then draws out “I will hunt you down” is like FUN! BOUNDARIES! FUN! BOUNDARIES! She’s so coy. And yes a little manic! But all on Mariah’s own terms.
Vaf: She’s always in control. Even in “Fantasy,” she’s only getting “kind of” hectic inside, you know? And her covers are mostly restrained but powerful ballads, like “One More Try” (great choice) or “The Beautiful Ones” (would be great if not for Sisqo), that are full of vulnerable moments but never quite fall apart. Everything is totally consensual with Mariah. She’ll build a whole website dedicated to pictures of her family — last I checked, dembabies.com was still churning out content, in spite of the dissolution of that marriage — but she’ll hold back details of her breakups. You’re right, everything is on her terms! You know, people (women) are always like, oh my god I wish I were Beyonce, I wish I had that much control over everything, but Mariah gets the job done too.
Hu: She contains multitudes. Mariah Carey: More American Than Walt Whitman. Also, not white! But not definitively black either. Mariah walks that complicated line of being ambiguously racialized and so not immediately representing any exact race per se.
~ “Race is not inherent.” — Mariah Carey ~
I mean, we could pause and do a complete breakdown of How Mariah Carey Performs Race (would we start with her hair transformation? her booty jeans?), but I’m far more interested in how she signals it through her music and her voice. Mariah’s technically of a mixed-race background, and some haters have accused her of copping to her race only when convenient, but I don’t think she’s ever been misleading about what is already a complex subject position. The race definition thing was already A Thing back in 1999. See this quote from Jet:
Ethnically, I’m a person of mixed race. My father’s mother was African-American. His father was from Venezuela. My mother is Irish. I see myself as a person of color who happens to be mixed with a lot of things…No matter what you say, when someone asks you the question “What are you?” and you say “Black” and you look mixed, they’re going to ask what you’re mixed with. That’s what always happens. I think a lot of people who look at me and don’t know a lot about mixed-race people are confused by it. Therefore, comments are made. What I find racist and unfair is that if someone’s half Chinese and half Italian, that’s two different races, why are they not forced to constantly define what they are? When it comes to a Black and a White thing, people are up in arms. I’ve dealt with it (the topic of race) in the past. Unless they want me to put a sticker on every album with a description of my ethnic background, I don’t know how much more I can do.
“I SEE MYSELF AS A PERSON OF COLOR WHO HAPPENS TO BE MIXED WITH A LOT OF THINGS” (all-caps mine). Mic-drop. MC. Multitudes.
In his autobiography Young, Rich, and Dangerous, Jermaine Dupris emphasizes that it was more often Columbia Records who wanted to downplay Mariah’s race:
For a minute Mariah‚ or MC as I like to call her‚ had been itching to do something different from the usual safe stuff that her label wanted her to stick with. But every time she suggested some hip-hop guy to work with Tommy [Mottola] said, “No way.” He didn’t trust some rapper/producer being around his girl. I guess it was part jealousy and part fear that an association like that might hurt his image with her fan base.
Even though Mariah always considered herself to be first and foremost a black woman, everyone at the label was scared of her being too urban. She’s far from ‘hood rat, but she’s definitely a lil’ ghetto and she was tired of being called the “ballad queen.”
Oof, this passage is amazing. “Diva” is a better designation than ballad queen too; the history of the diva is one that cannot ignore race. (Also R-E-S-P-E-C-T to this other note from Dupris, aka the person who helped produce “Always Be My Baby”: “Most of my artists had no idea what to do and were looking to me to tell them, but Mariah sold tens of millions of records and I didn’t think she’d take kindly to being bossed by me.”)
Vaf: If Jermaine likes it, as MC says, then I like it. She really is a boss. And her list of collaborations with “some hip-hop guy” is kind of staggering. Here is an incomplete list of the people she has featured on her songs: Boyz II Men, Ol’ Dirty Bastard, Dru Hill, Bone Thugs, Da Brat, JD, Jay-Z, Missy, Snoop Dogg, Mystikal, Master P, Usher, Ludacris, Cameo (!), Ja Rule, Nate Dogg, Busta Rhymes, Fabolous, DJ Clue, Luther Vandross, Cam’ron, Freeway, Jadakiss, Twista, Nelly, T-Pain, Jeezy, Nas, Joe, The-Dream, Nicki Minaj, R. Kelly, Mary J. Blige, Akon, K-Ci and JoJo, Gucci Mane, Big Boi, Wale, and (deep breath) Miguel. That feels like…everyone in the music business? Almost everyone.
Shall we go through the periods of Mariah and say our favorite songs from each? Or at least the songs we haven’t already highlighted. I’ll start with the early years, the Mottola years: “Emotions.”
I like this song because the lyrics make it seem like Mariah is just now learning how to speak English. “You’ve got me feeling emotions.” If someone said that to me, I would straight up laugh. I also like this song because it feels like Ashford and Simpson ghostwrote the melody.
Hu: Oh, this is tough. Special props to “Fantasy,” “Always Be My Baby,” and “Dreamlover,” but I think I need to honor my grade younger self and say: “Hero.”
I took this elective in grade 8 where we basically recorded ourselves singing songs over midi files. I sang “Hero” — to the dismay of many of my classmates, undoubtedly — approximately four times each class, for half a year. Honestly, I wish I had a recording of 13-year-old me belting “Hero.” But then again, don’t we all.
Vaf: You’re perfect. So now I guess we’re in the sexy Jeter years? The “Honey” years. Her first emancipation. Pre-Glitter, post-Mottola, and no longer pretending she wasn’t “urban.”
Hu: I feel like when people think “Mariah Carey” these days, this is probably the era they’re most likely to recall.
Vaf: Definitely. This really influenced how I thought of the traditional feminine.
Vaf: I mean, Butterfly is what MC considers her “magnum opus.” How can you choose. Shouts to the video for “Honey” where she’s a secret agent, but my favorite is “Breakdown” with Bone Thugs. Maybe 40% because I love Bone Thugs, 60% because it’s just great.
It’s like a Bone Thugs song, but almost entirely sung by Mariah. And no mention of the Bone Thugs’ renowned Uncle Charles.
Hu: OK, my answer to this is totally unambiguous: “My All.”
This song is DARK, Jen. I just love how it builds. I love how it sounds both like a torch song and a sex song. I love how it sort of sounds like the Backstreet Boys ballad “Spanish Eyes.”
Vaf: Ah yes, that classic. (I have never heard that.)
Hu: “When I look into your Spanish eyes / I know the reason why I am alive / And the world is so beautiful tonight.” — Backstreet Boys, “Spanish Eyes.” Jen, I just looked up this song for you for lols, and now I am listening to it ALL.
Vaf: LOL I am never going to listen to it.
Hu: I will listen to it for both of us. OK, moving on to a very special, very deep-cuts-y album…
Vaf: So. Jane. What’s your favorite song on Glitter? Mine is the one with Mystikal, “Don’t Stop (Funkin’ 4 Jamaica),” which is a delirious and horrible song that includes the line “I’m known to be more funky than a garbage truck.”
America let that happen.
Hu: America wanted it to!
My favorite Glitter track is “Never Too Far,” which, like a lot of my favorite Mariah, is primarily interested in radiating ecstatic heartache. But I think, unlike a lot of the songs on the album, “Never Too Far” actually has a genuinely interesting melody line. And thematically, it’s about commemorating a former relationship, rather than clinging to it. It anticipates “The Art of Letting Go.”
Vaf: Should we just skip Charmbracelet? Can we just go to the Mimi era? I think my favorite from this era is “Don’t Forget About Us” from The Emancipation of Mimi. Or maybe “Fly Like A Bird”? Or the original and far more superior “Shake It Off”? That album has too many gems. You?
Hu: Mine is “We Belong Together,” hands down, which we’ve already discussed. But everything you named — or basically the whole album — is significant. The title is crucial too, since I think this album is when Mariah goes full “urban” or whatever.
Vaf: Yeah, she just sinks into it. The other day at Walgreen’s I heard “Vision of Love” and was reminded of how far she has come.
Hu: It’s funny, because I get how artists like Ariana owe a lot to Emancipation, but it’s also so clear that Mariah nails something about the potential pathos of more upbeat/dancier numbers that I don’t hear as much in contemporary charts anymore? Like, I’d describe “One & Only” as profound.
Vaf: She’s mighty real. So is the next era late-late Mariah? “The Art of Letting Go” and The Elusive Chanteuse? I love “Cry.” It’s almost embarrassingly excessive.
Hu: Sob. OK, you can disagree with me, and it’s probably just presentism, but I still set aside Elusive Chanteuse as its own weird separate thing! Nothing on that album really coheres together? It’s ok. Mariah keeps getting weirder and weirder, but for everything before that album, I’d definitely single out “I’ll Be Lovin’ U Long Time.”
This is probably just below “We Belong Together” for me.
Vaf: That’s insane, but I respect you. That’s one of those late Mariah songs with a terrible title but an undeniable melody. Like “#Beautiful.”
Hu: I’m pretty sure I read somewhere that “I’ll Be Lovin’ U Long Time” is one of Antony’s favorite songs!!
Vaf: As in Antony and the Johnsons? That is amazing.
Hu: YES. I think learning that fact definitely influenced my take on the song. If there’s something Antony gets it’s syncopation, and the syncopation in that song is undeniable, after all.
Vaf: Now I’m listening to it, and I’m agreeing with you. Ugh.
Hu: BLESS ANTONY.
Vaf: Okay, let’s end on this note: what’s your favorite Mariah adverb? Mine is “indefinitely,” as sung in “Always Be My Baby,” where every syllable gets overpronounced.
Hu: I love the way she sings “disarming” in “Heartbreaker,” and how it slides into the “I’m” of the next line. The whole thing just oozes.
Popular Music is a monthly column about music that is popular.
Jen Vafidis is a writer living in Brooklyn. “Vision of Love” was her first favorite Mariah song.
Jane Hu is a writer living in Oakland. “Can’t Let Go” was her first favorite Mariah song.