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ON TOP
Mariah Carey’s record-breaking career.
by SASHA FRERE-JONES
Issue of 2006-04-03
Posted 2006-03-27

Mariah Carey is thirty-six years old, and, barring a debilitating illness, or another movie as bad as “Glitter,” her 2001 vanity project, she will likely break the world record for the most No. 1 songs before she turns forty. The Beatles had twenty, and Carey is currently tied with Elvis Presley for second place, at seventeen.

She could almost break the record this year: her latest studio album—her tenth—“The Emancipation of Mimi,” has what music professionals call “legs.” It was the biggest-selling album of 2005—it has sold 5.5 million copies in the United States—and it has yielded two No. 1 songs: the gentle ballad “Don’t Forget About Us” and “We Belong Together,” an equally gentle but catchier number that held the No. 1 spot for fourteen weeks, longer than any other song so far this decade. There are two singles from “Mimi” on the radio right now, the hip-hop dance number “Say Somethin’ ” and the churchy vocal workout “Fly Like a Bird.” If these songs don’t take Carey to nineteen, she could still go on vacation for the next six months and finish the year with her résumé intact. She was the biggest-selling female artist of the nineties and is the first woman to have three studio albums sell more than eight million copies each in this country. She has written or co-written sixteen of her seventeen No. 1 hits, more than any other female composer, and has produced twelve No. 1 songs, more than any other woman.

Not all Carey’s achievements are commercial, though: she co-wrote one of the few worthy modern additions to the holiday canon, the charming “All I Want for Christmas Is You” (from “Merry Christmas,” of 1994, which also happens to be the best-selling Christmas album of all time, but never mind that). And when she sang her perky dance hit “Emotions” at the 1991 MTV Video Music Awards, she reportedly sounded a G-sharp three and a half octaves above middle C, one of the highest notes produced by a human voice in the history of recorded music. (Party poopers say that the note was actually an F-sharp.)

Carey’s freakish vocal ability explains part of her appeal. In the same way that people went to a San Francisco Giants game in order to see Barry Bonds hit a home run, people buy Carey’s records in order to hear her do things with her voice that no one else can do. Her first No. 1 song, “Vision of Love” (1990), made it clear that her instrument was the story—and it has remained so, through a celebrity marriage (to Tommy Mottola, then the chief of Sony Music), rumored breakdowns, and the public’s obligatory obsession with her weight. Carey can sing lower notes, like an alto, and extremely high notes, like a coloratura soprano, which says something about her range but little about her style. The brutish purity of her voice places her in pop’s theatrical lineage, in the company of singers like Barbra Streisand, but Carey’s aesthetic is not Broadway, or even particularly white. She is essentially an R. & B. singer, steeped in gospel, soul, and, especially, hip-hop, and she is a master practitioner of melisma, a vocal technique that dates back to Gregorian chant and is common in African-American church singing.

Melisma describes the act of taking one syllable of a lyric and stretching it over several notes—or, in Carey’s case, sometimes ten or twenty. “Vision of Love” is the Magna Carta of melisma. Whitney Houston popularized it, but Carey made melisma a required move for both R. & B. singers and contestants on “American Idol.” (Five years ago, before a concert in Peoria, Illinois, Beyoncé Knowles told me that she started doing vocal “runs” after hearing “Vision of Love.”) The song is a florid composition that expresses the philosophy that Carey has disseminated profitably for sixteen years: love will triumph and everything will be all right. (As she puts it in the song: “I had a vision of love, and it was all that you turned out to be.”) It begins with several bars of lovely, wordless melisma, as if Carey were warming up, and it ends with two very loud passages of melisma, one of them an a-cappella expansion on the word “all” that can be roughly transcribed as: “ah-ha-uh-uh-oh-oo-oh-ooah-ha-uh-uh-oh-oo-oh-oo-ah-oh.”

Calisthenics are only one aspect of “Vision of Love,” however. The chord changes, which are played on electric piano, are reminiscent of early Billy Joel—obvious, consonant, and rich. Carey’s sound changes with nearly every line, mutating from a steely tone to a vibrating growl and then to a humid, breathy coo. The melisma is what people remember about the song, like a ninth-inning grand slam, but that’s not what made it a hit. Carey, who co-wrote it, knew that the singing should bob and weave while the verses move toward a climax—the words are secondary.

Carey couldn’t have succeeded simply by persuading people that she was a craftsman. Her big ballads—“Vision of Love,” along with No. 1 bromides like “Thank God I Found You” and “My All”—appeal to people who otherwise don’t listen to pop. These are people who probably also like Andrea Bocelli and Céline Dion, singers who avoid the sexual tug of the blues and the glorious noises of rock and hip-hop in favor of tremulous expressions of chaste emotion. Yet Carey, more than any other musician, established R. & B. and hip-hop as the sound of pop. One of her frothiest and most delightful No. 1 hits was “Dreamlover” (1993), which features a loop of The Emotions’ 1971 soul tune “Blind Alley,” a song made famous by the rapper Big Daddy Kane, who sampled it in his 1988 track “Ain’t No Half-Steppin’. ” Beginning in 1995, rappers started performing guest verses on Carey’s songs. Suddenly, people who would cross the street to avoid listening to hip-hop were bringing rappers into their house, under the cover of Carey. It became standard for R. & B. stars, like Missy Elliott and Beyoncé, to combine melodies with rapped verses. And young white pop stars—including Britney Spears, ’N Sync, and Christina Aguilera—have spent much of the past ten years making pop music that is unmistakably R. & B.

Among Carey’s best and strangest collaborations with a rapper was a remix of her song “Fantasy,” in 1995. After it was already No. 1, she invited Ol’ Dirty Bastard, from the Wu-Tang Clan, to rhyme over the song, which is built around a sample of the chirping 1981 track “Genius of Love,” by the Tom Tom Club. (Carey has often described herself as an “eternal twelve-year-old,” an assertion borne out by her enthusiasm not just for rainbows, butterflies, and glitter—all of which appear on her album covers—but for the songs that were actually on the radio when she was a teen-ager.) Carey’s sunny world view is a perfect match for the Tom Tom Club’s twinkling keyboards; Ol’ Dirty Bastard, on the other hand, who died of a drug overdose in 2004, was the last person you would imagine hiring for such a sanguine track, and the dissonance is entertaining. “Me and Mariah go back like babies with pacifiers,” he begins his verse. At the end of the song, Carey coos about her “lucky boyfriend” while Ol’ Dirty growls “sweet baby” behind her; he sounds drunk, as though he might fall over. (Ol’ Dirty is apparently not the lucky boyfriend, but Mariah seems to like him anyway.)

“The Emancipation of Mimi” includes no songs as effortlessly cheery or as durable as “Dreamlover” and “Fantasy,” partly because Carey’s melodies now meander, in keeping with current trends in R. & B., and have lost the clarity that pop demands. “Mimi” is Carey’s most thoroughly R. & B. record; even the big ballads are in the “slow jam” vein and have little to do with Las Vegas, opera, or doo-wop. There are only a couple of Hallmark duds to skip over; you can enjoy Carey’s expansive vocalisms without begrudging her moments of brassy self-affirmation.

In some ways, Carey resembles U2, another veteran act currently having extraordinary success late in a long career. (“How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb,” the group’s most recent release, won the Grammy for best album of 2005 and has sold three million copies in the United States.) Both acts have left experimentation to their juniors and are sticking to what they do best. In the case of U2, this means using the heavy rhythms and glassy guitar sound that first gained the band notice, in the early eighties. In Carey’s case, this means singing R. & B. but without the scenery-inhaling ballads that helped her sell millions of copies. Her decision largely to omit those ballads from “Mimi” is commercially gutsy—if multimillionaires can be gutsy—and it makes sense. The album’s songs were produced by a host of people, including Jermaine Dupri, Kanye West, and the Neptunes, who have been guiding R. & B. and hip-hop during the past few years. Carey, having proved that she has the lungs of an opera singer, is now making the music that she has always listened to. Her idea of pairing a female songbird with the leading male m.c.s of hip-hop changed R. & B. and, eventually, all of pop. Although now anyone is free to use this idea, the success of “Mimi” suggests that it still belongs to Carey.




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