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Carey On

The inspiring resilience of Mariah Carey

Who's number one?: Mariah Carey onstage at the 2005 BET Awards in Hollwywood, California. (Kevin Winter/Getty Images.
Who's number one?: Mariah Carey onstage at the 2005 BET Awards in Hollwywood, California. (Kevin Winter/Getty Images.

Being as rich and renowned as Mariah Carey has its perks. You no longer have to make your own grilled-cheese sandwiches, and you don’t have to force your pet to fly economy class. But sustaining that fame and its accompanying lifestyle requires every scrap of your being, especially with musical trends, the meddlesome press and your own deteriorating judgment constantly conspiring against you.

Just ask Whitney Houston, poor girl. In the late ’80s, she was the queen of pop; after a series of drug busts and public meltdowns, she’s a mere husk of her former self, less a performer than a punch line.

Whitney’s had some awful luck, but Mariah hasn’t fared much better. There was her acrimonious divorce from label executive Tommy Mottola, a hospitalization in 2001 that led to psychiatric treatment, a little calamity called Glitter and her dismissal from Virgin Records (and you thought pop stars couldn’t get fired).

Courtesy Universal Music Canada.
Courtesy Universal Music Canada.
Yet Carey is coming off her most triumphant year ever. The Emancipation of Mimi, her 10th album, debuted at number one and became her bestselling record since 1995’s Daydream. Last week, Carey earned eight nominations for the Grammy Awards, to be held in February.

So why is Mariah’s singing career on the rebound, while Whitney’s has come to a thudding stop? Ultimately, Mariah is pop’s reigning diva because she’s convinced it’s her role to fill. She treats it as though it is her birthright, and defends it with the necessary tenacity — to the point where she has a personal assistant who ensures her skirts never touch the ground. Whitney, on the other hand, has lost the plot, doing patently un-diva-esque things like appearing in a warts-and-all reality show (Being Bobby Brown, about her wayward husband). Mariah probably can’t even bring herself to say “warts.”

Whether you like Mariah or think she’s kitsch incarnate, you must concede that the 35-year-old songstress is astoundingly resilient. She’s had great misfortune but never relinquished her pop crown. Don’t be fooled by her burnished skin, vertiginous heels or boundless vanity: Mariah Carey is the ultimate street fighter when it comes to holding on to her position as pop diva numero uno.

2005 is being heralded as Mariah’s comeback year, but it’s actually the product of a slow boil that began in 1997, the year Mariah’s relationship with Mottola became a public spectacle. Carey met Mottola at a party in the late-1980s. At the time, Carey was singing back-up for Brenda K. Starr; Mottola was an executive with Sony. Mottola left the party early with Carey’s demo tape. After popping it into his car stereo, then taking a moment to retrieve his jaw from under his seat, Mottola rushed back to the party to meet the talented chanteuse with the mind-blowing pipes. Carey released her self-titled debut album in 1990 and married Mottola, 18 years her senior, three years later. While Carey was exploding as a bankable star, her marriage was slowly imploding. The relationship became tabloid theatre; the two finally split in 1998. Carey now says that the marriage nearly killed her.

Mariah needed to free herself from the yoke of her ex-husband and mentor. She also needed to capture a younger audience, thus ensuring her continued relevance. How do you convey your new-found freedom and appeal to hormonal teens? You coax out your inner sex kitten. The bared navel on the cover of Butterfly (1997) was merely the beginning.

Many female singers leverage their non-musical endowments, but Mariah went about sexing up her image with mercenary zeal. To remain a pop fixture, she was willing to sacrifice many strides made by feminism. The best example may be the video to Heartbreaker (from the 1999 album Rainbow). Having caught her guy (played, improbably, by B-list screen stud Jerry O’Connell) in a movie theatre with another girl, Mariah corners the hussy (Mariah in a wig) in the bathroom. In microskirts and heels, the two proceed to catfight. It was a new high for mainstream titillation, a new low for gender parity, but for better or worse, it got people talking about Mariah.

How does the sexual suggestion of Heartbreaker differ from Christina Aguilera’s video for Dirrty? For one, Aguilera’s video is not only sleazy, it’s physically grimy. Mariah would never allow herself to be sullied that way. Regressive though it is, Heartbreaker is also played for camp; Mariah may be cheapening herself, but she’s doing it with a knowing wink.

I get by with a little help from my friends: Mariah with (from left) Sean Combs, Jay-Z and Usher at the Rainbow Room in New York City. Photo Frank Micelotta/Getty Images.
I get by with a little help from my friends: Mariah with (from left) Sean Combs, Jay-Z and Usher at the Rainbow Room in New York City. Photo Frank Micelotta/Getty Images.

Sex is one way to inveigle new listeners, but teaming up with trendsetters can be an enormous help, too. In an effort to sound more ghetto, Mariah traded in old-school hitmakers like Babyface and Walter Afanasieff for producers like Sean Combs, Jermaine Dupri and Kanye West; she also began to cram her songs with street-sanctioned rappers (Jay-Z, Ludacris, Snoop Dogg, Young Jeezy). While not the first to exploit hip-hop’s cachet, she did so with great verve.

While putting her physical assets up front, Mariah scaled back on her voice, the very thing that made her famous. When Carey first arrived, she was touted as more than a singer; she was a technician with a breathtaking five-octave range. Songs like Emotions (1991) and Dreamlover (1993) featured high-frequency ululations you thought only birds and vengeful children were capable of. We all marvelled at Mariah’s vocal peaks — until they became insufferable. Sensing a growing distaste for her ability to shatter glass, in the late-1990s Carey embarked on what can only be described as a subtlety offensive. Once, Mariah owned the songs, drubbing them into submission with her gusty voice. Now, she began to withdraw into them, hiding among the lavish production, offering only the occasional swoon or coquettish giggle to remind us she was still there.

Tune-wise, her material had never seemed thinner; the productions were much better suited to rapping than traditional crooning. Yet her face (and scantily clad body) was nigh inescapable on music stations.

In 2001, Carey inked an unprecedented $100-million US deal with Virgin Records. Her first album for Virgin was the soundtrack to Glitter, a melodrama about a rags-to-riches singer played by Mariah. From Whitney Houston’s The Bodyguard to Britney Spears’s Crossroads, semi-autobiographical movies of this ilk are typically atrocious; Glitter set a new standard of bad. Not only did it tank in theatres, it put a taint on Carey’s entire enterprise — and subsequently put her in hospital in July 2001. Carey’s publicists later reported that the singer was receiving psychiatric treatment. In 2002, EMI (which owns Virgin) paid Carey $28 million US to stop recording for them. (It’s hard to imagine a more lucrative disgrace.)

The release of Charmbracelet (2002) on Carey’s new label, Island, did nothing to assuage residual ill will from Glitter. No surprise there: in terms of songcraft, Charmbracelet makes Glitter sound like Handel’s Messiah.

After enduring three years of critical carping, Mariah released The Emancipation of Mimi. While the album’s press release refers to it as “timeless,” it’s really just another strategic move in Mariah’s long-term pop domination. Songs like Shake It Off and Don’t Forget About Us cop the jittery R&B vibe that made Destiny’s Child so potent. The reason the album has done so well is that the material is much stronger and Mariah has returned to singing — while still pushing the limits of good taste with her barely there outfits.

As always, Carey seems willing to sacrifice originality and decency. But love her or hate her, it works. In a recent poll, CNN.com asked readers: “Who is today’s real ‘Queen of Pop?’” Mariah Carey sits in first, a good 20,000 votes ahead of Madonna. It’s not the most empirical measure of Mimi’s success, though with more than 90,000 polled, it’s a convincing mark of popular opinion.

Recently, Mariah joked to the media that she works out in stilettos, ostensibly her first attempt at self-deprecation. A new, ironic Mariah for the reality-TV era? Might just be crazy enough to work.

Andre Mayer writes about the arts for CBC.ca.

CBC does not endorse and is not responsible for the content of external sites - links will open in new window.

Letters:


I always wonder why the general public doesn't realize that Mariah Carey is a songwriter and producer, as well as a vocalist but this article is the very reason. In an article about WHY she is the pop diva and why she dominates her art form, there is absolutely no mention of the fact that she is completely in control of all her material, and that along with singing, she does most of the writing and arranging: lyrics, vocals, melodies and all. I think THAT is the reason why Mariah has managed to hold onto her crown -- not because she refuses to appear in cheap reality shows like Whitney, but because true talent prevails.

I think this article had good intentions but I really wish you would have stated the REAL reason why Mariah has prevailed. Yes, her latest CD is catchier, more mature and generally a lot more listenable and cohesive than her last few records, BUT to say that she has started to make relevant "r&b music" that made "destiny's child so potent" is ridiculous. Mariah is a trendsetter and has been an r&b singer for 15 years, despite a heavy pop/adult contemporary influence. Although "Emancipation" is pretty much a straight r&b record, I don't see how 1997's "Honey" with Puff Daddy and Mase, or "Breakdown" with Bone Thugs N Harmony is any less r&b influenced. In fact, countless young diva's in training, including the ladies of Destiny's Child, have followed in her footsteps, emulating her musical style. Mariah has been bringing hip hop influences to the pop world throughout her whole career, most importantly in 1995 with the GROUNDBREAKING collaboration with Ol' Dirty Bastard for the "Fantasy" Remix.

Furthermore, Mariah never stopped using that voice of hers. If you listen to every CD since 1997's Butterfly to 2001's Glitter (no, not just the singles, but the entire albums), MC is singing her tail off! It is her instrument, and with time she gained more control over it and was able to experiment in subtleties and restraint (something, I believe, she has perfected: "the less is more" approach). What my main point is though, is that Mariah is back on top because she is doing what she does best: writing, producing and singing great r&b music. I'd really love it if she got the credit she deserves. Nevertheless, thanks for the acknowledgment. It was a refreshing read.

Monique

Toronto, Ontario

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