Mariah Carey makes me nervous. If you’re a fan, that might sound silly, but if your history with her is more touch-and-go, you might understand what I mean.
It’s not because of her verbal-salad babble as an American Idol judge last year, nor her Glitter-period crackups and cancellations, which for a while raised alarms that she might suffer a similar fate as her musical model/rival Whitney Houston, nor her more recent domestic Instagram dottiness.
It’s not her singing, either, though it’s true its melismatic loop-de-loops sometimes come off not just as cartwheels of virtuosity but as anxious evasions, as if she can’t settle on a note and accept the consequences. In the run-on title of her 14th album, Me. I Am Mariah… The Elusive Chanteuse, out this week, she may be joking about the years-long delay of its release, but she’s also tagged her own duck-and-weave vocal style.
No, it’s Mariah Carey as a critical subject that gets me jumpy, because for many years she was one of those pop stars that I simply didn’t get, so I more or less shut out her existence. I was at once too old and too young for her in the early 1990s. She brought quaint showbiz qualities to the game, endearing her alike to teens with clock radios under their pillows and to grown-ups who pined for old-school Top 40. Meanwhile, just out of college, I was blissing out to pummeling guitar dissonance, nimbly imaginative golden-age rap, and woozy free-jazz improv, relieved by a bit of classic country and soul, which kept the temptations of musical prettiness at a safe temporal distance. (Radicals and puritans: often the same guys in different hats.)
It never would have entered my mind that Carey’s model of pop, with its tactics of sublime sonic overwhelm, had something in common with all those artists. I wasn’t over the bad blood between art nerds and the jocks, cheerleaders, and future MBAs, and it seemed plain which side Carey was on, with her positive-thinking exhortations to personal growth. And like R. Crumb’s Whiteman, I felt I had to maintain my rigid position, or all would be lost.
After Carey split with her husband/boss Tommy Mottola in the mid-late 1990s, she started stirring bigger helpings of hip-hop crunchy into her R&B smooth, complete with rap collaborators, opening the way for the whole next decade of pop. Yet I glanced her way only long enough to note that, one, her videos seemed to be redefining a pop diva as someone who writhes around breastily in silk sheets and, two, her unavoidable (and, in retrospect, irresistible) hit “Fantasy” found her vocally Jackson Pollocking all over the new-wave-disco milestone “Genius of Love” by Tom Tom Club, which was blasphemy to me. In those days, my music god was a jealous god.
Carey had first come to national attention singing “America the Beautiful” at a basketball game, and later amid her Glitter-time troubles she’d redeemed herself a bit by nailing “The Star-Spangled Banner” at the 2002 Super Bowl. It seemed to me like Carey was a singer who approached every song as if it were the national anthem—regardless of content, all that vocal force seemed aimed to plant a flag, pledge self-allegiance, and stun the audience with melodic bombs bursting in air, many octaves up in the stratosphere.
By the mid-2000s, though, a few things happened to make me reconsider. It had become plain that Carey was the most influential singer in or out of R&B—most blatantly on American Idol, which in its first few years could have been called America’s Next Top Mariah, but also in undeniable bangers from the likes of Rihanna and Beyoncé. Carey was also accumulating a string of No. 1 hits equal to those of Elvis and the Beatles, prompting an outcry from haters and a vigorous defense from Jody Rosen here on Slate. It started to seem obvious I’d been missing something.
Within a couple of years, that line of thinking led me to write a book-length exploration of the dynamics of taste and social discrimination, using Céline Dion as a case study (reissued this spring in expanded form). I often wonder how it might have turned out if I’d written about Carey instead.
Dion led me to think about critical contempt for “schmaltz” through the lenses of ethnicity, immigration, sentimentality, gender, camp, and, above all, class. Carey is nowhere near as uncool as Dion, and a fair sight more fun, though she’s never been exactly hip either; with her, I might have focused on the virtues of big, shameless pop gestures—of “schlock” rather than schmaltz, as Rosen did this week in his epic piece for New York magazine.
There also would have been much more about the interaction of racial codes and commercialism: The thing that’s frazzled America most about Carey is that with her mixed white and Afro-Latin heritage, she raises the taboo against being racially unclassified. I also would have had to dissect the rules and regulations of scandal, and the virgin/whore shoals through which pop divas have to negotiate their sexuality (which Dion solves mostly by retreating to dry land). And since Carey is a co-writer of most of her songs rather than a pure interpreter, I would have had to look at how that often delightfully cockamamie sausage gets made.
Still, the two shared plenty of ground as innovative 1990s post-Michael-and-Madonna models of global superstars and Clinton-economic-bubble commodities. They were each married to (then in Carey’s case divorced from) much older men who managed them. They’re both chronically gaffe-prone personalities, and, above all, both the vessels for and servants of their own Idol-worshipped elephantine “pipes”—Dion’s like a church organ and Carey’s more like a digital synth, especially way up in her legendary “whistle register.” Indeed, one of her best tricks, which shows up often on her new record, is to blend voice and backing instruments so you have to lean in to tell them apart, as if her vocal cords enfold a whole one-woman band.
Carey’s 2005 comeback The Emancipation of Mimi roughly coincided with my aesthetic emancipation, and with it came her single greatest triumph, “We Belong Together.” That was really my first Mariah album, and it retroactively rewrote our relationship: I now allowed for her importance as reflexively as I’d once dismissed it. Her vocal prolixity no longer seemed so much overdone as joyfully generous, a bonfire of its own considerable vanities, a musical potlatch in which the goal is to give away all she has and then give away more.
I don’t think I’m alone there: In the past decade, Carey’s status has transitioned with impressive ease from polarization to consensus. You can remark “Who doesn’t love Mariah?” in most company without anticipating a fight. After all, you can’t worship in the Cathedral of Bey, as most of us do, without at least a quick genuflection to Ms. Knowles’ self-declared prime inspiration.