How a Former Mariah Carey Skeptic Finally Fell for Her, the Elusive Chanteuse

Arts, entertainment, and more.
May 30 2014 11:57 AM

My Voyage With Mimi

How a Mariah Carey skeptic finally fell for the elusive chanteuse.

Mariah Carey.
For a time, Mariah Carey seemed to treat every song as if it were the national anthem.

Photo by Kevin Lamarque/Reuters

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 Beautifulat 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.

It startles me now when I remember that I’m still only spottily familiar with her earlier work. It gives me a surreal feeling of having missed out on the 1990s, my own coming of age, as if I’d been trapped in some remote desert outpost while everyone else was cruising the midway.

Meanwhile, Carey’s hits have been getting more infrequent and smaller. Until last summer’s “#Beautiful,” with new-model R&B crooner Miguel, the first single from the new album, it had felt like forever since she’d really had to be reckoned with as a musician rather than as a diverting personality. Then this week the album was finally released. And that’s when I got nervous again.

I felt the need to do some remedial studies, so for the past week I’ve been through an extended YouTube immersion in Carey’s back catalog (and Slate’s own “Where Do I Start With … ?” column). It’s been a many-coursed banquet of Sucralose, Splenda, NutraSweet, Truvia, and cane sugar, with buckwheat honey for dessert, and I don’t feel sick or even sated, so I think I’m prepared for Me. I Am Mariah… The Elusive Chanteuse.

The relief is that, much more than with 2009’s Memoirs of an Imperfect Angel or 2008’s E=MC2, on this album we get the Mariah we expect, and perhaps, in all our own imperfections, the Mariah we deserve. As if to fill in my exact personal deficit, it’s a souped-up 1990s (and 2005) do-over.

The two opening ballads, one sparse and keyboardy and spiritual, the other sidling up to funky, leave no note unornamented, no harmony unadorned, and no doubt who’s at the helm here. Then comes the duet “Dedicated” with Nas, in which Carey promises to “sing that good old-school shit to ya,” ostensibly paying tribute to the hip-hop summer of ’88 but loaded up with Wu-Tang samples to make sure we know it’s ’90s all the way.

With its vintage device of fusing musical and sexual nostalgias, “Dedicated” is a readymade summer jam. But so are “You Don’t Know What to Do” and “Meteorite,” swinging with verve from Pharrell’s disco-revival chandelier. For less soft-core pleasures there are the bumping hooks of “Money ($*/…)” – with Fabolous-assisted lyrics about as garbled as that typographical subtitle, including an already much-mocked “holidays/hollandaise” moment (a failed reach for a “damn croissants” of 2014?).

Album closer “Heavenly (No Ways Tired/Can’t Give Up Now),” takes us back to the church where the album began, but now with a marching band, choir, and samples of gospel king Rev. James Cleveland, improbably transcending its own valedictory bromides. Carey often seems like a single-mindedly present-tense artist, so I’m touched when she pays homage to R&B’s deeper roots.

The rest is a smorgasbord of midtempo ballads, including a thin cover of George Michael’s “One More Try,” a couple that suffer from the melodic meandering that’s always been my Mariah bugbear, and the squirm-making “Supernatural,” which is smeared all over with Carey’s toddler twins’ cooing, a class of move that Beyoncé can pull off but Mariah never will (not least because of the existential gulf between being wed to Nick Cannon and marrying Jay Z).

Still, even middling writing on many tunes is elevated by Carey’s Industrial-Light-and-Magic vocal effects, and the sureness with which our girl today delivers that Mariah Carey feeling. The parts that sound not quite ready for radio could always be rescued with a remix. What might have been goofy lurches are rendered fluid by the fact that today’s Carey always seems to be in on her own joke, and takes for granted we listeners are too: She sings herself, she celebrates herself, and, to paraphrase Walt Whitman, what she assumes, we shall assume. Hers is the democratic redistribution of power and charisma through the intercession of the arpeggio, the giggle, and the divine grace note. 

You might ask whether the rearview gaze bodes ill for Carey’s future, but I’m not sure that’s so. That crocheted-swimsuit cover shot might aggressively vouchsafe that she doesn’t look like many people’s moms, but she is approaching her late 40s, and the retro leanings of Elusive Chanteuse may be coming along to ease the transition from chart diva to late-career institution.

As for me, I’ll happily follow along to make up for lost time, and toast the persistence of her half-unhinged creativity and her double-hinged voice. The truth is that Mariah was one of the art nerds all along, just the effortlessly attractive one who makes her less-mature classmates defensive. And if she ever gets around to giving us one more really timeless Christmas song, that would be the icing on the cake. Or, who am I kidding, the icing on the icing on the icing. After all, it’s her, she is Mariah … the indefatigable pâtissière.

Carl Wilson is Slate's music critic.