o question that Mariah Carey’s ever fielded has remained more pertinent than the one Oprah Winfrey asked in 1992: “So, what are you?” Oprah was inquiring how Carey’s darker-than-olive complexion and penchant for melisma fit into her racial makeup, yet the diva-in-the-making averted a precise answer and focused on her parents, explaining that her mother was Irish and her father, Venezuelan and black.
After absorbing her hit-making career for years, we've become fully aware of Carey's multiracial background. Yet, the question stands: what is she? Pop, AC or R&B? Virgin or tramp? Girl-next-door or diva? Personality-free hit-making robot or introverted talent-powerhouse?
Mariah Carey, of course, was all of those things, the chart-reigning beneficiary of not committing to a side. It’s tempting to box her into W.E.B. Du Bois’ theory of double consciousness to excavate how the discord between white society’s maligning eye and her own self-image affects her psyche vis a vis her music, but it’s not quite right and damn near impossible, anyway (Du Bois’ theory spoke only about blacks, and not necessarily about those from a mixed race background). Mariah has more eyes on her than just whitey’s. More accurately, she's a woman splintered- attempting to keep many demographics happy. But at the same time, she suffers from the effects of what Polish writer Witold Gombrowicz (via translator Danuta Borchardt) writes about in Ferdydurke in his Nth-degree revamp of double consciousness: “a whole ocean of opinions, each one defining you within someone else, and creating you in another man’s soul. It’s as if you were being born inside a thousand souls that are too tight-fitting for comfort!"
No stranger to tight-fitting anything, Carey remains maligned. She’s maligned for her early AC-heavy leanings, for having the nerve to sing (and write, she’ll have you know!) something as trite as, “When you feel like hope is gone/ Look inside you and be strong/ And then you’ll finally see the truth/ That a hero lies in you.” She’s maligned for abandoning those sugar-sucking roots and kicking it gangsta with Snoop, ODB and Nas. She’s maligned for her cloying, I-can-count-the-number-of-men-I’ve-slept-with-on-one-hand image. She’s maligned for the hot pants and look-but-don't-fuck roller skates. She’s maligned, she’s maligned, she’s maligned.
The smear-Mariah mentality goes further than merely attacking a superstar’s constructed image and squarely hits Mariah Carey, the woman. Everything about her that the public is allowed to see – the album titles, the decadently curvy figure, the ultrasonic voice, the love songs, the maternal dubbing of her fans as “lambs” – oozes femininity. Carey is “cheesy” and “wack” because she’s the girliest woman in the world.
But she also has the tendency to feel edgeless. She now claims that Glitter’s original “gritty” (Gritter?) treatment “became homogenized,” but it’s hard to imagine the non-biopic turning out any other way but lame, with its obsequious protagonist wide-eyed and bushy-tailed throughout. What could have become almost two hours of camp hilarity is just tepidly humorous. Carey’s breasts (not to mention the star-is-born set-up), should have roused Russ Meyer out of pseudo-retirement, but unfortunately, there was no such luck.
Still, Glitter made Carey fascinating. It saved her from the irritating perfection that pervaded her career up to that point. Along with the preceding, highly publicized breakdown, she became a queen of misery to follow and an underdog to cherish.
It would, of course, be a complete exaggeration to see her as only a chart statistic before Glitter. Carey mustered up some identity by splitting from Tommy Mottola and releasing Butterfly in 1997. Her first step away from AC (though it shadowed her in the title track and her 13th No. 1, “My All”), Butterfly was drenched in straight-forward hip-hop, R&B and angst replete with dots connecting to real life. The air of divorce trauma simultaneously added a dimension sorely lacking from her music: personality via desolation (with some liberated spunk on the side).
Through Glitter, her formidable vocal chops remained intact. It’s only now, on her most recent album, Charmbracelet, that Carey exudes humanness entirely. The flop under her belt might touch hearts who sympathize with the poor little Tribeca penthouse owner, but what’s most intriguing, and even pitiable, is the inexplicable blow her voice took over the past two years. No longer able to belt like an ultimately successful Big Bad Wolf, Mariah is now whispery, only showing that she still has that show-stopping power in occasional flourishes. The industry’s pet no longer has a right answer for everything. She’s sitting in the back of the classroom and it’s getting harder and harder to hear her.
This isn’t to say that Carey’s voice is, compared to anyone else making pop music, now less than stellar. Her pitch is still uncanny, she can still dog whistle like she’s in heat and she can indeed belt, when necessary. But it’s hard. Listen closely to the full-force vocal climax of Charmbracelet’s first non-hit, “Through the Rain,” and you can hear that virtually every soul-churning line (“I can make it through the rain/ I can stand up once again/ On my own/ And I know/ That I’m strong enough to mend...”) is from a different take – each pause is clipped so that the lines don’t tumble out of her throat, but are robotic in their isolation.
But like her tarnished image, her equally flawed cords give her personality that’s light years beyond anything she’s done in the past. Her voice, scraped and desperate, has a rawness that pleads, “I want you to like me,” only to meet production that asserts, “You’re gonna love me.”
Superficially, ganking Just Blaze’s beats and Rose Royce sample recently heard in Cam’ron’s infant track “Oh Boy,” seems a move to bombard listeners with a song they already like and slip back into the mainstream. There’s probably some of that going on (it is the album’s second single), but Mariah’s “Boy (I Need You),” featuring Just Blaze behind the boards and Cam in a cameo, just makes more sense than its predecessor. Blaze’s candy apple production gloves Carey’s breathing and sighs, when it merely capped Cam’ron’s mostly anemic rhyming. Recent hits for the likes of Ashanti and Jennifer Lopez have echoed hip-hop tunes of yesterday, which themselves were based heavily on vintage cuts, but perhaps for the first time, that postmodern sampling makes more than just financial sense.
But Carey has always seemed to have sense of the hip-hop and soul that worked before and during her career. As early as “Emotions,” which evoked the Emotions’ “Best of My Love,” Carey borrowed a bit from her would-be context. The restraint she showed throughout the years when it came to samples was truly amazing for someone who was otherwise so musically over-the-top (and often enjoyably campy): samples generally formed the foundation of her tunes, but her sung melodies generally diverged a great deal from the source material. (If this sounds farfetched, listen to “Loverboy” against Cameo’s “Candy” or “Heartbreaker” against Stacy Lattisaw’s “Attack of the Name Game” or even “Fantasy” against the Tom Tom Club’s “Genius of Love,” and you’ll find only slight melodic converging, if any).
Aware that the line between homage and biting is dubious, Carey and her producers have pushed to make respectful records. It’s a little self-serving to respect your own past, but that’s what Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis do on Charmbracelet’s “Yours,” and along the way, crafting one of the set’s highlights. The minimalism immediately recalls their composition for Force MDs “Tender Love,” and if there’s any question, Carey confirms her source in the song’s first line: “Tender love’s what you’re givin’ me.”
Elsewhere, Carey surrounds herself with more guest rappers (Westside Connection, Jay-Z, Freeway) and street producers (Damizza and more Blaze), but Mariah’s at her hip-hoppiest when mid-tempo love jams give her enough beat space to work on her flow. She fucked with her rhythm most notably on her best single ever, “Breakdown,” and there’s even more tongue twisting on Charmbracelet. Her rapid-fire vocals on Jermaine Dupri’s slightly skittery “The One,” rise and fall like a hyperventilating chest. She’s as twitchy as the guitars on “Clown,” a slightly slower make-out, but far more daring in its delivery. Not only does Mariah cut herself off during the chorus’ second go-round so she can sink her teeth into a more saucy bridge, but she breaks into a nah-nah-n’-nah-nah teasefest during the second verse. She delivers the speediest of kiss-offs, when, in four seconds, she quips, “But I guess you wouldn’t know/That’s the way I roll/Consequently now your ego’s fully overblown.”
The ego she’s referring to belongs to Eminem, who alleged a tryst between the two. In full-denial mode, Carey does everything but mention him by name, starting out, “I shoulda left it at how ya doin’/I shoulda left it at I like your music too,” and alluding to his art in her sign-off, “You’re no superhero.” Carey hits back at the allegations with the fairly tempered chorus, “Who’s gonna care when the novelty’s over/When the star of the show isn’t you anymore/Nobody cares when the tears of a clown fall down.” This line points to a quickly fading memory, however. Carey would be wise to think back to how many cared when her own diva tears streamed. The dis, then, is in the sound – Mariah presents Em with the oozing sex-kitten persona he never fucked (according to her story), which stings worse, no doubt, than any mud she could sling.
This approach makes sense when Carey’s ability as a lyricist is considered. The most famous lepidopterist since Nabokov, Mariah unfortunately has not been graced with his prose power. She’s just dotting her I’s with butterflies and sighing as she pens in pink (“You keep me seeing rainbows in the sky,” she muses during “Yours”). Carey is merely good for a few ten-cent words not normally heard on the radio (“inadvertently,” “intimated” and “intrinsic” are the highlights on Charmbracelet). Considering the grand tradition of insipidly worded soul music, though, Mariah’s verbal shortcomings must be forgiven – the cake at hand is missing icing, but innately sweet.
And while her trademark (now under-)dog whistle peppers at least half of the album’s tracks, she finally finds a reasonable place for it on an epic cover of Def Leppard’s “Bringin’ on the Heartbreak.” By far her oddest choice for a cover, if not the weirdest track she’s ever recorded, “Heartbreak” vies with “Clown” for the role of Charmbracelet’s apex. As she works herself into frenzy along a wall of strings and turntable scratching, it’s clear that the only possible place to go is up. So she wails like she just got her tin drum taken away. Seriously, she can cut perfect circles out of glass with that voice, but its appearance here comes off as a trick that’s almost as nifty.
“Heartbreak” comes late in the album, just as Carey’s gaining little footing. The concluding four-song oddball suite starts with “Subtle Invitation,” an impressive take on full-band neo-soul. Mariah drafts Murder Inc.’s 7 Aurelius not to balance the organic with the synthetic, but to help her wrangle the live instrumentation. The results are part Stevie, part Rufus & Chaka and nowhere near as clueless as they, by all rights, should be. “Heartbreak” and the ambient ode to her departed father, “Sunflowers for Alfred Roy,” follow until Mariah revamps “Through the Rain” as a latter-day, hip-as-it-gets-gospel album-closer with Joe and Kelly Price as moral support. This time, the chorus is slightly altered from “I can make it through the rain” to “I’m gonna make it.” Here, Mariah comes off as a pre-Warbucks Annie, belting out “We Shall Overcome.”
But will she? Whether Charmbracelet can reheat her career depends on the public’s willingness to stop stigmatizing. So far, not many are biting. Though it’s certified platinum, the record has yet to produce a hit (the most ubiquitious non-Top 40 song in pop history, “Through the Rain” was supposed to be the comeback hit, but wasn’t). Still, maybe it's better the way things are, anyway - the role of America’s most visible (and curvy) chart orphan suits her just fine. Looks attract; underdogs ignite the fires of passion.
By: Richard M. Juzwiak
Published on: 2003-02-24