The Education of Mimi
Mariah Carey produced only one song on her 1990 self-titled debut. After it went Platinum six times in the course of just over a year, she would be able to easily secure both co-production and co-writing credits on all her songs. But when she recorded Mariah Carey at 19, she had little experience beyond the demo she’d taped in the back of her father’s Manhattan cabinet shop and, apocryphally, passed to Sony chairman Tommy Mottola at a party. Her larger-than-life voice and relentless ambition were instead entrusted to industry veterans with long discographies full of the kind of one-named divas Mariah was destined to join: Aretha, Gladys, Diana and, perhaps most inescapably, Whitney.
But on “Vanishing,” arguably that release’s most timeless track, the machine designed around Mariah is stripped away. There is just that voice, soaring and swirling through one impeccable run after another, with simple, straightforward support from a gospel-inspired chorus and R&B and jazz pianist Richard Tee. Carey knew better than the significantly older men around her — the same ones who looked at her youth, beauty and singular talent and saw dollar signs — how not to gild the lily.
It took decades, though, for people to believe that. Carey was compelled to prove over and over again that she was more than just a pretty face with a pretty voice, in order to find the same respect that men seem to get automatically, by virtue of sheer longevity. Only now, more than 30 years into her career, does it seem like people finally understand how hard she had to work just to be heard — not as a voice, but as an artist.
There was an inherent paradox in the way Carey was first presented to pop audiences. Her singles had all the gloss and bombast of the era’s schlockiest pop, courtesy of the biggest hitmakers money could buy. Yet her own creative credibility was still emphasized to the press, even as it was stifled behind the scenes. Publicity photos showed her casual, in jeans and rumpled button-down shirts, singing into old-fashioned microphones and sitting at a piano. Interviews drew out that her mother had sung with the New York City Opera and been a vocal coach; Carey reiterated that her biggest influences were classic R&B records.
But the reality of the situation came through in those same early interviews, where she first expressed the fact that she wanted more creative agency. When interviewers would compare her to Houston, Carey would emphasize that unlike Whitney she was a singer-songwriter. “I think this is a good first effort and I’m very happy with it, but further down the road…” she told The Observer of her debut. “It’s not like other people’s material has been thrust upon me. But I do like doing things by myself in the studio because it gives me more freedom. Sometimes you don’t care how someone else thinks your songs should sound; you wrote it, and you know how it should be.”
“This being the first album, I took a certain amount of direction from the record company,” she added to the Chicago Tribune. “You know, they are taking a chance. Ideally, though, I’d like to be involved with everything.” The same creative battles, however, would continue throughout her dominant ’90s run, even as Carey repeatedly proved that she had an undeniable ear for anticipating pop trends and writing enduring songs. “All I Want for Christmas Is You” — one of the best-selling singles of all time — was the first Christmas song she ever wrote. Carey’s insistence on bringing rappers into the fold on her massive pop hits has since influenced countless crossover singles, and she made a point of collaborating with emcees who were still ascending toward superstardom (1999’s “Heartbreaker” was JAY-Z’s first Hot 100 No. 1, for example).
Talk to Carey’s collaborators, even decades after the fact, and they’ll tell you what a force she is in the studio, how hard she pushed to get songs exactly right. But what she got in return for her artistic persistence was a reputation for all the most sexist clichés about divadom: that she was demanding, hard to work with, irrational and temperamental. The same idiosyncrasies that are valued in male artists — perfectionism, eccentricity, even narcissism — were weaponized against Carey as she tried to simply make great pop songs.
Her own response to both restrictive record labels and sexist skeptics, though, has remained constant. “There were songs I wanted to do in the past [that] never got on the album … people felt they were too R&B,” Carey told Jet in 1997, just before the release of Butterfly — her first album after separating from Mottola. “It’s been a gradual process of my being able to say, ‘This is what I’m going to do.’ People owe it to you to let you express yourself.”
If Carey’s story is an effective allegory about what it takes for even the most talented and strong-willed women to survive in the music industry, it’s ultimately a triumphant one. By the mid-aughts, she had essentially earned full creative autonomy, and used it to generate a second string of memorable hits (hello, “We Belong Together”). The expectations for women in pop music, like her heir apparent Ariana Grande, are ever-so-slightly less restrictive as a result. “I was a very young girl when I got signed to my first record deal, and I was surrounded by super, super powerful men,” she said to Variety in 2018. “They made billions of dollars off my incessant work. I did nothing but make albums. You have to learn, whether it’s as an artist or as a woman, you are allowed to have your feelings and express them.” Carey lived that lesson, and has dozens of classic records — with inevitably more to come — to show for it.
Natalie Weiner is a staff writer at SB Nation, and has covered music for Billboard, the New York Times, Rolling Stone, JazzTimes and NPR.
Image: Carey performs during the 2019 Billboard Music Awards in Las Vegas. Photo: Kevin Winter/Getty Images for DCP.
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