Culture
USA | Oct 22, 2020

Focusing on Mariah Carey’s talent and accomplishments

/ Our Today

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Reading Time: 7 minutes
Mariah Carey in performance.

  By Al Edwards 

American Grammy-winning singer Mariah Carey is busy doing the rounds promoting her memoir, ‘The Meaning of Mariah Carey’, and she also has a new album out called ‘The Rarities’. 

She has sat down for a number of interviews including with Oprah Winfrey, Gayle King and CBS’ Jane Pauley. 

They all seem to hone in on her dysfunctional family dynamic, being viewed as racially ambiguous and oppressive marriage to Sony executive Tommy Mottola. While all that makes for a compelling biography and hits all the supposed right buttons to entice viewers, what has been overlooked is Mariah Carey’s incredible talent married to an inexhaustible work ethic. She is both a popular music and R&B icon – here in our life time. 

Elvis, Michael Jackson, Aretha Franklin, John Lennon, Prince, Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Dusty Springfield, Karen Carpenter are no longer with us. Mariah is still a creative force, still putting out albums, still performing. This warrants greater curiosity and explanation… 

Mariah Carey’s career as a singer/songwriter began in 1988, with her brother funding studio time while she worked by day as a waitress to keep herself. Her first album was released in 1990 and she has gone on to sell 200 million albums and clock 19 number one singles, 18 of which she wrote. 

Tommy Mottola must be given credit for spotting her talent and moving quickly to develop it, giving her a deal on first hearing her singing on a demo tape. However, the mistake he perhaps made – just like Colonel Tom Parker did with Elvis Presley – was to restrict her to formulaic output, capturing lightning in a bottle. How confining and creatively repressive it would have been for Mariah Carey to spend decades adhering to the template of the ingenue in the little black dress, remaining in the lane of a mainstream artiste trotting out saccharine pop ditties?

Her creative emancipation is rarely discussed in a fulsome manner by the press, with many interviewers predictably questioning her about her race, the state of her marriages, and her love life. Colonel Tom Parker restricted Elvis creatively, having him push out unimpressive movie albums, putting a block on collaborations, and not allowing him to tour abroad. 

There was a fight to get Suspicious Minds with the Colonel wary about Elvis’ R&B output (listen to the brilliant Stranger In My Home Town from the Memphis Sessions). His thinking may have been that it would alienate a mainstream audience rather than showcase Elvis’ inordinate gifts in many musical genres. James Brown, Bruce Springsteen, BB King, Keith Richard, Neil Diamond and Little Richard have all attested to Elvis’s talent and his ability to transcend norms while honouring them at the same time, a gift that Mariah also has. 

In both cases, their respective managers just didn’t grasp the breadth of their abilities and the power of their transformative creativity. Elvis was constrained for far too long; Mariah’s obstinance saw her break free and create her own path. A manager has to facilitate the artiste’s talents and be astute enough to see the possibilities.

Photo: Billboard.com

Between 1990 and 2000, and still in her 20s, Mariah Carey put out seven studio albums including the 30 million-selling Music Box. She promoted and toured behind them non-stop placing incredible stress and strain upon herself. There aren’t many artistes that have produced that volume of work in a lifetime, let alone a decade. Why did she subject herself to this? Was it sheer drive? Contractual obligations? It was an incredible feat that has not been replicated too many times since.

She is a true champion of the modern R&B genre and her vocal talents together with her songwriting prowess has seen her keep at the forefront of popular culture. She is a purveyor of this American art form, dedicated to it, believing in it.

She has joined the pantheon of female R&B legends like Aretha Franklin, Patti LaBelle, Teena Marie, Gladys Knight, Anita Baker, Gwen McCrae, Chaka Khan, Betty Wright, Sheila Hutchinson. Mariah Carey has not only kept the tradition going but has been a transformative force, managing to fuse it with rap, keeping it relevant across generations. Many of her videos are stylised and sexy without being salacious.

They contain fantastic colour palettes and remain unforgettable. Check out the videos for ‘We Belong Together’, ‘Honey’, ‘I Know What You Want’ featuring Flipmode Squad and Busta Rhymes, ‘Fantasy’, ‘Emotions’. Many of these videos still hold up well today.

One of pop’s most decorated and best-selling artistes (no gender necessary) of all time, Mariah Carey stands in very esteemed company—and at times, by herself. (Photo: CheatSheet.com)

The girl from Huntington who was raised in Long Island has been doing it and doing it well for decades. In a career spanning over 30 years, she has collaborated with many of the best in the business including Nas, Kanye West, Jay-Z, Boyz II Men, ODB from Wu-Tang Clan, Da Brat, Whitney Houston, Aretha Franklin, Snoop, The Neptunes, Jermaine Dupri, Diddy, Master P, Missy Elliott, Larry Blackmon, and the list goes on. Mariah Carey is a big fan of rap and R&B and has graciously brought many artistes to the attention of mainstream pop, thereby helping to boost their sales and showcase their talents.

She has immersed herself in her craft and has a fine ear for the best in urban music. It would be trite to view her as simply a pop chanteuse. But what does she think about the R&B and rap game today? How has it evolved and where can it go? Who does she see out there who has a future? Today, in almost all segments of modern entertainment, marketing and hype rule the day, not talent and the ability to register transcendental performances.

This is something Carey noted saying: “Some people’s goal is to be famous, not to have a craft or art that they are famous for. Today you can be famous for being on a reality show…you really don’t have to do much.” The five-time Grammy winner (nominated 34 times) has done much but her accomplishments tend not to get the attention they deserve.

Not only is she a tremendously gifted vocalist, but she is also a prolific songwriter who has scripted some of the best melodies in modern popular music. She is not thought of as being in the company of Gamble and Huff, Bacharach and David, Holland and Dozier, Smokey Robinson, Stevie Wonder and Bernie Taupin but on closer examination, her skills as a writer are undoubted.

The track ‘Obsessed’ is one of the best ‘diss’ tracks written in years. ‘Ether’, written and performed by Nas, is credited with being the best in class but ‘Obsessed’ and the video that accompanied it has to be right up there.

Carey parodying Eminem in her hit single ‘Obsessed’ was a gamble that paid off for fans and critics—even illiciting a reply from the 8Mile rapper himself. (Photo: VEVO for YouTube)

The 2005 album The Emancipation of Mimi is her best work to date. A tour de force that has to be one of the best R&B albums in the last 20 years. The writing and vocalisation on We Belong Together is absolutely sublime. Check out the nod to legends Bobby Womack and Babyface.

Mainstream interviewers never seek from her, the process she undergoes as a songwriter. They are more likely to ask her about the turmoil of her formative years and issues around race rather than her craft.

There doesn’t appear to be any curiosity into the talent that lies behind one of the most dynamic, creative, and exceptional songstresses in modern history – just the same inane questions that she has addressed over and over again. Earlier this year, Mariah Carey was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame. It is easy to see why. She deserves recognition for her contribution to popular culture.

The road ahead

So what lies ahead, aged 50, now with a substantial body of work behind her? She has said it took her three years to write her memoir and she enjoyed the process and found it cathartic. She may well pen more books.

Met with rave reviews for its crafted storytelling by pop’s forever diva, ‘The Meaning of Mariah Carey’ sums up the superstar’s life to date in her own unqiue perspective. (Photo: Rolling Stone)

 Then there is acting. She is constantly pilloried for her efforts in Glitter but she wasn’t bad in Wise Girls alongside Mira Sorvino. She gave an outstanding performance in 2009’s Precious as social worker Miss Weiss. Against type, no makeup, or glamourous clothing, she conveyed concern and empathy for both mother and daughter while also admonishing them. She was hardly recognisable but showed what she was capable of.

In Lee Daniel’s The Butler released in 2013, she appears briefly as a sharecropper (the mother of the titular character) who gets raped. Again, she is practically unrecognisable and does a good job. There could be more acting jobs in the future as she is getting better with each succeeding role. Independent filmmakers may well look at her past performances and be daring enough to cast her and draw out memorable scenes from her. She may well relish the challenge.

She has proven more than competent at writing and producing and could consider scriptwriting and directing. She appears to be generally confident and she may be undaunted at the prospect of creativity behind the camera.

Now a mother to twins Moroccan and Monroe, how has having children informed her art? She is regarded as a diva and that may take on more significance as time goes by – not for bouts of petulance but rather for her sustained brilliance and her ability to remain relevant.

Mariah Carey has to be held up as an exemplar of an artiste who, despite attempts to sequester her, followed her instincts and did it her way, fundamentally changing the game. 

The word ‘legend’ here is justified. Long may she continue to astound us.                    

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