Goddess, Artist, Woman: Mariah Carey’s Memoirs of an Imperfect Angel and #1s

By Daniel Garrett

Mariah Carey, Memoirs of an Imperfect Angel
Produced by Carey, C. Stewart, and Terius Nash
Executive Producers Mariah Carey and Antonio Reid
Island, 2009

Mariah Carey, #1s
Columbia/Sony, 1998

When Mariah Carey began her career, it seemed possible that she would be a musician in a long-established and respectable tradition, but as a singer and songwriter she has allowed new and contemporary music to influence her: it is arguable that she is as influenced by hip-hop as Ella Fitzgerald was influenced by jazz; and there is proof of that influence all over Carey’s Memoirs of an Imperfect Angel.  Ella Fitzgerald could render a song line as purely as anyone and perform jazz scat better than most.  With a singing range that would permit her to pursue opera if she chose, Mariah Carey’s singing blends current slangy tones with subtly expressive singing, and she is able to create intensity and impact though not always in expected ways.

Hip-hop promotes aggressive attitudes and beats and rhetorical and rhyming speech, and the biracial Mariah Carey’s persona—visually wearing the short, tight clothes of a youthful fantasy; and vocally using the intonation of a rough girl—sometimes seems that of the tender-tough moll of a money-making neighborhood thug rather than the eloquent, fashion couture-wearing incarnation of a first-rate international performer, for whom sophistication of various kinds is an inevitability.  It is true that hip-hop—though it can seem hostile and rude to outsiders—has become the patois of much casual, friendly social discourse (you have to be comfortable with someone to use such impolite language).  Yet, it is Carey’s profound regard for emotion as well as lasting belief in human connection that provides whatever humanity, whatever depth, her work has.

The first composition on Memoirs of an Imperfect Angel, “Betcha Gon’ Know,” a song about betrayal and vengeance, a song of high drama and atmosphere, with fluttering rhythms and divergent background vocals, gives way to “Obsessed,” in which the narrator calls a deluded and possibly drug-addicted man to task for spreading false claims of an affair with her: “It must be the weed, it must be the E, cause you be poppin’, heard you get it poppin’.”   The great tell-off “Obsessed” is a song full of street attitude and sass, as well as the prerogatives of fame (‘you’re a mom and pop, I’m a corporation, I’m the press conference, you’re a conversation”), and not without some silliness (“see right  through you like you’re bathing in Windex” sings Carey of the shady fellow who has as slim a chance with her as a bag of M&M’s candy has of being confused with a full meal ).  In “Obsessed” Carey reads lines in shifting tones while maintaining the same dismissive attitude, a remarkable performance.

Carey moves from the social, the area of public reputation and gossip, to the personal.  A good relationship comes to a surprisingly bad end, with pain and anger, in “Hate U,” and Carey sings a four-line refrain beginning “We went round for round, till we knocked love out” in a low, slow voice that could be depressed, creating a contrast with her quicker, higher, more conversational tone.  (I prefer Carey singing in a lower voice: usually she sounds stronger then, more womanly, but possibly she likes the sound of vulnerability a high voice allows.  Yet here in “Hate U” the low voice allows Carey to indicate darker feeling and, sometimes, a high voice gives her easy access to exhilaration.)  Carey declares, “I can’t wait to hate you, make you pain like I do,” which leads me to wonder: is a woman responding angrily the same thing as being an angry woman?  When does our response to a particular person, place or thing become our orientation?

Carey’s singing style is evolving—she’s trying different things to achieve new effects and that makes her, still, an interesting singer.  Consequently, Mariah Carey has been able to maintain her own bright spotlight as the public stage has filled with distinctive and gifted singers such as Christina Aguilera, Erykah Badu, Mary J. Blige, Alicia Keys, Beyonce Knowles, Jill Scott, and Angie Stone, among others.  Christina Aguilera has ambition, power, range, and Erykah Badu is a deep and eccentric wonder.  Mary J. Blige, whose career began with inconsistent pitch and tone and a respectful connection to hip-hop, is an impressive interpreter, with truth in her throat.  Alicia Keys and Beyonce Knowles are able to create sensitivity and spectacle in performance; and Jill Scott and Angie Stone seem warm, wise women with strength and soul, the latest in an enduring musical line.  Thus far, Mariah Carey has stayed ahead of them all.

In “Candy Bling,” about feeling haunted by a sweet love, there are specific details of gifts and games that add lyric texture, though musically the song is not particularly complex, whereas “Ribbon,” which begins with the noise of male voices and has an irregular and strong rhythm, is a woman’s sexual reverie and  that is not unlike a man’s: “you got me wrapped up, packed up, ribbon with a bow on it,” are lines from a refrain in which the feeling conveyed is not one of submission but gratification.  A sixteen-day separation leads to longing and the hope that one of the two lovers will pick up the phone to talk in “Inseparable.”

However, it is “Standing O” that again offers proof of the unique territory that Mariah Carey is claiming, not from the margins of culture but from its absolute center, as a singer.  The song, about cruelty and dishonesty in love, has recognizable rap rhythms, the bounce of a hip-hop song.  Those rhythms are in Carey’s singing too.  (It is like a contemporary remake of Streisand’s sarcastic “The Best Thing You’ve Ever Done” and Streisand is one singer Carey might have been thought to have as an antecedent, though Streisand’s path—interpreting theater, film, and jazz music standards— is not the one Carey has pursued; and yet  it is sometimes forgotten that Streisand took risks not only with intense vocal interpretations but by exploring some rock and dance songs too, including by some of the best writers of her generation, including Joni Mitchell, Paul Simon, Stevie Wonder, and David Bowie: singers want to be part of their time, not apart from it.)

“Your kisses told me oh so many lies,” Carey sings in “Standing O”; and then, “Gave you my heart, and all you did was pound on it.”  Following that, a disappointing man is given his walking papers in “It’s A Wrap,” which is reminiscent of soul songs past.  Whatever Mariah Carey’s influences, she does not sound false.  Mariah Carey’s singing in “Up Out My Face,” in which she chants “When I break , I break boy.  Up out my face boy,” echoes dancehall reggae, a direct, earthy sound, and Carey is mocking, and the song has a silent interlude and concludes with a brass band refrain.  Terrific.

A new romance among the jet set, with the promise of lasting love, is featured in “More Than Just Friends,” and it is a rare instance when materialism emerges fully in Carey’s work (materialism is plentiful in hip-hop and in the work of certain younger singers).  I would object more to that materialism except that it is an example of the larger world having a presence in Carey’s songs; and I have a fondness for singers singing about something other than love or at least mentioning something other than love.  I like singers to acknowledge the existence of both flowers and violent force, both ambition and its failure, both isolation and community, both innovative thought and prejudice, both new life and rotting death, not for titillation but for awareness and understanding.  Such recognitions can be rare.  In “The Impossible,” the singer claims, “You did the impossible—you rescued my love,” and she celebrates love, comparing it to some of her favorite things (summer time, cherry wine, Louboutin heels and a mini skirt).

After a related prelude, “Angels Cry” is a regret song about an affair in which “the final blow hit so low I’m still on the ground” and “when you and I said goodbye, I felt the angels cry,” and though obviously a sentimental ballad it is interesting for suggesting a strong spiritual connection between lovers, which is not common in most contemporary songs.  Some of the album’s most honest and even scathing lyrics are in “Languishing,” listed as an interlude: “Why are we too torn to heal?  Our stitches never disappear.  I have mine, you have yours I’m sure.”  It is a composition about being forever wounded, and the difficulty of overcoming human division, and being empathetic.  It may be no surprise then that the collection closes with the Mick Jones (Foreigner) song “I Want To Know What Love Is,” a seeker’s declaration and a popular music lover’s understandable selection.

With Mariah Carey’s transformations vivid in one’s mind, it is pleasant to take another stroll down the lane of her musical career: in a short time, she has placed a lot of songs in memory and on sales charts.  Mariah Carey’s first album only carried her name on its cover and came out in 1990, a new artist for a new decade, and her second album, Emotions, a favorite of mine, was released the next year, with others following;  and in her 1998 collection #1s, featuring songs from her first ten years as a popular artist, we can hear the power of her charm and talent and the beginning  of some of her changes.  “Sweetheart,” with rapper JD, has an emphatic melody, whereas “When You Believe,” Carey’s duet with Whitney Houston, with lyrics about moving mountains and miracles, does not have enough form for my taste (I appreciate it most as representing detente among divas).  “Whenever You Call,” a romantic ballad with rising, yearning, caressing voices, that of Carey and Brian McKnight, redeems the genre (he has one of the most sensitive voices ever).

It is Carey’s work alone  that is most significant, though the fact that she is unafraid of fundamental collaboration is important, testifying to something confident, generous, and practical about her spirit.  “My All” is a song of dedication and sacrifice for love; and a man’s appeal is like honey in a song co-produced by Sean Combs, with harmonies by Carey and Melonie Daniels, “Honey.”  Co-written with Jermaine Dupri, “Always Be My Baby” has a sweetly sultry lilt.  Featuring Boys II Men, “One Sweet Day,” a ballad embellished with a gospel-style chorus, is a memorial song that appears to have become a standard.  The song “Fantasy” features rapper Old Dirty Bastard claiming he and Carey go back a long way, giving her street credibility while she gives him mainstream access.  (I am reminded that singer Dionne Warwick publicly said that Carey could both sing and write and did not need these rappers.  Warwick herself continued to offer melody and sentiment, charm and intelligence, while the rock revolution was taking place in the 1960s.)  The soaring inspirational ballad “Hero,” encouraging self-awareness and self-belief, drew commendation from Dionne Warwick, a wonderful singer in a modern but now classic tradition.

It will be interesting to learn if many of Mariah Carey’s songs will be not only admired but sung by new generations of singers.   They seem easy to slip into, but are they?  Some of Diana Ross’s songs seem easy to sing—until someone else tries to sing them (one recognizes the soundness of their structure in alternative versions but they are less charming, less forceful).  Certainly Carey is not offering particularly challenging themes, nor—given her own range—do the older songs usually require demanding technique:  desire and enthusiasm, or anger and impatience, are recurrent points, in ballooning ballads and sexily sauntering songs and wrathful warnings to wrong-doers.  Mariah Carey is a romantic.  Hope for an ideal lover played against acknowledgement of how some lovers have failed is given a very likable melody in “Dreamlover.”  The old Jackson  5 song “I’ll Be There” is done with Trey Lorenz, and in it Carey’s voice seems so big it hardly can be contained by the song.  “Emotions” is a wild, excited, passionate performance.   With an introduction sung with a warm, mature middle vocal range, “I Don’t Wanna Cry” describes the dire state of a relationship, before the singer moves into a higher, somewhat more girlish and searching voice.  (It must be admitted the Carey’s upper vocal tier can seem the edge of screech terrain.)  The brisk pace of “Someday” is bolstered by bitterness but the chorus’s warning is beautiful as well as threatening.  Personal responsibility, failure, despair, and a lesson learned about healing describe the ballad “Love Takes Time.”  Considering her record-shattering success, Mariah Carey’s audience would have to be broad, general, but, obviously, these are songs that high school girls and housewives, sensitive young poets, and men drunk on glamour can adopt as anthems.

Mariah Carey’s breakthrough song “Vision of Love” is an intense ballad as much about perspective, hope, and fulfillment of an idea as it is about sentiment.  It is a writer’s song as much as a singer’s song.  The album #1s closes with the song “I Still Believe,” done in tribute to performer Brenda K. Starr, an early supporter: a song of faith, it fits easily with Carey’s repertoire as collected here.  After the #1s collection, Mariah Carey released Rainbow (1999), Charmbracelet (2002), and The Emancipation of Mimi (2005), which was consider a renewal of creativity, and also E=MC2 (2008).  Mariah Carey’s past performances and her Memoirs of an Imperfect  Angel leave no doubt that she will continue to make likable music; and my wish is that she enlarge her commitment to making more significant music.

Daniel Garrett, a graduate of the New School for Social Research, and the principal organizer of the Cultural Politics Discussion Group at Poets House, is a writer whose work has appeared in The African, All About Jazz, American Book Review, Art & Antiques, The Audubon Activist, Black Film Review, Changing Men, Cinetext, Contact II, Film International, The Humanist, Hyphen, Illuminations, Muse Apprentice Guild, Option, Pop Matters, Quarterly Black Review of Books, Rain Taxi, Red River Review, Review of Contemporary Fiction, Wax Poetics, and World Literature Today.  Daniel Garrett has written extensively about international film for Offscreen, and comprehensive commentary on music for The Compulsive Reader.  He has an internet log, “The Art Notes of a Solitary Walker,” focused on visual art.