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Behind the Caterwaul: A Mariah Carey Retrospective
Behind the Caterwaul: A Mariah Carey Retrospective

In honor of Mariah Carey's 10th studio album (and fourth or fifth liberation), The Emancipation of Mimi, I've gathered three of Slant's music boys to dish the dirt on the multi-octave songbird's first nine releases (yes, we're counting her Christmas album). At times the discussion wasn't pretty: There were catfights about which is better, "Fantasy" the album version or "Fantasy" the remix, Prince's "The Beautiful Ones" or Mariah's cover with Dru Hill, Mariah with or Mariah without breast implants. Okay, so I made that last one up. And they weren't really catfights so much as casual, borderline mundane conversations. But the words "slut" and "orgasm" were used in one form or another at least three times each. And Rick James's corpse and "Hero"-as-masturbation-anthem each received one mention apiece. That should count for something, though I'm not sure what. But don't worry, I chimed in from time to time to keep the boys on point. Your ringmaster, Alexa Camp

Mariah Carey (1990)

Mariah Carey

Rich Juzwiak: I really thought Mariah's debut single, "Vision of Love," was a Whitney Houston song when I first heard it on the radio. I think it was a vision of the future world of American Idol, where we have these doe-eyed robots who think melisma is godliness. As on Whitney's first album (and, actually, most that came after it), Mariah showed just how much of a diva she was by being a million times better than her cloying, forgettable songs.

Eric Henderson: That song was so ridiculously popular that it's sort of compelling to return to it today and discover restraint where we remember abandon. Like the doo-wop ballads it emulates, it's demure in how it doesn't pretend that you can work foreplay, intercourse, and the climax into the space of three-and-a-half minutes. So it settles for foreplay. The end of the song has a lot less caterwauling and a lot more stage-whispered promises of things to come.

RJ: Who needs sex when you orgasm so massively and so often? Come on, Honey climaxes easily. The last half of "Vision Of Love" (starting with the belted bridge) is a series of crescendos that get so intense that another Mariah has to step in to keep up the momentum. And then there's the whistle note. And then there's the final vocal run that's more like a roller-coaster track. If you think these aren't climaxes, she proves you wrong with her denouement, the way the last word, "be," sort of wanes into an "mm hmm hmm." Unsurprising that there's so much drama, even passion, in a vocal arrangement that's constructed like a short story.

Sal Cinquemani: I think we should title this piece "Finding Subtext Where There Is None." But seriously, do you really think the songs on Mariah's debut were forgettable? In particular, "Vanishing" and "All In Your Mind," which I think prefigured "Always Be My Baby" (but with a healthy dose of soul), are pretty damn memorable. And I used to really love that song "Prisoner" (I was 11, okay?). I think it's funny that people got their panties all in a twitch over Mariah's latter-day hip-hop excursions. I mean, the girl raps on this song. Badly. And no one seemed to mind.

RJ: I did.

SC: Of course you did.

EH: Mariah's penchant for spinning the roulette wheel with her producers and songwriting collaborators admittedly didn't announce itself with much kaleidoscopic diversity. "Someday," with its pristine synth ascensions and rubbery bassline, sounded great the first time, mostly because it reminded you of one of those other 1990 dance singles that you could never be bothered to learn the name of. That is until the voice slipped (like an obdurate water balloon out of your hands) into the upper octaves.

SC: I didn't really notice Mariah until "Someday" came out (again, I was 11). Maybe that speaks to the fact that I was just much less interested in "singers" than good pop songs, but Mariah the balladeer just bored me to tears.

RJ: Ah, "Someday": the rare Mariah swing track. She really came off as an AC-blooded new jack hack. Doesn't she do the Roger Rabbit in the video? This song was sort of the pinnacle of the marriage of obsequiousness and genre resistance that made Sony so much money.

Emotions (1991)

Emotions

RJ: I like taking the first line of the title track's chorus as a statement in itself: "You've got me feeling emotions." I'll send that insight right back atcha, Mariah: on this unremarkable album, you've got me hearing sounds.

SC: Emotions is overproduced and was considered a bit of a sophomore slump at the time (which, looking back, is funny considering only three of her albums have sold more), but I think it's really classic-sounding.

EH: "Classic-sounding"? I like that you know it's not classic in essence, but only in representation.

RJ: This album came out a little over a year after Mariah's debut, and in many ways predicted her eventual identity better than her next few releases. Aside from her workhorsiness, her penchant for referencing is all over the album: "Emotions" sounds like the Emotions' "Best of My Love" and Cheryl Lynn's "Got to Be Real," "Can't Let Go" is a musical retread of Keith Sweat and Jacci McGhee's "Make It Last Forever" (which she'd oddly go on to cover again in the remix of "Thank God I Found You"), and "Make It Happen" repeats the chord progressions and the disco-kinda-disco of Alicia Myers's "I Want to Thank You." I think there were lawsuits filed over a few, if not all of the aforementioned tracks.

SC: Hmmm, maybe that explains the so-called "classic sound" I was talking about.

EH: Yeah, but, to be fair, the sample-happy production team of Clivillés and Cole were relatively convenient sitting ducks during the spate of anti-sampling litigations that characterized the early-'90s battle against hip-hop. I imagine that most of the charges leveled against sample-reliant songs in that era weren't filed by people who understood the element of artistic license of musical quotation. Incidentally, I'd forgotten all about "Make It Last Forever," though I'm talking about the Jocelyn Brown version with Inner Life. Mariah later ripped that one too, didn't she? [EDITOR'S NOTE: After extensive (read: a few minutes' worth of) research, we have found no tangible evidence of "a direct connection between the Inner Life track and any of Mariah's shit," as Rich put it so eloquently in one email exchange. Any congruity between the two is purely a product of Eric's retrofitted imagination.]

SC: I never realized how much Mariah used to scream. And can you imagine her singing those first few notes of "So Cold" today? My favorite songs here are "The Wind" (why doesn't she do songs like this anymore?) and "Make It Happen."

RJ: I love "Make It Happen," but even though I admire her vocal conviction (see, she is a good actress!), the song's lyrics just ring so false to me. It just didn't take that long for the girl with one shoe to acquire many.

AC: You've been watching too much of MTV's Cribs, Rich.

SC: "Because I am a person who loves dolphins." Of course you do, Mariah.

Music Box (1993)

Music Box

SC: With each new record, Mariah claimed she was gaining more and more creative control, but Music Box is exactly what Tommy Mottola ordered: mild, unchallenging middle-of-the-road fluff. And 10 million people ate it up like Ovaltine.

RJ: As wooden as its namesake. An inherent underdog, Mariah's endearment is directly at odds with her success. This was the apex of her popularity, so it's just hateable. "Hero" is total nonsense. I really just don't understand it. It's like "The Greatest Love of All" on mind-fuzzing painkillers. There's a hero in me, but I need to find it. And then a hero comes along? Well that's confusing. Too many heroes. Who do I pay attention to, the hero in myself or this external hero? Is this a kindred spirit, or is my inner hero manifesting itself as another being? Am I to have some sort of romance with this hero that comes along? I think this song's about masturbation. Wait a minute, I think I love it.

EH: As someone who attended high school danceline competitions for six straight years (shut up Sal, my sisters were on the team) and heard the song play out at the end of competitions and video yearbooks almost as often as Celine Dion's "The Power Of A Dream," I can assure you that no one thinks "Hero" is about anything other than self-promoting, instant nostalgia-stoking…oh, I guess it is about masturbation.

RJ: The album version of "Anytime You Need a Friend" is miserable, but the Clivillés & Cole mixes are both theirs and Mariah's finest moments in house. One hundred percent garage done by the best singer in the world. I bet it had princesses, queens, and guidos all over the tri-state area crying on the dance floor.

SC: Yes, weeping…

AC:…all over their Long Island prom dresses.

 

Merry Christmas (1994)

Merry Christmas

RJ: "All I Want for Christmas Is You" is totally a classic. A lot of people think it's a cover, which I think is a testament to its success.

SC: Or maybe it's a testament to how derivative it is?

RJ: Exactly!!!

SC: Still, this is Mariah's best album. Hands down. And can we mention how she completely re-recorded "Joy to the World" as an eight-minute house mix with David Morales? She's absolutely out of her mind.

RJ: Love that Jesus was a bullfrog.

EH: You queens are such completists.

AC: This is the only Mariah album I own…on vinyl.

Daydream (1995)

Daydream

RJ: I think the scene in Glitter where Dice cuts all the "superfluous shit" out of "Loverboy" must have been based on Sean Combs's reaction to the album version of "Fantasy." It's amazing how just streamlining can turn something shrill and nagging into perfection. "Fantasy" is among her weakest tracks, and the Bad Boy Remix is one of her best. Go figure.

SC: It's telling that you think the remix is one of her best tracks, seeing as how her original hook is completely replaced with the part she didn't actually write. It might be cheesy but I love the album version.

RJ: Well, what is she if not a fantastic appropriator? I don't look to Mariah's writing for innovation (though I may have picked up a 10-cent word here and there). I'm more interested in what her wacky, idiosyncratic filter lets through her pop-culture obsession and into her work. But then, she also hits on a much more visceral level with "I Am Free." It's faux-gospel, as manipulative as Sunday school and I'm just begging for her to take me to church.

SC: I like that song a lot, but I think Glitter has a serious S&M fetish. She's constantly writing the same songs over and over again. I think she likes being a "prisoner," and "wandering through the misery," just so she can be saved. Technically, she's not supposed to get free until Butterfly, right? Or is it The Emancipation of Mimi? How many times can one person be liberated?

EH: [wakes up] Wha?…Oh, sorry, reacquainting myself with this album laid me flat out cold. It's interesting that you can almost pinpoint the moment that Mariah gave up the pop crown to the moment she lost the Grammy for Best Pop Album to Joni Mitchell in 1995. She's been straight-up R&B ever since.

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