“I’m a chanteuse, dahling… I’m on the stage!” Mimi announces during the intro for Lullaby Of Birdland – Live, 2014 (from her recent The Rareties release, our review of which you can read here).
Mariah then recalls some rare moments of joy from her childhood – sitting at the piano, riffing with her Juilliard-trained opera singer mother’s muso friends – before observing, “When I was little I would be in lingerie on the piano at like 13. Appropriate? Not really. But it’s me; I can’t help it!”
In her memoir The Meaning Of Mariah Carey, she acknowledges being born with a “propensity for extraness,” which is summed up perfectly in a photo of Baby Mimi “posing for the guncles”: one hand on hip, the other tilting her head sideways, Mariah works her angles and flashes a million-watt smile – born with it. “I was always so scared as a little girl, and music was my escape,” she writes. “My house was heavy, weighed down with yelling and chaos. When I sang, in a whispery tone, it calmed me down. I discovered a quiet, soft, light place inside my voice – a vibration in me that brought me sweet relief. My whisper-singing was my secret lullaby to myself.”
Ever tried to sing along with Mariah Carey? Okay, let’s try Emotions. Here goes. Ready? “It feels like a dream/ When you touch me tenderly/ I don’t know if it’s real/ But I like the way I feel inSIIIIIIIIIIIIDE!” Ugh, best we leave those whistle notes to Mimi, no? Mariah often cites Minnie Riperton’s Lovin’ You as an early influence, which makes a whole lotta sense.
Cyndi Lauper recently tweeted some love Mariah’s way after picking up The Meaning Of Mariah Carey, and Mimi replied, “Cyndi, you have always had love from me!!! I will never forget on my 21st birthday (back when I still had birthdays), when you gave me a beautiful orange lyric book and I wrote the entire Music Box album in it. It meant so much to me as do you and your talent!”
One of the best-selling albums of all time, the Diamond-certified Music Box comprises many ballads – primarily written by Mariah and Walter Afanasieff (the pair establishing their working relationship on her preceding album, Emotions) – plus a smattering of urban dance tracks. There’s a lot of space within these arrangements, every Tinkerbell-esque chime, finger snap and woodblock knock popping vibrantly from the mix.
On her writing process with Afanasieff, Mariah revealed during a 1993 interview: “We have this connection where I’ll sing what I’m hearing and he’ll start playing, and usually it’s what I’m hearing in my head. Walter really tries to let me lead. He knows it’s important to me to let the melodies I have develop.”
Other contributors to Music Box included Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds – who helped write and produce the Music Box track Never Forget You, which marked the beginning of their collaboration and lasting friendship – and C+C Music Factory (AKA Robert Clivillés and David Cole); the pair appears as writers/producers on Music Box, their previous work on Mariah’s self-belief banger Make It Happen unlocking the kind of collaborative magic that demands further exploration. On working with Cole, Mariah writes, “He was a church kid who loved dance music (as evidenced on Make It Happen). As a producer, he pushed me as a singer, because he was one too.”
Mimi may look like she has never known life outside a mansion, but she came from nothing. When she first started booking jobs as a background singer in New York, Mariah was sleeping on friends’ floors, survived on a diet of occasional bagels (if she could afford to buy one) and only owned one pair of ill-fitting, hand-me-down black boots with split soles that were procured from her mother. Make It Happen‘s lyrics are autobiographical: “No proper shoes upon my feet/ Sometimes I couldn’t even eat/ I often cried myself to sleep.”
Mariah’s discovery by Sony Music CEO Tommy Mottola – who she describes as “a potent combination of father figure, Svengali, business partner, confidant, and companion” – is the stuff of music industry legend. While at an industry party with her friend Brenda K. Starr, Mariah locked eyes with Mottola who later asked Starr, “Who’s your friend?” After Starr handed over Mariah’s demo, Mottola immediately left the party and headed directly to his limo so that he could listen to these songs on the car stezza. Suitably impressed, Mottola tracked Mariah down, signed her, and then married her a few years later. She was 23 and he was 44. “This was the first of what would be a strange and fantastical series of Cinderella stories in my life,” Mariah explains in her book. “But I was not swept off my feet, and trust and believe me, Tommy Mottola was no Prince Charming.”
In his 2013 memoir, Mottola admits his relationship with Mariah was “absolutely wrong and inappropriate,” adding, “If it seemed like I was controlling, I apologise. Was I obsessive? Yes, but that was also a part of the reason for her success.” Mimi begs to differ.
Music Box‘s calling card is definitely the airy R&B/hip-hop swoon of Dreamlover, built from a sample of Blind Alley by The Emotions (1972) that had previously been used on Big Daddy Kane’s Ain’t No Half-Steppin’ (1988). This masterpiece started a trend for Mariah, with samples also forming musical beds for other hits including Fantasy, Honey, Heartbreaker and Loverboy. During an interview, Mariah bemoaned, “I hate it when people are like [adopts a dramatic voice]: ‘She’s taking a new direction with hip hop.’ I’m like, ‘Will you please freakin’ research?’ I’ve been doing this for a long time – working with [writer-producer] Dave Hall on Dreamlover, using the Ain’t No Half-Steppin’ loop… It was just digging in the crates with Dave Hall and coming up with, ‘Hey, let’s use this loop!’ And from then on, I did it anytime I could.”
When Mariah heard a muzak version of Without You while dining in a restaurant, she remembered this song used to make her cry on the reg when she was a little girl, and immediately decided to include this Badfinger cover on her Music Box record. Which brings us to that hilarious mondegreen where a contestant on Music Idol, aspiring Bulgarian singer Valentina Hasan, introduced her audition piece as “a song by Mariah Carey, ‘Ken Lee‘” (mishearing Without You‘s “I can’t live” lyrics). Comedy gold, that’s best watched with ‘subtitles’.
Mariah has identified the gospel-tinged Anytime You Need A Friend as one of her favourite songs on this album. Although it sounds like a choir singing BVs, she points out, “It’s mostly these three girls that have been working with me: the Price sisters [Kelly and Shanrae] and another girl Melonie Daniels. It was a great experience to work with them and to do these gospel arrangements because they’re really from the church and they’re really, really authentic.”
Music Box’s second chart-topping single, Hero, which is widely regarded as Mariah’s signature song, was written after Carey/Afanasieff were commissioned to write a feature song for the soundtrack of a mainstream movie of the same name (starring Geena Davis and Dustin Hoffman). As Afanasieff recalls, he was sitting at the studio piano when he told Mariah what the film was about. Mariah remembers she came up with the song’s main melody and lyrics (“And then a hero comes along…”) during a bathroom break shortly afterwards. Afanasieff marvels: “Within two hours, we had this incredible seed for this song, Hero.
It was never meant for Mariah to sing. The song was originally written with Gloria Estefan in mind, but when Mottola (Mariah’s fiancé at the time) heard a rough demo, he convinced Mariah to keep it for herself. Then Afanasieff was tasked with explaining to Epic Records that the pair had failed to come up with a feature song. The Hero soundtrack’s feature song was eventually penned by Luther Vandross (Heart Of A Hero).
Earlier this year, Carey crashed the Schitt’s Creek cast’s Dear Class Of 2020 Zoom call, joining in on their stellar rendition of Hero (David Rose’s “suggestion”). During Mariah’s sweet message she thanks teachers for dealing with “students like me, who never really showed up at school on time.”
Mariah openly admits that her only career goal was to become “a star.” And you’ve gotta hand the diamond-encrusted tiara to Mimi: she made it happen.