Mariah Carey's Memoir Is Further Proof: She Has A Gift For Storytelling
There's nothing quite like an intricately designed Mariah Carey lyric. You know it when you hear it, because it involves a kind of vivid wordplay so utterly specific that you can't help but find yourself conjuring images in your own head of blissful romantic entanglements, earnest yearning or the doldrums of deep, intense heartache.
In the dreamy deep cut "Underneath the Stars," for example, she describes a rendezvous with a lover:
One summer night, we ran away for awhile
Laughing, we hurried beneath the sky
To an obscure place to hide
That no one could find
And we drifted to another state of mind...
As the song continues to unfold, the encounter is fueled by a "natural high," until the night comes to an end and the two must part, reluctantly, leaving Mariah only with sweet memories of their dalliance. The mood is lush and ethereal, accompanied by soft, angelic instrumentation harkening to 1970s R&B slow-jams.
Her lyricism can be just as poetic when the story being told involves kissing off a no-good man, injecting a bit of humor into her unflinching dismissal: If we were two Lego blocks even the Harvard University graduating class of 2010 couldn't put us back together again, she riffs punchily in the bridge of "Up Out My Face." It's witty, it's silly — so silly, in fact, Carey herself lets out an audible giggle right after she sings it.
I thought often of lyrics like these while listening to the pop star read the audiobook The Meaning of Mariah Carey, released earlier this fall. Her long-awaited memoir (written with Michaela Angela Davis) promises the chronicling of her life's ups and downs "unfiltered," and indeed she demonstrates a painstaking commitment to specificity throughout as she recounts a complicated childhood, challenging relationships and her career.
Take, for starters, Carey's hair, which may as well be considered a fully fleshed out character in Meaning, with a personality and agency all its own. Not only does it get its own chapter, in which she reveals how her white mother's indifference toward her biracial daughter's curls made them a "matted, tangled mess" and fueled Carey's insecurities at an early age; stray mentions (sometimes, entire paragraphs) of how it was coiffed at any given moment are sprinkled throughout the book, emerging unexpectedly like the taste of a flavorful pinch of spice added by the chef for that little extra kick.
On getting ready to attend the industry party where Carey, then still an unknown, would meet her eventual first husband Tommy Mottola: "I attempted to create one long, uniform coil all around my head by twisting sections of hair around the rod of a curling wand. I finished it off with a straight bang." During the promotional rollout of Music Box in 1993, the first time it began to set in for her that she had amassed a devoted fan base: "I sat in a [dressing room] chair having my hair first straightened, then curled and sprayed." When describing the morning after her first sleepover with Derek Jeter in the early days of their dating: "I tiptoed down to the kitchen with passion-tousled hair, wearing his oversized Yankees jersey."
Are any of those details crucial to the plot of the adventures of Mimi? Nope. But they are the spice, presenting the audience with an even greater understanding of the impact Carey's childhood continues to have on her in the present day. (Also, "take a shot every time Mariah mentions her hair" would make for a fun drinking game while reading or listening along.)
Sometimes, the details divulged possess an air of "overachieving teacher's pet": In case you weren't already aware, The Prince of Egypt — the 1998 animated film featuring a duet between Carey and Whitney Houston on its soundtrack — "went on to gross $218 million worldwide, making it the most successful non-Disney animated feature of the time." Other times, the details are useful, if superfluous, tidbits, like the fact that Franklin Delano Roosevelt Drive in Manhattan "doesn't have traffic lights," which made an early morning joyride she once had with rapper Cam'ron in his Lamborghini that much more invigorating.
These touches are signature Mariah, and to her detractors, they could only elicit eyerolls. But for a fan like myself, this is the draw and why (in part) we return to her music again and again — for those jokey, self-aware quips and ad libs ('Cause if you run your mouth and brag about this secret rendezvous, I WILL HUNT YOU DOWN); for the extremely relatable emotions (I told you, if you f'ed up one more time it's over/ So get up out my face, I'm hungover!); for the ridiculously particular beat-by-beat run-downs of events (You're like, "Where you been?"/ I'm like, "Sorry but I fell asleep on Jasmine's sofa/ I coulda sworn that Rae Rae called you and told ya"). They paint a clear picture, and forge that connection between artist and listener.
In Meaning, Carey points to her album Butterfly as a turning point in her songwriting career, where bits of her personal life began to inform her craft more explicitly. She had begun dating Jeter around that time, and he served as the inspiration for songs like "Honey" and "The Roof"; unlike songs from previous albums, she writes, these weren't about "far-off, fictional lovers." Nor are introspective tracks like "Close My Eyes" only about the loss of innocence and reclaiming freedom — they're also directly tied to her suffocating relationship with the controlling Mottola. Listeners in 1997 might not have inferred that this was inspired by her then-husband, nor would they need to in order to connect to its themes — yet the additional context gives the song even more punch upon re-listens.
A wave of affirmation and career reassessment has taken place in recent years for Carey — the 25-year climb to the top of the Billboard Hot 100 for "All I Want Is Christmas Is You," the profiles and interviews tied to her carefully coordinated celebration of 30 years in the business, the social media campaigns fueled by her biggest fans (a.k.a. the "Lambily"). Especially satisfying to witness was her acceptance into the Songwriters Hall of Fame earlier this year. (She and her classmates have yet to be officially inducted due to the postponement of the ceremony in light of the pandemic.)
Many of Carey's best songs have showcased her ability to be playful, joyful, cutting, straight-to-the point and vulnerable with a pen. Meaning only crystallizes how her talents reach far beyond catchy melodies, that signature range and a flair for the dramatic, dah-ling. The woman knows how to craft a narrative.
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