By Daniel Garrett
Mariah Carey, The Very Best of Mariah Carey
Sony Music, 2010
Something strange happens with the reputation of famous performers: the gifts, entertaining and unique, that won them attention and respect begin to be taken for granted, as if sensibility and voice were as natural as sunlight and rain rather than the province of discipline and taste. It is an odd compliment. Someone like Mariah Carey has produced many popular songs, songs of love and sex, songs of struggle and self-belief, becoming part of the musical score for a multitude of lives; and the significance of The Very Best of Mariah Carey is that it collects some of Carey’s lesser known songs and provides a different window into her talent. The anthology does lift-off with the well-known “Dreamlover,” a song about a fantasy lover, in which Mariah Carey’s voice has rhythm, sweetness, and force, but quickly introduces a less known song, “Bliss,” a slow-paced composition that Carey, who has access to five octaves, mostly sings in mid-range, though she does show-off some of her sharp, whispery top notes, as she asks her lover what will please him. (It occurred to me that “Bliss” is intentionally precious, something that should not have been a surprise.) “Melt Away” seems first about infatuated, unrequited affection. Carey affects a heavy, almost masculine inflection in some of her phrasing, and elsewhere in the song it is girlishly angelic. The song is about the weak feeling one gets when infatuated. She insists, “You and me, we ain’t got a typical thing.” So much for failure in love. Mariah Carey’s voice can sound hammer-strong or feather-light, and she uses different parts of her voice in “Breakdown,” which opens with a man’s chanting voice (the voice, appearing in different instances in the song, makes the song nearly a duet, which is odd since most of the lyrics focus on separation). It is a song with texture—layers of sound, and rhythms going in more than one direction. Love is a principal subject in Mariah Carey’s oeuvre; yet, some of Mariah Carey’s strongest songs are not about love for another person but about her own perception of herself and of her struggle to accomplish something in life. Survival through tough times, and advice for solace and success, with faith in divinity and self, form the subject of “Make It Happen,” a great, galvanizing Carey composition and performance. (Listening to Carey’s “Make It Happen,” I thought of Michael Jackson’s “Man in the Mirror” and “Keep the Faith,” and regret that, as far as I know, Jackson and Carey did not work together. It is hard to believe that neither thought of it, as each was a master of voice and music with great ambition and the belief that hope and passion were two things that could unite people.)
“Outside,” a dramatic ballad about alienation and self-esteem, in which Carey’s voice goes from quiet (whispering) to loud (full-throated), is one of the songs that compelled me to reconsider Mariah Carey. Is the song genuinely complex; or does it merely lack melody? There are words about not belonging, in finding no one the same: “You’ll always be somewhere on the outside.” It may be one of those times when popular music goes beyond sugar and cake to encounter bitter fruit. The idea that someone is alienated, and will remain so, is not romantic, but pessimistic—or, precisely, unacceptably realistic. Unfortunately, I listened to the song several times trying to identify its melody: it is either too subtle for my immediate perception, or it is not there. “Vanishing,” tracking the disappearance of a lover from view, from memory, is a song cut from the same material, though it is strengthened by a strong piano arrangement and passionate singing. “You’re vanishing, drifting away,” sings Carey, her voice against the notes of a churchy piano. She describes the addressed person as “letting the darkness inside.” The composition “Looking In” is also an introspective ballad, and its lyrics were not as clear as I would have liked upon initial listening, but going back to it, the lines are about hiding, insecurity, and isolation, a conflicted, divided, or embattled self. Introspection and intimacy are not really the obvious calling cards of great musical stars; rather spectacle and volume are—and yet the ability to suggest self-disclosure, something both recognizably human and special, is what cements the connection between artist and appreciator. By bringing together sensitive songs from albums such as Butterfly, Daydream, Emotions, Music Box, Rainbow, The Remixes, and her self-entitled Mariah Carey album, Carey is compelling her public to recognize that she always has been more than was registered or remembered, more than the sexy, sweet image of success.
Yet, sexy and sweet she has been. “Emotions” is a high-energy composition: a woman’s feeling thrilled is itself thrilling. It is arguable that Carey displays the beauty of tone of Barbra Streisand, the stylish exuberance of Diana Ross, and the phenomenal strength of Aretha Franklin. A love song, “Babydoll,” is about the beginning of a relationship; it is all wishes; then, there is “I Am Free.” In “Fantasy,” the rapper O.D.B. (Ol’ Dirty Bastard) is a needless accessory to a fun song, as Carey commands attention even when her melody or message is slight, which might be the case in “Underneath the Stars” and “Rainbow.”
In “Babydoll,” Carey’s murmuring side-of-the mouth delivery suggests she’s playing a character as she asks for, yes, both sweetness and sex, leaving one to wonder: when does fantasy become self-deception; and when does vulnerability become self-destruction? “I want to be your babydoll,” she sings. If Carey is merely playing a character, the danger is limited, but if she believes in the message of the song, that may be another matter entirely. That’s the thing with artists: it can be difficult to know what is an experiment, one more among many, and what is the truth. Carey’s voice is so great she can impress by sending a curl of notes rising into the air. She can impress men—and little girls, trying to figure out what and how to be. That she is now a married woman with children indicates she is learning the difference between fantasy and reality.
“I Am Free” is a liberation ballad of someone who felt adrift, lost, but now feels free and serene. “Fantasy,” like “Dreamlover,” seems like a cheery something included in The Very Best of Mariah Carey as a balance for the ballads. The melody of “Underneath the Stars,” about romantic escape, reminds me of the Isley Brothers, and “Rainbow” is a short piece, hopeful, speculative.
Daniel Garrett, a graduate of the New School for Social Research, and the principal organizer of the Cultural Politics Discussion Group at Poets House and ABC No Rio, is a writer whose work has appeared in print and online, in The African, All About Jazz, American Book Review, Black Film Review, Cinetext, Film International, The Humanist, Hyphen, Identity Theory, Illuminations, Option, Pop Matters, Rain Taxi, Review of Contemporary Fiction, and Wax Poetics, as well as The Compulsive Reader. Daniel Garrett edited poetry for the male feminist Changing Men magazine, wrote about the African-American artists Henry Tanner, Edward Bannister, and Reginald Madison for Art & Antiques, reported on environmental issues and organized the first interdepartmental meeting on environmental justice for National Audubon (The Audubon Activist), reviewed books for World Literature Today, and essayed international film for Offscreen. He has written a novel, A Stranger on Earth, focused on a struggling woman artist, and her associates, family, and friends.