For some reason it’s hard for people to believe that for the 20 most formative years of my life, the most important person in it was Mariah Carey.
Usually there’s a lot of laughter about this. I laugh, too, because it sounds crazy, and it kind of is, just how much influence this celebrity had on every aspect of my life. I mean, every username, password and email address I’ve ever had contains a 27, because that’s how old she was when my obsession truly bloomed. Do you even know how many reminders of a person that is on a daily basis?
At the same time, it’s not a joke how much respect I have for her as an artist, which is also jarring for people to learn, as she can be seen to others as a caricature, a pop star with little beneath the surface, the butt of countless “crazy” or “diva” jokes over the years.
But I’m here to beef up the story. If you love Mariah, hate Mariah, or are indifferent to Mariah, I want to show you a new path. Unless you love her, then keep your path. As I go out into the world I feel almost dishonest knowing that most people I interact with don’t know this about me. It feels wrong that I haven’t once mentioned her in any of my public writings, when 90% of my lifetime journal entries include at least four references to her.
Even though the last decade of my life has turned my attention away from the music and hobbies of my younger years, and I rarely (sadly) turn on a Mariah song, it’s not an overstatement to say that her influence is directly related to several major decisions I’ve made in life, and formed the baseline for the way I view the world today. Yep. That Mariah Carey. I will make you appreciate her.
To me, Mariah Carey isn’t a singer. She was the strongest force in my life for its majority. NO I’M NOT JOKING. She didn’t consent to this, but she was the being upon whom I projected all of my ideas of what was possible in life. Though on the surface I had nothing in common with her, as an adolescent I certainly strived to create struggle or believe my problems were as weighty as the ones she grew up with so I could dance and cry and navel gaze alone in my room for hours and hours trying to relate.
Our first encounter was Christmas circa 1995. The presents were open and we made our way to the stockings which were never hung, they were always lain packed full of tchotchkes and chocolate on the floor. Spilling out and unassigned were two cassette tapes: Michael Bolton something, and Mariah Carey Daydream. I picked them up, showed them to my mom and asked, “Whose is whose?” She shrugged, so I picked the prettier person.
To this point the only tape to grace my ever-present Walkman was Whitney, may she rest in peace. Once Mariah took the top spot, life took a drastic turn. The Daydream cassette was warped and mostly unplayable within a year, and the liner notes were marked and re-marked until they were a pile of individual notecards I’d flip through like flashcards for a test. I had them memorized and probably still do…
Who was the guitarist on Always Be My Baby? Obviously it was Tristan Avakian.
My desire to learn about this woman, whose voice never ceased to stun me no matter how many albums I discovered, was insatiable. I was shocked to learn she had already made four other albums and I had never even heard of her. I was so behind the times, and I was only TEN! So much to catch up on that I’d missed, busy being six.
The day I bought her Christmas album is vivid in my memory- CHRISTMAS SONGS TOO?!
One day when I was 11 or 12, my dad took us to the school where he worked, turned on a computer, and said, “Tell me something you want to learn about. This thing called the INTERNET will give us any information we want.”
Though it wasn’t a secret to anyone else, I thought I had hidden my obsession pretty well so I nonchalantly tossed out, “Mariah Carey?” Until then I had been confined to library books and magazines with a blurb here or there (true Millennial time warping going on here. NO INFO on celebrities unless a magazine was purchased or Jay Leno was watched). So imagine the awe when eight pages packed tight with nothing but 10 point font, no pictures, came chugging out of the printer.
Discovering her tragic back story, her gigantic and growing success I knew nothing about, and her musical influences/direction opened yet another new world to my little mind. Other people know about this woman? And no one told me?!
I kept those pages close at hand and read them until they were in tatters.
The next phase of cementing MC (I feel ok calling her that) into my lifelong psyche came on Thanksgiving night, 1996, when my mom called down to the basement, where I was likely scouring magazines for celebrities who were somehow connected to Mariah, saying that the newspaper said there was some kind of “Mariah Carey thing” on TV at that very moment.
I frantically hunted through the mass of videocassette tapes “allowed” to be taped on, looking for one with free space between the episodes of People’s Court and family trips to Disney. I was a little distracted, diligently pausing the recording during commercials, but the pieces I caught of Fantasy: Mariah Carey at Madison Square Garden that night on the checkered floor of my basement, of this person I’d listened to constantly for a year but whose face I had only seen on the cassette tape cover, was the moment I knew: I must move to New York City and become a record producer.
This was my life plan, you guys. Maybe it still is.
Mariah gets a bad rap because most of what people remember is the sort of “coming out” of a woman who had been so “modest”, so lovely, so balladeery, such a vocal sensation who, seemingly out of nowhere, literally jumped off a balcony while stripping off her clothes, and began canoodling with gangster rappers.
That’s a history for another day that has been dutifully documented in the annals of media folklore, so I won’t cover it here. The main thing to know is, Mariah’s whole “thing” to those who followed her closely, was the opposite of what presented after her divorce from a controlling whip-cracking kingpin husband.
The real fans knew of her abhorrence of hard drugs and her history of general prudishness (yes, prudishness). Her blatant stand against promiscuity in her own life (yes, blatant stand against promiscuity) and faith-filled gospel songs matched well with my conservative upbringing, so from a moral standpoint I felt great about the person I chose to idolize.
As her most devoted fans, we knew that her thing was encouraging young people to believe in themselves and to fight for their dreams. Hers were achieved, literally, against all odds: born into a biracial family in the 70’s, the family was heavily and dangerously persecuted for existing, father left the home when she was three, her mom had zero dollars, they moved a dozen times by the time she was 10, her older sister became a prostitute and heroin addict, and Mariah all but dropped out of high school.
But she kept at it. Moving to the City from Long Island as soon as she graduated, she hustled, failed, and made no excuses. She wrote all of her own songs--extremely uncommon especially for the time and still uncommon among number-one hitters—and doing the grunt work of the music industry before getting her break.
I didn’t know all this about her at the time- I still had yet to get my eight pages of info— but as I watched that MSG tape over and over, I saw a woman standing on an iconic stage in the city that raised her, singing to a sold-out crowd* pointing to the nosebleeds singing, “Don’t let go, don’t ever ever let go!” I felt like I could do anything. Even become a music producer in Manhattan. I believed her.
*Let’s not forget all proceeds to the show went to charity. Appreciate, people!
In addition to Make it Happen, lines like these, are the ones I most associate with Mariah:
“I have learned
There's an inner peace I own
Something in my soul that they can not possess
Oh I won't be afraid and the darkness will fade”
“Yes, I've been bruised
Grew up confused
I've seen life from many sides
Been black and white
Felt inferior inside
Until my saving grace shined on me
Until my saving grace set me free”
“But I closed my eyes
Steadied my feet on the ground
Raised my head to the sky
And though time's rolled by
Still feel like that child
As I look at the moon
Maybe I grew up
A little too soon”
“She smiles through a thousand tears
And harbors adolescent fears
She dreams of all
That she can never be
She wades in insecurity
And hides herself inside of me
Don't say she takes it all for granted
I'm well aware of all I have
Don't think that I am disenchanted
There's light in me me
That shines brightly, yes
They can try
But they can't take that away from me.”
These were the lines that played in my mind anytime I felt excluded, rejected, or sad as a teen. My problems weren’t as major as hers were, but all things are relative especially to a tween. I had my own sister whom I loved deeply and who hurt me with her own complex and hard-to-understand challenges.
Incidentally, one key challenge- Bipolar II disorder, ended up being revealed this year as Mariah’s own challenge. I’ve always felt a kindship and familiarity to the behaviors that were labeled “crazy” by the media about Mariah— I recognized my own sister in her. And as it turns out, Mariah was the one who could be there for me when my sister couldn’t.
I struggled with deep loneliness and the confusing desires to both fit in and stand out that many adolescents face. I know it was just normal teen stuff, but my choosing her as a role model was key, a blessing even, in helping me avoid some of the more dangerous things kids do to cope with those “normal” struggles. She wrote songs about darkness, isolation and heartbreak of all kinds- extremely helpful for a kid growing up in a time when mental illness and depression weren’t as understood, and in a place where at best, ugly feelings were not discussed, and at worst, attributed to sin rather than normal human experience.
Mariah talked all the time about how music was her safe place, her remedy, and it was what drove her to avoid the distractions of casual sex and the dangers of drugs. She was focused, and I borrowed that focus to keep me looking toward the future instead of wallowing in the weirdness of junior high and high school.
In the sixth grade, I put a small picture of her in the bottom of my shoe at a track meet and I was no longer nervous. Her words played in my heart when I went into scary eighth grade, attending parties where I would rather sit in front of the stereo and DJ than flirt with boys. When I didn’t feel I had friends I could count on, I had made incredibly understanding and real friends on Mariah Carey Fan Message Boards. True story. I even met up with them at concerts and finally felt like I belonged somewhere: with a bunch of gay men with Mariah’s face tattooed on their backs.
The gift of music that began with my parents but was cracked wide open by Mariah, was a lifeline for me in the dark days of teen-dom.
She introduced me to classic artists who influenced her, giving me an appreciation for who was really responsible for bringing us the sounds we love today. Since I knew I wasn’t a singer and probably not a songwriter, I was obsessed with Mariah’s technical expertise as a producer and arranger of music.
Because her songs are “pop” and often very “light and catchy,” they get confused for simple and trite. They are everything but simple, and deceptively refined. The painstakingly perfected background vocals, combined with unique song structure that included continued dynamics throughout a song rather than repetitive verses/outros, then completely revolutionizing the idea of “remix”— I mean, who else could turn the Willy Wonka theme song into a hot R&B slow jam? These are just a couple of factors of extreme musicality that led to her ability to make a song that everyone knows, whether they love it or hate it.
This is an extremely difficult and rare occurrence for an artist to achieve even once.
This woman did it 16 times in just five years, when she was between the ages of 20-25. Nine of those were number one hits. For some perspective, Taylor Swift (whom I respect and that’s why the comparison, this is not a hater move) has had five number ones in her entire career. And that’s without producing her own records or having the pipes that alone could make someone a legend. Mariah went on to have eight more number one hits after that- only the Beatles have more than she does, and there were four of those guys!
To summarize: 1 Beyonce + 1 Taylor + 1 Ariana + 1 Alicia + 1 Gaga = 1 Mariah. But as incredible as this list of women is, only Mariah wrote, produced, and sang all of her number ones*. (Sorry about all the stats. I’m determined to get some use out of ten solid years studying Billboard charts.)
Before Mariah, singers didn’t sing with rappers. Imagine a world with no rap features on pop or R&B songs! Would Ariana even exist? Seriously. Mariah Carey and ODB started life.
Before Mariah, singers sang approximately one note per word. Boring. Every pop female you hear today sings the way she does because of Mariah Carey bringing Aretha-style vocals to the modern mainstream.
Before Mariah, Christmas albums were for people with dead careers trying to squeeze one last buck out of the public. She came in as a 23 year old and wrote brand new holiday songs (another crazy idea) that literally still hit the top ten 25 years after their release- even in Christmas-less Japan.
Before Mariah, no one had ever turned a line from Mean Girls into a hit song or got a number one out of a love song by saying, “I will hunt you down.”
Before Mariah, no one had ever released an 80’s-Themed record on September 11, 2001 that flopped, then hit number one on iTunes in 2018. Talk about some wacky longevity.
No matter where I stand with Mariah at a given time, I will always go to bat for her talent beyond her voice. Did you know the song to spend the most weeks at number one was One Sweet Day, a duet between her and Boyz II Men, and it was there for 16 weeks**?
But ten years later, it was at risk of being dethroned. BY MARIAH CAREY. Luckily, We Belong Together (which she wrote in a single sitting) only made it to a paltry 14 weeks. TEN years later.
*One of Mariah’s number ones is a cover of the Jackson Five’s I’ll Be There. So only singing and production on that one.
**24 years later, the amazing Despacito joined One Sweet Day in the 16-week club.
Eventually I would find my way to a life in New York, not to become a producer, but to absorb the vibes responsible for some of my favorite artists. To get to know the setting I had wanted to understand for so long; the backdrop responsible for giving me a vibrant and endlessly fascinated view of the world. And to secretly plot how I could make it as a producer.
While there I finally made my way to Madison Square Garden and saw that same Beacon take the same stage I had watched a million times in my little house in small-town Southern Utah on that blank VHS.
It was the stage I could only dream of seeing in person because of her encouragement to keep dreaming. As she rose up out of center stage, I felt totally aware of the little ten year old inside and how she would be freaking out, or maybe even passed out.
Mariah at MSG 15 years after our first “meeting,” performing the number one song in the nation for 14 weeks running, was the ultimate full-circle moment.
It would have been my greatest Mariah moment, except for the fact that five years before this, I had snuck and fibbed my way through a concert venue in Phoenix until I met her and we spoke one-on-one for ten minutes and she was the most gracious and kind and funny person I’ve ever met. But that’s a story for another day, sorry.
So the other day, as I listened to her music for the first time in ages, I found myself feeling a calm I hadn’t felt in awhile. A different kind of calm. Not spiritual, not nostalgic. It was a familiarity, like hanging out with an old friend and not having to talk. I know her voice so well that it’s almost like it doesn’t even register as being heard. I felt a sense of confidence and safety come over me, the same one I felt in the eighth grade when her songs were the safest place I could go.
I could get into how my devotion to a life full of diversity of human interaction, my early experiences with gaining perspective into the lives of people of color and the discrimination of biracial people while growing up in an all white town, and my willingness to be open with my heavy sides, knowing they are normal and useful, all came from Mariah.
I could claim that my love of music and writing were empowered by her making them “cool,” and the hours upon hours spent alone in my room writing and listening were what laid the foundation for my skills today.
But that would be too unbelievable, right? Too much for a mere pop singer to imbue on a young mind?
Well, let’s just say that my dear parents never balked at my devotion/obsession, and even enabled it in a healthy (I think?) way. They took my two best friends and me to Vegas to see Mariah when we were 14, then stood outside with us for hours as we waited to get autographs through the window of her limo.
They let me have a giant poster of her in a non-LDS approved outfit but still conservative by today’s Mariah standards, hang on my wall in a prominent position. They listened to me ramble on (and on) about “background vocals” and “emotional performances” and “interviews on Oprah that must be taped while I’m at school or I’ll kill you.”
They had opened my heart and ears to the joy of music and put the cassette in my stocking. They probably also taught me love and acceptance and a zest for travel and novelty, never teaching me to fear adventure and “different.” If not for my mom’s shrug that Christmas morning, this essay might have been written about Michael Bolton.
But they were also wise enough to know that teens lean on other influences for a few years, and the best hope a parent has is that their kid will pick someone good.
I’m happy I did. Thanks for the memories, M.