Mariah Carey Is a Comedic Genius

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Mariah Carey Is a Comedic Genius

If you think she's just a punchline or an airhead, you're doing this wrong.

Each day this week, one Noisey UK staff member writes about one of their all-time faves (in some cases, one you might not expect anyone to love this much in 2017). Today: editor Tshepo Mokoena on how there's levels to Mariah Carey's public persona.

Mariah is fucking funny. Sorry, let me rephrase that: Mariah Carey, who you may know as that lady with the Christmas song, is intentionally funny in ways that make her a cultural treasure. I have no idea what her name means to you but I hope some understanding of how much she takes the piss out of herself hovers in there. As a pop star, she's ended up shaped more by the contours of her novelty single (still a banger though??) than the jump she made from a young, naive and musically stifled upstart into … well, into the woman with the sparkly gowns who can't even be bothered to put her back into her own choreography.

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I'm not going to spend this piece talking you through how her whistle voice blew my mind when I was five years old or whatever (that did happen but let's move on). Nah, what Mariah deserves is a full evaluation of how her humour was nearly always misunderstood and thus became a central part of her brand. Actually, to say it was a part of her rebrand might be more accurate: Mariah stepped away from the 80s pop keyboards and high-treble ballads of her first three albums into late 90s hip-hop influences, clutching hair straighteners and slim-strapped stilettoes, just as she learned how not to take herself too seriously. Between 1995's Daydream and 1997's Butterfly she underwent the shift that's made her into the artist she is today. Sure, she's a fading star now, but one who showed that if you could snigger at yourself, largely undetected, you'd be able to have more 'IDGAF' fun than women in her corner of pop were generally allowed at the time. And by doing so, she could also exchange a knowing smile with everyone else who figured out that she – or her public persona – was about more than met the eye.

So, it's 1997. Mariah Carey is stretched out on a chaise longue on a boat in a Chanel miniskirt and black spaghetti strap top, opposite presenter Jamie Theakston. It's the 90s, so it's totally normal for him to ask her wink-wink questions about how she strips off into a bikini, then zips into a wetsuit in her new "Honey" video. This is a tried and tested format on "wacky" British TV of that era, where a confident male journalist embodies the simultaneous nervous giggle and leer of the imagined straight, male audience while trying not to directly ask "do you know you give married men erections?" See: Vanessa Paradis interviewed by Terry Christian on The Word. But Mariah's in on it. "Hi, I'm Mariah Carey, and I love Jamie," is the first thing you hear her say, her voice creaking like a yacht sail. Then the pause. "But he did tell me to say that, I'm not gonna lie to you."

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She understands the dynamic, and the role that she's set up to play – pretty, airhead singer who shows off her body – in opposition to Jamie – playful presenter who is probably DTF. So she fucks with it. Throughout their interview, Mariah tugs and pats and chides and rewards Jamie, slipping deep into her Queens accent at points. It's an act, a chance for her to play the diva while mostly dropping in references to Dr No and gently making Jamie look like an idiot who can't understand a video treatment. "With everything that had been written about her I had no idea what to expect," he later wrote, for Glamour magazine, "but she was smart, warm and very funny. She's a lot of fun to be around, and unlike a lot of celebrities, can really laugh at herself. When she performed on Top Of The Pops we started a rumour she'd demanded puppies in her dressing room and it became instant Mariah folklore."

Mariah folklore, really, is what's given her a reputation as a bratty diva or a "shady" drama queen. From whispers of on-screen American Idol friction with Nicki Minaj to extravagant requests made on past backstage riders, she's been easy to peg as a pouty bimbo who flounces around in a feather boa and satin robe. But whether in video skits – the "Heartbreaker" remix and "Honey" being most obvious – or that infamous episode of MTV's Cribs, the joke's actually been on the people who take everything Mariah seems to do or say at face value. If you've seen that Cribs episode, you'll know it features multiple outfit changes and a scene where Mariah "gets into the bath" in a bathroom bigger than most studio flats in London. "I didn't really take a bath," she said years later, in a one-off MTV special. "Like, hello?? I had on a bodysuit, what do people actually think?" You hear someone stifle a laugh off-camera. "Like, I'm really gonna be stripping and taking a ba– I guess they do think so, cos that's gotten me in trouble before. Whatever."

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Mariah has always needed to know how to shapeshift, as she does when she flicks on the switch for her 'speaking to the press' public persona. Her painful lived experience as a mixed-ethnicity child growing up in the 70s undeniably plays a part in that. She sings often about isolation and wanting security, on everything from 1995's "Looking In" to 1999's "Petals". I've never met her, so can't pretend to know exactly why she flipped from the woman in high-necked black dresses and natural curls to the bikini- and negligee-wearing pop figure of the early 00s. But given how she and her mother have described Mariah's upbringing as one steeped in a feeling of otherness, of being rejected by both white and black kids in school, of being terrorised while living in a white neighbourhood, of trying to navigate a world sorely ill-equipped to handle the complexities of mixed ethnic heritage, humour may well have been a coping mechanism of sorts. It's a borderline musician back story cliche – "I just didn't fit in!!" – but this goes beyond being an 'artsy' kid with a shit haircut and into someone whose most fundamental identity was negated altogether.

So, she probably tells herself a joke, one that might make you chuckle if you're willing to hear it. Don't get me wrong, Mariah isn't some sort of flawless icon whose gags always land. I can't pretend to have kept up with her career much after Rainbow. But she masters the idea of making yourself impervious to being laughed at, if you've already written the punchline about yourself. It's like a shield – maybe a diamante-studded one. "People think that everything has gotta be so serious and whatever, and that I take it so seriously," she said, in an interview about her part-parody, Jack McBrayer-featuring video for "Touch My Body" in 2008. "But we were just like, 'OK, we get it, let's film it." She gets it. Do you?

Follow Tshepo on Twitter and Joel on Tumblr.

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