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Mariah, Our Living Meme, Deserves More Credit for Her Songwriting

Yes, she wrote a Christmas banger, but these underrated cuts show that she's got lyricism, harmony and genre-play sorted too.

by Jeffrey Ingold
16 November 2018, 11:13pm

Photo via Sony

For the second consecutive year, Mariah Carey has been nominated for a Songwriters Hall of Fame induction. This week, she also releases Caution, her 15th studio album. Now, everyone knows she can SING. Her whistle register (ie: those super-high, almost squeaky notes) is legendary. But, you talk to people on the street and they can probably only be able to name “that Christmas one” as one of her songs. Non-stans may not know that she either wrote or co-wrote 17 of her 18 US number 1 singles (remember that time she named a compilation album of all her chart-toppers #1s, then followed it up #1s to Infinity?). Or that she produces. Or that her ODB-featuring "Fantasy (Remix)" basically invented the rap-pop collab format that's been used by everyone from Beyoncé and Jennifer Lopez to er, Robbie Williams. Ariana Grande's vocal style today owes loads to her.

So why doesn’t Mariah's artistry get the recognition it deserves? Well, being pejoratively labelled a ‘diva’ doesn't help. Mariah’s called this out herself, saying: “A lot of people see that whole other image. They see this diva; they see hair, makeup, body, and clothes… They don’t think songwriter.” But forget that. Real heads know that her lyrics can be among the most verbose in pop music, filling her catalogue with words like “unyielding” (“Breakdown"), “emblazoned” (“My All”) and “rhapsodise” (“Melt Away"). It's pop music, so that's all packaged in what was often seen as an empty-headed sheen. But, if you're listening closely, Mariah sneaks in nuanced stories about love, loss, sex, race and abuse. IMO, she deserves a place in the Songwriters Hall of Fame – and to be fair, I am a big fan, But even if she doesn’t get it, these underrated songs from her discography show why she would have.

“VANISHING” (1990)

Which one is this, then? In 1990, a 20-year-old Mariah rather meekly appeared with her big voice and black dresses/leggings. “Vanishing,” the fifth track from her self-titled debut album, is a melancholy anthem about being ghosted. We just didn’t have a word for it yet.

Why’s it underrated? On an album where the first four singles went to number 1, this is underrated firstly because it’s a deep-ish cut.

Tell me about the songwriting. Every diva has a piano ballad on their first album. That’s just the cardinal rule. But not every diva writes that ballad. Again, Mariah was a teen when she evoked that confusion and desperation you feel, when you realise a relationship's over. Not exactly cheerful, but powerful anyway.

How about those lyrics? The second verse hits you with “enraptured” and “sensibility.” Descriptions of light and dark then encapsulate the 'catch me self-medicating with food/booze/partying' emptiness you’re left with when a real love is lost: “You’re taking the light / Letting the shadows inside / Swiftly / You’re vanishing.”

It’s Mariah, so what makes these vocals special? You know when you turn a corner and suddenly you’re hit by a gust of wind? That’s what it’s like when Mariah unleashes her trademark, dizzying melisma in the final minute, turning "vaaa-aaaa-aaa-aaa-aaa-aaAAAAAAnishing" into about 12 notes.

Anything else? Just watch the SNL rehearsal performance, thank you.

“DREAMLOVER (DEF CLUB MIX)” (1993)

Which one is this, then? To put it bluntly, a ten-minute dance remix. A song so good that someone at Slant Mag dubbed it “one of the first massively reconstructed remixes of its kind.”

Why’s it underrated? Mariah re-recorded the whole vocal track to fit David Morales’ deep house beats. Broadly, her club mixes have long been overshadowed by her iconic hip-hop ones, like “Fantasy” or “Honey,” but this song goes.

Tell me about the songwriting. You’ll know the original “Dreamlover” – off her 1993 third studio album Music Box – as buoyant pure-pop. This club mix though? It pumps those lyrics with a fresh sense of urgency and desperation, thud-thud-thudding over a classic house piano line.

How about those lyrics? While some critiqued the song as generic, that lyrical simplicity makes “Dreamlover” so striking. Mariah’s terrifyingly serious when she pleads: “Dreamlover come rescue me,” and begs: “Baby, come and take me away.” She paints an image eerily similar to that of her first marriage, to ex-Sony CEO Tommy Mottola. Mariah later alleged he was emotionally coercive and abusive.

It’s Mariah, so what makes these vocals special? High-octave belting. Low rumbling growls. Eight minutes in, she just starts repeatedly whistle-singing the chorus’ main line, because she can.

“THE ROOF (BACK IN TIME)” (1997)

Which one is this, then? After a much-publicised divorce from Mottola, Mariah released her sixth album, Butterfly, in 1997. This was her ‘all-grown-up’ arrival. Praised as a “transitional album”, Butterfly saw Mariah meld hip-pop, R&B and pop to craft her trademark genre-defying aesthetic.

Why’s it underrated? It’s a grower, not a shower. The Mobb Deep sample!!

Tell me about the songwriting. Mariah turns the nostalgia of a romantic rooftop encounter into a universal story of lust and love. It’s an immersive masterpiece.

How about those lyrics? I was twisted in the web / Of my desire for you.” A hook-up has never sounded so poetic. Watch me shiver when she coos: “I threw caution to the wind / And started listening to my lonely heart.” Oh, and she rhymes “Moët” with “ liberated.”

It’s Mariah, so what makes these vocals so special? They’re soft, restrained and breathy, transporting you onto that rooftop, which sounds like a much sexier place in song than it probably is in real life. You’ll never want to leave.

“OUTSIDE” (1997)

Which one is this, then? With Butterfly, Mariah presented a new face and sound to the world. On the album’s closing song, “Outside”, she opens up about the pain and alienation she felt being of mixed ethnic heritage.

Why’s it underrated? It’s a searing musical indictment of the damage caused by whiteness that forces self-reflection.

Tell me about the songwriting. “Outside” stands out in Mariah’s catalogue for its sheer vulnerability. Helped by relatively restrained production, the piercing, introspective lyrics deliver a devastating image of insecurity and loneliness. Or: this one will fuck you up if you’re feeling sad.

How about those lyrics? Eager to just / Believe it’s good enough to be what / You really are / But in your heart / Uncertainty forever lives.” It’s an impossibly cruel chorus that doubles down with Mariah admitting: “You’ll always be / Somewhere on the / outside.” I mean, come on!

It’s Mariah, so what makes these vocals so special? The most chilling moment comes after the song’s last chorus, where just before the sudden build in drumbeat and backing vocals hints at an anger behind Mariah’s sadness. Only to be stripped out in the song’s final moments, so we hear the resigned acceptance in Mariah’s soft cry that she’ll “always be / Somewhere on the outside.”

"PETALS" (1999)

Which one is this, then? I know, I know: a lot of these are ballads. But that's her core domain. This album cut from 1999’s Rainbow, sets out an autobiographical story of an "imperfect" family, over true sad-girl piano. You can practically draw a direct line between “Petals” P!nk's "Family Portrait" and Christina Aguilera's "I'm OK," off Stripped.

Why’s it underrated? “Petals” was eclipsed by some of Rainbow’s bigger, more traditional ballads like “Thank God I Found You” and “Against All Odds”.

Tell me about the songwriting. This is Mariah’s most personal song. She lays bare her trauma, describing broken family relationships and her abusive marriage. Where the melody falters, in the bridge, the lyrical honesty still disarms you.

How about those lyrics? Absolutely soul-crushing?? See lines like: “I was resigned to spend my life within a maze of misery,” and “We bonded through despondency.

It’s Mariah, so what makes these vocals special? There’s no ‘classic Mariah’ big vocal ballad finish. A lighter touch hits harder here.

"DEDICATED" (2014)

Which one is this, then? The “true highlight” from extravagantly titled 2014 album Me. I Am Mariah… The Elusive Chanteuse It’s a love letter to old-school hip-hop featuring Nas.

Why’s it underrated? The album didn’t mirror her previous records’ success, so bops like this went largely unheard.

Tell me about the songwriting. Cleverly self-referential, “Dedicated” uses a loop of Inspectah Deck’s rap “Carry like Mariah” to place this new work in the context of classic hip-hop songs. Includes references to Slick Rick and Eric B.

How about those lyrics? I’ll just sit right here and sing that good old-school shit to ya,” she declares. Absolutely fair play. Ending the song by repeating, “This is dedicated to you,” she’s basically thanking the hip-hop community for embracing her so many years before.

It’s Mariah, so what makes these vocals special? Those harmonies, and the multi-genre straddling.

Anything else? “Dedicated” is Mariah’s second collaboration with Nas, after teaming up to remix her 1999 hit “Thank God I Found You”.

Jeffrey is media manager at Stonewall UK – you can find him on Twitter.

This article originally appeared on Noisey UK.