Mariah Carey has a score to settle. Last summer, soon after her debut recording started racing up the record charts, she says a music critic referred to her as "another White girl trying to sing Black."
Carey, indisputably the hottest new artist of the year, was infuriated.
And now, here at a luncheon at Lola's restaurant in Manhattan, she has the perfect opportunity to set the record straight and "tactfully" correct the erring critic.
"I'm not a White girl trying to sing Black," the 20-year-old singer says in an interview soon after. "My father is Black and Venezuelan, my mother is Irish. That makes me a combination of all those things. I am a human being, a person. What I am not is a White girl trying to sing Black."
Though barely out of her teens, Mariah Carey is indeed her own woman. She grew up in New York with her mother, Patricia Carey, a vocal coach and former singer with the New York City Opera. Her parents divorced when she was three, and Carey had an "on-and-off" relationship with her father, Alfred Roy Carey, an aeronautical engineer in Washington, D.C. (She has a brother, 29, and a sister, 30.)
"Some people look at me and they see my light skin and my hair," she says running a slender, neatly manicured hand through her long, semi-curly, honey-colored tresses for emphasis. "I can't help the way I look, because it's me. I don't try to look a certain way or sing a certain way. I'm just trying to be me. And if people enjoy my music, then they shouldn't care what I am, so it shouldn't be an issue."
Carey says she has always loved to sing, and she gives credit and thanks to her mother for the "genes." Her mother started giving her vocal lessons when she was four years old, and she spent considerable time around her mom's musically talented friends, soaking up the sounds of Billie Holiday and Sarah Vaughan.
As a kid, she also spent a lot of time listening to the radio and her sister's records. The soulful sounds of Gladys Knight, Aretha Franklin, Stevie Wonder and Al Green were constant companions. She sang along and studied the lyrics and arrangements. By the time she was in high school, Carey was writing her own songs, several of which appear on her recording.
Gospel music was also a great influence. On occasion, she accompanied her paternal grandmother, who is Black, to a Baptist church. Even today, she says, "I get up and go to bed listening to gospel music." Her favorites include the Clark Sisters, Shirley Caesar and Edwin Hawkins, in addition to Aretha Franklin and Al Green.
Because she and her mother moved often, she didn't have many close friends or get involved in high school music programs. Instead, she spent after-school hours writing songs and making demo tapes with longtime acquaintance Ben Margulies.
In 1987, right after finishing high school at age 17, she moved from her mother's home on Long Island into a one-bedroom apartment in Manhattan with two other struggling performers. During this exceptionally lean period, she slept on a mattress on the floor and worked as a waitress, hat checker and restaurant hostess to make ends meet. Before and after work, she diligently shopped her demo tapes from record company to record company, but was basically ignored.
Eventually she began singing backup to Brenda K. Starr, and she was regularly doing studio session work. "We became good friends, and she helped me out a lot," she says of Starr. "She was always saying, 'Here's my friend Mariah, here's her tape; she sings, writes. . . .'" It was Starr who took Carey to the CBS party where she was discovered. At the party, Carey gave CBS (now Sony Music Entertainment) president Tommy Mottola a demo. In return, he gave her a "Great another demo tape" smile, and Carey assumed it was another dead end. But on leaving the affair, Mottola popped the demo into his limo's tape deck. He liked what he heard so much that he immediately returned to the party to find Carey. But she had already left.
Having no address or telephone number did not deter Mottola from tracking her down. Ironically, another record company had expressed mild interest in Carey, and a bit of a bidding war evolved.
In December 1988, she signed with CBS' Columbia Records. Within a week she wrote "Vision of Love" for her debut album. In fact, she wrote lyrics for all 11 songs on her self-titled LP, and she even produced "Vanishing."
Columbia went all-out to promote the lissome artist with the clear, passionate seven-octave voice, flexing a little clout to get her the coveted task of singing "America The Beautiful" at the 1989 NBA finals, where she was exposed to 16 million people. Both "Vision of Love" and "Love Takes Time" have gone gold, and the album has sold more than two million copies. Ironically, Carey wrote "Love Takes Time" for a second LP. But when Mottola heard it, he insisted on stopping the presses and adding the song to her debut album, even though some recordings were already in record stores.
Carey says she was just as startled as anyone that "Vision of Love" hit so big because "it isn't hip-hop music, it isn't house music, and it isn't rap. But I am so glad and thankful," she says. "That song really represents everything in my life. It is a song from the heart."
Consider the lyrics: "Prayed through the nights/Felt so alone/Suffered from alienation/Carried the weight on my own/Had to be strong/So I believed/And now I know I've succeeded/In finding the place I conceived."
Just why would such a seemingly tender womanchild write these words of despair and sing them with such deep passion?
"Well, just because you are young doesn't mean that you haven't had a hard life," she says with a knowing little smile. "It's been difficult for me, moving around so much, having to grow up by myself, basically on my own, my parents divorced. And I always felt kind of different from everyone else in my neighborhoods. I was a different person ethnically. And sometimes that can be a problem. If you look a certain way everybody goes, 'White girl,' and I'd go, 'No, that's not what I am.'"
Carey chose to express her innermost feelings in her songs rather than become depressed and bitter. "You really have to look inside yourself and find your own inner strength, and say, 'I'm proud of what I am and who I am, and I'm just going to be myself.'"
And for Carey, that translates into being a "respected" singer and songwriter. But her phenomenal success has not inflated her head or her bank account, for she has yet to realize any monies from the album's success. The days when she and two struggling roommates stretched out a boxed macaroni dinner for a week are still too vivid, she says.
"And, no, I don't let stuff like this go to my head, because success isn't a scale for talent," says the singer. "I don't want to be a 'big star,' but I want to be respected as an artist. I'm delighted and very thankful [that people like her work].
"This is my love," she says emphatically. "I want to sing for the rest of my life."
At this point, she sings every chance she gets. In the studio. During promotional stops. In the shower. Around her one-bedroom Upper East Side Manhattan apartment. To the boyfriend/singer she's known since high school. To her two Persian cats.
"Singing makes me incredibly happy," she says. "Music makes me immeasurably happy."