The Caged Bird Sings

Like every tragic heroine, Mariah Carey traded freedom for fame, creativity for commercial success. Now she's writing her own script and the ending has shifted from bitter to sweet.

Arena Magazine by Jason Kim

Arena (UK) June 1998. Text by Steven Daly. Photography by Wayne Maser.

One storey above the rush-hour gush of Manhattan's West Side Highway, Mariah Carey is giving glamour. Despite the fact that she awoke in Florida at 5:30 this morning to catch a plane, the singer has been gamely exuding high-tone sex appeal for six hours straight. Carey absentmindedly mouths along to the words of Notorious B.I.G.'s "Going Back To Cali" as she smiles seductively and extends a honeyed thigh through a fringed Native American skirt.

This is not the Mariah Carey we used to know, the supplicant supplier of MOR soul ballads tailored to a dog-bothering vocal range. Nowadays the 28-year-old Carey collaborates with the likes of Sean "Puffy" Combs, Q-Tip (A Tribe Called Quest), Mase and Bone-Thugs-N-Harmony; and she'll crop up on MTV, introducing personal favourites like Missy Elliott and Busta Rhymes. "Early on in my career I was just as influenced by hip hop and R&B, but it wasn't encouraged," says Carey, adding enigmatically, "people just didn't understand."

Sartorially too, there has been a remarkable change in the woman who, by her own admission, used to dress in a "potato sack". In the video for last year's Combs-produced "Honey", Carey was the first performer to wear those metal-heeled Gucci stilettos; in her clip for "The Roof" she camped it up Eighties-style in Sergio Valenti jeans and a Farrah flip; recently she hired Halston savant Randolph Duke as her tour couturier. Contrary to the normal pop star career arc, Mariah Carey is actually hipper now than when she first entered the public arena.

A few blocks away in Chelsea hot boite Lot 6I, a bottle of iced Cristal champagne awaits the arrival of Miss Carey. The well heeled after-work crowd mingles beneath a huge Damien Hirst painting while Air's Moon Safari tinkles in the background. The diva and her entourage sweep into the restaurant's capacious, citizen-free back-room and she dumps a bamboo-handled Gucci bag on to a zebra-skin banquette. Carey sprawls out, charges her glass and works her mobile phone with all the "player" brio of her friend Puffy. Carey juggles phone calls, many from friends congratulating her on the previous night's successful interview with "shock-jock" Howard Stern. "Call me at two, OK?" the insomniac Carey tells one caller.

Amid bubbling laughter she makes plans for later this evening with a couple of girlfriends: she'll grab some takeaway food from her favourite restaurant (a fancy Chinese joint) then pick up the ladies at a Queens hair salon before cruising out to Brooklyn with them, probably reciting their favourite routines from the repertoire of crude phone-pranksters the Jerky Boys. A raucous tour of New York's less fashionable outer boroughs is an unlikely after-dark agenda for an international platinum princess, but the 1998 model Mariah Carey is out for laughs.

An unabashed hedonist aesthetic suffuses Carey's videos these days, with the subtle twist that the camera — contrary to the rent-a-babe player formula — fetishises the star herself. Again, Carey complains that she was "never able to work with the directors I wanted before". In the face of this recurring complaint one cannot help but bluntly ask: what on earth was the problem?

"Life can be funny that way," Carey responds, an ironically chipper inflection on her husky voice.

Which can in turn lead to but one conclusion: that the inhibiting influence in Carey's life — the main "person" among the "people" she's indicting — must have been her former husband Tommy Mottola. As Carey's Svengali, and the president of her record company Sony, the allegedly brutish and controlling Mottola, 49, is widely supposed to have been the artistic ball-and-chain that Carey has lately ditched. This has to be supposed, because Carey routinely stonewalls questions about what is after all an ongoing — and extremely lucrative — relationship. Although her post-breakup album Butterfly celebrates emotional emancipation and the unfettered self-expression, Mariah Carey is loathe publicly to slight the man who transformed her from a callow suburban teen to a sophisticated songbird with worldwide album sales of over 80 million.

Last February Carey, who has her own film in development, embarked on a series of acting lessons. But even before she could do a few basic scene-readings there was one huge problem to overcome.

"When I first went to my acting coach I was so tense, so uptight — my shoulders were up like this," says Carey, hunching herself up. "I was a complete stressfest! I suffer from dermotographism, which means my skin is sensitive to all kinds of things, like sunlight and salt and stress — you could write your name in red on my arm.

"My coach uses certain relaxation techniques. She told me: 'Create a place in your mind where you feel safe, where no one's gonna mess with you, where you feel completely in control and at ease' — and I had no place. She said I could even use something from my childhood, so I started thinking back, and every place from my childhood had some sort of memory attached to it that made me sad. And I didn't have anything present-day that made me comfortable or in control. That was how my life was at the time."

As she examines the Lot 6I menu Carey uses a moist towelette to dispatch any lurking germs that might threaten her precious pipes. Upon finding that much of the restaurant's fare will aggravate her skin condition, she orders plain white rice. When the tiny dish arrives, she barely nibbles at it.

Carey's shall we say specific dietary requirements, along with the insomnia and the germ-phobia, tally with her reputation as an unforgiving taskmistress. A bitch on wheels, if one was to believe a substantial cross-section of New York stylists and production assistants who claim to have been put through the grinder by Miss Butterfly. Carey, who is never less than genial in the context of this interview, explains what might be at the root of this perception. "I'm very driven because I felt so unstable in my childhood," she says. "And I'm driven because I feel if I don't handle things myself, they won't be done the way I want them to be done. Because I write and produce, nobody can answer a question for me. I mean, my 'executive assistant' can't tell them how loud I want the vocals in a mix.

And people might take this the wrong way, but I still don't feel financially secure," says Carey, who's staying in a furnished apartment while she and Mottola sell their $10 million mansion (with 64-track studio) outside New York. "People read '80 million records', so they think $80 million, but you've got to pay your lawyers, your managers, all these people who suddenly have to work for you. Trust me, I realise how fortunate I am, but inside I still feel like the rug could be pulled out from under my feet at any time."

"How-ward! You keep up with that and I'm going to walk out!"
Mariah Carey is indulging her "almost masochist" urge to step into the lion's den that is Howard Stern's combination radio/TV show. "They would never let me do this stuff before," she tells the big-haired host with a giggle. Once more, no names are ascribed to the ubiquitous "they".

Stern is renowned for a crude, badgering interview style that quickly separates his guests into those who can take it and those who crumble. Mariah Carey can take it. She might look vulnerable tonight in her barely there mini-dress and strappy high heels, but Carey handles this Jerky Boy beautifully, slapping down his single entendres and his lascivious enquiries about her rumoured relationships with Sean "Puffy" Combs and Q-Tip and, more recently, ample-thighed New York Yankee Derek Jeter. "How-ward! What would your wife say?" Carey screams, her voice regressing to the brassy bray of an unpolished Long Island teenager.

Howard Stern doesn't scare Mariah Carey because she knows the type: both of these mass-culture phenomena grew up in "Lawn Guyland", the perpetually pissed-on province that looms over New York City like a shadow on a lung. Manhattan and Long Island enjoy a relationship similar to that of London and Essex: Long Islanders find their neighbours fake and pushy; to class-conscious Manhattanites, Long Islanders are more than a little gauche. As well as producing a disproportionate number of lowbrow celebrities like Billy Joel, Debbie Gibson and the Baldwin clan, Long Island is also a rich source of lurid tabloid crime stories, like serial killer Joel Rifkin, or Amy Fisher, the unpolished LI teenager who, after falling under the spell of a brutish and controlling Italian-American man, attempted to kill his wife.

Mariah Carey's Long Island childhood was not by any means standard-issue suburban. Her parents split up when she was three, and Carey was raised by her former opera-singer mother in various low-rent neighbourhoods. Since Carey's Mom was of Irish-American stock and her engineer Dad was Venezuelan/African-American, the family attracted the attention of the type of people who today form part of Howard Stern's constituency: at various points the Careys had their car damaged by a bomb and their dogs poisoned. "I went through a lot of things, but I feel like it's getting on a soapbox to dwell on them," says Carey, picking at a bit of bread. "Whatever I went through made me a stronger and better person."

"I think the suburban thing made me feel like an outcast and an outsider; because everybody on Long Island is expected to be perfectly normal, exactly like everybody else. And being multiracial sets you apart from almost everybody else. I'm not just one thing, racially or influence-wise; I'm not a one-dimensional person."

Long Island forged another of Carey's dualities, the urban/suburban tension which these days informs her music. Despite its green expanses and leafy avenues, LI moves to the asphalt-hard beat of New York radio stations: Carey grew up to the sound of hip hop and R&B strongholds, like WBLS, KISS-FM and WKTU. A self confessed "radio addict", she would groove to hits by Evelyn "Champagne" King and Rick James; and, she says, "in the fifth grade I knew every word to 'Rapper's Delight'. Eric B and Rakim and Doug E Fresh and Dlick Rick — all those people were staples of my high-school years."

Before she was ten, the proto B-girl was hanging around her mother's jazz-musician friends; by 13 she was writing and performing her own songs. Carey eschewed college and moved to Manhattan at 17, taking menial jobs and working sporadically as a session singer. Her brother was a club bouncer, trainer and all-round networker who introduced her around town and helped her get gigs. "I was always 'Morgan's little sister'," recalls Carey, who shared her first apartment with four older girls. "I'd be around all these 25, 26 year olds — I'd come home from work at like five in the morning and they'd still be partying. They'd ask me, 'Why do you work so hard?' And I'd think, 'Because when I'm your age I want to be already established and successful.'"

One night in 1988 Carey went to a music industry party to deliver a demo tape to Tommy Mottola of Sony. In true fairytale fashion he signed up the teenager and lavished untold millions on her career-launch; a couple of years later he left his wife for her. In June 1993 Tommy and Mariah were married at their mansion, in a lavish ceremony inspired by the nuptials of Charles and Diana.

Carey enjoyed global success with her 1990 debut single "Vision of Love", a high-impact, gospel tinged showcase for her undeniable striking voice. And she continued to prosper with well upholstered material that boasted self-penned lyrics echoing the anodyne pop of the Fifties ("you" would inevitably rhyme with "true"; "follow" would always find a "tomorrow"). As Carey racked up warehouses full of platinum discs, tracks like "Hero" and "Without You" seemed to follow the old Hollywood adage, "Start with a climax and build from there." Even so, among all those overblown key changes and too familiar melodies (Earth Wind and Fire's Maurice White was retroactively credited with part of the hit "Emotions"; another such claim was settled out of court) there was in the grain of Carey's voice an underclass angst that recalled the classic pop heartbreak of Ronnie Spector and Diana Ross.

Occasionally Mariah Carey even put out a straight-up pop classic herself, like the Puffy Combs remix of "Fantasy" that teamed the singer and her sample of Tom Tom Club's "Genius of Love" (a WTKU classic) with Wu-Tang Clan wild-card Ol' Dirty Bastard. Carey's decision to record with the then up-and-coming ODB did not go down well with Sony executives, who'd probably have preferred a duet with Celine Dion. "People couldn't understand why I wanted to have someone rhyming on one of my records, they didn't see why I felt the need to have that. When you don't grow up with something you don't understand it," says Carey matter-of-factly.

"Everybody used to be very concerned about my public image, but gradually it became less of an issue — ga-radually. The funny thing is, in a lot of ways I am a little goody-two-shoes girl: I have quite a few dichotomies in me."

"Back in junior high I was a tough girl who used to smoke cigarettes in the bathroom and slam girls into the lockers. But I was fake-bad because I was copying a friend, and she did a lot of other things that I didn't want to do. People thought I was this wild, tough chick — but I wasn't. And more recently people thought I was a goody two-shoes, but I'm not just that either."

In the wake of the Butterfly album, Carey's image is — thanks to a press that obligingly embraced the idea of shucking off "cocoons" and going on "solo flights" — that of an R&B Princess Di, a gutsy glamour-girl who's managed to flee an oppressive, high-profile marriage. If Carey's lyrics left any doubt, the aforementioned "Honey" video positively dripped with clues: a stiffly executed dramatic prelude shows Our Heroine escaping the clutches of a brutish and controlling Italian-American thug and his henchmen to find freedom in a bathing suit and Gucci heels. (This scenario was not, Carey repeatedly insists, a dig at Mottola.)

Despite its patina of hipness, Butterfly is in reality only slightly more adventurous than Carey's earlier work (this time "pounding" is coupled with "resounding"). But the album does showcase Carey's natural affinity with the latest cultural modes, as in her seductive adaptation of Bone Thugs' quick-fire rhyme style ("Breakdown"). Carey has the radio addict's unimpeachable ear for a hit; and since her own voice is the perfect pop-narcotic, she needs only to provide texture, not text.

It is an article of faith among entertainment folk that one never admits to being affected by the press. Which makes all the more surprising Mariah Carey's response to a mention of Vanity Fair's extraordinary character-assassination of Tommy Mottola. The long and detailed piece, which portrayed Mottola as a gun-toting, borderline psychopath with an unseemly Mafia fixation and an FBI file, ran in December 1996; the couple officially separated six months later.

"I wasn't amused at the Vanity Fair thing, says Carey with sudden sobriety. "I'm a very forgiving person — even if someone's done something to me and I see them being hurt. I don't revel in that. I don't like it when it happens to me, when people attack my vulnerable areas. But it was a turning point in my life."

Carey's entourage begins to gather for her outer-boroughs tour, replete with Jerky Boys routines, takeaway food, and showbiz gossip. Would it be safe to say that for Mariah Carey the "stressfest" is over?

"Yes, I don't feel the same way anymore," she affirms. "Now I feel like I'm much closer to the person I was before all this happened. Now I'm trying to have fun — I don't wanna be old before my time. I don't want to be on stage in a freaking sequinned gown singing 'Hero' every night. Then again, I do still have the ballads — I'm not stupid".