Here is Mariah Carey. The real-life, genuine Mariah: huge Disney smile, vest, tight Miss Sixty jeans, next season's Balenciaga's footwear, vast hair, even vaster vase of white wine poised in one hand, refusing bread with the other ('I'd really rather you not torture me with it,' she implores an attentive flunky). Mariah is sitting on a chaise longue as the clock turns towards 12 midnight. It is her equivalent of two in the afternoon. Every close Mariah-watcher knows that her clock is set, with an alchemically genius star's touch, to Mariah-time. She rises late afternoon and sleeps some time after sunrise. Sometimes, when she wants to re-tool another impeccable vocal to add to her boisterous cannon she will call in her musical playmates at 4am. Refuseniks to the power of Brand Mimi will huff and puff at the mild inconvenience of it all but it seems only reasonable that her press commitments should follow suit.
On this occasion, Mariah is lit almost entirely by what looks like IKEA tea lights. The low lighting makes you squint. Mariah is in a New York studio, cornered against a fluorescent skyline that includes the twilit sheen of the Empire State Building (straight ahead) and The New York Times offices (to the left). In the mid-to-nothing lighting, I just about manage to make out some contraption or another beside her. Because Mariah is Mariah you just want to absorb the detailing.
What's this thing here, Mariah?
This thing? Oh, this thing is like dead to me. I don't know, somebody was trying to be festive and give me a fan, I think. But it doesn't work. Does it work?
Oh my God, I love your use of the word 'festive.' It's the best thing ever. [Mariah howls her big, Disney laugh]
I'm always feeling festive! I hate, hate, hate when it's not festive. Don't you hate a non-festive moment? It's rancid! Seriously. And I love how if something isn't festive and amazing, it's just like rancid and horrible. No, honestly? I don't even know what made me start to say 'festive'. I just am! It's always about being festive. Sometimes when you get smacked around the face with whatever it is, when you have a non-festive moment or whatever, you just have to come back at it with all that much more happiness.
With more festivity?
Festivity! Yes! Bring it on! Bring on the festive! People just do not need bleak moments. Or what I call... bleakocity.
Excuse me? Bleakocity?
I actually have a song that goes [starts singing in full-on upper register Mariah mode, the voice that launched a million young girl's All American Dreams] Bleeeeeeekocity... Bleeeeeeekocity...
Amazing. Is Bleakocity likely to make it to vinyl? It needs to happen.
Honey, it happened. It was a ring-tone that I wrote. We went through a moment, and when I say 'we' I mean me and my friends and it's just... oh, people think that I take myself so seriously but maybe they'll finally start to get it. The thing is that I think having festive themes really is necessary. You seem like a festive person.
Believe me, honey. I am now.
Hothoused at the back end of Long Island, NY, by an opera singing single mother that let her out of piano lessons aged six, Mariah comes from nothing. By way of comparison to the astronomical turns the singer's life has taken, her sister Alison's story works as a pathos-addled comparison. Mariah made no secret of Alison's HIV+ status from career launch, but as lil' sis's life continued its astral ascent towards world domination, Alison was arrested for prostitution and has battled with multiple addictions throughout. To lend a dark cloud over the family from the outset, Mariah's mother's family had disowned their daughter when she married a black man.
Mariah's metaphorical use for music as a means of escape is way closer to Dizzee Rascal's than it is Celine Dion's. If Mariah can play the ditzy cheerleader par excellence in pop culture, it hides a variety of harder depths. One of the cuter details of her early years was that she was known as 'Mirage' at High School, such was her busy absenteeism. And that is before we even get to the much-publicised breakdown she suffered in the early '00s.
The Cinderella story goes that she met her Prince Charming and ticket to the royal palace aged 17. The name Tommy Mottola, the head of Columbia records who she married in an extravagant ceremony with the world's press circling above them in helicopters in 1993, only to divorce six years later, is dropped into every Mariah interview, as if she were incubated in a test tube by the mogul.
She claims to suffer from a kind of arrested development that ends aged 12, but Mariah has at least learnt not to mince her words in adulthood. "I don't think it's been easy for anyone to have a grasp or understanding of who I am because my career was so much about keeping me like a... well, there's a line on this new album [from the song Side Effects] 'Keeping me there under your thumb, because you were scared that I'd become, so much more than you can handle.' It's about the private hell we built. And I dealt with it."
From the outset, Mottola and Mariah had different ideas about where she should be positioned as an artist. He saw her in Whitney's then squeaky-clean lineage. She wanted to step herself into the '90s. Mariah had demoed the whole of her first album outside of Mottola's reference with her earliest collaborator, Ben Margulies. "Do you know what's funny?" she says now, remembering back to the time. "My demos were much edgier than my albums became. I wish I could have gone back to the essence of what those records were when they were demos. Even the demos that I was working on with Ben. When it became time to work on the first album everyone was so obsessed about competing with these other records and to produce them up. Any producer I was supposed to work with had to be that much smarter than me. At that point I was so much younger than everybody else involved in putting my record together. And I felt like I was so much more in tune with what was really going on in terms of music. For me a lot of that edge was... honed. They smoothed it, honed it and toned it because it worked better for mass appeal. I understand that because people don't want you to be too in their face. I understood it then but I was this skinny little twig and I couldn't walk in short tops and heels. I didn't try to be sexy... and I don't know what would've happened in my personal life if I had, whether I would've been completely shut down. But fortunately I was taken seriously as a singer so it wasn't about what I was wearing. It was about me as a songwriter and me as a singer. They stuck me in that... like, they made me change my hair texture. I was like 'hello, can I get a little blowout, maybe? I'm a little tired of the curly locks. Done that already.' But it's all good, you know?"
Eleven studio albums in, surely this is all the stuff that goes towards making the Mariah Carey that's here now?
Do you like that person?
I do. I feel like I've had to grow into this place. Honestly? I've so not arrived at the place that's the best person I can be. But I'm trying.
The Mottola years saw the singer operating at a phenomenally prolific, almost 1970's music business work rate. "They took an old mentality and put that on me," she says. "I was cool with that, you know? It was a corporate thing but I had no problem with it at the time." An album a year, with an MTV acoustic gig and a Christmas set which packaged her up and rinsed the commercial potential out of the girl that emerged from backing vocalist to superstarlet overnight. Working with the cream of urban American production talent, from Clivilles & Cole to Babyface, Puffy to Jam & Lewis, Mariah always managed to sneak in one track towards the end of each album that hinted at the sadness behind the aggressively marketed fairytale that was supposed to comprise her story. She looks genuinely astonished that anyone might have been paying attention.
"Some bitches just look at the same old story on the internet and change three words and write it. The End. Nobody looks at those lyrics. And the people that do are the ones who... well, I write it for real music lovers who care about what I do. I guess you could quote some music lover who hates what I do. People have different tastes and what not. But there's a song called Close My Eyes on the Butterfly album. Did you hear that? What a sad lyric." There were four years that she couldn't bring herself to perform the song live. "I was in a weird place. That was the time that my first relationship, I mean not my first one but my first as a quote/unquote adult... prior to adulthood, really. It was interesting, tough, and unique. A lot of times, back in the day, I would get shut down from doing that. If people weren't monitoring what I was writing I could've got away with saying what I wanted. There's a song called Looking In on the Daydream album... I got in trouble for that song. I did. For being real.'
History should allow a flipside to the Carey/Mottola coin. Without Mariah it is unlikely that the words 'Tommy Mottola' would have ever been heard outside of the music industry. The most famous girls that Mottola has taken charge of since losing the reins of his ex-wife's phenomenal talent, from Jennifer Lopez through Shakira, have been launched with an uncanny similarity to his most famous charge. Shakira entered Mottola's world as a dark haired Alanis-a-like singing folky rock songs in Spanish. By the time she had been through the Mottola tumble dryer the curly, fair locks, the occasional evening gown, the racial element buffed to the point of non-existence, the tutored sexuality and the world-beating power ballad all reliable Mariah staples were neatly locked down. Tommy Mottola was just doing his job with Mariah. As a record company executive he was charged with turning ordinary people into extraordinary figures of aspiration. It was Mariah that was living the aspiration and lending her whopping great voice to the world.
"I feel that's why I've been given the gift to write and it's why I've gone through so much crap, I think. You have to go through something to have a testimony."
One of Mariah's ongoing preoccupations is being mixed race. Her mother is Irish/American, her absent father Venezuelan/African American. It follows her everywhere. For popular consumption this has turned out to be a fortuitous blessing that works very much to her advantage. She didn't have to go through any Jacko-like surgery to hammer home the multi-purpose crossover of her appeal. She can be white Mariah, in a Versace evening dress and Van Cleef ice. Or she can be black Mariah, in hot pants with a hip hop don on her arm.
But one gets the feeling that Mariah doesn't operate only as a commercial entity and that much of her adult professional life has been about presenting a buffer to that. She still feels like the eternal outsider.
"If I do it's because I am."
With this in mind, the United States of America could turn into a very interesting place for Mariah Carey over the next year.
Do you think that Barack Obama could change America, Mariah?
Totally. I do think so. I do. I'm an eternal optimist and nothing would make me happier than to see that part of the world change. To see the whole perception of race and particularly when people have to deal with someone who is biracial, that is not easy for this country to do and for the world to do. I don't want to do it a disservice by even saying that. But I've lived it and I know what it is and there are seven-year-old kids still going through that. I meet them. They tell me.
Mariah Carey entered 2008 in fine fettle. She is not only preparing to service the world with 11th studio record, with some net serendipity she also still fits into her 11th grade jeans. "Yes, I'm still my eleventh grade size. Which is amazing. Is that a splash of wine?" It's a splash. "Can you give me a splash too? I feel soo unhip. Thank you. It's incredible how much of my life is based on what size jeans are what, a 26" waist I always think I have to lose weight from my thighs but I've always had that. No, but seriously, it isn't fat."
Mariah begins punching her own thighs to prove the point. "Even that doesn't hurt me," she trills, delighted. Warming to the treat of her own thighs, she asks me to punch them, too. She is nothing if not game, Mariah. And truly Amazonian. There is something slightly frightening about the invitation to hit her. I tell her I cannot possibly hit Mariah Carey. "But I'm a fighter. I'm a scrapper."
You are also, though, Mariah Carey, a carefully built legend.
Oh, you know what? I so didn't try and build a type of legend anything. It just sounds so foreign to me. If you only knew me.
How does it happen then?
You know what it is? It's so weird now. It's like celebrity is so fast moving and you just kinda have to be on the internet and you're famous and that's great... if that's what you want. If that's gonna make you happy. For me it's about music and my love for music and creativity and the fact that, you know, I don't even have to grow up doing this job. Which is really cool. Honestly, music has saved my life.
After seven straight months working on it, she was beginning to put the finishing touches to her 11th studio set, E=MC², by January of this year. The evergreen jollity of her classic All I Want For Christmas Is You lent the forthcoming campaign a little burst of festive pre-publicity. In the download area, her most festive joint had been buoyed by, of all things, a DFS soft furnishings advert to give her an unprompted Christmas UK smash.
Mariah considers the gestation period of making the new record. "This one? Seriously? It was like having a child."
Carey's records split equally and decisively between two camps. One popular perception of the singer is emoting the saccharine ballad, Hero, pinkie shaking against the microphone, hair voluminously waving against a wind machine. It is a distinct part of her oeuvre. But as early as her second suite, Emotions, MC was resting her immaculate vocalese against tougher street grooves. Rarefied DJs will still to this day tip a wink to Clivelles and Cole's Latin hip hop dub of its breakout hit, Make It Happen. After her split from Mottola, Carey's hip hop instinct rose from bubbling undercurrent to tsunami. As the clothes shed, the beats grew heavier. The delectable Heartbreaker, Fantasy and Loverboy all became block party favourites.
Since being famously bought out of her contract by Virgin records, the ravishing urban variant of the Mariah aspect has been allowed to develop at its own rate. Unsurprisingly, after finding a more natural home at Island/Def Jam. Her new set, E=MC², is its slickest, beefiest incarnation of street Mariah yet. The blowout disco joint That Chick sounds like it could've been dusted off from the West End Records back catalogue in the late '70s. The fresh, multi-layered, contemporary Philly bounce of I'll Be Lovin' You Long Time jumps along as if performed by a singer half her age. The whole set is Mariah on world-beating, market-leading form. The odd ballad moment, Thanx 4 Nothin', still grooves and finds a neat counterbalance a bass heavy reggae lilt to Cruise Control and the brilliant party bangers O.O.C. (Out of Control, naturally enough), Migrate and Heat.
Three different titles had been mooted by Billboard magazine before camp Mariah and believe me it is settled on audacious Einstein pun for the record. It's the second installment of glistening, modern funk that comprises the rebirth of Ms Carey. "People decided to roll with the wrong title," she says, a little snippily. "I never said it was called 'That Chick'. People were coming up to me and saying 'please don't call it That Chick'. I mean, whatever, even if I did, when I told people I was coming out with an album called The Emancipation of Mimi some people hated it. All this is just" she pauses, to accentuate her feeling vaguely disgusted at the word "opinion. Until something is proven".
The idea of her Emancipation sounded preposterous until it turned out to be precisely that, hiking her career back from the dip of its predecessor, the more 'classic' Mariah of Charmbracelet. Finally the idea of urban Mariah had bedded into the public consciousness, aided by the stopgap brilliance of her Busta Rhymes duet, I Know What You Want. The Emancipation was the Mariah that Mariah wanted to be. "Exactly. And 'Mimi. People were just like 'what-ever!' But the people that know me know what it is. With this one, E=MC² is kind of the same thing. Emancipation equals Mimi times two. It's kinda cool. It doesn't have to mean Emancipation. It could mean anything. Let's see."
The quintessential and oft forgotten disco contingent that love a Mariah remix will clearly take the E to mean Ecstasy. Mariah looks delighted at the prospect. "You know when someone says 'Bingo' when you get the right answer? You got it. Bingo, Yatsi, checkmate. I give you a bingo for that. I love that. It's hot!"
Some time around the release of the second single from her Emancipation, Mariah Carey the greatest MC cemented her position as the defining female artist of her era again with effortless mid-pace love story, We Belong Together. This pure Grammy fodder once more. The track squeezed lyrical references to Bobby Womack and Babyface, thus traversing some of soul's lengthy history in the space of one couplet and intermittently slipping her voice into its lineage. Another stone could classic under her belt, The Emancipation went on to become her biggest selling album in a decade, spewing out hits, blaring out of hummers, filling airwaves, nightclubs and wedding receptions and putting into metaphorical parentheses her dark years. The preamble to E=MC² sees Mariah at her hottest point yet. Which is exactly as it should be.
Operating in a space outside of irony and reliant only on her immediately identifiable and mostly magnificent gift for singing and telling simple, literal truths through song, Mariah is the modern music industry's own watermark for international success. With a breezy defiance, two weeks after our meet in NYC, she deftly hangs up the phone live on air during a Radio One chart show interview as the DJ attempts to wow at her 80 million plus recorded sales. The subsequent media scrum on this incident attempted to deride that 'diva' status that haunts Mariah as a sometimes inconvenient but nonetheless fabulous shadow. But the fact of the matter remains that the interviewer had been wrongly briefed, to the tune of an extra 80 million sales. Mariah is the singer and mostly the author of 160 million records the world over, making her the most successful female artist of all time. She is allowed and should be encouraged to be proud of that fact and to not accidentally have it halved for public consumption.
Her only real competitor in terms of repeatedly touching a public chord and turning it to commercial gold dust is Madonna, though in terms of simple execution their careers could not be any more starkly opposite. While Madonna's career has been one long, glossily art-directed, gym-honed, buff, superstyled succession of smoke and mirrors, Mariah can repeatedly do the wrong thing and get away with it. Her raw gift is the foundation on which her career has been erected. Even at her lowest ebb, the gift is still discernibly present. Sometimes she's allowed to be a catastrophe. Because she is blessed.
A week after the Radio One incident, the first single from E=MC², an immaculately saucy R&B joint, Touch My Body, pulsing beat echoing Mary J's Real Love with a neat grown up twist, nudged her ahead of Elvis as the performer with the most US Number 1's in chart history by becoming her eighteenth. Though Mariah is 38 and just shy of 20 years into her incredible career, her immediate peers now stretch from the young whippersnappers nipping at her ankles let's say Rihanna (Leona is a touch too obvious) to the bona fide legends let's say Barbra Streisand, if ever (if only) she'd made a record with either Ol' Dirty Bastard and Westlife.
The luxury, platinum groove at the heart of Mariah's success is beyond statistics. Her importance runs deeper than all that. She has become The American Dream. She is rags-to-riches multiplied by a million, the most fundamentally fascinating beacon of the pre-American Idol generation that apes her every vocal tic and performance manoeuvre for inspiration.
Just before her debut single and Number 1 Vision of Love went to US radio, Mariah was driven to the neighbourhood she grew up in. "By the time I was 12 I had experienced more than people who are freakin' 40... Because of what I'd seen. The world sees somebody on TV and they're like 'we get you' and they want to put you into something because it's easier to think 'OK, she falls into this box. Pop diva.' Whatever. But it makes them a little uneasy that I don't fit into that box. I moved 13 times as a child. I stayed in one place for the longest and I went there once afterwards. Someone I grew up with had passed away when they were 20. They were older than me but not much. I knew that my song was coming out and they would never get to see it. It was my door neighbour." She thinks about for a moment. "That was sad."
Mariah's current New York incarnation could not be further from her humble origins. Why, only the other week she was being courted by the latest in a succession of visionary men in the American music history to be enthralled by her. Let her take the tale...
"I was at a friend's house. I don't wanna talk about her because she is a very prominent person but she's private. She's a private person with a lot of very famous friends. And she just happened to like me as a person. She's cool. So I was at her house and Quincy Jones was there and Chris Tucker was there and a few other people and..." Sounds like a fun party. "She has amazing parties. But whatever. So I'm sitting there and I'm playing this song from the new record just for a few people who were on and Quincy was engaged in another conversation and when he heard this one song he stopped and said 'play it again'. And I am like 'that is Quincy Jones!' He was really breaking he song down for me, musically, and saying why this bit was his favourite and what you did with this bit and I was like 'you definitely know the technical moments'. And I feel like an imbecile there next to him."
Mariah is nothing if not literal. Great swathes of her mass appeal like in her simple truisms. Her habit prior to the vaguely preposterous new album titling motifs was to utilise the language of the teenage girl Charmbracelet, Butterfly, Music Box, Glitter, Rainbow, Daydream and give each easy symbol a pointed visual interpretation to cement the theme. These little symbols of girlish affectation tie with her confessions of arrested development. She claims to love the job she does because it allows her not to have to grow up. She doesn't want children of her own just yet ('maybe one day'). Perhaps they wouldn't fit into her Mariah timeline.
In the flesh she is as easy to read. There is little in the way of deeply held analytical momentum behind Mariah. As your eyes attune to the light you realise that she's wearing a diamond butterfly. "I bought this for myself and then they ended up kind of giving it to me, the Van Cleef butterfly." It seems rude to ask the price of the gift, or indeed to probe too deeply into its possible significance. "I was never thinking this is going to be my new thing. I'm going to walk round the town with butterflies. No, this is just something that people have said 'oh my God, you are obsessed by butterflies!' It became this thing and it's like it's not that deep.' I'm not part of, like, the magma of life, the lava of life. It's sooo not about that. Magma, wrong word! That'll be my Austin Powers moment. Seriously, it's just like emerging. The whole butterfly moment in my life happened purely by accident. I was writing the song Butterfly and then left a relationship like a butterfly and then I kinda like was as fragile as one for a while and everyone was a little bit concerned when I left that relationship because it was, you know, not your everyday story... so I guess all these things kind of build up and become sort of mythical moments."
In a world of confusing multimedia symbols. In an age of ironic overload and backhanded sales pitches, Mariah is a focused and breathtakingly successful emblem of simplicity. It is its own skill.
She seems unquestionably relaxed, no doubt helped by the top up in the wine glass half way through the interview. Her approach to music, post her Emancipation, is similarly reductionist. "I'm like, 'OK! Jermaine likes it, then I like it," she says, referring to the man who executive produced Mimi and was brought back to the studio for E=MC², Jermaine 'Mr Janet Jackson' Dupri.
"What does it take to create one of these albums?" she says, reverting back to her process. "It depends. Maybe I took longer with the last record. Maybe it was the same amount of time. You know, honestly, when LA Reid gives me a suggestion about working with somebody I listen and I enjoy that. I like making him happy. I like making records that are fun for me."
Mariah has played out her professional life in reverse. Her records get more youthful, her beats hipper, her voice more tangibly sweet and, of course, her clothes tighter and lesser the older the artist gets. E=MC² is a particularly festive record, I comment.
"It's very festive," she beams.