Thirty Years of Magnificence

A voice that has influenced a generation of singers. One of the most successful songwriters of all time. As Mariah Carey reaches her thirty-year milestone in the music business, we look at the woman behind the glamorous public persona — a fighter and a survivor.

Women in Pop (AU) July 20, 2020. Text by Matt Paroz.

They say that truth can be stranger than fiction, but when you live life in the public eye, the "truth" built around you is often not the truth at all. So it was that somewhere along the way, Mariah Carey gained a reputation as a precious songbird, singing away in her ivory tower, living a life of excess and privilege.

Certainly, Carey has done her best to create a persona of carefully curated fabulousness: not a hair out of place, always impeccably made up and sparkling in haute couture. But are we so conditioned to believe that glamorous women are, by default, high maintenance that we don't question the outrageous stories that swirl around them? Stories like this: that Carey demands gold taps be installed in every hotel room in which she stays, and that she once requested twenty white kittens and 100 white doves to accompany her at a public appearance. (Carey has refuted both tales.)

When we see a woman who can probably have anything she wants, we expect that she'll want it all, so it's not such a leap to believe that Carey made that infamous declaration: "I don't do stairs." With characteristic wit, she reportedly shot down this rumour, retorting, "What do I do to get around? Hover?"

The "diva" tag tends to be thrown at any gifted female Singer with a mind of her own. The word literally means "goddess" in Italian, but has been bastardised in modern times, becoming shorthand for those qualities strong women are often punished for: being difficult, precious or narcissistic. Or, if they were applied to a man: strong-willed, discerning and self-aware. While the real Mariah has far more claim to being a true pop "diva" than almost anyone else on Earth, there is a deeper truth to her story that makes for a far more compelling tale: a woman whose talent is matched by her perseverance.

This year marks three decades since the world was first introduced to Carey's incredible vocal range, her high-pitched "whistle" register and her knack for crafting a hit, a skill recognised by her induction into the 2020 Songwriters Hall of Fame. Carey has written or co-written eighteen of her nineteen US number 1 hits, and has spent 77 weeks as a songwriter in the top slot " more than anyone else in Billboard history. She has sold over 200 million records globally, notched up eleven top 10 albums in Australia, and is one of only a handful of artists to score four or more US number 1s from a single album. Her melismatic vocal style, the way a syllable flutters through multiple notes, has influenced female vocalists and has been emulated by an enormous number of TV talent show wannabes since. None of it has come easily. But through it all, Carey has stood up to critics, maintained her sense of humour and taken no shit from anyone. Consistently defying expectations and rising to challenges, she proves time and time again that she's a survivor.

As a teen, Carey spent a lot of time writing songs. It wasnt just some whimsical adolescent preoccupation: at seventeen she and co-writer Ben Margulies were putting down the makings of a demo tape that she hoped would get the attention of a record label. With that four-song demo in her pocket — including a number titled 'Vision of Love' — Carey finished school and quickly moved out of home on Long Island, New York, to head to Manhattan, taking up odd jobs and hawking her tape with little success.

One of those early jobs was singing backup for singer Brenda K. Starr. Immediately recognising something very special in Carey's voice, Starr asked to hear the demo. "I was like 'why are you singing backup for me?'... You should be a huge star," Starr said in 1998, recalling Carey's early days in NYC. "I went up to [her] room and there were like nine girls there and four cats or something like that and I was like, 'where do you sleep?' and there was a mattress on the floor."

With a US top 20 hit already under her belt, Starr proved to be Carey's entrée to the music business. One evening, Starr snuck Carey and her demo into an industry event. Legend has it that just as Carey was handing the tape to a record executive, a rival exec snatched it away. Carey left the party, dejected.

The rival, Tommy Mottola, worked for the newly formed Sony Music and was soon to become its CEO; he was out to prove himself to his new masters. He had made his name in the '70s taking acts like Hall & Oates, John Mellencamp and Carly Simon from obscurity to stardom. Sony already had some big names on its roster — Michael Jackson was one of them — but Mottola's instincts told him that the label needed to also develop new acts too. Heading home that night in 1988, Mottola hit play on the tape and knew this voice was just what Sony needed. The other major labels were raking in hits with chart-dominating women like Whitney Houston and Madonna. Sony needed its own female hit machine and he knew Carey was it.

Carey was twenty years old when 'Vision Of Love' was released as her debut single in May 1990, on Sony's Columbia label; the song had been reworked from its original '50s groove into a power ballad, then re-recorded. Much like the cadence of the song itself, 'Vision' was a slow burn on the charts: understated early success built to a crescendo, and the song reached the top of the Billboard charts in August. Similarly, Carey's eponymous debut album, released June 1990, took until March 1991 to peak at number 1 in the wake of Carey's five Grammy nominations, including one for Album of the Year. The recognition got the world listening and once it hit, the record hit big. Mariah Carey held the top spot for eleven straight weeks, becoming Billboard's highest selling album of 1991.

Sony had the female pop princess it needed, Carey had snagged her first two Grammys — Best New Artist and Best Female Pop Vocal Performance — and Tommy Mottola had found the star he was looking for, in more ways than one.

Powerful men in the entertainment industry have long wielded their considerable influence over female proteges — professionally, emotionally and sexually. Often known as "Svengalis" (named after a character in a nineteenth-century novel who hypnotises a young woman and crafts her into a famous singer), these men and their stories litter pop history, from writer/producer Phil Spector, whose obsession with his wife Ronnie saw him surprise her with adopted twins for Christmas, to Kesha's recent legal wrangling with producer Dr Luke.

So when it emerged that Carey and Mottola's professional relationship had turned romantic soon after they had met — he was twenty years her senior, and married with two children — it seemed like a tale as old as time: the pretty young ingénue taken under the wing of an influential father figure. Despite the obvious power imbalance of a young woman barely out of her teens being cast into the spotlight by a power player, then becoming romantically involved with him, the reaction to the news was amusement and innuendo. No one seemed too concerned about Carey's wellbeing.

After those first early hits, there was no time for Carey to sit back and soak up her success. In his 2013 memoir Hitmaker, Mottola revealed that he had other ideas. "My feeling was that there'd be plenty of time for Mariah to celebrate just a little ways down the road. I'm not talking ten years, just a few."

Sent back to the studio, Carey recorded her sophomore album Emotions (1991), which hit just a few months after her debut finished its eleven-week streak at the top of the charts. Building on the formula established by its predecessor, the record also showcased Carey's production chops for the first time. That powerhouse voice, aided by a wholesome, sexually unthreatening image, saw the title track follow Carey's previous four releases to number 1 on the Billboard Hot 100; she was the only artist at the time to have achieved the feat with their first five singles.

The public got their first glimpse of Mariah the Magnificent in June 1993 when she and Mottola tied the knot. Carey was twenty-three; he was forty-four. To say it was extravagant is an understatement. With fifty flower girls and a rumoured US$25,000-dress with an eight-metre train worthy of royalty, it spawned the "diva" persona that has unfairly dominated perceptions of Carey ever since.

Rather than settle comfortably into married life, Carey and Mottola kept the fame train chugging forward relentlessly. A few months later, Carey's third album Music Box appeared, closely followed by her first tour. Music Box was a smash, selling 28 million globally — almost double her debut's impressive tally. It became her first chart-topper in Australia and the UK, and the album's singles returned Carey to the top 10 in many international markets for the first time since her debut.

Her first Christmas album came out the following year, and hot on its heels was the next studio album Daydream (1995), another 20-million-selling smash. The single 'One Sweet Day', a collaboration with Boyz II Men, spent a record sixteen weeks atop the US charts (only pipped last year by Lil Nas X's nineteen weeks at number 1 With 'Old Town Road'). The pace was giddy — five albums in five years — but each successive album revealed an artist growing into herself, wielding greater influence over her sound.

"The music's gotten progressively to be more of me," she told MTV while promoting Music Box. "When I made my first album it was like, I got my record deal at eighteen years old and I worked with these really big producers who had their own sound. And that kind of definitely rubbed off on me. But now I've gone through the process of getting more control, producing my own stuff, and now it's more me coming across. It's not somebody else's perception of me."

Privately, though, Carey had far less control over her life and career than it seemed. Mottola wasn't just her husband and label boss; he was also her manager. His professional influence was pervasive, and personally things were said to be much the same: Mottola reportedly tracked Carey's every move via bodyguards and tapped phones.

"It's not like he had a rule book, and he said,'You're not allowed to do this, you're not allowed to do that," Carey recounted to TV host Barbara Walters in 1998, after her marriage had ended. "It's just that the nature of our relationship, because he was older and more experienced in every way, I guess it became oppressive in a lot of ways."

The girl-next-door image that had made her a star was less a reflection of Carey's own style and more to do with the way Mottola wanted the world to see her. In conservative, post-Reagan America, her look was a commercial asset, but the woman behind it was constrained. "There was a conscious effort to keep me as this all-American, whatever that means, girl," Carey told Cosmopolitan. "It was very controlled. There was no freedom for me as a human being. It was almost like being a prisoner." Carey came to refer to the lavish estate she and her husband shared as "Sing Sing", after New York's high-security prison, a wry comment on the restrictive reality of the world she'd longed for as a teen.

"It was very frightening," she told Barbara Walters. "When you are in that world of ultra-powerful men and you're really young, it's easy to be controlled and to be scared."

Her label also surrounded Carey with people who would scrutinise the minutiae of her appearance. "I had to have one side of my freaking face covered or [wear] bangs all the time because I was told I didn't look right that way," she said in a US television interview. "It was always something playing on my insecurities... I grew up insecure to begin with. I didn't need those things being played on."

Despite her girlish persona and famous love of butterflies, Carey is anything but delicate. Her first marriage may have been tough, but so is she. Growing up on Long Island, the daughter of an Irish-American mother and black Venezuelan father, Carey has said she always felt like an outsider. Too fair-skinned to be accepted by the black kids and unable to relate to the white kids, she found the issue of race loomed over her family. She recalled a visit by a childhood friend, who took one look at Carey's father and burst into tears — the friend had never seen a black person before.

Because she had chosen to marry a black man, Carey's mother, an opera singer and vocal coach, was cut off by her own family, and the union also caused problems in her work life (she responded to the discrimination the couple faced by throwing herself behind the civil rights movement). Young Mariah felt not only disenfranchised from her peers but from her own extended family. "I had to go through so much in my childhood just to feel accepted and feel worthy of existing on Earth because I felt so different from everybody else growing up, because I was biracial, because I was so ambiguous-looking and because we didn't have the money to escape whatever the everyday realities of life were," she told The Guardian in 2018.

Troubles compounded after Carey's parents divorced when she was three years old. Her older sister Alison went to live with their father, while Carey and her brother Morgan stayed with their mother. Money was tight in a single-parent household and the three of them moved often so their mother could take on work. Over time, Carey grew distant from her father. Alison turned to drugs and prostitution, falling pregnant and having a baby in her teens.

Perhaps music and songwriting brought the young Mariah some solace amid the chaos around her. It may have helped her in the wake of her separation from Mottola, too; she recored Butterfly (1997) in the final months of her marriage falling apart, releasing it three months after they separated. Lead single 'Honey', which she produced with Puff Daddy, Q-Tip and Stevie J, embedded hip-hop further into her sound. It was surely no accident that the accompanying video opens with Mariah shackled in a luxurious mansion before she breaks free.

Her first compilation album, #1's, came out a year later and sold 15 million copies worldwide. Then, still under contract with Sony, Carey turned her attention to her final album for the label. On Rainbow (1999), she seized greater control over her sound, embracing the R&B and hip-hop themes she'd explored previously by enlisting a cavalcade of big-name guest rappers and producers, including Missy Elliott, Jay-Z and Snoop Dogg. The more urban feel was tempered by Carey's trademark ballads featuring some of her most personal lyrics. "I gravitated towards a patriarch / So young, predictably / I was resigned to spend my life / Within a maze of misery," she sings on the album cut 'Petals',

Signing divorce papers in 2000 opened the door for Carey to fully extricate herself from Mottola's grasp. The time was right to jump ship from Sony — to a reported US$100-million, five-album deal with Virgin Records the following year. Discarding the last vestiges of the controlling forces behind her first decade in the business should have been moment of victory. Instead, it marked the beginning of another dark period for Carey.