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Getting to the Meaning of Mariah Carey

The singer’s memoir, out Tuesday, will dive into her struggles and early-life pain, but she’s always put her life on display

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Imagine you are Tommy Mottola. Back of a limo, 1988. Going home after a long night of what you call work—schmoozing, listening to music, keeping an ear out for the next big thing. A beautiful stranger has handed you an unlabeled cassette. The driver feeds it into the stereo, and out pours the voice of the greatest singer you’ve never heard of. You tell the driver to go back to the party, but by then, she’s gone.

So goes the Cinderella story of Mariah Carey’s discovery in New York City, before her record-breaking, grand-entrance-making self-titled debut in 1990. We know what happened next: a slew of hits, a launch into the stratosphere of commercial success. That’s one origin story. Another is of the biracial, white-passing girl who grew up on Long Island with an absent father, barely present mother, and two much older, abusive siblings; who came to New York at 17 with one pair of tattered shoes and a dream; who was not just seeking stardom but escaping a bleak childhood.

But those are old stories, old Mariahs. The Mariah of vinyl records and melodies recorded on answering machines. The Mariah we know today is GIF-worthy, telling an interviewer I don’t know her with a plastered pageant smile; wearing sunglasses indoors in diamonds and gloves. Perhaps it’s inevitable that a person of her age—this year she celebrated her 50th “anniversary”—would have a life comprising so many different phases. She has transformed from mousy girl-next-door (do you even recognize this version of her from 1993?), to triumphantly divorced 20-something, to blond, buxom, slightly out-of-touch glam diva. Modern Mariah is the one of her infamous Cribs episode, who personally tailors her lighting design and doesn’t allow pictures of the left side of her face. The Mariah who wore a bedazzled sling when she injured her arm. Gowns on the subway. Heels to bowling. Extra, over-the-top, highest-note-on-the-scale Mariah.

Thirty years in—her memoir, The Meaning of Mariah Carey, out Tuesday, marks the occasion—she is such an institution that the details have gotten muddled by both her extra-ness and, counterintuitively, her consistency. Though her popularity has faded since the ’90s, she’s never fallen completely out of the public eye: She is a standby, a pillar of American pop culture. Her cartoonishly glamorous lifestyle makes her easy to mock, but she is self-aware enough to facilitate it and play along.

But composed, confident, in-on-the-joke icon isn’t exactly how she comes across in the media or her music. In a 2018 interview, Andy Cohen asked what the biggest misconception about her was. She demurred, but he ventured that it’s the assumption that she doesn’t write her own songs. In a now-famous montage, which she tweeted in January at the announcement of her belated introduction into the Songwriters Hall of Fame, she repeats in a series of interviews filmed over decades, “As a songwriter …” iterating that she, herself, Mariah, is the author of all those hits, but that “a lot of people don’t know that.” To Cohen, she said, “What do I know what these people think?” But in reality, she does know; she’s just tired of saying it.

Watching these clips of Mariah defending herself, decades into multimillion-dollar mega-stardom, you have to wonder: Why does one of the biggest recording artists of all time have such a chip on her shoulder?

Being misunderstood is an inevitable facet of being a celebrity. But there’s an element of Mariah’s self-defense that reads as a reaction greater than the offense; which is not to say it’s an overreaction, but rather, an unhealed wound.

As she’s carefully revealed more details of her life leading up to the release of her memoir, the woundedness that has always filtrated through her songs has crystallized into an explanation—an emotional origin story—for who she is. Most notably in a recent New York magazine profile, and in several other outlets, she spoke candidly of the specific familial pains she experienced growing up; but also how her illegible Blackness both excluded her from white spaces (or how she was retroactively excluded upon sharing she was Black) and denied her the insulation of Black spaces. I’m sure Mariah is familiar with the “tragic mulatto” trope, but that hasn’t stopped her from speaking of her biraciality in dramatic overtones throughout her career. Nowhere is it more clear than on Daydream (1995) and Butterfly (1997), two albums very similar in format throughout, including their closing tracks that address Mariah’s feelings of detachment: the gospel-infused “Outside” on Butterfly; and on Daydream, the morose “Looking In.” As she sings on the latter:

You look at me and see the girl
Who lives inside the golden world

It seems as though I’ve always been
Somebody outside looking in

They’ll never know the real me

If she had been born with a different face, perhaps she would have had fewer opportunities, less access to the Columbia Records marketing machine. Maybe she would have even fewer Grammys. (She has five total, from 1990 and 2005.) She might have been pushed into the “urban market” before she voluntarily flew there, on the wings of Diddy and Jermaine Dupri. But the gift of an unmistakable ethnicity is that you never have to explain what you are. Her race, as common and American as it is, is another source of her shame, a blessing-cum-privilege that felt more like a curse.

Beyond this core issue, the mid-’90s girl in the golden world was woefully married to Mottola, 20 years her senior, whom she has called “the Warden” and portrayed as an Italian mobster in the “Honey” video. (She also called their palatial upstate New York home “Sing Sing” … as in the prison.) She had become rich, famous, then married Mottola in a “fairytale wedding” at only 23. But she describes being constantly monitored within the house, by cameras, bodyguards, and an ominous intercom system that Mottola used when she was out of his sight; and that even a simple trip to get french fries with Da Brat devolved into a red-alert security mission to put her back within the gates. In a word, she felt trapped—and all the superficial accoutrements of happiness couldn’t relieve that.

Her years of alluding to her childhood struggles (“I was a wayward child / With the weight of the world that I held deep inside” she sings in “Close My Eyes”), her reminders that she was a songwriter, that her light skin didn’t shield her from racism, read as a cry for help. A cry to be truly seen and heard, even as one of the most recognizable figures in music history. A hurt that can’t be healed with money, the kind that bears repeating in a song.

There’s also, in her story, a plea to be taken seriously, a challenge for almost any female recording artist. In broad male-female musical dynamics, singing is for girls; playing an instrument, writing, and producing—that’s men’s work. Mariah couldn’t have ascended to such heights without being thin, pretty, and fair-skinned; but these qualities are also what invalidate many women artists from being thought of as capable beyond singing. Hardly any of Mariah’s contemporaries or successors in the pop music sphere write or produce their own music; but generally speaking, instead of being lauded for their singular vocal techniques, they’re framed as simple, pretty faces (this was always the sexist basis for the anti-Britney-Christina-Jessica movement of the early 2000s). Instead of Mariah receiving bonus points for her songwriting, she was grouped in with the other artists of her genre and gender, celebrated for her once-in-a-lifetime voice, but otherwise shortchanged and underestimated.

Not that we live in an equitable, merit-based society, but if we did, there would be no room to underestimate Mariah. The numbers don’t lie: She is the top-selling female artist of the 1990s, and third-best-selling female artist of all time, at 200 million records. She has the most no. 1 songs of any solo artist, and the second most of all time, behind the Beatles (she passed Elvis a few years ago).

And not that they give awards for this, but she has also enjoyed a career virtually free of scandal. Where is Mariah’s DUI or painkiller addiction? Her middle-of-the-night mugshot? Accusations of plagiarism or abuse against her staff? The most scandal-tinged event from her career seems to be that time she brought Carson Daly ice cream on Total Request Live then took off her shirt, remaining clothed, in a pre-9/11 New York. If that sentence didn’t make it clear enough, this was a long time ago. (That year, she checked herself into a hospital due to exhaustion and was also diagnosed with bipolar disorder.) Personally taxing, yes—but not scandalous.

I don’t think that Mariah has remained free from scandal because of luck, but because of an inner resilience, both personal and creative, that is unmatched by her peers. Demons felled Whitney Houston and Michael Jackson and Prince. Madonna, despite her knack for reinvention, has always lacked the vocal talent, and her recent ventures have come off as cringey and tone-deaf. Mariah’s voice doesn’t have the power or clarity it once did, but she retains a singular ear for a hit. After the great Glitter debacle of 2001, her unprecedented $80 million contract at Virgin Records was terminated, at which point many thought her career was finished. But she returned in 2005 with The Emancipation of Mimi, which produced a handful of songs that reached no. 1 or 2 on the Hot 100 and/or Dance charts: “Shake It Off,” “Say Something,” “It’s Like That,” “Don’t Forget About Us,” and her second-biggest no. 1 to date, “We Belong Together,” with 14 weeks at the top. You could call it a comeback. “The Distance” from 2018’s Caution and the single “I Don’t” about her broken engagement to billionaire James Packer both have the makings of a chart-topper if not the actual performance of one. It’s only a matter of time before she beats the Beatles.

And since the season is nearly upon us, let’s talk about it: When was the last time someone wrote a contemporary Christmas standard? (It’s a rhetorical question, but I think the answer is Donny Hathaway’s “This Christmas” in 1970.) “All I Want for Christmas Is You,” besides being an indelible part of the holiday season, also took a remarkably long time to reach number one: 25 years. Belated success is the mark of a resilient soul: someone who smartly plants seeds now to reap the fruit in its time.

Mariah continues to be the full package—an “imperfect angel,” to use her own language, but with the solid foundation to continue her career indefinitely.

So is The Meaning of Mariah Carey her victory lap? It’s certainly a moment to pause, acknowledge, and celebrate. Mariah has been increasingly open about her trauma and her journey to healing; her twin 9-year-olds, who clearly light up her life, are part of that healing. In the New York article, she says, “[My children] have stability. That’s what I didn’t have. … They understand that they are Black. They have a whole lot of self-esteem and self-worth that I never had. And I probably still don’t now. I know that I still don’t.”

It’s hard to hear someone of her stature admit that she lacks self-worth. But it’s heartening to know that she put herself on a better path; that she believes she is worthy of better than she’s received. “I work on my emotional recovery daily,” she says in the book.

Perhaps music was too indirect of a way to communicate what she’s always wanted to say. Or maybe we just weren’t listening. Hopefully, with this memoir, and her ongoing commitment to self-improvement, we will see a version of Mariah that is healed and whole, who doesn’t have to repeat herself, who is heard.

Kyla Marshell’s poetry and nonfiction have appeared in The Guardian, BuzzFeed, The Believer, Kinfolk, O Magazine, and elsewhere. She is a Spelman College and Sarah Lawrence graduate, and lives in New York.