Is she Tommy’s puppet? Does she really write her own songs? Why is she trying to sing Black?
Wait…is she Black?
Since the debut of “Vision of Love” 25 years ago, Mariah Carey’s perceived inauthenticity has frequently incited intense public scrutiny. From questions about her writing and producing chops, to questions about the hip hop influences in her music, to questions about her race, she’s always had to unnecessarily explain herself. And for a woman who came out of the gate breaking records by having her first five singles top the Billboard Hot 100 — and subsequently building a career of achievements that rival those of Elvis, The Beatles and Michael Jackson — the “Is she the real deal?” talk has always seemed unfair.
“Me and Mariah go back like babies and pacifiers"-Fantasy (Bad Boy Remix) featuring O.D.B., 1995
When Mariah signed to Columbia in 1988, label head and future husband Tommy Mottola had a clear plan in mind for his new talent: make her the next larger-than-life female act — Columbia’s answer to Whitney Houston and Madonna, so to speak. With Mariah helming the songwriting duties — as she continues to do to this day — Mottola allocated a massive budget to executing his vision of a pop phenomenon. The best producers and songwriters were called in to collaborate with Mariah, and together, the husband and wife moved more than 60 million albums in the first four years of her career alone.
But by 1995, Mariah grew desperate for more creative control. A major hip-hop fan, she was ready to incorporate more of those hard-edged, real-life musical influences into her work.
“[Critics] don’t understand that I’m someone who grew up with this music. It’s exciting for me to be able to work with Jay Z or Nas or Missy Elliott,” Mariah told Newsweek in 1999.
Enter the Bad Boy Remix to “Fantasy” — the lead single from 1995’s Daydream. While the pop version of the track became the first single by a female artist to debut atop the Billboard Hot 100, its remix would help to define an entirely new wave of music — the rap-sung collaboration. Stripping out some of the R&B elements from the “Genius of Love”-sampled original, the remix was built around sparse production from Puff Daddy, and featured some of Ol’ Dirty Bastard’s most quotable bars.
Although suits at Columbia feared that such an urban musical departure would alienate her pop fans, Mariah continued to collaborate with hip hop artists and producers, including Da Brat and Xscape on the Mr. Dupri Mix of “Always Be My Baby” — a complete R&B overhaul of her #1 pop bop. This mix, along with subsequent mixes from the Butterfly and Rainbow albums, would spark another trend — the complete re-recording and rearranging of singles for the remix — essentially creating a new song for an entirely different segment of the music-buying public.
While pop and hip-hop had flirted with each other for years prior to the Fantasy Remix, most notably on the Jody Watley, Eric B. & Rakim collaboration “Friends,” it was Mariah who married the genres into a palatable fusion fit for mass consumption. Jennifer Lopez, Justin Timberlake, Rihanna and others have built entire careers from this union, and it’s Mariah’s influence that led to the creation of the Best Rap/Sung Collaboration Grammy — a relatively new award created in 2002 to honor hip pop.
“Love me down ‘tiI I hit the top of my soprano.”- More Than Just Friends, 2009
Inspired by greats like Billie Holliday, Aretha Franklin, The Clark Sisters and her own mom — an opera singer, Mariah’s vocal style is a unique interweaving of classical training and raw, unbridled soul. Gliding from husky alto to soaring soprano, from whisper register to whistle register all in the blink of an eye, her vocal acrobatics stem from turning (what some singers would consider) an obstacle into an opportunity to create her own sound. Having nodules on her vocal cords since childhood, Mariah taught herself to sing through her impairment.
“I do really have different vocal cords,” Mariah told Choire Sicha in an interview. “It’s because they’re not — I don’t use my voice the way different people use their vocal cords. A lot of people couldn’t sing through the nodules the way I do; I’ve learned to sing through my vocal cords.”
Technique aside, Mariah’s singing has inspired some of the greatest voices of our time. Brandy sang “Vision of Love” to land her first record deal with Atlantic. Marsha Ambrosius won her first talent contest with a Mimi classic. And Beyoncé has said that it was Mariah’s voice that made her want to become a singer.
“Been stigmatized. Been Black and White. Felt inferior inside.” My Saving Grace, 2002
In a country obsessed with race, Mariah’s not-quite-Black, not-quite-White look sparked almost as much discussion as her five-octave vocal talent when she debuted. Almost immediately, she faced cultural appropriation claims from critics who argued that her soulful sound was merely an act to sell records.
"I'm not a White girl trying to sing Black," a then-20-year-old Mariah said in a 1991 interview with EBONY. "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."
While some of her early-90s contemporaries played to their racially ambiguous look and minimized their African roots, Mariah never tried to hide or downplay her Black heritage. Instead, she embraced it, writing about it in her music, and speaking about the difficulties of growing up mixed on many occasions. Her willingness to discuss her own struggles — most recently detailing an incident in which she was spat on as a child — gave an important voice to an entire generation of biracial youth, and effectively panned any inauthenticity claims from critics.
But even after racking up an incredible 18 Billboard Hot 100 #1 hits, selling more than 200 million records worldwide, and literally changing the course of popular music with her gospel-tinged vocals and hip hop-influenced tracks, people still have questions.
Can she still sing? Does she still have it?
But the questions are more futile than ever. Because even if she stopped making music today, the world would still be listening to her. Every time a singer reaches her whistle register over a soulful pop beat and adds a few gospel runs for good measure, or a cute, ‘round-the-way girl collaborates with a “hard” rapper, you’re listening to Mariah. Her influence is ever-present.