Considering Mariah Carey's New Album

Last week, Mariah Carey released her 14th studio album, Me. I Am Mariah…The Elusive Chanteuse. Here are some things to consider when considering Mariah Carey, especially at this juncture in her 24-year career.

  1. Over the last several years, it's become harder to sell music. In the first quarter of this year, CD sales were down 20 percent compared to the first quarter of 2013. Digital sales had slid by 13.3 percent.
  2. Over the course of a career, it's also become harder for individual artists—especially women—to sell music. Our culture's obsession with youth only has intensified. It's insane to look back on the '80s and see people like Aretha Franklin, Tina Turner, and Patti LaBelle churning out mainstream hits while they were in their 40s. That just doesn't happen today.
  3. The oldest woman to hit No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 was Cher, who was 51 when "Believe" dominated the chart in 1999.
  4. Mariah Carey is 44 or 45 (sources differ).
  5. Mariah Carey has not had a hit in a while. Her last two albums, 2009's Memoirs of an Imperfect Angel, and 2010's Merry Christmas II You, have sold less in the U.S. than any others that came before (just a little over 500,000 a piece). The former spawned just one hit single ("Obsessed," No. 7 on the Billboard Hot 100).
  6. Over the course of her 24-year career, Mariah Carey has notched 18 No. 1 singles on the Billboard Hot 100, and is routinely introduced as the "biggest selling female artist of all time." A discussion of commercial performance is essential to her work, because for so long it defined her persona. She is not merely a singer, not merely a songwriter, but a hit-maker, someone whose genius lay in her ability to speak to the masses. Though through her first five albums, she was the type of sure-bet artist whose every release was obviously going to be a hit (Katy Perry, sadly, is this type of artist today; Lady Gaga was a few years ago), the effort involved was plain to see. She was a workhorse—1996 was the only year of the '90s that did not see a major release from her (I'm including her MTV Unplugged EP and hits compilation #1's in this tally, as they both spawned hit singles). She would rerecord singles—sometimes multiple times—for remixes spanning various musical genres.
  7. This seemingly indefatigable work ethic paired well with Mariah Carey's craft. Though her lungs seemed to have unlimited capacity, and her voice capable of reaching octaves beyond our ability to hear, her delivery has always felt fraught, calculated. Carey always has been an active singer. No matter how easy the notes came, you were still aware of the push behind them (as opposed to, say, Whitney Houston, who at her peak just flowed; Aretha Franklin gushed). Effort has always been this woman's aesthetic.
  8. So closely does Carey identify herself with obscene success that she sometimes sings about it. She sang to her deceased father Alfred Roy Carey in 2008's "Bye Bye": "You never got to see me back at No. 1." That's a reference to her chart renaissance via 2005's blockbuster The Emancipation of Mimi album. (Alfred Roy died in 2002, during Carey's nadir in popularity between her disastrous Glitter project and hit-free Charmbracelet album.) On Me. I Am Mariah's "Dedicated," she wraps herself in nostalgia and reflects upon hip-hop history, at one point invoking: "Remix of a 'Fantasy' / I hear 'em singing back to me." Halcyon is when you would release a single and it would sit at No. 1 for eight weeks. Reality is that four songs were released to launch Me. I Am Mariah... (2012's "Triumphant" didn't even make the final cut, not that anyone but diehards know that song, anyway), and only one of them cracked the Top 20, last year's terrific duet with Miguel, "#Beautiful."
  9. Here's the contradiction: Mariah Carey became Mariah Carey through unthinkable success, but Mariah Carey only became a deliciously unmissable persona through failure. Up till Glitter, she had never really released a flop (save a single here and there toward the end of the '90s). She wasn't relatable, wasn't even really recognizable as human. She would try to project vulnerability in her songs and end up sounding like titanium. All of a sudden, it was real. The world was less controllable than she thought. She was an underdog, in all of that designation's endearing glory. I never read anything suggesting this, but I always thought that part of her pre-Glitter meltdown had to do with her early detection that she had a flop on her hands. I don't doubt that she was exhausted, as she claimed, but the desperation was palpable. What do you do when so much of who you are is defined by popular opinion, and the opinion turns negative? You whisper through a subdued album of hip-hop soul (Charmbracelet) and then you come back and sing runs in the faces of all who ever doubted you (The Emancipation of Mimi).
  10. Glitter probably showed Mariah Carey most explicitly that she is, or can be, a joke. It was painful at first, but not so much anymore (or at least, that's what she wants us to believe). She is in on the joke, she assures us. A pop diva with a bloodhound's nose, she's sniffing out appreciation where she can. I cannot be certain if self-awareness has directly resulted in her willingness to share her eccentricities, or if in fact she's ripening like cheese and getting more naturally ridiculous as time goes on. But look, there's a correlation: Mariah Carey knows she's being laughed at, Mariah Carey gets funnier. Her cartoon diva persona (clearly the most transparent mask she could don) that she fosters by perpetually running late and fancy gloves and calling people "daaaaahling," her extensive vocabulary ("imprudently," "dissipate," "immortalized," and "audacity" all appear on her new album), calling her album Me. I Am Mariah…The Elusive Chanteuse, explaining that it's derived from a picture of herself she drew when she was 3, selecting cover art that's so heavily Photoshopped it's about as realistic a rendering of a human as toddler Mariah's self-portrait—all of it is adorable. Most of what this woman does is, if not impressive from a technical or sonic standpoint, at least ridiculous enough to be funny. At least I think so. One thing to consider while reading this review is that I love most of what Mariah Carey does, with an almost parental delusion. She's just the bees knees, my favorite celebrity of all time, who can do so little wrong that when she does do wrong, it often feels right. Or at least hysterical. I've never loved a woman's period more than the one that's in her current album's title.
  11. Mariah Carey is aware that there is a joke, but does she know exactly what it is? Her insistence that she is "eternally 12," and all of the overgrown girlishness—Carey's is brazen femininity, really—that comes with it is at odds with her commercial viability. Her singing of lines like "You love me more than you love sunny summer days" is at odds with her being taken seriously as a songwriter (which she emphatically is). Her precise awareness ultimately makes no difference, though—leaving a margin of ambiguity gives your audience a great space for frolicking.
  12. Mariah Carey's self-awareness becomes exasperating when it reads as uncomfortable self-consciousness. When I watch the "You're Mine (Eternal)" video, I get the clearest, most explicit reminder of the tightness with which narcissism and insecurity intertwine. You can't even parse out where one ends and the other begins when watching a 44- or 45-year-old woman sing a vague song about eternal love that sounds like a 9-year-old, more specific song about eternal love (the biggest hit of her career, "We Belong Together") while hugging her bare boobs in the flora. The idea there is, "Well, you obviously love me," just as much as it's, "I mean, you did love me before," just as much as it's, "But I'm gonna do the same thing as I've been doing, just to make sure you'll keep loving me."
  13. "You're Mine (Eternal)" entered the Billboard Hot 100 at No. 88. It stayed on the chart for one week.
  14. So too did insecurity seem to drive "#Beautiful," on which Carey barely sings a note until about halfway through. She sounded like a guest on her own song, and let the increasingly popular Miguel be the face of the song. The video featured her acting sexy with that trademark Carey obvious effort. At one point, she flashed her panties.
  15. Weirdly, Me. I Am Mariah…The Elusive Chanteuse does not at all come across as desperate, nor is it the mess that its series of delays suggested. An early, scrapped title for the album was The Art of Letting Go, and though the song by that title (included as a bonus cut – it was yet another pre-release song that failed to gain any chart traction) ostensibly speaks of a relationship, this album sounds in many ways like Carey's attempt to let go as an artist. It saunters in on the rumbling piano ballad "Cry." and then keeps sauntering through the sublime Mike Will Made It-produced 808 ballad "Faded" (it burns steadily for a while and then flares up at the very end) through the mumbled laid-back hip-hop revivalism of "Dedicated" through the breezy "#Beautiful." It isn't till Track 5 that it actually picks up via "Thirsty." Hit-Boy's production is trap-like and sounds influenced by Jay Z and Kanye West's "Niggas in Paris," but still the tempo is slow and its bridge feels beamed in from the '90s (or maybe her own Charmbracelet-era "Miss U"). There are a few disco cuts, including the greatest shot for a hit that she's had in ages, the ebullient and thwacking pop perfection of "You Don't Know What To Do." There are a few more piano ballads, including "Camouflage," which is so not catchy that it's likely as close to abstract as Carey will ever come. Me. I Am Mariah... an album that is thick with sound, humming with feedback, bellowing with sub bass, upholstered in cushy backing vocals. When it isn't tasteful, it's bonkers. "Make It Look Good," the album's DL actual best track is a torch song with an orchestra, horns, a guttural beat, and Stevie Wonder freaking out on harmonica. It's a circus of sound. Carey's interpretation of George Michael's "One More Try" sounds robotic and not nearly as considered as everything else she sings on this album, but still…it's Mariah Carey singing George Michael's most anguished ballad. A part of her will always be that girl on Long Island in the '80s singing along to the radio and sounding better than it. In her contrivance is honesty. That's the biggest difference between Old (pre-hip-hop/Butterfly album) Mariah and New Mariah. She can't not emote something now, even if it's not that thing she was attempting to emote.
  16. Mariah Carey's voice hasn't sounded this good on an album since I don't know when. The '90s? I don't know where she gets off calling herself "elusive" (she is nothing if not ubiquitous – it's been five years since her last album and I see her all the time), but she more than makes up for that in the chanteuse department. Stellar.
  17. Mariah Carey's Me. I Am Mariah…The Elusive Chanteuse will debut at No. 3 on this week's Billboard 200 album chart. It sold 58,000 copies in its first week – a third of what Memoirs of an Imperfect Angel did in its first week, and that album is largely considered a flop. Elusive Chanteuse's opening frame is the lowest first-week number of Mariah Carey's album-releasing career.
  18. Mariah Carey laughs throughout Me. I Am Mariah…The Elusive Chanteuse. On over half the songs, you can hear her chuckle. She laughs for emphasis, she laughs for joy, she laughs at her children who provide guest vocals via their toddler babbling. She laughs as if nothing else matters, and convincingly so. Given all the context, all the baggage, all the Mariah Carey that goes along with Mariah Carey, that's quite an accomplishment.