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WHEN MUSIC POPS, WE TURN IT UP

The Elusive Chanteuse: Back to Basics on ‘Me. I Am Mariah.’

The Elusive Chanteuse: Back to Basics on ‘Me. I Am Mariah.’
May 27, 2014 ERIC RICKERT

Mariah Carey

Mariah Carey is an American institution. Not the Statue of Liberty or Silicon Valley, but something very much Americana and, occasionally, very necessary. The pop star as fast food: Mariah is McDonalds—not inherently healthy, but a constant to be relied on, especially during Christmastime, and a valuable barometer to gauge our evolving tastes.

Everyone knows The History of Mariah, but to refresh: what started in 1990 copping an even whiter version of Whitney Houston pop music continued for a decade with a Lisa Frank veneer (Daydream, Butterfly, Rainbow, Charmbracelet), and began the new millennium at the height of pop star fame: a self-referential movie and accompanying soundtrack. This caused something like a break, though, on national TV, colored in ice cream and airbrushing, against the whitewashed backdrop of Carson Daly. Mariah retreated—an action her idol Marilyn Monroe never got around to—and released a remixed double album of her classics. But the #dreamofthe90s hadn’t hit yet, and radio was filled with teenage dreams becoming adults. She was quiet for a few years.

She returned in 2005 with The Emancipation of Mimi, her alter ego: the sultry, lower-octave, heavily Photoshopped version of pop’s All-American Girl. “We Belong Together” became one of her biggest singles ever. Songs that had no formal release as singles started to chart. This was Mariah’s official return. She wasn’t sugary, the music wasn’t lilting anymore—it referenced Bobby Womack and had some bass to it. That year she told Allure that the 90s Mariah wasn’t the real version, and this album was Mariah introducing us to the sound she always wanted to push. If anyone thought Glitter marked the end of the Age of Mariah, the new album was a slap in the face.

Sorry, that was me trying to mimic Mariah’s diva attitude: If anyone thought Glitter marked the end of the Age of Mariah, the new album was a clear signal that we were entering a new, stronger phase of her career.

And here we are. Once titled The Art of Letting Go, the new album is named Me. I Am Mariah … The Elusive Chanteuse (iTunes). She’s wordy, ok? And at this point in her career, her bizarre celebrity is as crucial to radio play as the songs themselves. Why title a song “Drunk In Love” when you can add trendy characters and ellipses and a few participles to detail exactly how you’re in love (“#Drunk In Love … because Being Home Is Sometimes Boring #YOLO”)?

MIAMTEC is something like a retrospective of her music released before The Emancipation of Mimi, with a new spin under the disco ball. That’s a decent business model, of course: her last album—2009’s Memoirs of an Imperfect Angel—was the lowest-selling of her entire career (that “More Than Just Friends” and “Candy Bling” didn’t start trending on their own is horrific but sadly true). It’s fitting that “#Beautiful” was the first song to be released from MIAMTEC: simple and crackling, the song is almost a Motown throwback, and like most Supremes songs, the refrain is clear and sweet: “You’re beautiful, and I can’t pretend that doesn’t mean a thing to me.”

It’s fitting, too, because this album doesn’t have nearly as much bass as has become synonymous with Mimi. Since she’s not competing to be heard this time around, she brings back her love of higher octaves. Talk about a throwback. When everything becomes muddled, go back to basics and simply your product. McDonalds will always offer a basic cheeseburger.

There are more nods to the past, from “You’re Mine (Eternal)” so obviously riffing on “We Belong Together” and “Cry” sounding like the millennial version of “Vision Of Love”, to the beginning of “Thirsty” and its “Gin & Juice” drink-pouring intro. There’s a piano and little else (“Cry,” “One More Try”). A choir, too (“Heavenly,” of course). On several songs. This is Mariah’s #dreamofthe90s. Some jams are ready for extended summertime play (“You Don’t Know What To Do” and “Meteorite”), but the bulk of MIAMTEC is slower, with the occasional, patented Mariah High Note, and feels like lost and remixed Minnie Ripperton album, with the sounds of Mariah’s Tommy Mottola years.

MIAMTEC doesn’t feel as game-changing as The Emancipation because the sounds have merely been tweaked a little. “Meteorite” begins with Mariah quoting Andy Warhol about everyone being famous for fifteen minutes (“No, he said everybody will be world-famous for fifteen minutes”). She doesn’t remember correctly because she’s deep in her third decade of international fame. Every national treasure has a timeless quality to it.

Mariah Carey

A writer / artist / playlist-maker living in Brooklyn, by way of Kentucky. This short history pretty much sums him up: on the night he was born, his mother waited to go to the hospital until the latest episode of Dallas was finished, and his dad had over 15,000 records in the basement and would quiz him weekly on Fleetwood Mac, Prince and the Rolling Stones, usually when the family was watching Silk Stalkings. Now he lives to quote Ashley Judd in casual conversation. He doesn’t reference Ashley too often on Twitter (@errickert) though. You can check more about him at ericrickert.com.