SOUND VS. STYLE: MARIAH CAREY
by Jeremy Danté
when mariah carey burst onto the scene in 1990, her hit “vision of love” broke the mainstream format of what music sounded like at radio of that time. this groundbreaking instance would become a regularity in her career. in the first three years of her career, a blockbuster set of four albums were released, including the best selling christmas album of all time, “merry christmas”. through the early years, mariah dominated the adult contemporary and pop billboard charts. throughout her career, mariah’s musical journey has touched genres of soft rock, gospel, jazz, hip-hop and R&B. quite literally the most influential vocalist of the 1990’s, mariah’s resume is as extensive as should be an artist of her caliber. set to take home the icon world music award, carey has sold over 200 million records worldwide. the artist known as mariah carey is still at present day an untouchable name in vocal, lyrical and production that cannot be touched. to her credit, carey is the best selling female artist of all time and moving into the 2000’s continued this reign with the need to transform. blending genres of urban sound into the pop musical mainstream, mariah’s influence goes far beyond what can be awarded through grammy’s or what can chart billboard.
“butterfly” the album, was particularly important for mariah’s musical journey and personal growth. it became the first time she was able to have a true footing in her image, and you felt it. a genius songwriter, mariah has co-written her entire catalog, produced or co-produced much of that catalog as well. she had long established an identity in the composition and lyrical components of her career, which created a strong foundation for her career to sustain upon. most artists in today’s industry have a strong image component but a weakened musical identity. for carey, this inverse is likely a large factor as to why she has been able to soar as a top billing female entertainer from the golden age of the music industry. the ethereal, melismatic arranging of vocals with a colorful word play something like a fairy tale have become mariah’s trademarks since the very beginning. emotions, music box, daydream, butterfly, rainbow, charmbracelet- all album titles from her catalog, and all synonymous with her artistic persona.
but beyond just pretty words, and whistle register vocal arrangements, mariah is an icon of culture. her 1995 hit, “fantasy”, became the first single by a female artist to debut at #1 on the billboard charts, and only the second single ever to do so following the lead of michael jackson’s “you are not alone”. spending eight weeks at #1 and a total of 23 weeks in the top 40 on billboard, “fantasy” was a best selling single in 1995, moving 1.5 million units and becoming certified double platinum by the recording industry association of america. it was during this era that mariah began to transition away from her adult pop contemporary home in music, and ventured more into the genre that would soon become the hybrid of hip-hop/R&B. working to produce a remix for ‘fantasy’, carey enlisted sean “puffy” combs. the result of this pairing came a greater merging of rap and R&B, when it was decided that wu-tang clan’s ol’ dirty bastard would become a feature on the hit. the lyrics, “me and mariah, go back like babies with pacifiers” became emblematic of the hard vs soft image that mariah would become much more enchanted by for the remainder of the years she would spend as an artist representing R&B. soaring higher and higher with each record release, the album which fantasy was produced for “daydream” became an international best seller, moving 25 million units worldwide. also from that album, “one sweet day” became, and still is to this day- the longest running number one single of all time. the song spent 16 consecutive weeks at number one. these feats during this leg of mariah’s career in the year 1995-1996 sealed her position on the music scene as one of the most untouchable female singer/songwriter/producers in the history of music. a title she still holds today.
much of mariah’s early career was guided by the hand of her then husband, sony music boss, tommy mottola. as her voice flourished on the airwaves, and her album stats began to stack, things got rocky in the marriage. resulting was a divorce, which resulted in the musical works that revealed her freedom, an album we know as “butterfly”. released in 1997, the album welded together the elements of mariah the woman, and mariah the artist. influences of hip-hop thumped into carey’s poetic lyricism- moving five million units while in the process. revealed and represented were a fleeting type of beauty that resounded in the sensibility of freedom and escape, the very taste of fantasy with a daydream like sequence- heroic in a way. the album felt genuine. while other albums held up against billboard chartings and platinum certifications, you seen a real identity with the butterfly LP. this would become the formula for mariah’s albums to follow. there was the classical, R&B feel of both ‘music box’ and ‘daydream’. but rather than poising thoughts of freedom, ‘butterfly’ accentuated and realized such daydreams in music boxes. the particularly interesting element of ‘butterfly’ was the bold references and depths in which hip-hop were seen.
as mariah has developed as an artist she has seemingly graduated into the R&B roots in which she was always destined. beyond the commercially acceptable, chart-topping, diamond album certified confines of industry, mariah is now where she needs to be. and that position is as a representative of the musical genre most affectionately known to music fans as rhythm and blues. criminally underrated, though heavily decorated with accolades in comparison to her other contemporaries and peers- there is no greater female artist than that of ms. mariah carey. with an arsenal of an album catalog, a wardrobe to rival a queen and talent that has secured the future of her children’s children, this style vs. sound feature could forever, due to the simple fact that mariah is the most influential female figure of the 1990’s and 2000’s. while this cultural influence often is not seen in accolades at the grammy’s- culture speaks for and represents itself. the trajectory of her career can never be surpassed, nor can it be made equivalent. a cultural diva of unmeasured talents, mariah is still a relevant force in music and cannot be dethroned simply because, no other female artist has lent their talent or taken risks to merge genre’s and bring art forms together in the ways she has- as an artist. her latest studio release is evidence that her taste level, instincts and understanding of music remains untouched.
a sound for all who have enjoyed any of her music for the past 20+ years is found in the new album. for the critics who have felt that she has deviated from her adult contemporary roots, mariah has created: “cry.”, “camouflage”, and “heavenly”. for those who have shifted into her fan base through her contemporary hip-hop inspired production elements, all other records on the album just about quench that thirst. which is actually one of my favorite album cuts, produced by hit-boy, “thirsty” – which was submitted to urban radio as a single. the album includes the worldwide success “#beautiful” which features R&B superstar, miguel. but the album is different than other albums by mariah. it’s more sophisticated, and well rounded. they say history repeats itself, and here we see another moment of glory for carey, similar to the way that we seen freedom flourish with “butterfly”. all in all, this post is long over due and my dedication to mariah as a fan can never be met properly with words or expressions. nor can it even begin to be expressed in just one feature, but many, and made evident in more emotional transactions that surpass words. i could praise the album to high heaven, but it’s up to you to listen and hear what i hear.
this is an installment of the sound vs. style music feature series
click here to view past artists featured