Rock and Roll Book Club: 'The Meaning of Mariah Carey'

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'The Meaning of Mariah Carey.'
'The Meaning of Mariah Carey.' (Jay Gabler/MPR)

Normally when I review a title for the Rock and Roll Book Club, one of the first things I think about is what song we'll play when Jill Riley and I discuss the book on The Current. For Mariah Carey's new memoir, I immediately thought of her 1990 debut album, which instantly rocketed her into the rock-star stratosphere and stands as a landmark LP inaugurating the more organic sound of '90s pop after the synth-obsessed '80s.

Flipping through the book, I was startled to find...nothing. Carey meets Sony honcho Tommy Mottola, the two get married, and suddenly we're in 1993 and Carey is getting ready to promote her third studio album (her MTV Unplugged release also passing without mention). Suffice it to say, when you crack The Meaning of Mariah (buy now) you are in Carey's house and this story will unfold on her own terms.

As it should. She spent most of her 20s living in a mansion she calls "Sing Sing," a reference both to the industry that built it and to the infamous prison. The signal and, it seems, sole commonality between Carey and Mottola was a faith in the potential of her music career, and that was what bonded them for the first half of the '90s, a period Carey now seems distanced from artistically and emotionally.

The track that turned the tide was the 1995 remix of "Fantasy," which features a raucous rap from Ol' Dirty Bastard and became the first plank in a bridge that would connect Carey's pop R&B to rap, making her perhaps the single most pivotal artist in shaping today's Top 40 landscape, where hip-hop has merged into the mainstream. Mottola couldn't relate: Carey describes riding out of New York City to Sing Sing, when as the radio stations would start to fade out, the label head would pop in a Sinatra CD.

It was personal for Carey, not just because she was married to the music mob, but because she's the child of an Irish mother and a Black father. Much of her memoir explores the tensions she's always felt around that identity, and what she describes is what many other mixed-race Americans have said: in a world organized around categories, people spanning categories rarely feel like they're truly seen.

Her accounts of her Long Island childhood are fascinating, moving, and disturbing — if not, sadly, surprising — in their accounts of appalling racism from whites and occasional exclusion or dismissal by Blacks. In one vivid story, white girls in her class invited her on a sleepover specifically, it seems, to trap her in a room and taunt her with a racial epithet. (One girl defended her, and Carey's never forgotten.) Teachers laughed when she drew her family and used a brown crayon for her father; they assumed she'd made a mistake.

An affair with Derek Jeter would later help her break out of Mottola's orbit, but in Carey's account of the fling, the fact of the Yankee being a sexy shortstop is less important than the fact of his also being mixed-race, a party to conversations that helped the singer sort out her complicated feelings that, she learned, others shared.

Carey was born somewhere around 1970, the youngest of three children born to a dad she describes as a Harlem hipster and a Midwestern mom who strongly bucked her family's racial biases. Their marriage didn't last long, and Carey spent most of her youth living with her mom and an older brother who was deeply troubled and frightened her with his violent outbursts. Her mom trained as an opera singer; Carey would inherit her remarkable pipes, but no musical connection could salve a complicated mother-daughter relationship.

(A tween Carey laughed at her mom harmonizing with Michael Jackson's chorus on Rockwell's "Somebody's Watching Me," soaring into an operatic register. Her mother didn't find it funny.)

Eventually Carey worked her way up through the ranks of studio backup singers, who ushered her into the elite circles that would get her self-penned (but not self-produced, under a typically exploitative agreement that would ultimately cost her millions in later royalties) demo into the hands of powerful decision-makers. Carey notes that Seymour Stein was impressed but regarded her as too young, cutting off an alternate timeline that someone should imagine a novel about sometime, but Mottola didn't hesitate. He was instantly captivated by the beautiful and charismatic young woman, and the instant he realized she was also an incredible musical talent, he was decisive: Carey would be his star, and his wife.

Carey describes locking eyes with Princess Diana at a party once. "She had that look," writes Carey, "the dull terror of never being left alone burning behind her eyes. We were both like cornered animals in couture. I completely recognized and identified with her." While the two women had very different backgrounds, there was a striking similarity in the way each was snapped up into an essentially loveless marriage just when she was beginning to break free of her family, and the way each would face the struggle of her life to break free.

By the late '90s, even as Carey continued her hitmaking streak and forged ever more exciting collaborations, she remained so trapped in Mottola's gaze that he blew up even when she and rapper Da Brat (who guested on multiple Carey tracks and remains a close friend) went to Burger King without asking. "We were just going to get French fries!" Da Brat yelled into a cell phone when producer Jermaine called to relay that Mottola and his men were getting guns out. "If Mariah wants French fries, we are getting f---ing French fries!"

Finally Carey broke out for good, but the vengeful Mottola sabotaged her by using his position at Sony to spy on her forthcoming Glitter soundtrack and stealing some of the best ideas for other artists before the album dropped. Whatever you think about the movie (Carey thinks its '80s setting was simply ahead of its time), it's easy to understand why Carey felt so vindicated when over a decade later, her fans ("Lambs") launched a #JusticeForGlitter campaign and drove the album to number one on the iTunes chart.

You may now start to understand, if you don't already, why Carey's 2005 release was called The Emancipation of Mimi. Unlike Prince's Emancipation, Carey's LP was a commercial and critical triumph, spawning two chart-topping singles and making her the first woman ever to simultaneously hold the top two slots on the Hot 100; it was recently ranked number 389 on Rolling Stone's updated list of the greatest albums of all time.

Carey was still landing singles in the Top 20 as late as 2013, a remarkable quarter-century run that gave way to what you might call her full diva era. While she plays that role to the hilt today, even inviting stylists on stage to touch her up, The Meaning of Mariah Carey (cowritten with the sharp writer and activist Michaela angela Davis) makes clear that the diva treatment is something she's fully earned. Aptly, Carey humbly pays tribute to Aretha Franklin, describing how the first time they met, Franklin was sitting down and Carey sank to a kneel, "because that's what one does in the presence."

Despite its relatively concise length at 349 pages of short chapters, Meaning covers a lot of ground, touching on topics ranging from a power-play trip to Japan to go over Mottola's head by requesting a one-on-one meeting with the head of the entire Sony Corporation; an infuriating "Stunt. Gone. Awry." when a clueless Carson Daly accused Carey of "stripping" on Total Request Live ("I was revealing"); her fling with "the Latin Elvis," Luis Miguel ("diamonds aren't my best friend, but we're close"); her role in Precious (a prosthetic nose was abandoned, but irritated her skin and thus did the job of divorcing her social worker character from her superstar self); the time she replaced a planned matching wardrobe for both herself and Diana Ross ("I don't ever leave the house without my own wardrobe possibilities"); her beloved twin boys, product of a past marriage with Nick Cannon; and of course Christmas, which she remembers fondly as the time in her tumultuous childhood when "we tried to put all the trauma and drama that infected the rest of our lives on hold." She even alludes to the infamous New Year's Eve debacle (Luther Vandross told her never to sing in the cold).

So back to the original question...which song to feature? I landed on "Honey," the opening track on 1997's Butterfly and one of her 19 chart-toppers. Inspired by her infatuation with Jeter, the song marked a significant break in her personal and professional relationship with Mottola. "The songs written for Butterfly were no longer about far-off, fictional lovers," she writes. "These songs, though certainly poetically embellished, were full of specific details and sensual realness."

It was also, by the way, the first song of Carey's that Prince told her he liked. Prince, described in the chapter "A Little Bit About a Few Good Men" (along with the likes of Stevie Wonder, Muhammad Ali, and Nelson Mandela), had a casual but extended friendship with Carey, who visited Paisley Park with the sketch of a song she hoped to collaborate with Prince on; he encouraged her and said she should finish the song herself.

In addition to words of private support that she says she will keep to herself ("he gave me encouragement, like the big brother I never had"), Prince also gave Carey more public support when speaking with record executives who, she writes, were taking issue with her new "urban" sound in the '90s. "I think that's just her s--t," Carey reports Prince saying. "That's what she really likes."

Carey's thought when she heard that? "Namaste, suckahs."

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Upcoming Rock and Roll Book Club picks

Tune in to The Current at 8:30 a.m. (Central) every Thursday morning to hear Jay Gabler and Jill Riley talk about a new book. Also, find Jay's reviews online.

October 8: See a Little Light: The Trail of Rage and Melody by Bob Mould (buy now)

October 15: How to Write One Song by Jeff Tweedy (buy now)

October 22: Mirror Sound: A Look Into the People and Processes Behind Self-Recorded Music by Spencer Tweedy and Lawrence Azerrad (buy now)

October 29: 666 Songs to Make You Bang Your Head Until You Die: A Guide to the Monsters of Rock and Metal by Bruno MacDonald (buy now)


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