The Wisdom of Mariah

6.24.2014

By Aaron Hicklin

Is she a ditzy diva or a savvy chanteuse? Although she's one of the most successful pop singers in history, she continues to elude us.

I’d like to say a word on Mariah’s behalf: Mariah makes me laugh. She makes herself laugh, too—breathy chuckles that ripple through our conversation, as if she is leery of taking herself too seriously. She says she will sometimes wake up like that in the middle of the night—laughing. That, of course, is part of the image that Mariah Carey cultivates. It’s part of the charm, too.

“Darling, I’m eternally 12-years-old,” she purrs when the subject of her age is broached, a familiar line, and all part of the act. “I’m going to give her to you,” she says, clicking her fingers with a flourish. “Ready?” And she slides into a 12-year-old girly voice—“Hi”—all fluttering eyelids and adolescent bashfulness.

Carey loves this kind of pantomime. Her first, and most enduring influence was Marilyn Monroe, and you don’t need to spend long in her company to see that the identification runs deep. When I note the dazzling butterfly ring on her finger, she extends her hand theatrically, like a caricature of Monroe’s Lorelei Lee in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. “This is Van Cleef and it’s missing a diamond, and it is shocking,” she says, faux dramatically, before riffing, “shock and awe, shock and awe—I’m very upset now, Aaron, I gotta tell you.” She pretends to fling her ring across the room, before anticipating how this might read in print: “’It’s missing a diamond,’ She tosses it on a couch.” Another bubble of laughter. “There, I did it, so now you can say I did it.”

Carey traces her obsession with Marilyn Monroe back to her childhood, when she received a copy of Norman Mailer’s hefty biography of the actress as a Christmas gift. “I couldn’t have been more than 10,” she says. “I was a reader as a child, believe it or not.”

“Why should I not believe it?”

“It doesn’t go with the ditzy image, I guess. I have too many highlights!” She breaks into laughter, and I ask if that image—of the ditz—frustrates her. “No,” she replies. “I flirt with it, and I play with it. If it pisses people off, whatever.”

“Marilyn Monroe was pretty smart,” I point out.

“Marilyn was reading Nietzsche on the set of Something’s Got to Give," she responds. "Marilyn Monroe Productions was the first female-owned production company in Hollywood. She paved the way for women in Hollywood, and every single woman owes something to her for that, whether they agree with her image or not.”

It’s tempting to hazard that some of Carey’s struggles, in her personal life and within the entertainment industry, parallel her idol. With both women their public persona served as a disguise for a much more thorough grasp of their circumstances than either is given credit far. Like Monroe, Carey has also experienced the ways in which the entertainment industry tries to control women. In 2005 she told Allure magazine that during her marriage to Tommy Mottola, the chairman of Sony Music, she “ longed for someone to come kidnap me… I used to fantasize about that. A lot. I'd have my pocketbook with me at all times in case I had to make an escape.” It was Mottola, also, who engineered Carey’s most saccharine songs, resisting her efforts to explore other avenues in hip-hop and R&B. She was the biggest selling artist of the '90s, but rarely on her own terms. When she did get her way—such as inviting Ol’ Dirty Bastard from the Wu-Tang Clang to rhyme over her 1995 hit “Fantasy,” the results were inspired, but it wasn’t until her post-divorce 1997 album, Butterfly, that fans got to hear Carey as Carey yearned to be heard.

The toll of all those years must have been immense. The first Mariah Carey album was released in 1990, spawning four number one singles in the U.S. She has been a hit-making machine ever since, dropping albums approximately every 18 months, and generally burnishing her reputation as the most successful woman in pop of all time. That well-worn line about being eternally 12-years-old is no mere vanity. It’s her pressure valve.

“As a kid I literally made this pact,” she says, recalling an incident from her tough-as-nails childhood on Long Island. “There had been some sort of argument with my mom and the man she was dating at the time, and somehow I became a part of it—I was around 8 or 9 years old, and I said, ‘I’m never going to forget how it feels to be a kid, and you can’t be seen or heard.’ It’s as though your opinion doesn’t mean anything, or your feelings are not real.”

It was also as a kid that Carey found her voice. “I started singing when I started talking,” she says. “My mother was doing Rigoletto—she’s from the Midwest, but she got a scholarship to Juliard and came to New York, this young girl with the high shorts on, meets my father who she thought was Yul Bryner, driving around in a Porsche—there weren’t many bald black men driving around in a Porsche and he was fly.” The marriage lasted just three years, and Carey spent her childhood dealing with the dichotomies of her mixed-race background, neither white enough, nor black enough, to fully belong anywhere. “Being biracial is so much a part of who I am that it’s almost, ‘let it go already,’ ” she says. “But it’s intrinsic to me, but I think a lot of my fans relate to me because they felt different.”

There is also the small matter of being a mother herself, now, to fraternal twins Morocco and Monroe (from her second marriage, in 2008, to the multi-hyphenate Nick Cannon whose Wikipedia entry lists him as actor, comedian, rapper, entrepreneur, record producer, radio and television personality). “Pulling them away from me is so hard,” Carey says. “It’s unconditional love, and I never, ever thought I was going to have kids—ever.” Why did she think she would never have kids? “I remember as a child saying I’m never going to get married; I’m never going to have kids.” She pauses. “Here’s the thing: would I have been better off if my parents stayed married? No way. They were miserable together, but the grass is always greener. I feel I had a great childhood in some ways—and that’s an amazing thing to be able to say—but I also feel I didn’t because I was the caretaker and I still am, like it started long before I had any financing.”

Her explanation for wanting to purchase Marilyn Monroe’s baby grand piano at auction in 1999 is instructive. “It was her only piece of the childhood she’d never had,” she says. “It was very important for her to find something to cling to.”

One reason Carey has developed such a strong and rewarding friendship with the director Lee Daniels, who cast her in Precious, is that both can connect over their hardscrabble childhoods; both, also, grew up feeling like outsiders. “He brings out the schoolgirl in me,” Carey laughs. “You can’t lose the inner child, but everybody does.”

Carey’s schoolgirl plays better with some audiences than with others. At the OUT100 Awards in New York last November, she generated rousing cheers and whoops from several thousand gay men assembled to see her present an award to Daniels. “I’m a straight girl—I don’t really know why they asked me to be here, but my boobs have been out for years,” she joked, channeling a drag queen shtick as she flapped a lacy black fan against her face. By contrast, she shudders at the memory of an appearance with Daniels at the Palm Springs International Film Festival in 2010.

“We didn’t really know what we were walking into, but it was a pretty conservative crowd,” she recalls, name-checking Sean Penn, Sidney Poitier, and Clint Eastwood, among the attendees. “Lee calls me Kitten, and I call him Cotton, it was just a private joke, on stage, on champagne, and nobody got it but us, and the world was like, WTH, WTF, we don’t understand.” That appearance is one of several that are routinely aggregated in online symposia assessing Carey’s state of mind.

The most notorious remains an unscheduled appearance on the MTV show, Total Request Live, in July 2001, when Carey surprised the host, Carson Daley, by pushing an ice cream cart on to the set, before whipping off her T-shirt to reveal snug hot pants and a body-hugging top underneath. That incident, in which she told the live audience, “I just want one day off when I can go swimming and eat ice cream and look at rainbows,” was widely viewed as a nadir in Carey’s career, and came shortly before the release, on September 11, 2001, of Glitter—the soundtrack to her semi-autobiographical movie. The extensive panning that both movie and album received knocked her career for six and lead to the annulment of her $100 million, five-album contract with Virgin Records.

Even now with Carey’s career back on the rails—her best-selling 2005 album, The Emancipation of Mimi, easily saw off the spectre of Glitter—the web is a viper’s nest of snarky asides about Carey’s less-scripted moments. In 2008, the woman’s interest site Jezebel—usually a citadel of indignation at the ritual humiliations that women undergo—resurrected that TRL clip with the headline, “Remember when Mariah Carey Went Crazy.” But for those less wrapped up in her baby doll image, that appearance made Carey likable, real, and true. Who doesn’t sometimes feel it’s all too much? Who does not, in their heart of hearts, pine to spend a day swimming and eating ice cream? How much more preferable that sounds to being ground down by the mill of expectation.

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