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About Her Voice

A conversation on Mariah Carey with author and critic Andrew Chan

Photo by Raph_PH via Flickr. Artistic rendering by Oxford American. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

This exclusive feature is an online extension of the OA’s annual music issue. Order the Ballads Issue and companion CD here

Singing is “the most enigmatic of performing arts,” the author, editor, critic, and self-professed “diva lover” Andrew Chan writes. It’s a simple matter of air and anatomy: breath moves through closed vocal folds which then vibrate and resound throughout the throat, chest, head, or sinuses. But when we listen intently, transcendence is available to us. Raised hairs on the upper arm, a tingle on the back of the neck. The irrepressible urge to tap one’s toes. Transcendence is something we can feel–a physical sensation that unleashes the emotions and connects us to the divine. That’s why a host of spiritual traditions embrace the human voice as a conduit for worship, and in secular music, many of the most popular traditions–r&b and its variants, country, even rap—foreground some sort of vocal virtuosity. A skilled vocalist  can “seduce us, haunt us, heal us regardless of the text they’re delivering or even the culture that surrounds them,” Chan writes. 

In his first book, published just this past fall, Chan highlights the thirty-plus year career of Mariah Carey, whose five-octave vocal range; agile, multisyllabic melisma; and well-honed aptitude for catchy hooks and witty wordplay turned her into one of the most successful pop singer-songwriters of all time. Carey has earned five Grammys and nineteen number ones on the Billboard pop chart—the highest of any act besides the Beatles, surpassing Elvis. Two of her fifteen full-length albums are certified diamond, with sales of ten million or more in the United States alone. Why Mariah Carey Matters, part of the University of Texas Press’s Music Matters series, is the first book-length critical assessment of the artist’s wide-ranging career. 

Chan makes the case that from the beginning, Carey’s vocal dexterity and range set her apart—her mastery at blending piercing whistle tones, fluttery, feminine whispers, muscular belts, and “leathery low” notes, often within the same song. “There’s something irrational, bizarre, and hazardous-sounding about the way Mariah hopscotches over and across vocal registers without warning or transition,” Chan writes. She also blended and mixed styles of singing, infusing both big, sentimental ballads and buoyant, weightless bops alike with gospel fervor; in the ’90s, alongside artists like Mary J. Blige and Jodeci, she contributed to the creation and commercial dominance of “hip-hop soul.” In her house remixes, often painstakingly re-recorded versions of her mainstream pop hits, she frequently scatted and improvised in the tradition of Ella Fitzgerald or Sarah Vaughan. Equally impressive, and critical in understanding Carey, Chan says, is her “artistry outside the vocal booth.” She wrote or co-wrote all of her most enduring hits, including “Vision of Love,” “We Belong Together,” and “All I Want for Christmas Is You.” She’s produced herself and other artists, and is one of few women nominated for the Grammy Award for Producer of the Year (Non-Classical). It was an early honor, from 1992, for work on her second LP, Emotions

Chan is one of my favorite writers and an important voice in contemporary music and film criticism. He’s vivid in his assessment of Carey’s musical gifts. He layers in details of his own upbringing to help us understand why certain songs and singers turned him into a student of the art.  I love the way he brings the reader along with him—we’re watching and listening together as Carey delivers her gospel-drenched rendition of “America the Beautiful” on the NBA Finals in 1990, hearing her sing the climactic sea-ahhh as she “evokes rolling vistas and open water.” He acknowledges the blemishes on Carey’s career and the unpredictability of her voice, which he insists is not a recent phenomenon.  He situates Carey in refreshing context: with Black singers of the ’80s who influenced her sound, and with other female songwriter-producers like Patrice Rushen, Teena Marie, and Angela Winbush, who don’t often receive credit for their prowess behind the boards.

“So much of the culture and money created during this era is the product of Black female creative energy,” writes Danyel Smith, another of my favorite music writers, in Shine Bright, her sweeping history of Black women in American pop. She’s talking about the middle of the twentieth century, when recordings like the Dixie Cups’ “Chapel of Love” achieved mammoth success that the performers—who came up with the arrangement we all know and love—were not credited for. Carey has received commercial rewards, and, as of late, critical adoration from outlets such as Pitchfork and Rolling Stone.  

But Chan suggests we still haven’t absorbed the magnitude of Carey’s genius, that our cultural blinders have hindered our ability to understand the breadth of her labor and mastery. Carey’s upbringing as a biracial daughter of a white mom who raised her largely on her own; her sense of not fully belonging among Black or white people; her insistence on femininity in an industry that privileges masculine presentation when it doles out points for credibility. She used it all in her art—especially in her ballads. Over a long and wide-ranging conversation, Chan and I discussed Carey’s melancholy, artistic lineage, the feeling of singing, r&b, gospel, and transcendence.

Courtesy University of Texas Press

Danielle Amir Jackson: Can we start with your background? I know you grew up in some American suburbs and in Malaysia. When did you begin to pay so much attention to Mariah Carey? 

Andrew Chan: I moved around quite a bit as a kid. I was born in Minneapolis, in a great music city, but I didn’t live there long. My family moved to Tampa, Florida and then to Malaysia. After moving back to the States, I lived in Atlanta, Georgia and Charlotte, North Carolina—the metropolitan New South. 

In the nineties. 

In the nineties. I moved to Atlanta… I think in ’97. I remember Butterfly had just come out. And I remember Usher was number one on the charts with “You Make Me Wanna…” Living in Atlanta and Charlotte in the nineties, I was one of the few Chinese Americans in school. For much of middle school and early high school, half of my friends were Black. So, there was a lot of exposure to the music that they were listening to. Hip-hop and r&b were becoming mainstream and dominating the charts. Having friends who were Black exposed me to more than just what was crossing over. 

I also felt connected emotionally to Malaysian culture. My parents exposed me to some of the great Asian divas of the eighties and nineties. Mandarin and Cantonese pop were important for me until, maybe, first grade. So, I was listening to people like Anita Mui, Priscilla Chan, and Teresa Teng and was completely obsessed with them before I had much knowledge of American pop music. Even then my ear was attuned to how different they sounded. Anita Mui had this beautiful contralto voice. Teresa Teng was more of a mezzo soprano. And they had different vocal approaches. Even if I didn’t have the language to analyze that or express that at that age, I was really drawn to the variety of women’s singing. That fascination carried over to the period when I started becoming obsessed with American pop music and American divas, mainly through Whitney and Mariah. When I heard “I Will Always Love You” and the whole Bodyguard era, I’d never heard something like that before. That drew me to the soul tradition of American singing. 

I don’t often hear people discuss Carey in the lineage of great American interpreters of ballads like Ella Fitzgerald or Frank Sinatra, and I really appreciate that it’s the note you lead with in your book—which parallels the way that Carey started her career. The OA’s annual music issue is a dive into ballads and the elasticity of the form. What’s special about ballads? Why might an artist like Carey launch her career with ballads? 

Even though she became frustrated with Tommy Mottola molding her into an adult contemporary ballad singer, the demo was full of ballads. She co-wrote all those songs. She found different ways of making the ballad fresh and interesting for herself.  

The ballad has always meant different things across time. If you were to compare Sinatra, singing an old jazz standard ballad like “Angel Eyes” or “In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning,” what does that have in common with Mariah Carey’s “Can’t Let Go?” They’re slow. They’re about passionate love. This does a couple of things for a singer: It gives you space to really milk every note and moment; the listener is drawn into the space of the ballad and is invited to listen very closely in a way that you just aren’t if you’re competing with an up-tempo beat behind you or if you’re singing fast. The feat is more about rhythm than it is about holding out long notes. The ballad accentuates the tone of the singer’s voice. It creates an intimate connection with the listener. It also puts the singer at risk of being uncool because ballads are kind of forbidden. And that is why we love them. They can be uncool. They almost feel like something that we shouldn’t admit we listen to or respect because they, especially the sad ones allow us to wallow, which we’re not supposed to do if we’re grownups and we want to be serious and mature. We’re not supposed to sink into our feelings of longing and despair. But this is one of the places in our culture where we get access to that intensity of emotion, and the slowness of the music mimics the infatuated person’s inability to let go of love or inability to stop thinking about the beloved.  

Mariah is an unabashedly sentimental singer, and that’s why it took so long for her to garner any kind of critical respect. She is in that tradition of musical wallowers. She loves her heartache. She loves to long and pine. She’s a bit of a masochist. 

Many interesting people are. 

Yeah. Ballads can be transportive to sing. The tempos are slower; you can really get your mouth around the words and feel each one of them. Because the song isn’t whizzing by at a crazy pace, you can build to a satisfying climax. You can go from low to high in this drawn-out, dramatic way. That shows the full capabilities of your voice. 

When you say ballads are transportive, are you talking about a transcendent experience? The Holy Ghost?

A little bit. It’s to the point where you’re moving with your own performance, which is why singers sometimes get choked up when they’re singing their ballads, because it is such a vulnerable place to be. In karaoke, which most people don’t take seriously, if I’m singing a particular song and I’m really feeling it, I can get so lost in it.  

“She loves her heartache. She loves to long and pine. She’s a bit of a masochist.”

Andrew Chan

I like what you said about ballads being almost contraband. I remember when people realized Beyoncé was starting the Renaissance tour with slow songs. It seemed almost like an anachronism. 

Yeah, for her big house record. She’s a great ballad girl too. In terms of them being contraband, back in the Maoist era in China, love ballads were banned because they were seen as counterrevolutionary. If you were part of the revolution, you wouldn’t indulge in these individualistic displays of your own personal emotions. I do get into that a little bit in the book where I even had a moment in my teenage years where I was just like, These are pathetic. They’re a distraction from the real business of politics and liberation and revolution, you know?  

We include a song by Fannie Lou Hamer on our compilation accompanying the issue. You made me think of Elaine Brown, who was chair of the Black Panther party and recorded songs and some of them are balladlike. They’re propagandist, one-note songs. 

There is the political ballad too. I think there’s something about love ballads where it’s like surrendering and succumbing to feelings of longing, loss, yearning, desire. Of course, there’s misogyny involved in that too, because these are “feminized” emotions. Ideas about feminine hysteria are built into this hyperbolic style of singing as well.  People forget that Whitney was booed and disrespected for much of her career. It’s funny that she and Mariah had a reappraisal where they’re legends now, but at the beginning of their careers, they were criticized for over-singing and being excessive.  

I wonder why people didn’t say that about Luther Vandross. He’s super indulgent. 

He’s so indulgent. “A House is Not a Home” or “Superstar”—those songs are seven minutes long or something. He had some pop crossover appeal, but he never hit it as big as Whitney and Mariah. But also, there’s a bit of misogyny in that, the difference between women doing it and men doing it. I mean, Al Green is a show-off. They’re all show-offs. 

Let’s talk about the eighties. You say that “Can’t Let Go,” is a revision of “Make It Last Forever” by Keith Sweat and Jacci McGhee and compare Carey’s work as a songwriter-singer-producer to Teena Marie and Angela Winbush. And you go into quite a bit of depth into all her references and homages in Glitter: Indeep, Zapp, Cherrelle. I’m having a moment right now—perhaps I’m where Mariah was back in ’99 and 2000—but I’m so obsessed with the sounds and sights of the Black ’80s. Miki Howard, whom you also mention, has been heavy on my mind, alongside Anita Baker, Patrice Rushen, Regina Belle. In your opinion, what was special about that era in music, particularly in Black pop, and how was it connected to Carey’s debut? 

I didn’t come into writing this book as an expert in eighties Black music. That is one of the areas where I felt a bit insecure because I felt I knew sixties and seventies r&b and nineties onward in terms of r&b, but for some reason the eighties were an area that I hadn’t explored sufficiently. I knew the major names and their works, but it is a decade that, when it comes to Black popular music, it’s so defined by one-hit wonders. Aside from the Whitneys and the Michael and Janet Jacksons and Lionel Richies, there weren’t a lot of a long-lasting careers that crossed over to non-Black audiences in a major way. Sometimes, DeBarge would have a pop hit, but for most of their significant catalog, mostly Black listeners were listening. I had to do a lot of catching up to get those sounds into my ears and really hear how they influenced Mariah. I think part of it is because eighties r&b is less canonized than the seventies and nineties. Even the nineties have experienced this resurgence of critical interest, but the eighties are almost like a blip. Part of it is where it came in the history of popular music—after the demise of disco, which really was a shaming of Black music by the white rock establishment. I’m sure it’s more complex than that, but that was certainly a dimension to that whole culture war. In the eighties, you have r&b coming out of the ashes of disco and utilizing the electronic elements that disco had been criticized or seen as superficial for. You get a lot of experimentation like Zapp—so kooky and goofy. The use of the talk box to manipulate vocals. You get club music, like Cherrelle, a sort of post-disco dance music, people having a lot of fun. Just like really deep grooves that went on for like six minutes. Gap Band, all that kind of stuff. 

There’s the kind of fun side of eighties r&b, but then on the other side you have this luxuriousness, the plush textures of Quiet Storm, which began in the seventies, but really came into its own commercially in the eighties with people like Luther, Anita Baker—who sort of took the slow-roasted, slow-jam, boudoir sound of Isaac Hayes and Al Green and Smokey Robinson—and pushed it to a whole new level. Even when they were singing at the tops of their lungs, it was still smooth. 

I hesitate to just generalize all eighties r&b, but I see those as the two parallel tracks. I think they both deeply informed Mariah’s aesthetic. I think Aretha is a huge influence on pretty much all r&b women singers. I think Mariah would cite her as the ultimate female influence, but I think when it comes to sonics, the luxuriousness, the Quiet Storm sound is so evident in songs like “Underneath the Stars” and “Fourth of July.” Those are what you would think of as Quiet-Storm Mariah, but you [also] hear it in the stuff that’s more hip-hop like “The Roof.” The way she’s stacking her vocals, the way she’s creating texture with her voice. It’s very Luther. The way she is manipulating her voice, the way she’s showing it off but not for its own sake, but to create an environment that you sort of wrap yourself in. When I think of Luther showcases like “Superstar” or “Forever, for Always, for Love,” it’s very much like some kind of texture that you can wrap yourself. 

This is quite different from the approach of the belters of the sixties and seventies, like Aretha or even Gladys or Chaka, powerful singers who really prioritized the belt. Mariah is a phenomenal belter—one of the greatest. Where she really distinguishes herself from other divas of her time is the subtler parts of her voice. I think a lot of that is influenced by Quiet Storm. When it comes to the zanier side of eighties r&b, you hear it in her sense of humor, her effervescence, especially as she became more of a jokester lyrically in her later years. You can sort of hear the lyrical experimentation and the kind of devil-may-care attitude of eighties Black music.

One of my favorite live performances of Carey’s is where she sings “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” and “If Only You Knew,” her Patti Labelle homage. I love that era in her voice where there is that level of rasp. 

That performance—it’s very eighties Patti. “If Only You Knew” is so eighties. I think Mariah’s samples, too, are so interesting and root her in the time of her youth. She’s such a radio-head, the way she talks about listening to the radio in her memoir and her devotion to soaking up all those sounds. That was before streaming, where you really had to be glued to the radio. I don’t know if she had MTV back in the day, but the radio was the thing. And she wasn’t just listening to r&b. She was listening to Pat Benatar. The range of her musical references is so fascinating. 

I’d love to discuss Carey’s gospel moments. You spend a great deal of time on her rendition of Dottie Peoples’ “Jesus, Oh What a Wonderful Child” and note that while Carey didn’t grow up in the Black church, she joined one as an adult.  What’s Mariah’s connection to the gospel of the ’90s? I’m thinking of artists like BeBe and CeCe Winans or Commissioned? 

I love gospel music, but I would never claim to know it. I love gospel music because that’s where r&b comes from. R&b is my portal into gospel music. It remains the source of so much great singing, even today. Le’Andria Johnson is one of my favorite singers alive. In terms of Mariah and gospel, I think it is so interesting to me that she didn’t grow up in a Black church and yet was so committed to singing in a gospel style, even from the beginning. There may not be songs that feel explicitly gospel on the debut album, but you do have moments. “There’s Got to Be a Way” has a gospel choir that feels kind of in the style of BeBe and CeCe Winans. That pop, commercial gospel that was happening in the late eighties and nineties—the kind of gospel that you would hear in Sister Act 2. Then she employs background singers like Kelly Price and Melonie Daniels—virtuosos of that sound.  

In the book, you note that Kelly Price had been trained by Mattie Moss Clark.  

Yes, I found that in a video of Kelly Price. She talked about doing some kind of workshop with Mattie Moss Clark when she was younger. [Carey’s] commitment to surrounding herself with not just skilled r&b background vocalists, who could do a commercial sound, but vocalists like Kelly Price and Melonie Daniels, who could bring a church sound, specifically a COGIC sound to her music is completely fascinating to me. The Clark Sisters were playing on r&b radio back in the seventies. Gospel had been having these kinds of crossover moments, but Mariah’s knowledge of the music surpasses just knowing “Oh, Happy Day” or “You Brought the Sunshine.” She was listening to Vanessa Bell Armstrong.  From the very first album in interviews, she is citing Vanessa Bell Armstrong and the Clark Sisters as influences. 

I have to think that in her teens, she had been exposed to gospel music. I’m fascinated that she came to the music and absorbed its influence without having a longstanding background in the Black church. I bring this up, not so much as a point about appropriation, but more as another example of Mariah being someone obsessed with records and listening to music and soaking up any influence she could find, whether it was Journey—when she covers “Open Arms”—or gospel or hip-hop or what have you. 

To go back to gospel and “Jesus, Oh What a Wonderful Child,” she has moments where she wears her gospel influence on her sleeve even before that. “Anytime You Need a Friend” was one of the most significant gospel moments; she’s singing with a choir behind her and doing a lot of riffing and running and belting in the way of the great COGIC singers. “Jesus, Oh What a Wonderful Child” is significant because it sounds live. I read somewhere that it was recorded live in a church. The vamp is unlike anything that had come in her discography before. It is a gesture toward a kind of gospel authenticity. It’s no longer just gospel-pop. It’s going there and trying to recreate the spirit and the atmosphere and the feeling of a live gospel setting. 

I’m interested in her study of gospel as an example of her being a constant and abiding student of different forms of Black music. I love her later gospel songs like “Fly like a Bird,” “I Wish You Well,” and “Heavenly” where she combines a James Cleveland song with a Mary Mary song. There is a song called “I Understand” that’s one of those multi-megastar performances. There’s Rance Allen, Kim Burrell, and Mariah does just whistle at the very end. 

Do you think Mariah is fundamentally an r&b artist? 

We first have to acknowledge that genres are constructs. These terms have historical origins that are usually rooted in marketing and promotion. Most people track [r&b] to the 1940s. It replaced race music as the designation or the category for whatever African Americans listened to that was popular music. It’s a shifting signifier. The idea that there is a commonality between the music of Ray Charles and Lavern Baker and Fats Domino and Mariah and SZA—all these artists sound so different. I think there is something a little bit unhelpful about these genre markers.  

That being said, constructs take on their own reality for people who engage with them. For Mariah, and her listeners who gravitate to the r&b side of her catalog, r&b represents something. It’s as different as the music has become over the decades. There are still certain stylistic and sonic continuities. It’s very improvisational. There is melisma, runs. In classical music, you perform it as its notated. Melisma defies notation. You can sing so many notes so fast that you can’t really even transcribe it. It’s rooted in gospel. It’s rooted in a certain passion for delivery, a centrality of the voice and individual expression. An idea about struggle and transcendence, because it’s rooted in the Black experience and an acknowledgement that life is sometimes totally unbearable, and music is a vehicle to help you get over, to get through. People who gravitate to r&b are connecting with that. 

Of course, not every r&b song is about that. But even in a slow jam, you can hear that whining, that struggle, that tension. You hear all these elements in Mariah’s discography. For her, r&b became, at a certain point in her life, a way of expressing her Black identity, which had been dismissed or misrepresented or misunderstood. She was constantly asked about her race in interviews, constantly having to remind people of what she had said from the very beginning, that her father was Black and Venezuelan, and her mother was Irish American. Embracing r&b as her heritage was an important part of her owning her identity as a Black woman. R&b is so interesting as a cultural and political marker, because now we’re in an age where white artists like Justin Bieber or Justin Timberlake, or whoever, say that they’re r&b. I’m less interested in saying, “This person’s not r&b; this person is,” and more interested in what is it that makes people so desperate to align themselves with this genre. I think it’s the historical lineage—the gravity of the heritage. It’s the connection to the idea of soul, which is a spiritual idea.  

I’m not sure if any artist can be definitively anything when it comes to genre. But I think certainly Mariah perceives herself as an r&b artist and has conducted her artistic life in a way that shows that she’s committed to a certain ideal of what r&b is—passionate, soulful singing; a connection to music as a form of spirituality. 

“Even in a slow jam, you can hear that whining, that struggle, that tension.”

Andrew Chan

You have this part of the book where you’re talking about her covers of power rock anthems. You don’t say that she’s reappropriating, but you say she’s showing how permeable rock and r&b boundaries are. They have a shared origin, and they come together in her choices of what to cover and what to sing and how to sing them and her arrangements.  

For sure. If you think about Foreigner’s “I Want to Know What Love Is” that she covers, that’s an instance of a white band bringing gospel influence into a rock song. These boundaries are always permeable. Rock at one point was called r&b when it was sung by Black artists. What she demonstrates with her music is the variety within r&b and that the music is not a monolith. She’s giving you quiet storm. She’s giving you girl-group songs. She’s giving you New Jack Swing. She’s giving you hip-hop soul. She’s giving you power ballads. She’s giving you deep soul, in the tradition of Aretha with “Mine Again.” She is committed to a vision of herself as an r&b artist, but for her it is many things. 

All the things you were saying about the struggle and resilience r&b  signifies—I think that’s also reflective of the queerness that many sense in a lot of Mariah’s songs. 

Absolutely. One song I want to write about is “Ain’t No Way.” Carolyn Franklin wrote that. I don’t know if we know definitively if she was queer, but I think all the history kind of shows that she was. There’s definitely a [queer] reading of that song. You have Luther as a queer artist and Sylvester, so many of the pioneers of the r&b. Little Richard. It makes sense because gospel was pioneered by queer people. Otherness and survival, the longing for transcendence is something so baked into the music. That’s certainly what I was responding to as a young closeted gay child, who’s experiencing racial otherness in the American South as well. Obviously, my experience is very different from Mariah’s, but I think there’s a longing to transcend the arbitrariness of what oppresses us through sound.  

And she does transcend and break through. 

She achieves it. What is beautiful about a Mariah Carey ballad is that she takes you into the depths of despair, sorrow, but through the sheer beauty and power and mastery of her voice, she is carrying us over.  No matter how sorrowful or despairing it gets—and some of them really are quite dark and fatalistic—there’s something about the voice. The voice can be the vehicle that carries you over. 

Listen to a playlist of songs mentioned in this conversation—by Mariah Carey, Luther Vandross, the Clark Sisters, and more.

Danielle Amir Jackson

Danielle Amir Jackson is a Memphis-born writer and the editor of the Oxford American.