Mariah Carey is thirty-six years old, and, barring a debilitating illness, or another movie as bad as Ã‚â€œGlitter,Ã‚ her 2001 vanity project, she will likely break the world record for the most No. 1 songs before she turns forty. The Beatles had twenty, and Carey is currently tied with Elvis Presley for second place, at seventeen.
Not all CareyÃ‚â€™s achievements are commercial, though: she co-wrote one of the few worthy modern additions to the holiday canon, the charming Ã‚â€œAll I Want for Christmas Is YouÃ‚ (from Ã‚â€œMerry Christmas,Ã‚ of 1994, which also happens to be the best-selling Christmas album of all time, but never mind that). And when she sang her perky dance hit Ã‚â€œEmotionsÃ‚ at the 1991 MTV Video Music Awards, she reportedly sounded a G-sharp three and a half octaves above middle C, one of the highest notes produced by a human voice in the history of recorded music. (Party poopers say that the note was actually an F-sharp.)
CareyÃ‚â€™s freakish vocal ability explains part of her appeal. In the same way that people went to a San Francisco Giants game in order to see Barry Bonds hit a home run, people buy CareyÃ‚â€™s records in order to hear her do things with her voice that no one else can do. Her first No. 1 song, Ã‚â€œVision of LoveÃ‚ (1990), made it clear that her instrument was the storyÃ‚â€”and it has remained so, through a celebrity marriage (to Tommy Mottola, then the chief of Sony Music), rumored breakdowns, and the publicÃ‚â€™s obligatory obsession with her weight. Carey can sing lower notes, like an alto, and extremely high notes, like a coloratura soprano, which says something about her range but little about her style. The brutish purity of her voice places her in popÃ‚â€™s theatrical lineage, in the company of singers like Barbra Streisand, but CareyÃ‚â€™s aesthetic is not Broadway, or even particularly white. She is essentially an R. & B. singer, steeped in gospel, soul, and, especially, hip-hop, and she is a master practitioner of melisma, a vocal technique that dates back to Gregorian chant and is common in African-American church singing.
Calisthenics are only one aspect of Ã‚â€œVision of Love,Ã‚ however. The chord changes, which are played on electric piano, are reminiscent of early Billy JoelÃ‚â€”obvious, consonant, and rich. CareyÃ‚â€™s sound changes with nearly every line, mutating from a steely tone to a vibrating growl and then to a humid, breathy coo. The melisma is what people remember about the song, like a ninth-inning grand slam, but thatÃ‚â€™s not what made it a hit. Carey, who co-wrote it, knew that the singing should bob and weave while the verses move toward a climaxÃ‚â€”the words are secondary.
Among CareyÃ‚â€™s best and strangest collaborations with a rapper was a remix of her song Ã‚â€œFantasy,Ã‚ in 1995. After it was already No. 1, she invited OlÃ‚â€™ Dirty Bastard, from the Wu-Tang Clan, to rhyme over the song, which is built around a sample of the chirping 1981 track Ã‚â€œGenius of Love,Ã‚ by the Tom Tom Club. (Carey has often described herself as an Ã‚â€œeternal twelve-year-old,Ã‚ an assertion borne out by her enthusiasm not just for rainbows, butterflies, and glitterÃ‚â€”all of which appear on her album coversÃ‚â€”but for the songs that were actually on the radio when she was a teen-ager.) CareyÃ‚â€™s sunny world view is a perfect match for the Tom Tom ClubÃ‚â€™s twinkling keyboards; OlÃ‚â€™ Dirty Bastard, on the other hand, who died of a drug overdose in 2004, was the last person you would imagine hiring for such a sanguine track, and the dissonance is entertaining. Ã‚â€œMe and Mariah go back like babies with pacifiers,Ã‚ he begins his verse. At the end of the song, Carey coos about her Ã‚â€œlucky boyfriendÃ‚ while OlÃ‚â€™ Dirty growls Ã‚â€œsweet babyÃ‚ behind her; he sounds drunk, as though he might fall over. (OlÃ‚â€™ Dirty is apparently not the lucky boyfriend, but Mariah seems to like him anyway.)
The Emancipation of Mimi includes no songs as effortlessly cheery or as durable as Ã‚â€œDreamloverÃ‚ and Ã‚â€œFantasy,Ã‚ partly because CareyÃ‚â€™s melodies now meander, in keeping with current trends in R. & B., and have lost the clarity that pop demands. Ã‚â€œMimiÃ‚ is CareyÃ‚â€™s most thoroughly R. & B. record; even the big ballads are in the Ã‚â€œslow jamÃ‚ vein and have little to do with Las Vegas, opera, or doo-wop. There are only a couple of Hallmark duds to skip over; you can enjoy CareyÃ‚â€™s expansive vocalisms without begrudging her moments of brassy self-affirmation.
In some ways, Carey resembles U2, another veteran act currently having extraordinary success late in a long career. (Ã‚â€œHow to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb,Ã‚ the groupÃ‚â€™s most recent release, won the Grammy for best album of 2005 and has sold three million copies in the United States.) Both acts have left experimentation to their juniors and are sticking to what they do best. In the case of U2, this means using the heavy rhythms and glassy guitar sound that first gained the band notice, in the early eighties. In CareyÃ‚â€™s case, this means singing R. & B. but without the scenery-inhaling ballads that helped her sell millions of copies. Her decision largely to omit those ballads from Ã‚â€œMimiÃ‚ is commercially gutsyÃ‚â€”if multimillionaires can be gutsyÃ‚â€”and it makes sense. The albumÃ‚â€™s songs were produced by a host of people, including Jermaine Dupri, Kanye West, and the Neptunes, who have been guiding R. & B. and hip-hop during the past few years. Carey, having proved that she has the lungs of an opera singer, is now making the music that she has always listened to. Her idea of pairing a female songbird with the leading male m.c.s of hip-hop changed R. & B. and, eventually, all of pop. Although now anyone is free to use this idea, the success of Ã‚â€œMimiÃ‚ suggests that it still belongs to Carey.