Mariah Carey’s Emotions

Mariah Carey in London in 1991. (Source: Wikipedia. Image by Redhoopoe at Flickr. CC BY-SA 2.0)

It’s a joy to rediscover something old anew. It’s like finding cash in a winter coat you’ve just taken out of the closet in November. The delight is more valuable than the treasure itself.

After being delayed two years because of the pandemic, we’re finally getting around to planning our wedding for summer 2022. I’ve been thinking a lot about music.

Music can make or break the party. It’s arguably more important than the food or the decor. You can’t really impose your taste on your guests, but neither should you try to please everybody.

My tastes are niche, and I’m not so confident about picking crowd-pleasers. So I put the time in and mined recent pop history. Wading through celebration playlists, I came across the most extraordinary piece of music.

Coming of age in the 1990s, songs like Mariah Carey’s Emotions were the musical wallpaper of my life. I never paid a lot of attention to pop music, but it was always there — on the radio in shops and taxis, in the segments of MTV while you wait for something else to come on. I didn’t dislike it, but I didn’t pay much attention either. In Mariah Carey, I realize now I had turned my back to a firework display.

You’ll need a heart of stone not to love this. Carey sings “Emotions” live on MTV Unplugged

Emotions is written for the singer’s extraordinary range. The lyrics pull her to deep-digging lows, and highs that reach “the heavens above”. Her voice spans more than four octaves — the lowest notes are sultry alto tones, the highest reach the so-called whistle register. Performing the song live at the 1991 VMAs she hit a superhuman high G seventh note.

The genre of the song is described as “new disco”, and it certainly borrows heavily from The Emotions’ Best of My Love, and Cheryl Lynn’s Got To Be Real, both beautiful dance floor fillers.

The rhythm track’s grooving drum, staccato jabs of synthetic piano and palm-muted guitar licks lay down a danceable basis from the first second of the sparkling intro.

But the palette is wider in tone and texture than a typical disco number. There are rococo whirls and glissandi of organ, a babble of electronica, rolls of slapped percussion, and the backing singers draw on gospel spirit to deepen the mood in parts, all of which simultaneously gives the song a poppy froth and a spiritual density to its dance floor swirl.

This is particularly true of the song’s bridge, which threatens to fall apart under the convergence of rhythms and styles, like a dust devil that’s picked up too much debris.

Carey’s voice strains here, as if it’s all on her to hold things together. But it all resolves beautifully in climax, the singer having lost words for how she feels and instead reaching that stratospheric whistle register while the music retreats to the bones of the rhythm track.

She never settles in a vocal groove, in fact, she spins pirouettes and cuts criss-crossing patterns on the ice.

Gliding over ice requires exertion, and one of the great pleasures is sensing how deep she digs as she belts out her melodic fireworks. It’s pure exuberance. She’s a wayward twenty-two-year-old bouncing up the upward slope of her prime.

The song was Carey’s fifth consecutive number one single. She remains the only artist with the honour of topping the Billboard Hot 100 with their first five singles. It was the closing high of the Cinderella first act of her career, as she stepped onto the precipice of superstardom.

Within a decade things changed. Carey’s marriage to Tommy Mottola, the record company exec who signed her, crumbled acrimoniously. By 2001 Carey’s career was suffering as she struggled to extract herself from Columbia Records, headed by Mottola.

“The palace now has a queen.” A very young Mariah Carey burst onto the national stage when she wowed the audience at the 1990 NBA finals with a rendition of America the Beautiful.

Talented young people look like cash through the eyes of record company fat cats, that’s a given. But Carey insists in her autobiography that Columbia spitefully tried to bury her. It was personal, and wretched.

The star was put through demeaning and exhausting rounds of promotion as part of a new record contract. She appeared to crash MTV’s Total Request Live in the summer of 2001 pushing an ice cream cart wearing a skimpy shorts and a halter top. It wasn’t a “crash” – how could it be? It was set up in advance by publicists.

In a matter of days she was in hospital suffering from exhaustion. She was branded “crazy”.

As Dave Chappelle said of the whole affair, “crazy is dismissive. ‘I don’t understand this person, so they’re crazy’… These people are not crazy, maybe their environment is a little… sick.”

Sick indeed. Carey has been derided as another artificial pop princess, as a Nutri-sweet diva devoid of real emotion. She’s in fact an artist with an athlete’s discipline. The passion and conflict of her life is there, but it’s bridled by workmanship.

Then there’s those who brand her a diva in the most derisive sense of the word — conceited and demanding. It’s a charge thrown at empowered women, outspoken women, women in the limelight who insist on being themselves.

While certain aged male rockers, whose work explicitly plagiarizes under-credited black artists, receive turgid plaudits for their showmanship and mere eye-rolls for their worst debaucheries, talented young women are demonized for having the audacity to make the most out of the circus of agents, executives and sycophants that profit from them.

Mariah is happy with a pedestal, but doesn’t want to be turned to stone.

Good singers are the grist of pop music. Truly great singers are like the visitation of comets. They blaze fast through our lives and leave a sparkling seam through the dusk. It’s a privilege to behold a great artist, and we have the good fortune to do so every time we press the “play” button.

Not my usual fare, I know. But it’s the festive season. Normal service will resume in the new year.

Whatever your faith, have a wonderful holiday season. Don’t let the news get you down. Show people that you love them, take joy in the gifts we’ve got. There is nothing more important.

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The lessons of philosophy and history, their practical benefits for your life and work. Feel free to get in touch: stevengambardella@gmail.com

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Steven Gambardella

Steven Gambardella

The lessons of philosophy and history, their practical benefits for your life and work. Feel free to get in touch: stevengambardella@gmail.com