From the very first moment Mariah Carey’s voice graced the airwaves, the world has been in love with her. With dignity and determination, she worked hard to establish herself as one of the most successful singers of all time, embracing euphoric highs and crippling lows in the process.
Carey’s early years were filled with tribulation. Her mother Patricia, a vocal coach and part-time opera signer of white Irish descent, had eloped in order to marry her father, Alfred, an aeronautical engineer of African American and Afro-Venezuelan heritage. Upon learning of their marriage, Patricia’s family disowned her for marrying a black man. They moved to the small New York suburb of Huntington, where Carey and her older siblings Morgan and Alison were born, but the community was extremely hostile towards the interracial family. Their dogs were poisoned. Their cars, set on fire. Somebody fired a bullet through their front window. When Carey was three, her parents divorced.
Though the family did not face the same kind of extreme racial prejudice after this experience, Carey nevertheless felt alienated from her neighbours. “I was a different person ethnically. And sometimes, that can be a problem. If you look a certain way, everybody goes ‘White girl’, and I’d go, ‘No, that’s not what I am’.”
Carey was fond of smuggling a radio under her bed covers in an attempt to find peace in the music, and would often emulate her mother’s operatic singing, leading to her receiving singing lessons from the age of four.
At school, she excelled in her arts classes, but had no interest in any others. In fact, Carey was given the nickname ‘Mirage’, because she would rarely turn up for school. She studied at Harborfields High School while pursuing her singer-songwriter dreams, though she kept these ambitions a secret from almost everyone. Patricia allowed Carey to discover her own style through her lessons, realising that her daughter had little interest in opera. “She never said, ‘Give it more of an operatic feel’,” recalls Carey. “I respect opera like crazy, but it didn’t influence me.”
In her senior year, Carey began writing songs with Gavin Christopher and Ben Marguiles, two of her classmates. Upon graduation in 1987, she moved out to Manhattan, and lived in a one-bedroom apartment with four other women from her cosmetology class. The trio wrote material for a full-length demo, while Carey struggled to pay the rent through various waitressing jobs, most of which she was fired from within a fortnight. After completing four songs, Carey tried to put her demo in the hands of record producers, but failed.
It wasn’t until she became friends with rising pop-star Brenda K. Starr, who invited her to a record executive’s gala, that she managed to hand Columbia Records head Tommy Mottola her tape. He listened to it on the way home, and was so amazed by the first two tracks that he turned around and went back to the party. Carey had already left.
He searched for her over the next two weeks, signed her, and began work on Carey’s debut album immediately. She expressed a desire to continue working with Marguiles, and signed an agreement entitling him to 50% of any revenue coming from songs involving his material. He was joined by some of the leading producers of the time, including Rhett Lawrence (who launched The Black Eyed Peas) and Ric Wake (Jennifer Lopez).
Her debut album, Mariah Carey, was released in August 1990. Columbia spent $1 million on marketing, in an attempt to position Carey as one of the greatest female pop singers of her time, alongside the likes of Whitney Houston and Madonna.
“For this particular time, she is my number one priority. We don’t look at her as a dance-pop artist. We look at her as a franchise,” said Columbia president Don Ienner.
The album topped the Billboard 200 for eleven weeks, and was certified nine-times platinum, making it the best-selling album of 1991. Worldwide, over 15 million copies were sold. Her first single, Vision of Love, is considered one of the strongest debuts by a woman performer ever, and established Carey as an icon of the pop scene. Her success soon saw her become the first artist since The Jackson 5 to have four singles in the charts at the same time. Critical reception for the album was fairly positive, and she went on to win Best New Artist, and Best Female Pop Vocal Performance at the Grammys.
For all the good, Carey soon faced a tough trial. Columbia took Marguiles to court over his agreement with Carey. Instead of the 50% he expected to receive, all parties eventually agreed that he would receive 10% of her earnings over the next decade. “Be careful what you sign,” she later warned in an interview with Q magazine. “I heard that a thousand times. But when you’re struggling, you still do it. I blindly signed.” The pair would never talk to each other again.
Less than a year after her self-titled debut, Carey released Emotions. Though it was not as successful as the former, it sold eight million copies.
Critics began to wonder whether Carey would ever tour, as she had not done so to promote either album. Carey claimed stage fright, but rumours amassed that she was not able to produce the five-octave vocal range and perfect pitch that had made her famous in a live environment. In response, Carey appeared on MTV Unplugged, a series that presented artists performing without the support of studio equipment. The appearance was met with such acclaim that Sony bought the rights to it and marketed the seven-song performance as an EP. It went triple-platinum.
In 1993, Carey began working on Music Box, her third album. It would focus on the pop-style she’d used for Mariah Carey, rather than the Motown-influenced sound of Emotions.
It would become one of the best-selling albums of all time, with over 32 million copies sold.
The album’s second single, Hero, would become Carey’s defining work. Her eighth consecutive number one song in the States, it took her to new heights internationally, ranking high in the European charts as well. Interestingly, Carey did not initially like the song, but was coerced to include it on the album.
After the release, Carey confronted her fear of touring, and performed six shows across North America, before disappearing from the public eye.
In late 1994, she returned with a holiday album, Merry Christmas. It would go on to become the best-selling Christmas album of all time. The album’s single, All I Want for Christmas is You, was called “one of the few worthy modern additions to the holiday canon” by The New Yorker.
1995 was another year of success for Carey, with One Sweet Day, the single from her new album, Daydream, becoming the longest-running number one single in history, after an incredible 16 weeks at the top. It was heralded as her best album to date but, surprisingly, did not win any of the six Grammys it was nominated for. Each time the camera cut back to Carey, it was clear she was having a harder time retaining her smile. Later, she would reflect “What can you do? Let me put it this way: I will never be disappointed again. After sitting through that whole show and not winning once, I can so far handle anything.”
From that point on, Carey took more definitive creative control of her albums, and began leaning towards a hip-hop influence. She worked with the likes of Sean Combs, Kamaal Fareed, and Missy Elliott for Butterfly, and soon developed a more mature style of singing, which she described as “breathy”. “Personally, this album is about doing whatever the hell I wanted to do,” she claimed.
It was not only her music that was changing. She divorced Motolla, whom she had married in 1993, and began working on a film project, Glitter. She also released a best-of album, #1, which became the best-selling album by a non-Asian artist in Japan.
By the end of the 90s, Carey was set to complete her contractual obligation to Sony (Columbia’s parent company) with the release of Rainbow, an album produced with artists including Jay-Z and DJ Clue. Columbia stopped promoting the album after its first two singles, leading to a public feud between artist and label.
After receiving Billboard’s Artist of the Decade Award – having been the only artist to have a number one single in the US every year during the 90s – and the World Music Award for Best-Selling Female Artist of the Millennium, Carey signed to Virgin Records for an unprecedented $100 million in 2001. She claimed that Columbia had seen her as nothing but a commodity, and that Virgin would allow her more artistic freedom.
What should have an evolution in Carey’s career spiralled out of control, transforming into a physical and emotional breakdown. “I was with people who didn’t really know me and I had no personal assistant. I’d do interviews all day long and get two hours of sleep a night, if that,” she told USA Today. She began posting strange and confusing messages on her website, made bizarre television appearances, and was eventually hospitalised due to “extreme exhaustion”.
When she was released two weeks later to promote the release of Glitter and its accompanying soundtrack, things did not get better. Glitter was one of the biggest bombs of the year, and the album her lowest selling to that point, due in some regards to it arriving on shelves on September 11, 2001.
Carey’s contract with Virgin was bought out for $50 million that same year, but even after everything that had happened, she wasn’t about to give up.
She spent five months in Italy working on new material, before signing with Island Records for $24 million.
In 2002, her father – with whom she’d had little contact since childhood – died of cancer.
Soon after, however, things started to get better. Carey was cast in independent film WiseGirls. It screened at Sundance, and though reviews were mostly negative, her performance was praised. “A Thelma Ritter for the new millennium,” claimed Fox News’s Roger Friedman.
Towards the end of the year, she released Charmbracelet. Reviews were fierce, claiming that Carey’s vocals were not what they once were, but the world tour that followed proved that many were still in love with what she had to offer. Her American performances were mainly held in smaller venues like theatres, but stadium shows across Asia and Europe drew crowds of tens of thousands.
The Emancipation of Mimi was released in 2005, and was embraced as a return to form for the artist. We Belong Together became Carey’s sixteenth number one song, and stayed there for fourteen weeks, making it the second longest running number one song in history, behind her own One Sweet Day. Billboard called it the song of the decade, and it went on to break several airplay records, garnering the largest one-day and one-week audiences in history according to polls by Nielsen BDS.
In September of 2005, her single Shake it Off took the number two spot on the Hot 100 under We Belong Together, marking the first time a woman had achieved such a feat. It was declared the number one song of 2005, a career first. In total, Mimi earned ten Grammy nominations, and won three. Carey was at the top of her game once more.
Over the next decade, Carey produced several more albums, and collaborated with a range of artists such as Tony Bennett, Justin Bieber, and 50 Cent. She also took more film roles, including an award-winning turn in 2009’s Precious.
In 2012, she performed three songs at a special fundraiser for President Barack Obama, including a new song Bring it on Home, in support of his re-election campaign.
Three years later, she announced a residency at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas, at the same time leaving her record label to sign up up Sony Music’s Epic Records.
Later that year, she released #1 to Infinity, a best-of featuring all eighteen of her number one singles, and had her directorial debut for the Christmas movie A Christmas Melody, in which she also stars.
Outside of music, Carey has embraced several charity organisations, most notably the Make-A-Wish Foundation. She also founded Camp Mariah in the early 90s, a camp that allows inner-city youth to embrace artistic opportunities. For her work on the cause, she received a Congressional Horizon Award.
Over the last two and a half decades, few R&B artists can say they haven’t been influenced by Carey’s career. Though she is far from finished, her legacy is already clearly defined, and is certainly worth celebrating as an example of determination and hard work in the face of continued adversity.