Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
From Mariah to Meme-mi: How a vocal icon became a social media maven

From Mariah to Meme-mi: How a vocal icon became a social media maven

Graphic: Natalie Peeples

Not every artist can boast of a debut as widely heralded as Mariah Carey’s self-titled 1990 album. At only 20 years old, the Songbird Supreme quickly established her confident, octave-defying voice as one for the ages with “Vision Of Love” and “Someday.” We’re still hard-pressed to pick a more essential Mariah collection, which, when you consider her stacked discography, is certainly saying something. The only Mimi moment that could possibly come close to eclipsing her arrival to the pop zeitgeist would come 11 years later in an interview on German television, which would birth one of the greatest quips to enter our cultural lexicon. Carey has mastered the art of branding her memeable moments in a way that still feels organic, understanding just what her audience wants from her beyond her greatest hits. To commemorate the 30th anniversary of Mariah Carey, The A.V. Club’s resident Lambily Danette Chavez and appreciator of solid shade Shannon Miller virtually sat down to chat about MC’s highest cultural notes.

Danette Chavez: So, in my last round of Crosstalks, I’d slack Laura Adamczyk a “blows whistle” note to kick things off. This time, I’m going with a “whistle note.”

Shannon Miller: Funnily enough, I think I did hear it, actually. A true tribute to an icon.

DC: I think we can speak more broadly about Mariah Carey’s illustrious career, but June 12 is the 30-year anniversary of her self-titled debut. In 1990, I was still of an age where my pop culture diet partially comprised the tastes of my older siblings. But this is one my older brother got right—my sisters and I wore out this cassette tape. (That’s right, a cassette tape). I’d say Mariah had the approval of the entire Chavez family; my mom was so impressed by her opera training.

I know we’re a few years apart in age, and that we came to Mariah at different points in our lives—and hers/her career—but do you remember anything about 1990 and her debut, Shannon?

SM: Actually, part of my connection with Mariah can be signaled with the same cassette tape! I distinctly remember weekend trips into town with my mom with “Sent From Up Above” wafting through our scratchy car speaker. Obviously “Vision Of Love” was the breakthrough, inescapable hit. (And honestly, who would want to escape it?) But “Sent From Up Above” was such a fun, unabashedly ’90s pop-R&B track. If it wasn’t on repeat, then we were likely singing along to “Someday.” I’m sure you had a relentlessly-played favorite. Which one was it?

DC: Oh, definitely “Someday.” She did a bit of everything on that song: the whisper rap/register, whistle notes, a run or two. The accompanying video was pretty charming, too—kids dancing in schools was such a ’90s move.

In retrospect, though, it’s staid compared to some of her later videos, like “Shake It Off” and “Obsessed.” We could chalk that up to her evolution as an artist, but it’s also a reminder of how controlled her image was when she first debuted. I remember the reaction to the “Fantasy” video, in which she roller skates and maybe shows a bit of her midriff? Compared to the poised chanteuse who stared dreamily into the camera singing “Vision Of Love,” that was a real departure.

There was a lot of behind-the-scenes stuff with her manager/husband Tommy Mottola that contributed to that more reserved image, which I was not at all aware of as a kid. But reflecting on it has got me thinking of the different Mariahs we’ve seen throughout the years, and whether she’s gotten the same credit for reinventing herself that someone like Madonna has.

SM: That is such a good point. If you’re a dedicated Lambily or even a casual fan of her career, you can likely point to a favorite or defining era. For me, I was partially shaped by the Daydream era. (Come on, “Fantasy”? An immovable classic). I believe that was when we began to witness, as you mentioned, a less reserved image and more collaborations with hip-hop artists like O.D.B. Butterfly and Rainbow followed, bearing further reinvention—or, at the very least, more of a wholesale acceptance of her role as a sex symbol. The phases may not have been as drastic as a Madonna’s or other pop icons, but they were absolutely significant.I think one of the things that has continuously set her apart from other pop divas (ugh, another term, please?) is the way she has repeatedly recognized how the public has perceived her and found intelligent ways to not only embrace it, but fold it into her own model for success.

DC: Yeah, Mariah doesn’t get enough credit for how canny, how savvy, she is. She learned a lot about artistic control even when she didn’t have nearly as much of it (at the beginning of her career, that is) as she does now. She defies that image when she feels like it—see: her performance in Precious—but is just as likely to play it up in both her videos and movie roles in WiseGirls and Glitter. The video for “Heartbreaker” is kind of the battle of the Mariahs, and totally plays into the difference between how the artist sees herself and how she’s perceived. She went all in on that divide in her docuseries Mariah’s World, in which she self-directed herself within an inch of her life—her talking heads were actually “full body, elegantly arranged on a chaise” shots—but allowed for just enough moments of self-doubt to come across as genuine, albeit exacting. Speaking of savviness, she’s also figured out how to navigate internet fame and being meme-able.

SM: No-freakin’-kidding. I think both of us can easily claim an interesting viewpoint when it comes to Mimi’s career: We can speak to a distinct “before” and “after,” image-wise. The defining break may vary, depending on how technical a person wants to get. But I think the most widely-recognized pivot among multiple generations is 2016 and what we can affectionately dub the “Summer OfI Don’t Know Her.’” In an age when the internet ensures that everything comes back to bite everyone at least twice, the resurfacing of that 2001 interview has to be one of the strangest, most enduring career boosts we’ve witnessed. We can technically call it a “boost” here, right? Like, it definitely shifted her into new-for-Mariah territory, in terms of the pop zeitgeist. And she totally rocked it, embracing it for what it was and standing by it. Now it’s so ingrained in our lexicon, in a similar fashion as “I said what I said.” I say both quips at least twice a day with my whole heart, each and every time. And that was the same year that she had, uh, that televised, highly discussed Rockin’ New Year’s Eve performance, which I think marked the start of her robust social media presence! I’m not wholly confident that it would have been handled the same way 30 or even 20 years ago, that unreserved acceptance and celebration of it.

DC: That is such a smart and concise encapsulation of that watershed moment. (I said what I said. What’s even funnier is the fact that the “her” in question—can I say it? Should I say it?—is Jennifer Lopez, who gave her own imperious interview in the ’90s that keeps coming up in the years since.)

And you’re absolutely right that Mariah found a way to take an incident that could have been a blight on her artistry and turned it into a debate about sound equipment. She’s also had enough time to figure out how to make fun of herself while never really admitting a damn thing.

SM: Whatever are you referring to, dahling?

She’s totally managed to turn that proclivity to make fun of herself into an almost entirely viable leg of her career. Some like to litigate whether or not she’s able to hit those high notes with the same gusto that she did in the ’90s, but if you ever needed evidence of her enduring relevancy, all you have to do is look to her Instagram or Twitter pages. Her ability to seamlessly insert herself into just about any meme du jour without it being wholly awkward is an unteachable skill unto itself.

DC: Mariah has even mastered TikTok, which is the realm of the young. And just look at how she “crashed” that Schitt’s Creek singalong. It doesn’t matter that it was obvious prearranged. It might be a fantasy, but what a sweet, sweet one.

And your point about the current state of her vocals is really all I have to say on the matter. Kelly Clarkson and Carrie Underwood blew out their voices much earlier in their careers, and they mostly earn sympathy. But we know what the difference is between them and Mariah.

SM: Yep, and any decline occurred after being Mariah-damn-Carey for literal decades. Whose vocal chords could handle that forever?