Bigger Than Elvis

Why the haters are wrong about Mariah Carey.

Mariah Carey

King, meet Queen. This month, Mariah Carey eclipsed Elvis Presley’s record for the most Billboard No. 1 hits by a solo artist with her 18th chart-topper “Touch My Body,” the first single from her strong new album, E=MC²—whose first-week sales of 463,000 were the highest of Carey’s career and the most by any artist so far this year. Now only the Beatles have more No. 1s, and Carey will surely pass them soon—although, to be fair, the Beatles racked up their 20 big hits in a span of just seven years, a batting average likely never to be bested.

The news of Carey’s triumph has been greeted in many quarters with hue and cry. The Presley estate got technical, arguing that Billboard had fouled up its numbers—that Mariah had merely tied Elvis’ record. In a Huffington Post blog entry titled “Mariah Carey Is Destroying the World,” Ken Levine wrote: “For the sake of this country and—oh let’s just say it—mankind, Mariah Carey has to retire. … She can always host a VH-1 reality show or learn a trade at the DeVry Institute.” Editorialists soberly pointed out the obvious: Whatever the hit count, Carey had not matched Presley’s and the Beatles’ “seismic” cultural influence, a line echoed by Mariah herself. “I’m just feeling really happy and grateful,” she told the Associated Press. “I really can never put myself in the category of people who have not only revolutionized music but also changed the world.”

Humility doesn’t come naturally to Carey, so let’s commend her for the gesture. (You can practically hear the table-saw buzz of her grinding teeth as she pushes the words out: never… put … myself … in … the … category …) But need she be so modest? Sure, Carey is not as important as Elvis or the Beatles, nor are any other musicians of the past 50 years, with the possible exceptions of James Brown and Bob Dylan. She is nonetheless hugely significant, and not just because, as Elvis once put it, 50 million fans—or if we go by Mariah’s total album sales, 61.5 million fans—can’t be wrong.

Mariah’s accomplishment begins, of course, with her voice, or, rather, The Voice—that cyclonic force capable of hurtling unnumbered octaves, shattering crystal ware, and inducing musicogenic epileptic seizures in Japanese women. Carey is the most influential vocal stylist of the last two decades, the person who made rococo melismatic singing—the trick of embroidering syllables with multiple no-o-o-o-o-o-tes—the ubiquitous pop style. Exhibit A is American Idol, which has often played out as a clash of melisma-mad Mariah wannabes. And, today, nearly 20 years after Carey’s debut, major labels continue to bet the farm on young stars such as the winner of Britain’s X Factor show *, Leona Lewis, with her Generation Next gloss on Mariah’s big voice and big hair.

The rampant use of melisma has generated considerable criticism. (I myself railed against it several years ago in a New York Times article—whose haughty tone and slighting references to Carey, I now regret.) It’s certainly true that overuse of the device, particularly by mediocre vocalists, can be annoying. It is also true that many performers, in the thrall of Carey hits like “Vision of Love“—which New Yorker critic Sasha Frere-Jones rightly called “the Magna Carta of melisma”—have seemed to lose all interest in melody and lyrics and meaning, packing songs with dozens, hundreds, of gratuitous notes.

But it is unfair to damn Carey for the sins of her lesser imitators or to judge her based on a set of musical values that she explicitly rejects. Emotion is not really the point of Carey’s songs—not even when she’s singing “Emotions.” Her music is first and foremost an expression of power and technical prowess. There is a place in pop for bombast, especially when it’s coupled with virtuosity. I have learned to cherish Carey’s singing for its brute force, blinding technique, and, yes, showboatiness—to place Mariah’s vocal “runs” in the tradition of John Coltrane’s “sheets of sound,” the pummeling drumming of Led Zeppelin’s John Bonham, and Eddie Van Halen’s “Eruption” (aka the Magna Carta of shredding 1980s guitar solos). Listen to the piercing final notes Carey sings in this clip from her 1992 MTV Unplugged performance of “Someday.” Mariah’s poodle head isn’t the only thing about her that’s heavy metal.

Carey may not have had the “seismic” impact of Presley, but there’s a whole lot of zeitgeist up in her big, maudlin ballad hits of the 1990s. A cultural historian might detect the complacent feel-good vibes of the post-Cold War Clinton era, or maybe a musical gigantism akin to baseball’s literal gigantism in those peak steroids years. What I hear most clearly, even in inspirational dreck like “Hero,” is hip-hop: a lite-FM analogue to the feisty egotism of the rappers who conquered ‘90s pop culture. After all, Carey was engaged in a rivalry nearly as fierce as Biggie and Tupac’s: a yearslong cutting contest with Whitney Houston, whom she matched melisma for melisma, bromide for bromide.

We all know who won that battle. The truth is that Houston, in her prime, was the more talented singer, but Carey was always a more versatile and interesting recording artist. She co-wrote her own material from the beginning, and when not blasting out ballads, showed a knack for midtempo songs with a classic pop feel: “Dreamlover” (1993) and “Always Be My Baby” (1996) could sit comfortably on a mix tape alongside the great mid-’60s Motown hits. With her 1995 album, Daydream, Carey made a major shift, indulging her love of hip-hop for the first time. She worked with producer Jermaine Dupri—to this day, her key collaborator—and dueted with rapper Ol’ Dirty Bastard on an ebullient remix of the No. 1 single “Fantasy.”

It was a change that risked alienating those millions of Carey’s fans who knew her as the reigning sovereign of adult contemporary radio, liked her that way, and couldn’t fathom why she was palling around with a shark-toothed rapper who rhymed “Mariah” with “pacifier.” But it was a smart, prescient career move. The hybridized mix of pop, R&B, and hip-hop that dominates today’s top 40 was an inevitability that Carey saw earlier than others, and she hurried that future along.

Today, Carey is unambiguously a “hip-hop soul” star, in touch with her inner thug, singing over jittery digital beats about her designer luggage and hot tubs and videotaped sexploits. Some critics have complained that Carey’s act is ungenuine, but to me it feels far less forced than her erstwhile cooing about butterflies and rainbows. Indeed, while Carey’s musical shift is definitely good for business—she had to keep up with the Beyoncés and Rihannas or risk irrelevance—it is also manifestly personal. She called her blockbuster 2005 comeback album The Emancipation of Mimi, and the emancipation in question was musical; the central drama of Carey’s career was her marriage to, and subsequent divorce from, Columbia Records President Tommy Mottola, who reportedly did all he could to tamp down Carey’s hip-hop impulses.

A squabble over repertoire isn’t exactly the stuff of a sexy tragic-diva back story. Let’s face it: Next to her rival pop starlets, Mariah is pretty dull. She can’t really dance. Her videoes are a snooze. Her offstage life, rumored mental breakdowns and all, fails to excite gossip mongers. Her racial ambiguity is mildly interesting: As the daughter of an Irish-Catholic mother and an Afro-Venezuelan father, Mariah was confounding Americans with her biracial identity back when Barack Obama was still cramming for his Torts exam at Harvard Law. But Mariah remains far more compelling as a musician than as a pop persona. She’s the muso’s diva.

The most striking thing about Carey’s post-Mimi transformation is how completely she’s switched up her singing, mastering the speedy, syncopated, rap-influenced style pioneered by Beyoncé, R. Kelly, et al. E=MC² is a modern R&B album through and through, tilting heavily towards mid- and up-tempo club music, with far fewer ballads than her past releases. Most of the songs swing back and forth between just a couple of chords—a showcase for Carey’s rhythm and phrasing, not her famous vocal range.

The album’s most shocking track is the opener, “Migrate.” Over a bristling beat by Timbaland protégé Nate “Danja” Hills, Mariah duets with Mr. Robo-voice, T-Pain, and even T-Pains herself—and distorts her Hall of Fame voice with that autotune sci-fi effect, an act of vocal self-sabotage that once would have been unthinkable. Of course, Mariah hasn’t totally abandoned her old habits. “Migrate” is nudged along by a sour, flutelike keyboard loop, but the first time you hear the figure, at the very beginning of the song, it’s not a keyboard but Mariah herself, trilling, chickadeelike, in that fiendish uppermost part of her range. I suppose she wanted to begin her album with a reminder—to fans, to rivals, to Tommy Mottola, to the ghost of Elvis—that, lo, these many years later, she’s still got it. The phrase that springs to mind is queenly prerogative.

Correction, May 1, 2008: This article originally misstated the name of the British show Leona Lewis won as Pop Idol. (Return to the corrected sentence.)