Continue jamming with Mariah Carey.
Love is the subject of the majority of Carey’s lyrics, although she has written about themes such as racism, social alienation, death, world hunger, and spirituality. She has said that much of her work is partly autobiographical, but Time magazine wrote: “If only Mariah Carey’s music had the drama of her life. Her songs are often sugary and artificial—NutraSweet soul. But her life has passion and conflict,” applying it to the first stages of her career. He commented that as her albums progressed, so too her songwriting and music blossomed into more mature and meaningful material. Jim Faber of the New York Daily News, made similar comments, “For Carey, vocalizing is all about the performance, not the emotions that inspired it. Singing, to her, represents a physical challenge, not an emotional unburdening.” While reviewing Music Box, Stephen Holden from Rolling Stone commented that Carey sang with “sustained passion”, while Arion Berger of Entertainment Weekly wrote that during some vocal moments, Carey becomes “too overwhelmed to put her passion into words.” In 2001, The Village Voice wrote in regards to what they considered Carey’s “centerless ballads”, writing, “Carey’s Strawberry Shortcake soul still provides the template with which teen-pop cuties draw curlicues around those centerless [Diane] Warren ballads […..] it’s largely because of [Blige] that the new R&B demands a greater range of emotional expression, smarter poetry, more from-the-gut testifying, and less [sic] unnecessary notes than the squeaky-clean and just plain squeaky Mariah era. Nowadays it’s the Christina Aguileras and Jessica Simpsons who awkwardly oversing, while the women with roof-raising lung power keep it in check when tune or lyric demands.”
Carey’s output makes use of electronic instruments such as drum machines, keyboards and synthesizers. Many of her songs contain piano-driven melodies, as she was given piano lessons when she was six years old. Carey said that she cannot read sheet music and prefers to collaborate with a pianist when composing her material, but feels that it is easier to experiment with faster and less conventional melodies and chord progressions using this technique. While Carey learned to play the piano at a young age, and incorporates several ranges of production and instrumentation into her music, she has maintained that her voice has always been her most important asset: “My voice is my instrument; it always has been.” Carey began commissioning remixes of her material early in her career and helped to spearhead the practice of recording entirely new vocals for remixes. Disc jockey David Morales has collaborated with Carey on several occasions, starting with “Dreamlover” (1993), which popularized the tradition of remixing R&B songs into house records, and which Slant magazine named one of the greatest dance songs of all time. From “Fantasy” (1995) onward, Carey enlisted both hip-hop and house producers to re-structure her album compositions. Entertainment Weekly included two remixes of “Fantasy” on a list of Carey’s greatest recordings compiled in 2005: a National Dance Music Award-winning remix produced by Morales, and a Sean Combs production featuring rapper Ol’ Dirty Bastard. The latter has been credited with popularizing the R&B/hip-hop collaboration trend that has continued into the 2000s, through artists such as Ashanti and Beyoncé. Combs said that Carey “knows the importance of mixes, so you feel like you’re with an artist who appreciates your work—an artist who wants to come up with something with you”.
Voice and timbre
“I have nodules on my vocal cords. My mother says I’ve had them since I was a kid. That’s why I have the high register and the belting register and I can still be husky. A lot of people couldn’t sing through the nodules the way I do; I’ve learned to sing through my vocal cords. The only thing that really affects my voice is sleep. Sometimes if I’m exhausted, I can’t hit the really high notes. My doctors showed me my vocal cords and why I can hit those high notes. It’s a certain part of the cord that not many people use—the very top. My natural voice is low. I have a raspy voice. I’m really more of an alto. But my airy voice can be high if I’m rested. […] When I was little, I’d talk in this really high whisper, and my mom would be like, ‘You’re being ridiculous’. I thought if I can talk like that I can sing like that. So I started just messing around with it. I’d practice and practice, and she’d be like, ‘You’re gonna hurt yourself’. I’d tell her, it doesn’t hurt. If I were to try and belt two octaves lower than that, that would be a strain.”
—Carey on her usage of the whistle register
Carey possesses a five-octave vocal range, and has the ability to reach notes beyond the 7th octave. Referred to as the “songbird supreme” by the Guinness World Records, she was ranked first in a 2003 MTV and Blender magazine countdown of the 22 Greatest Voices in Music, as voted by fans and readers in an online poll. Carey said of the poll, “What it really means is voice of the MTV generation. Of course, it’s an enormous compliment, but I don’t feel that way about myself.” She also placed second in Cove magazine’s list of “The 100 Outstanding Pop Vocalists”.
Regarding her voice type, Carey said that she is an alto, though several critics have described her as a soprano. However, within contemporary forms of music, singers are classified by the style of music they sing. There is currently no authoritative voice classification system within non-classical music. Attempts have been made to adopt classical voice type terms to other forms of singing, but they are controversial, because the development of classical voice categorizations were made with the understanding that the singer would amplify his or her voice with their natural resonators, without a microphone.
Jon Pareles of The New York Times described Carey’s lower register as a “rich, husky alto” that extends to “dog-whistle high notes”. Additionally, towards the late 1990s, Carey began incorporating breathy vocals into her material. Tim Levell from the BBC News described her vocals as “sultry close-to-the-mic breathiness”, while USA Today ’s Elysa Gardner wrote “it’s impossible to deny the impact her vocal style, a florid blend of breathy riffing and resonant belting, has had on today’s young pop and R&B stars.”
Sasha Frere-Jones of The New Yorker adds her timbre possesses various colors, saying, “Carey’s sound changes with nearly every line, mutating from a steely tone to a vibrating growl and then to a humid, breathy coo. Her wide vocal range allows Carey to take melodies from alto bottom notes to coloratura soprano upper register.” Carey also possesses a “whisper register”. In an interview with the singer, Ron Givens of Entertainment Weekly described it this way, “first, a rippling, soulful ooh comes rolling effortlessly from her throat: alto. Then, after a quick breath, she goes for the stratosphere, with a sound that nearly changes the barometric pressure in the room. In one brief swoop, she seems to squeal and roar at the same time.”
Her sense of pitch is admired and Jon Pareles adds “she can linger over sensual turns, growl with playful confidence, syncopate like a scat singer… with startlingly exact pitch.”
Carey has said that from childhood she has been influenced by Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughan, and R&B and soul musicians such as Gladys Knight and Aretha Franklin. Her music contains strong influences of gospel music, and she credits The Clark Sisters, Shirley Caesar and Edwin Hawkins as the most influential in her early years. When Carey incorporated hip-hop into her sound, speculation arose that she was making an attempt to take advantage of the genre’s popularity, but she told Newsweek, “People just don’t understand. I grew up with this music”. She has expressed appreciation for rappers such as The Sugarhill Gang, Eric B. & Rakim, the Wu-Tang Clan, The Notorious B.I.G. and Mobb Deep, with whom she collaborated on the single “The Roof (Back in Time)” (1998). Carey was heavily influenced by Minnie Riperton, and began experimenting with the whistle register due to her original practice of the range.
During Carey’s career, her vocal and musical style, along with her level of success, has been compared to Whitney Houston, who she has also cited as an influence, and Celine Dion. Carey and her peers, according to Garry Mulholland, are “the princesses of wails […] virtuoso vocalists who blend chart-oriented pop with mature MOR torch song”. Author and writer Lucy O’Brien attributed the comeback of Barbra Streisand’s “old-fashioned showgirl” to Carey and Dion, and described them and Houston as “groomed, airbrushed and overblown to perfection”. Carey’s musical transition and use of more revealing clothing during the late 1990s were, in part, initiated to distance herself from this image, and she subsequently said that most of her early work was “schmaltzy MOR”. Some have noted that unlike Houston and Dion, Carey co-writes and produces her own songs.