It's Time We Embrace the Mariah Carey That Is, Not the Mariah Carey That Was

Let Mimi live.

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Complex Original

Image via Complex Original

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No one should ever strive for perfection because even if you manage to reach the tippy top of excellence and all the success that comes with it, the only direction you can go after is down. I wish Mariah Carey’s handlers—namely her ex-husband, Tommy Mottola—understood this early on given now, on the anniversary of her eponymous debut album, so many people write about the Mariah of today with contempt. And if not contempt, pity.

She is not the perfectly package Mariah of yore. The one who could hit every note with a seemingly superhuman-like level of ease. The one who stormed the charts with one of the best debut singles ever in “Vision of Love” and went on to notch three more number one singles—a feat that had not been reached since the Jackson 5. And she did all of this while dressed like the sweet girl who finds her prince charming in some boring romantic comedy. You know, one starring Tom Cruise or Patrick Swayze that amassed a fortune in the late 1980s or early 1990s.

The bulk of the songs featured on Mariah Carey, Mariah’s debut album that came out 25 years ago today, fit perfectly for the soundtracks of all these types of films.

That’s why as impressive a singer Mariah Carey proved to be at the time and for many, many years that followed, I was never a huge fan of this version of her. Sure, I enjoyed watching her sing down on Saturday Night Live and The Arsenio Hall Show. The same goes for her fantastic edition of MTV Unplugged. However, her music along with her image, were just a wee bit too bland for my liking.

She was like The Cosby Show: cute, safe, and wholesome. Meanwhile, real life is over on A Different World.

“Vision of Love” is great, and “Someday” along with a few other songs were cute, but even as a kid, I got the sense that Mariah was holding back in the early 1990s. Mariah has confirmed this theory time and time again through the years. The very second she got a taste of creative freedom, she traded in those big dresses for short skirts and took her music to edgier—well, blacker—terrain. She worked with rappers and incorporated pure R&B into her songs.

I didn’t truly become a Mariah Carey fan—fine, lamb—until The Butterfly album. That was Mariah talking about love, but also sex, heartbreak, and yes, identity only not in ways that screamed suburbia and after-school-special backdrop music. This version of Mariah appeared to have a lot more fun and be far less inclined to come across as having it all together.

That’s why I hope that in the future, Mariah frees herself from having to perform all of her No. 1 hits—particularly those on her debut album. So many of them are attached to the perfect, balladeer version of Mariah. It is true that her voice is not what it used to be—or is like “decaying manufacturing machinery” as some would describe it. She cannot perform “Vision of Love” as well as she used to. Mariah can still do a pretty good rendition of it, but consistency remains a challenge.

Even so, I don’t look at her and think, “Poor Mariah.”

Mariah Carey can no longer sing as well as the Mariah Carey you heard on her first album 25 years ago, but Mariah Carey can still sing.

I would suggest a few things, though. One, whatever factor is contributing to the occasional struggle while singing, stop doing it. You don’t have to belt it out like Patti LaBelle every single time, but don’t go out like K-Ci and JoJo either. Mariah Carey can no longer sing as well as the Mariah Carey you heard on her first album 25 years ago, but Mariah Carey can still sing. Her worst crack can best many of the croaks we let her contemporaries skate by with now.

Secondly, if there’s one point about Mariah Carey that needs to be stressed more, it is not the fact that she is a songwriter. Lord knows she stresses that enough herself. What Mariah does not get enough credit for is that even if some of her albums have not been as successful as past works, she does not have a bad album. Not a one.

There are songs on Rainbow that continue to be worth a listen to (“Bliss” and “Crybaby” featuring Snoop Dogg). Likewise, Charmbracelet has plenty of tracks—“Yours,” “Irresistible” featuring Westside Connection, and “Subtle Invitation”—that deserve revisiting. I’ll never forgive the public for glossing over the perfect ’80s tribute Glitter, the quirky Memoirs of an Imperfect Angel, or her most recent album, the pretty damn good Me. I Am Mariah…The Elusive Chanteuse (Deluxe Version).

Mariah undoubtedly has one of the greatest pop voices, but she also has one of the best catalogs of any pop star.

Her continuing to focus on the Throwback Thursday and Flashback Friday aspects of her career makes it easier for skeptics to focus on the Mariah they grew up with. That’s a shame because there’s value in the Mariah we have now. I don’t understand why she chains herself to her past. If Lauryn Hill can get away with doing intergalactic-inspired remixes of tracks for her one studio album, surely Mariah Carey can skip singing “Love Takes Time” and “Someday” in concert.

Sing the deep album cuts, Mimi. Do more jazz covers because for anyone who’s watched you do impromptu performances at the Carlyle Jazz Club, they know how much more attention your lower register deserves.  Make your Vegas show more variety-esque; your banter has always been as strong as your belting.

I will acknowledge that given the times, perhaps the notion of presenting Mariah Carey as Jesus’ vocal coach worked for that era. But perfection is passé. She’s had a wonderful run so far, but it’s time for her to punt and stop trying to live up to a standard that she no longer can. There's been more to Mariah's success over the past 25 years than belting and mush. It’d be in her best interest to spend the next few years giving those things more time to shine.

Michael Arceneaux hails from Houston, lives in Harlem, and praises Beyoncé’s name wherever he goes. Follow him @youngsinick.

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