If it’s airy gossip you’re after, then The Meaning of Mariah Carey is not for you. The memoir is dominated by trauma — something that stems either from a dysfunctional family life, troubled personal relationships, various wranglings with the music industry or, on more than one occasion, each of those things at once.
This captivating, cathartic book, written with Michaela Angela Davis, explores it all. Carey remembers her childhood as a time “rife with neglect”, but paints it as a thing of multitudes. She explores the “stark duality” of her mother, a Juilliard-trained opera singer with whom a young Mariah loved to sing, but who developed a sharp jealousy of her daughter’s talents. She recalls with glee the smell of her father’s white clam linguine, but aches at his lack of support for a career in music. She recoils at her brother’s eruptive anger, and feels betrayed by an older sister who drugged her with Valium aged 12 and later tried to pimp her out.
But rather than come across as accusatory, those flaws are elegantly detangled. With forceful patience, she explains how pernicious racism — her late father was black, her mother is white — picked away at the family fibres until the whole thing unravelled. Her own experiences of hate as a mixed-race child are at times subtle, but often horrifying. One memory of being ambushed by “friends”, who locked her in a room and then yelled vile racial slurs at her, is chilling.
Those prejudices are something that carried over into adulthood. She rolls her eyes at the word “urban” (read: music made by black people) and dismisses record executives who weren’t sure whether her blend of R&B, gospel and hip-hop could “cross over” into the mainstream. Although as Carey declares, she wasn’t concerned by that: “I wanted to transcend.”
That belief and resilience runs through the entire book — especially during her lengthy retelling of her nightmarish relationship with hugely powerful former Sony chief Tommy Mottola. The opulent mansion they built together was a “prison”, she says, patrolled by security guards and surveilled by listening devices and cameras. By the middle of 1993, Carey had released two albums and sold millions of records. Still, she explains, it was only as she travelled to do a TV performance and saw legions of devotees lining the streets, waiting for her arrival, that she realised just how popular she was. Up until this point, thanks to Mottola’s shielding, she had no comprehension of her fame. It’s boggling to read.
And then there’s the story of what, in 2001, was widely reported as a “breakdown” — or, as she clarifies, when she was “broken down”. Under immense pressure from her record label, exacerbated by her mother and brother, she ended up in a “spa”, or rather, rehab. The part in which she remembers being heavily dosed on sedatives while watching 9/11 unfold on TV is surreal.
All that darkness makes the lighter moments particularly enjoyable. A post-Mottola dalliance plays out like a rose-tinted romcom, and though she skims over many career details, we’re left in no doubt just how strong her joy of singing is (she delights in memories of performing alongside Aretha Franklin and other greats). She pokes fun at her own public caricature, too, regularly suffixing sentences with “dahling” and revelling in her self-confessed “extraness”. Her sly nod to the “I don’t know her” meme in a passage about Jennifer Lopez is delicious.
You get the sense this book was an act of deep-rooted therapy for Carey, and it ends on a note of peace and acceptance. After all she’s been through, she certainly deserves it.
The Meaning of Mariah Carey by Mariah Carey with Michaela Angela Davis (Pan Macmillan, £20)