The Real Emancipation of Mimi
On November 29, 1995, Mariah Carey’s television special from her concert (whose version of “Fantasy” she would later fantastically give birth to) a month earlier at Madison Square Garden in New York City is aired on FOX. She is at the top of her career, following the anticipated release of her fifth studio album, Daydream. Teens all over America, and around the world, see Mariah as the very embodiment of the all-American 90s girl, graced with a voice from the heavens.
In reality, the following year would see the unravelling of her marriage to Sony Music Executive Tommy Mottola, who both discovered her and built her career, and a gradual shift in both her aesthetic and musical style. Much has been written and said about her relationship with Mottola, but it is clear, primarily from Mariah’s own testimonies, that the marriage was in part controlling, both over her life and career – it is alleged that Mariah and her friends called the massive estate the coupled shared in Bedford, NY, “Sing Sing” – a reference both to the prison-esque nature of her existence in the mansion, but also of course to the hit-making machine that she had become. It is hard to fathom exactly how big Mariah was at the end of the first half of the 90s, but 14 Billboard Hot 100 number 1s during the 90s might give a clue.
Suddenly, something happens. Mariah’s Daydream tour ends, she finishes up her sixth album, Butterfly, and separates from Mottola. Her first output post-separation is the hip hop-infused “Honey”, featuring a video with a decidedly more mature and thinly dressed Mariah. Tellingly, Mariah in the video runs away from a big mansion by plunging into a pool and escapes on a jet ski in a perfect hair-do. The detail about hip hop is also one of importance. Mottola and Sony reluctantly let ODB (Wu-Tang Clan) contribute to a remix of Mariah’s ’95 hit “Fantasy”, a remix that dominated the charts and generally is seen as being a trailblazer of the meshing of pop and hip hop.
In an anecdote that perfectly sums up this transition, American songwriter Cory Rooney recalls:
“One night, we went to dinner at Sylvia's in Harlem -- me, Tommy, and Mariah. On our way back, we were riding in the limo and every club, every car was bumping "Fantasy." Mariah put her sunglasses on, and tears came down her cheeks, because she couldn't believe her record was getting played all through the hood. That was the beginning of her not turning back to pop.”
Butterfly found Mariah her new freedom, both musically, image-wise and personally – not surprising, then, that from 1999 onwards she adopted the butterfly as her moniker of sorts. She talked openly about her wish to dress as she wished, not least in a 2000 interview with Rosie O’Donnell, in which she shut Rosie down for calling her AMA dress “trampy” – referencing the beginnings of her career, when she was forced to wear covering garments.
Pushing on post-Butterfly with her 1999 album, Rainbow, Mariah embraced an even more “risqué” look, maybe most emblematically expressed in the video for the remix of the album’s lead single “Heartbreaker” – which saw Mariah not only tip-toeing around on roller-skates in a revealing silver bikini and wash a car in short-shorts and tiny top, but also fighting her alter-ego Bianca in a cage full of slime.
Some commentators were confused by the move, Mariah was seemingly just enjoying her freedom. Jetting off to Capri to seclude herself to record the album, which she during her extremely candid (and tipsy) speech during the 1999 Billboard Music Awards – accepting the award as the Artist of the decade – called her “message of hope for the new millennium”, Rainbow would in ways become the last we would see of the 90s Mariah. Following her own breakdown and (as we now know) diagnosis of bipolar disorder, neither the start of her own millennium nor America’s became what she or anyone else had hoped for. In 2005, she released “The Emancipation of Mimi” to great popular acclaim. Maybe that was in fact the emancipation of Mimi, but if so, 1997 was the emancipation of Mariah.