She’s a trailblazing hitmaker, an instantly recognizable voice and a singular personality. But Mariah Carey has always been much more than the sum of her diva bona fides — proving in and out of the studio, and across decades, why she’s the artist other stars want to be, and this year’s BBMA Icon.
I. SHE'S A CHART PHENOMENON
Since debuting on Billboard’s charts on June 2, 1990 — when “Vision of Love” entered the Hot 100, among other lists — Mariah Carey has become synonymous with chart domination. Senior director of charts Gary Trust explains just how extensively she has ruled.
What are her most impressive chart records?
There’s her 18 Hot 100 No. 1s, the most among soloists; her 79 cumulative weeks atop the Hot 100, the most among all artists. But perhaps most striking is her unprecedented streak leading the Hot 100 in each year of the ’90s. No other artist has spent time at No. 1 on the chart every year of a decade.
Which is her biggest hit?
“One Sweet Day,” with Boyz II Men, holds the record for most weeks logged atop the Hot 100 [16, in 1995 and 1996], which Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee’s “Despacito,” featuring Justin Bieber, matched in 2017. But “We Belong Together,” which spent 14 weeks at No. 1 in 2005, finished higher on Billboard’s 2018 list of the Hot 100’s all-time top 100 songs [No. 14 vs. No. 38], largely thanks to the latter’s longer run on the chart.
Could “All I Want for Christmas Is You” ever hit No. 1 on the Hot 100?
Carey’s 1994 carol reached the Hot 100’s top 10 in 2017 and soared to a No. 3 high during the holiday season of 2017 and 2018, fueled in part by new audiences hearing it streaming. In 2019, Christmas falls on a Wednesday, giving the song six days before the streaming and sales tracking week ends on Dec. 26. Perhaps this is the year that the modern Yuletide classic finally tops the chart.
II. SHE'S ONE 'HELL OF A VOCALIST'
Whitney Houston, Snoop Dogg, Justin Bieber and more have all paid tribute to Carey's enduring influence.
Beyoncé: Mariah Carey was the person that made me want to sing. (2001) Christina Aguilera: I discovered Mariah in my room one day, listening to the radio… I ran downstairs going, “Mommy, Mommy, I just found the greatest person in the world!” (2000) Grimes: The first time I heard Mariah Carey, it shattered the fabric of my existence and I started Grimes. (2013) Brandy: When I first got my deal… I sang “Vision of Love.” I owe [her] everything. (2008) Nelly Furtado: She kind of taught me how to sing, because, you know, [I] couldn’t really afford singing lessons. (2006) Rihanna: Her voice is an instrument. Unreal, really. (2013) Whitney Houston: Mariah is a hell of a vocalist, let me tell you. She can go. (1998) Stevie Wonder: When people talk about the great influential singers, they talk about Aretha, Whitney and Mariah… her range is that amazing. (2008) Snoop Dogg: When I was locked up in jail, “Vision of Love” was the hottest song in the world. I used to always say, “Man, if I could meet her!” (2005) Mary J. Blige: Mariah Carey’s music saved little ghetto children’s lives… we would sing those songs and try to hit every note. (2005) Jermaine Dupri: If you put Mariah Carey on one side of the street and you put one of these other artists on the other side and say, “Sing,” who gonna win? That’s cut-and-dry. (2014) Justin Bieber: My favorite singer is Mariah Carey. (2015) Simon Cowell: Unbelievable songwriter. Interesting, unpredictable. (2011) Janet Jackson: I don’t think people give Mariah enough credit. She was wonderful in Glitter. (2006) Adele: Mariah is the ultimate diva. (2011) — COMPILED BY MATT GILES
III. SHE IS EVERYTHING YOU WANT FROM A DIVA
The singer has long embraced her larger-than-life persona and made her life offstage as entertaining as it is onstage.
Diva Fact #1: She soundtracked childbirth with her own songs.
When her twins, Moroccan and Monroe, arrived in 2011, Carey welcomed them into the world with a live version of “Fantasy” recorded at Madison Square Garden in 1995. “I wanted them to feel the applause when they were first born,” she said.
Diva Fact #2: She goes to extremes to protect her voice.
In 2006, Carey said she started sleeping with 20 humidifiers after Luther Vandross told her about the power of steam.
Diva Fact #3: She celebrates multiple Christmases.
Less than a month after Christmas in 2016, a series of Instagram posts showed her putting up another tree. One caption: “Christmas revisited… #couldntresistmakinganotherchristmastree #thoughitsjanuary.”
Diva Fact #4: She rides public transit in style.
The week she released 2014’s Me. I Am Mariah… The Elusive Chanteuse, she rode the subway home from a gala in a sparkly blue ensemble with sunglasses and gloves. “I figured since I’m underdressed, we might as well take the subway,” she said.
Diva Fact #5: She does everything in heels.
In her famed 2002 episode of MTV’s Cribs, Carey works out in high heels. “I can’t wear flat shoes. My feet repel them,” she says. True to form, she was spotted bowling in stilettos years later. — STEVEN J. HOROWITZ
IV. SHE MADE THE POP-RAP DUET STANDARD
Carey pioneered featuring rappers on pop hits, and to date she has garnished 56 of her tracks with guest verses. Billboard executive editor, music Ross Scarano ranks them all.
1. “Fantasy (Bad Boy Remix)”
Featuring: Ol’ Dirty Bastard
Select Bar: “Me and Mariah/Go back like babies with pacifiers”
Scarano's Take: The Wu-Tang Clan’s radiant eccentric and the elusive chanteuse are linked forever because of the remix that set the standard for hip-hop collaborations in Carey’s catalog.
2. “Heartbreaker (Remix)”
Featuring: Da Brat and Missy Elliott
Select Bar: “Guess who’s back in the motherfucking house/With two big tig ol’ bitties for your mouth?” — Da Brat
Scarano's Take: Flipping the beat for Snoop’s classic “Ain’t No Fun,” this becomes a raunchy empowerment anthem, exemplified by every raw word out of Da Brat’s mouth.
Select Bar: “She wanna inspect the rest, kick me to the curb/If she find one strand of hair longer than hers”
Scarano's Take: Coming off the success of ”Hard Knock Life (Ghetto Anthem),” Jay-Z was on his way to pop stardom. This smooth appearance on a No. 1 single all but cemented his status.
4. “Thank God I Found You (Make It Last Remix)"
Select Bar: “Or we could walk through the park/In our bubble North Faces — I’m lost in your love”
Scarano's Take: Take Mariah’s go-to producer DJ Clue updates Keith Sweat’s 1987 “Make It Last Forever” for this 1999 fan favorite, which gives Nas two opportunities to prove his undying love for MC.
5. “Honey (Bad Boy Remix)”
Featuring: Styles P, Jadakiss and Ma$e
Select Bar: “In fact, this is why I act like that/I ain’t dropped one single and made this money back” — Ma$e
Scarano's Take: Puff Daddy’s production helped Carey grow into the role of hip-hop diva with “Honey” — and the remix, with assistance from more Bad Boy stars, left little doubt that her enthusiasm for the culture was real.
Featuring: Krayzie Bone and Wish Bone
Select Bar: “Been feeling pressures yo/But nevertheless Krayzie won’t fold” — Krayzie Bone
Scarano's Take: For this heartbroken ballad about struggling to maintain composure, Carey couldn’t have picked rappers more in control of their vocal peaks and valleys.
7. “Giving Me Life”
Featuring: Slick Rick
Select Bar: “Your gold fronts looked better than mines did”
Scarano's Take: When the Caution world tour came to New York, Mariah brought out Rick the Ruler and showered him with love. From the golden era of hip-hop to now, she cares.
Select Bar: “Eight keys, two hammers, lobster and shrimp/Look at my limp mami, we could be a couple still”
Scarano's Take: Softening his ”Oh Boy” flow only slightly, Cam’ron brings a gentleman’s sense of gully to this Charmbracelet cut.
9. “The Roof (Mobb Deep Extended Mix)”
Featuring: Mobb Deep
Select Bar: “But overall you the one that’s like my pistol” — Prodigy
Scarano's Take: Taking the sample of their ”Shook Ones (Pt. II)” to its logical conclusion, Prodigy and Havoc hop on this remix to bring extra grit and grime to the aching ballad.
10. “Say Somethin'”
Featuring: Snoop Dogg
Select Bar: “Digging this track by The Neptunes/Baby girl follow me to the restroom”
Scarano's Take: Snoop always sounds breezy over Pharrell Williams and Chad Hugo’s production. His second collab with MC is their strongest — a tender reunion.
11. “Always Be My Baby (Mr. Dupri Mix)”
Featuring: Da Brat and Xscape
Select Bar: “So what I do is keep it true and real/ For my peeps in that street cause to them/ I'mma always be their baby” — Da Brat
Scarano's Take: Jermaine Dupri unearthed The S.O.S. Band's “Tell Me If You Still Care” to give an edge to one of Carey's most beloved tracks. Da Brat's verse isn't always on topic, but she nails the kicker.
12. “#Beautiful (Remix)”
Featuring: Jeezy and Miguel
Select Bar: “'Bout to make a new song called nothin' but her jeans/Beautiful, hang her on the wall like Mona Lisa” — Jeezy
Scarano's Take: The snowman's heart melted for MC in a rare verse that celebrated love and maturity, instead of, you know, serving base.
13. “Obsessed (Remix)”
Featuring: Gucci Mane
Select Bar: “I guess shorty mad he don't got you no more/ So just like Pinocchio, his nose gon' grow”
Scarano's Take: Gucci could not stand idly by while Carey waged war against Eminem; instead, Guwop jumped in the pit and compared Marshall to a classic fairy tale character. Shots fired.
14. “H.A.T.E. U (So So Def Remix)“
Features: Gucci Mane, OJ Da Juiceman and Big Boi
Select Bar: ”Ooo, shawty hate me/ No longer wants to date me“ — OJ Da Juiceman
Scarano's Take: OJ Da Juiceman, who gave us one of the most memorable XXL Freshman Class freestyles ever, keeps it real and direct while Jermaine Dupri repurposes Ghosttown DJs' ”My Boo.” Classic material in all directions.
15. “My All/Stay Awhile (So So Def Remix)”
Features: Lord Tariq and Peter Gunz
Select Bar: “Let the limo leave and cancel the flight/ And not only will I stay girl I'm spendin' the night” — Peter Gunz
Scarano's Take: A flip of Loose End's “Stay A Little White Child” gives a bouncy bed for Bronx heroes Lord Tariq and Peter Gunz to skate on.
V. SHE REIMAGINED WHAT DANCE REMIXES COULD DO
Grammy-winning DJ/producer David Morales has been Carey’s go-to remixer since 1993, when they paired up for “Dreamlover (Def Club Mix Edit)” — one of a dozen dance remixes they’d create that helped make her a pioneer of the form.
The “Dreamlover” remix brought Mariah to the forefront of the club world. Not that she wasn’t known as a pop singer, but it just was like, “Mariah’s cool.” I made the track and went into the studio with her. I think she was 21. I had never had a singer come in and re-sing the track.
There are very few people that Mariah will go into the studio with as far as producers go, because we always reconstruct everything for the most part. And with [the “Dreamlover” remix] we were producing a new song. The way she sang it was different, the background was different. We changed the game of remixing at that point. Mariah opened up a whole other door, and not many people at that time were capable of that. When other big artists saw what I did with Mariah, they wanted that. She’s how I got into the studio with Toni Braxton, Aretha Franklin, Seal and Donna Summer.
It wasn’t that Mariah was trying to cross over into the club market. She didn’t have to cross over: She’s Mariah Carey, she’s selling records. It was more that labels were pushing for the club remixes. But after a while it became important to her because she saw the results. The gay audience, the straight audience, the people that don’t necessarily listen to pop music — they all got to hear a record and say, “Oh, shit. That’s Mariah Carey?” They got to hear a diva. Pop music is not the diva — the diva is in the club mix.
It’s not the same today as it was then. Everything is very commercial, clean. Of course, a lot of people are doing remixes, but when you look at today’s culture, you have so many different remixes. Back then, when we remixed Mariah, it wasn’t 10 different people doing a techno remix or whatever the case may be, because the artist had to have an identity. That’s how an artist creates their fan base — because they love the original. — AS TOLD TO STEVEN J. HOROWITZ
VI. SHE SPAWNED THE GIF THAT KEEPS ON GIVING
Who? Weekly hosts Lindsey Weber and Bobby Finger on the Mariah meme that set the standard for shade.
The first GIF of Mariah Carey saying “I don’t know her” while shaking her head and grinning like a Cheshire Cat was created long before the internet as we know it existed — a pre-Twitter world where message boards and blogs were the best destinations for celebrity gossip and everyone still pronounced GIF with a hard G. But people were no less shady than they are today, and the “I don’t know her” GIF became (and remains) the most enduringly satisfying way to express that shadiness online.
The looping image and its searing caption came from an interview Carey did for a German tabloid show called Taff. She’s first asked about Beyoncé (whom she knows and “loves”) and then about Jennifer Lopez. She responds succinctly: “I don’t know her.” The earliest version available on YouTube was uploaded in January 2008, but audio and visual cues suggest the interview took place in 2003 or 2004. There’s Carey’s head of Charmbracelet-era blonde curls; the prominent use of “Work It Out” (Beyoncé’s 2002 debut solo single), and the idea that Lopez’s success in music would still surprise many (considering her late-’90s rise as an actor).
That a years-old clip from a German TV show suddenly surfaced on YouTube in 2008 was likely no accident. That month, a rumor began circulating on gossip blogs like B’inside and Dlisted that Carey said, “I’d rather be onstage with a pig than sing a duet with Jennifer Lopez.” When asked about the quote at the time, Carey told People it was a “complete untruth,” adding, “This is another sad example of two strong women being pit [sic] against each other.” But Carey would continue to deny knowing Lopez: On the radio in 2009 (“I don’t know the woman”); a 2016 TMZ clip (“I still don’t know her”); and on Watch What Happens Live With Andy Cohen in 2018 (“I don’t know her. Like, what am I supposed to say?”).
It doesn’t really matter if Lopez and Carey have indeed met (and Lopez has said they have “many times”). Regardless of Carey’s intent, she coined one of the most recognizable (and useful) memes of the 21st century — a “no comment” for the social media age that epitomizes the act of “throwing shade.” Maybe you’ve used “I don’t know her” to genuinely express lack of familiarity with someone. But if you’d like to knock a person you do know off a pedestal, share an image of Mariah Carey shaking her head and proclaiming those same words.
VII. SHE HAS HER OWN LINGO
Being a Mariah Carey fan is about more than loving her music — it’s also about speaking her language. Here, a roundup of some of her favorite words and phrases.
Anniversary: The day of Carey’s birth. “I don’t count years, but I definitely rebuke them,” she has said. “I have anniversaries, not birthdays, because I celebrate life, dahling.”
Bleak: A descriptor for the most wretched aspects of life, including Carey’s restrictive diet and her time on American Idol, during which she famously sparred with co-judge Nicki Minaj.
Dahling: Term of endearment for Carey’s followers; term of derision for her detractors.
#dembabies: Hashtag for the exploits of Carey’s twin children, Moroccan and Monroe, including memorizing multiplication tables, petting sharks and providing guest vocals for “Supernatural” from Me. I Am Mariah… The Elusive Chanteuse.
Festive: A descriptor for the most Christmasy aspects of life, including Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, Frosty the Snowman and Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas Is You.”
Lamb: A Carey fan (plural: Lambily).
Moment: Popularized on Carey’s 2011 Home Shopping Network appearance, a term marking a celebration of self-care (e.g., the “fragrant moment” of Mariah Carey Ultra Pink perfume sprayed on your decolletage). — ANNA PEELE
VIII. EVEN HER FAILURES ARE SUCCESS STORIES
When Glitter — Carey’s soundtrack to the film of the same name — arrived in fall 2001, it marked her lowest first-week sales at the time, garnered some of the worst reviews of her career and led Virgin Records to buy out her contract for a reported $50 million. Then, last November, on the eve of her Caution LP’s release, her Lambily urged fans to purchase the album and use #JusticeForGlitter on social media. U.S. sales surged over 8,000%, according to Nielsen Music, and the album returned to the Billboard charts. Culture critic and Mariah stan Princess Gabbara reflects on the moment.
The first mistake people make when they hear about Glitter is they think of it as a Mariah Carey album. Yes, it is, but it was a soundtrack to a film set in the early ’80s, and the music had to fit that. A lot of people describe it as a departure from Carey’s musical style, but it’s really not. She grew up in New York hearing these sounds.
People were quick to write off Glitter because it didn’t live up to their expectations, but artistically, it was not a flop. There are also a lot of classic Carey ballads on it that get overlooked, like “Lead the Way” and “Twister.”
I follow a lot of Carey fan accounts, and I kept seeing #JusticeForGlitter pop up. My first reaction was: “I love it.” Because we couldn’t find Glitter on streaming services, we turned to action and had to purchase it. We hoped it would top the iTunes album chart, but to actually see it happen was surreal. This is vindication for her. #JusticeForGlitter was the Lambily’s way of lifting this heavy burden that she has carried since the release. When you look back 25 years from now, I think Glitter will be seen as iconic. This story has a happy ending after all. — AS TOLD TO TATIANA CIRISANO
IX. SHE'S A VIDEO VISIONARY TOO
Over the course of more than 100 music videos, Carey has honed her ability to craft onscreen moments as unforgettable as the songs that inspired them — like these classic scenes.
“Honey” (1997): Playing “Agent M” in the James Bond-themed video, Carey escapes captivity by jumping off the second floor of a mansion into a pool — a metaphor, fans surmised, for her divorce from Tommy Mottola.
“Heartbreaker” (1999): Carey brawls with her snooty rival Bianca — also played by Carey — in a movie theater bathroom. The fight features the sounds of cats meowing and direction from Jackie Chan’s choreographer.
“We Belong Together” (2005): In the wedding scene, Carey dons the same Vera Wang dress she wore when she married Mottola in 1993. “I figured we might as well get use out of it,” she said at the time of the gown, which has a 27-foot-long train.
“Touch My Body” (2008): A tech repairman played by 30 Rock’s Jack McBrayer joins Carey for a silly day of frolicking including Frisbee, laser tag and light calisthenics — until he awakens from what turns out to have been a dream.
“Obsessed” (2009): Wearing an Eminem-esque hoodie and goatee, Carey pokes fun at the rapper (who previously suggested he had a tryst with her in 2001); it prompted a series of thinly veiled diss tracks between the artists. — STEVEN J. HOROWITZ
X. SHE'S A BONA FIDE PRODUCER
She’s not merely talented behind the mic — Carey is one of the most prolific female producers in Billboard Hot 100 history and known to be hands-on in the studio. For her 2018 album, Caution, she worked with a fleet of 15 co-producers, including Grammy-winning team The Stereotypes for “Stay Long Love You,” featuring Gunna. The group’s Ray Romulus recalls their session.
I was Jermaine Dupri’s personal assistant when he was working on The Emancipation of Mimi, so I knew Mariah when I wasn’t a producer yet. At that time, I didn’t have the privilege of being in sessions, which is why, this time around, it was incredible to see how she works.
We were together for two days at a studio in the Westlake neighborhood of Los Angeles. Sessions started with just sitting around and talking. She was a very normal person; super cool. It was a typical songwriting session. We talked for a while about how we were feeling and what was going on in our lives. That helped navigate where we were trying to go with the music. The theme of “Stay Long Love You” came from these conversations.
Mariah was coming up with melodies, song topics and actual lyrics. Even from the beginning stages of the track, she was like, “Oh, I like that sound!” Once we found the pocket where her melodies sat, she was like, “Yes, this is where I want to go.” She’s as hands-on as any artist I’ve ever worked with.
It felt like we created something that could live in the same moment of her classic records and make kids feel the same way “Dreamlover” made me feel when I was young. For me, being a part of this project is on the same level as winning a Grammy. Mariah is on the Mount Rushmore of singers. — AS TOLD TO KATIE BAIN
XI. SHE'S A TOTAL POP NERD
Collaborators have described Mariah Carey’s knowledge of pop history as encyclopedic. Here are five inspired times she put it to use.
Nods to: The Emotions’ “Best of My Love”
One of Carey’s sneakier lifts: The influence of the 1977 disco classic’s loping bassline and blissed-out lyrics — plus the wink of the title — are unmistakable. And like “Best of My Love,” “Emotions” builds to a rapturous, wordless climax.
Samples: Tom Tom Club’s “Genius of Love”
The first single from Carey’s Daydream gets its chirping synth-funk groove from a top 40-grazing 1982 hit by Talking Heads spinoff Tom Tom Club. Sampling an ecstatic beat from a minor ’80s song proved a reliable formula for Carey going forward: The pattern continued with “Honey” (World’s Famous Supreme Team’s “Hey DJ”) in 1997 and “Heartbreaker” (Stacy Lattisaw’s “Attack of the Name Game”) in 1999.
“The Roof” (1997)
Samples: Mobb Deep’s “Shook Ones (Pt. II)”
Carey’s history with contemporary hip-hop is extensive and well-documented, but she showed just how plugged in she was when she sampled the eerie, menacing creep of Mobb Deep’s underground classic — and, of course, invited the Queens rap duo to appear on the song’s remix.
“We Belong Together” (2005)
Nods to: Bobby Womack, The Deele’s “Two Occasions”
Most of Carey’s most famous callbacks to music history are through covers, samples and interpolations of past hits. But her career-revitalizing Billboard Hot 100 chart-topper explicitly name-checks them. On the second verse, a heartbroken Carey seeks comfort in the FM dial: “Bobby Womack’s on the radio, saying to me/‘If you think you’re lonely now…’/Wait a minute this is too deep, I got to change the station.” (She flips to “Two Occasions” next.)
“I Don’t” (2017)
Interpolates: Donell Jones’ “Where I Wanna Be”
Carey’s love for pop is simply part of her musical DNA now — just look to her YG-featuring 2017 single, which quickly detours into the chorus of Jones’ 2000 R&B smash (“When you love someone, you just don’t treat them bad…”) before seamlessly returning to her own melody and message. As always, one doesn’t need to get the reference to appreciate the hook, but it’s much richer if you do. — ANDREW UNTERBERGER
XII. SHE CHANGED THE CELEBRITY MENTAL-HEALTH CONVERSATION
When a scantily clad Mariah Carey visited MTV’s Total Request Live in 2001 and told host Carson Daly “you’re my therapy session right now,” tabloids called it “A Nervous Fakedown” and declared “Mariah Cracks Up.” One year ago, in a warm People cover story, she revealed her “battle” with bipolar disorder. It was a watershed moment for a celebrity of her ilk, and a sign of how far mental health coverage has come, says Elaine Lui, who has analyzed media treatment of celebrities since 2003 for her site, LaineyGossip.
I am guilty of covering mental health super insensitively. “Loses her mind,” “loopy” — that came up a lot. In the past, when a famous woman was experiencing a mental health crisis, there was a certain way of talking about it. Hysteria. Temper tantrum. When men go through it, people were so quick to rationalize it: This is part of his genius. If that happened today, would we have more awareness? I would hope to have improved myself.
The People cover was big on many levels. There is a generation of younger people now who are much more openly talking about mental health, like Demi Lovato, Selena Gomez and recently Justin Bieber. The generation of legacy artists like Mariah come from a time when these things weren’t talked about as openly. So to get so personal and specific about her diagnosis — that was [important].
Of course, as candid and as vulnerable as Mariah was, this is also a woman who is very specific about what side of her face she shows, lighting, looking skinny-curvy — she is never ever going to do what the younger people do: hold up their iPhones and talk straight to the camera and get emotional and maybe tear up a little bit. With Mariah, it has to be highly produced vulnerability. The vulnerability is authentic, but you still need production value: a photo that accompanies it where she looks amazing. So by doing this [cover], she is also maintaining her own brand.
For me, the rules of gossip have changed. Even though it is a headline, when you keep reporting on it, it starts to feel sad and exploitative. I don’t want to be gossiping like that anymore. There are so few things people can relate to where Mariah is concerned, right? We don’t have her talent. We don’t have her lifestyle. But she has shitty days, and you and I certainly have shitty days. More empathy is not a bad thing. — AS TOLD TO MATT GILES
This article originally appeared in the April 27 issue of Billboard.