The Diva Definition: 10 Ways Mariah Carey Changed Music
She scored more hits and sold more records than any other artist since 1990 yet Mariah Carey’s impact on the popular culture remains strangely underrated. So, instead of waiting until the end of the life of this often unappreciated diva, let’s reflect on her legacy by acknowledging 10 of her key contributions to music.
Whether as a result of unfavourable comparisons to her predecessor and only worthy rival, Whitney Houston, or because of her many shortcomings as a live entertainer, Carey has long been a target for harsh criticism by people who fail to appreciate her value. Indeed, by simply reading the comments of ignorant individuals across the blogosphere, it’s clear that Carey’s role as one of the most important artists of her time clearly misunderstood.
Luckily, some of us recognise that Carey is more than the big-haired, high-heeled, daft diva persona that she presents to the world. Rather, she is a cleverly disguised genius of song whose legacy has laid a foundation on which generations of artists can build their own careers.
Now that I’ve gotten the thick layers of cheesy praise out of the way – thanks for the inspiration, Oprah – check out our list of 10 ways that Carey changed music below:
10. The Whistle Register
Thanks to lungs of steel and melodramatic vocal performances, Carey has often been compared to Whitney Houston and Celine Dion as our generation’s answers to Aretha Franklin, Shirley Bassey and Barbra Streisand. Yet, Carey’s unique voice takes her more than just a step further than her peers. In fact, in musical terms, she goes more than 10steps higher than they can ever dream of reaching.
Carey’s range easily dwarfs all of her rivals and at the very top of her voice is the coveted whistle register. Yes, the great Minnie Riperton introduced those warbling high notes to popular music but Carey has helped music fans to rediscover the wonders of the human voice as her almost other worldly flourishes at the extremes of her range have become her trademark.
Quick Music Minute: Did you know that Carey has written most #1 songs on the Billboard Hot 100 than any other woman (17)? Also, did you know that she is ranked as the third most successful songwriter in the chart’s history, behind only Paul McCartney (32) and John Lennon (26)? Of course, by writing I’m referring to sitting in a studio with pen and paper instead of paying for a slot in the credits.
Carey’s melody-driven approach to composing music is influenced by Stevie Wonder, and her ability to disguise GRE level vocabulary as catchy singalong hits is what separates her from an ever-growing list of imitators. Even when Carey is being playful, her clever play on words remains a skill worthy of admiration.
8. Miss MOR
Carey’s flexible voice and songwriting prowess made her one of the faces of MOR music during the 1990s. For those of you too young to know the term that has since lost popularity among critics, it simply means Middle of the Road, and it refers to material that is essentially a mix of various “soft” styles – Pop, Quite Storm R&B and Jazz. In other words, it’s the sound of modern Adult Contemporary Pop radio.
Together with Houston, Dion and Sade, Carey satisfied easy listening music fans throughout the early 1990s with her pleasant blend of Pop, Gospel and R&B. Now, we have younger acts, such as Leona Lewis, trying to fill the void that Carey created when she chose a more blatantly Urban style but unfortunately for them, Adele is the new ruler of that market and as Gandalf the Grey said to Saruman, “she does not share power.”
7. Christmas Champion
Every Holiday season, there is one singer who gets more airplay than any other act and the person is Carey. Since releasing her Merry Christmas album in 1994, she became the voice of everything festive and the personification of Christmas cheer.
Carey’s version of “O Holy Night” is widely considered the standard and most people actually only know her arrangement of the tune. Additionally, with the exception of Luther Vandross’ “Every Year, Every Christmas”, Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas is You” is quite possibly the only modern Holiday classic, despite the many failed attempts by several other artists to craft their own.
I’ve heard dozens of impressive Holiday albums throughout the years but Carey’s Merry Christmas undoubtedly had the greatest cultural impact during the last few decades. Long after she has passed, “All I Want for Christmas is You” will continue to be a success as her true signature song and a lasting reminder of her musical genius.
6. Hip-Pop Pioneer
We just mentioned that Carey took a detour into more obviously Urban music in the mid-1990s but what exactly does that mean? Well, she stripped off her former signature black dress, slipped into a two-piece, surrounded herself with rappers and became Pop music’s version of Mary J. Blige.
Carey first became down with the streets when she teamed with the late Ol’ Dirty Bastard on the remix of “Fantasy” and the rest is history. Along with Diddy, who was then known as Puff Daddy, Missy Elliott, TLC and Jermaine Dupri, Carey pioneered the Hip-Pop movement and permanently blurred the lines between various genres.
It was rare to see a Pop music singer, especially one of the grand MOR divas, sharing the limelight with rappers and Carey made it seem natural. Indeed, unlike the hard-edged Blige, Carey was a sugary sweet Pop princess known for her inspirational ballads and innocent appeal.
Flash forward to 2013, what was once considered a major risk is now the norm, and the Beyonces, Christina Aguileras and Rihannas happily follow in Carey’s footsteps. I would also argue that the Best Rap/Sung Collaboration title at the Grammy Awards wouldn’t exist without her but that’s a tale for another day.
5. Revolutionary Remixes
Before Carey crafted remixes of her hits with rappers, she cemented her position as a trailblazer in another field – Dance music. Together with producers David Morales, and David Cole and Robert Clivilles of C+C Music Factory, Carey revolutionised the sounded of the American club scene.
Carey joined forces with Morales to create the Def Club Mix of her monster 1993 hit “Dreamlover” and became one of the first artists to completely revamp a song for a remix. Nobody expected her to re-sing the track with fresh vocal arrangements and scat like a Jazz master over soaring synths for 10+ minutes but she did it anyway. Sadly, such great effort is rarely exerted while creating remixes but Carey still carries the torch for the sake of gay clubs everywhere as the Donna Summer her generation.
4. So Many Samples
Rappers love integrating a well placed sample into their music and so does Carey. Interestingly, most of her hits were based on interpolations and adaptations of other songs, and many young acts – Ashanti, Keri Hilson and Jennifer Lopez – have since emulated her style.
See a list of some of Carey’s popular sample choices below:
“Dreamlover” - “Blind Alley” by The Emotions
“Fantasy” - “Genius of Love” by Tom Tom Club
“Honey” - “Hey DJ” by World’s Famous Supreme Team and “The Body Rock” by Treacherous Three
“The Roof” - “Shook Ones part II” by Mobb Deep
“Heartbreaker” - “Attack of the Name Game” by Stacy Lattisaw
3. The Last of the Divas
It seems as though it was just yesterday when divas ruled the world but then Madonna corrupted the youth with her vaginal antics. Long gone are the days when big voices, glamorous gowns and showgirl personas were the requirements for success. Instead, we are left with oversexed harlots who sell visuals instead of good music.
Thankfully, Carey never fully abandoned her diva ways. The Butterfly era reintroduced her as star with more similarities to Janet Jackson than Whitney Houston but Carey remained a prima donna (see what I did there?) at heart. Just look at American Idol today and you’ll see how the young singers awkwardly try to channel the flair of past divas while Carey sits just metres away, larger than life in 6 inch heels and a Tom Ford gown.
2. Girl Power
Carey never boasted about being a flagship figure for the girl power movement but she certainly fits the bill. In an industry dominated by men, her many successes have helped to opened doors for other women, regardless of their ethnicity, to reach the top of the charts.
Standing in a ball park with a very short list of artists, Carey’s accomplishments are what younger acts strive to match. She has 18 #1 singles on the Hot 100 (second only to The Beatles’ 20), she spent a total 79 weeks at the top of the chart (more than any other performer), her record sales exceed a reported 200 million (most of which are albums, not ringtones) and she is the only singer in history to land the Billboard Song of the Decade twice. I could keep listing Carey’s achievements but I don’t have all day.
1. Complex Vocals Performances
Some people regard Whitney Houston as the greatest singer of our generation but I humbly disagree and attribute that title to Carey. There is no doubt that the former influenced millions of vocalists, including her “When You Believe” collaborator, but she never displayed Carey’s level complexity or versatility.
Carey experiments with the various colours and textures of her voice in a way that no other artist in Pop music has done to date. With her incredible sense of pitch, she draws of the precision timing of Ella Fitzgerald, the styling of Sarah Vaughan, range of Minnie Riperton and the grit of Aretha Franklin.
Really, Carey is a chameleon in every sense of the word as she switches her approach to suit every genre that she sings – Jazz, Gospel, R&B, Soul, Pop, Dance, Soft Rock, Hip-Hop and Country. That attention of detail continues to inspire other artists who eagerly attempt to imitate her breathy coos and knotty vocal runs, the latter of which Carey used to rebrand the modern ballad via “Vision of Love” and again with “We Belong Together”.