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I Gotta Be Mimi!

(top): Photo by Patrick KeelerThe Emancipation of Mimi, Mariah Carey’s new album, just premiered at number one on the Billboard Top 200. It is ostensibly an “I am finally free to let my freak-flag fly” manifesto. Mimi used to be the name of Carey’s “other” personality, the one she used to blame her weird behavior on — i.e., That wasn’t me that had an incoherent meltdown in that hotel lobby, during the whole Glitter debacle. That was Mimi. In this self-improvement-oriented culture, most people would spend years in therapy trying to integrate or exorcise their inner Mimis, but with this album, Carey seems to be saying, “Fuck it — everyone already thinks I’m crazy. I may as well inhabit my disruptive personality full time; it’s more fun.” Carey’s re-invention is particularly fascinating because of her whole new ethnicity — she is one-quarter black but has amplified this and declared her True Self to be African-American. Carey is also one-quarter Venezuelan, and half Irish, so the question is begged: If this is her “true self,” why didn’t she go Gaelic? If Beyoncé had a panpipe, would Carey be picking up the shillelagh and releasing The Emancipation of Muirgheal? But Mimi is a clear illustration of a form of schizophrenia that seems to hound burned-out superstars: Famous people, like abused wives, have sacrificed and abandoned so much of their original selves that they can forget who they are; if they have no legible roadmap back to who they used to be, they can end up like hermit crabs, scuttling around in other people’s iconography. We’ve seen Madonna switch personae countless times: from cushy club slut to Marilyn Monroe in diamonds, from sadomasochistic bisexual Weimar exhibitionist to lamp-eyed yoga cowgirl, sleek children’s author to mystical Jewish Brit, etc. Carey has likewise seen some changes in her day, from the demure Mrs. Mottola to Madame Butterfly in long-sleeve leotard and Jet Ski, to images yet more pornographic and puzzling. On her new album, Carey has become a composite: She is all your favorite black recording artists tossed into a chipper, filled with resin and pressurized into one big medium-density fiberboard artist — strong and serviceable but with no organic wood grain. Singers with freakishly large vocal instruments — Streisand, Celine Dion — tend, historically, to have no taste. This isn’t Carey’s problem — she is a devoted scholar of old-school R&B. Her problem is shape-shifting too completely — trying to find Mariah, or even Mimi, in the new album, is like trying to find the true personality of a professional mimic who has hijacked the karaoke machine. If Mimi isn’t who Mariah Carey actually is, Mimi is clearly a portrait of who she wishes to be: a trying-to-find-myself-by-becoming-a-collage-of-my-favorite-other-people project. Her “self” is as elusive as a black hole — apparently she can only find it mathematically, by studying the other stars around it. But this extreme-psychic-interior makeover — I Want a Famous Psyche, if you will — is the logical next step in an era where so many surgically compose new selves by combining Angelina’s lips, Pamela’s rack, J.Lo’s caboose, etc. While Ms. Carey is making an effort to look relatively sane (if unwholesomely Diva-matic) on the outside, she is still having a public breakdown in her lyrics. The songs whiplash between brazen, aggressive promiscuity and the pit of loneliness that can hit a sensitive girl when she finds herself alone the next morning in her velour sweatpants. There’s a Vintage Prince-Protégée-in-Lingerie duet containing a radio-ready “F” word a la “Erotic City” (“we’ll kiss and fuuuuuh”), wherein Mimi channels Vanity 6, and Snoop Dogg offers to let her “follow (him) into the restroom and get buck wild.” “Mine Again,” a song in the style I have always affectionately referred to as “Ghetto Cologne Music,” evokes Alicia Keys evoking Whitney Houston. Mimi’s language is a fusion of ebonics and psychotherapy: “It’s like dat, ch’all . . . open off that Bacardi . . . them chickens is ash and I’m lotion . . . ” flips over into, “My inferiority complex kicks in . . . and I’m paralyzed . . . ”? “I’m feeling all out of my element/ throwing things, crying/tryin’ to figure out where the hell I went wrong.” There is a moment when Carey, who seems to delight in “fucking with the critics” and pulling “jokes” that are too esoteric for her public to understand, channels the breathy stage banter that artists like Luther Vandross, Roberta Flack or Mary J. Blige have used to engage the audience directly and contextualize the emotional intent of the number. Spoken in a heavy East Coast gangsta accent: “I ‘on’t know if anybody else out there tonight knows what it feels like to want somebody so bad that nothing and nobody can ever seem to fill that void, but thatssa situation that I’m talkin’ about righ’ now. An’ if you feel me, sing dis song wit me.” It is less humanizing when, at the end, a canned, stadium-full-of-fans-going-wild applause loop is mixed in, to reward Mimi for this personal disclosure. Carey recently insisted in Newsweek that this was a “joke.” While this must have been a lark for her and producer Jermaine Dupri, jokes oughtn’t really require explanation. Still, this could be interpreted as the bravery of her new persona — Mimi doesn’t give a fuck whether you get it or not. Critics have made hash of the fact that Carey’s legendary, ridiculously elastic voice is beginning to show scuff marks. At its best, its power is still evocative of the bellowing vanilla soul of Teena Marie, another racially misidentified songstress. And when Carey harmonizes with herself in her upper register, she still sounds like a pair of police cars in love. But she has clearly broken some heels walking through the valley of the Shadow of Death: Mimi is one lonely lady — no stranger to the agonies of unrequited love, feelings of hopelessness and alienation. Perhaps Mariah Carey had to go all the way through the depths of darkest Motown to figure out that home is in her own booty after all. I read a 1991 interview in Ebony with the 20-year-old, overnight-success Mariah: “I don’t let stuff like this go to my head, because success isn’t a scale for talent . . . I don’t want to be a ‘big star,’ but I want to be respected as an artist.” Perhaps, like Billie Holiday, the beatings life gives Mimi will hobble her voice over time, but galvanize its authenticity. The last song on the album, “Fly Like A Bird,” is a kitchen-sink, hyper-produced gospel number, but is really quite moving. There is a real, human yearning for mercy in it — Mariah’s true cry for help from a place of near-suicidal despair: “Sometimes this life can be so cold/(Lord) I pray you’ll come and carry me home.” But there’s a lot of hope and faith in this wounded voice: Carey keeps, with touching conviction, a firm grip on the idea that some higher, divine intelligence out there loves her, even if nobody else does; even if she is lost to herself. It comes across emotionally, because her heart is fully in it — Mimi has been beaten, humiliated, heartbroken; joys have been slapped out of her hands quicker than she could appreciate them. She’s deeply confused, and God, she really needs help. Hell: We’ve all been there.