The Meaning of Mariah Carey review – fascinating memoir by a misunderstood star

This is not the gossipy, celebrity reminiscence many might expect – but the chart-topping singer is captivating on race, wealth and her own ‘extraness’

In the popular imagination, Mariah Carey is a caricature: the embodiment of the demanding diva stereotype (a persona she has often played up to with relish). Her first memoir reveals her to be not just in on the joke, but peeling back the layers to deconstruct it. Because, for all the dry humour that flashes through The Meaning of Mariah Carey, it is not the glitzy, gossipy celebrity reminiscence some might expect, but instead a largely sombre dive into her past that, at times, feels like therapy. Indeed, Carey says as much: “Singing was a form of escapism for me, and writing was a form of processing.”

In this memoir, Carey processes her chaotic upbringing and troubled family relationships, her scrappy rags-to-riches entry into the music industry, and the gilded cage of her first marriage, to former Sony CEO Tommy Mottola in the 1990s, which she describes as emotionally abusive.

Though the broad brushstrokes of Carey’s life story are public knowledge, she knows it’s how you tell it. Some of the trauma she dredges up is harrowing: a racist bullying incident at a sleepover, cornered by her classmates after they learned the hitherto white-passing Carey had a Black father; an episode where the threat of her sister’s boyfriend pimping out 12-year-old Carey looms heavy; the surveillance cameras and security guards tracking her every move in the mansion she shared with Mottola. Carey is particularly acute on the subject of race, analysing the complications of her experiences growing up as a mixed-race girl, and then as an adult in a prejudiced music industry, through the prism of the world’s belated awakening to Black Lives Matter this year.

Carey and Tommy Mottola’s wedding, in 1993.
Carey and Tommy Mottola’s wedding, in 1993. Photograph: Ron Galella/WireImage

The Meaning of Mariah Carey is a rewarding insight into Carey as an artist as well as a person. Repeatedly referencing her detailed approach to music, writing of “how to use my voice to build layers, like a painter”, Carey – together with writer Michaela Angela Davis – deploys similar care with her words. Her account of being sectioned in 2001 is novelistic, tense and opaque; a near-drowning experience as a child is almost dreamlike. In a more carefree moment, Carey’s description of a party with the Dipset rap crew is vivid and Fitzgerald-esque: “We’re all dressed up and sprawled out amongst a cacophony of cushions.”

For all the adversity it covers, The Meaning of Mariah Carey is rarely mawkish. Instead, Carey recounts many of the worst parts of her life with a deadpan, self-aware wit. “I really don’t want a lot for Christmas – particularly not the cops,” is the punchline to one otherwise unpleasant scene. An opportunity to shade Jennifer Lopez – twice – via a meta meme reference is seized upon gleefully. At one point, she imagines that her ghost will “hit the high notes at night”, if fans visit her house after her death.

And, of course, dissecting the roots of her foibles doesn’t mean abandoning them. What Carey describes as “my propensity for extraness” is sprinkled lavishly throughout the text, which is all the better for it. Leaning all the way into her image, she luxuriates in an opulence she feels has been earned. Some of the most poetic passages describe vintage furniture and designer outfits, though this same eye for detail applied to her somewhat grimier childhood environs makes clear why these material prizes hold so much meaning for her.

The most rewarding sections are when Carey gives an insight into the artistic process: origin stories of songs, sometimes in real time; the giddy excitement she feels when collaborating with the likes of Ol’ Dirty Bastard and Da Brat. Tellingly, it’s the studio – “part sanctuary, part playground and part laboratory” – that she romanticises, not the stage, with live performances barely mentioned.

The central message for the reader is that music has functioned repeatedly as an escape from the hardships of Carey’s life, even – perhaps especially – when ostensibly living the dream. Tantalisingly, there is the revelation that Carey recorded a secret grunge album at the height of her “manicured” career, longing for more angst; unfortunately, there is no mention of the friendship with Courtney Love that has been hinted at over the years.

Carey’s keenness to underline that she writes her own songs has long been a hobbyhorse. While her pride in her chart records and sales figures is a long-standing public one, this makes some of the lengthier diversions along those lines feel unnecessary. (Amusingly, all references to her singing simply take her precocious, virtuoso talent as irrefutably self-evident.) Once the memoirs reach 2005 and her landmark 10th album The Emancipation of Mimi, they effectively dry up. Though a lot of life may seem to have happened to her since – a second marriage, to rapper and TV host Nick Cannon, beginning and ending; giving birth to twins – the perfunctory postscripts that cover it indicate that Carey has been fundamentally content for 15 years, and knows there’s limited psychological excavation to be done there.

But being an exhaustive autobiography isn’t the point of this book; rather, it’s a carefully pieced together self-portrait of one of this generation’s most fascinatingly idiosyncratic, frequently misunderstood artists from the ground up.


Alex Macpherson

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Mariah Carey sued by sister Alison for 'emotional distress' arising from memoir
Alison Carey describes Mariah as ‘heartless, vicious’ in lawsuit following pop star’s publication of The Meaning of Mariah Carey in 2020

Ben Beaumont-Thomas

03, Feb, 2021 @10:27 AM

Article image
From Ghetts to Genesis, Nick Cave to Arlo Parks: autumn 2021’s essential music
From Fontaines DC to the Valkyrie, a techno Halloween to Little Simz, this is the unmissable music of the next few months

Alexis Petridis, Ammar Kalia and Andrew Clements

25, Aug, 2021 @5:00 AM

Mariah Carey, SECC, Glasgow

SECC, Glasgow

James Smart

27, Oct, 2003 @2:09 AM

Other pop

Other pop: Mariah Carey | Do Me Bad Things | Garbage | Loudon Wainwright III | Saul Williams

Kitty Empire

10, Apr, 2005 @1:03 AM

Article image
Mariah Carey review – gold-plated pop diva cements her legacy
With her classic hits front and centre, Carey showcases her vocal range and camp persona with some incredible, playful performances

Michael Cragg

26, May, 2019 @11:39 AM

Article image
Paul Morley meets Mariah Carey

The ultimate pop princess enjoys a very intimate encounter with Paul Morley

Paul Morley

20, Apr, 2008 @9:02 AM

Article image
Mariah Carey: ‘They’re calling me a diva? I think I’m going to cry!’
A brutal childhood, a traumatic marriage, decades of racism: the singer has overcome it all on her way to the top. She lets rip about the people who have wronged her and the self-belief that sustains her

Hadley Freeman

05, Oct, 2020 @5:00 AM

Article image
CD: Mariah Carey: Charmbracelet

(Monarc/ Island Def Jam)

Dorian Lynskey

29, Nov, 2002 @1:27 AM

Article image
Mariah Carey: where to start in her back catalogue
In Listener’s digest, our writers help you explore the work of great musicians. Next up: the high-pitched diva who broke free from her marriage ... and her schmaltzy music

Alex Macpherson

22, Jun, 2020 @1:00 PM

Article image
CD: Mariah Carey, E=MC2

(Def Jam/Mercury)

Alex Macpherson

10, Apr, 2008 @11:24 PM