Mariah Carey was the undisputed queen of 1990s pop. During an era of great transition and change and the music industry, she remained a sure thing; her albums quickly went multi platinum around the world, her singles were guaranteed to hit the top of the charts internationally, and she was beloved for her soulful singing voice and amazing range. But behind the façade of superstardom, Carey’s life was dominated by suffocating control and a bubbling mental illness that would eventually surface and nearly destroyed her career. Mariah: The Diva, The Drama (Reelz, Sunday, March 24 at 9pm ET/6pm PT) offers a look into Mariah Carey’s meteoric rise to superstardom and the low points that inevitably came.
For Carey, success seemed inevitable. Her natural talent for music was recognized at an early age, but that did not diminish certain stresses in her childhood. Born the daughter of an interracial couple, her parents divorced when she was young, and living with her mother as a mixed race child made life complicated for her family, as well as created the foundation for identity issues that would later arise. Interviews with her siblings help to paint her childhood as one that was relatively happy even as she often fell confused about who she was.
Ironically, it was the confusion of identity that helped propel her success. Much like when Sam Phillips declared that Elvis Presley was a perfect storm in that he could present black music in a white package, so too was one of the keys of Carey’s success. She was beautiful, exotic, and mysterious. Was she white? Was she black? These questions now seem quite silly––if not a little offensive––but at the time they were indeed questions people of all races asked. (The question of her racial identity would provide a necessary moment of levity in the otherwise tragic 2009 drama, Precious, where she portrayed a social worker in a dramatic role that was critically acclaimed yet surprisingly goes unmentioned here.)
When Columbia Records president Tommy Mottola discovered her in 1988, she was still a fresh–faced teenager. Having been impressed by her demo tape, which revealed a singer with a soulful Whitney Houston vibe mixed with the extremely rare vocal range of Minnie Riperton, he soon signed her. Her debut singe “Vision Of Love” quickly became an international hit single. Thanks to its success, the self-titled debut became the best selling album of 1991, having sold over 15 million copies. More hit albums and chart-topping singles followed, her superstardom clearly cemented.
But then, in 1993, Mariah married Mottola. Marrying the man responsible for your success—and directly in control of your career–might seem like an unwise decision. It certainly was for Carey. Twenty years her senior, it soon became clear that he was a domineering and possessive man. Furthermore, Mariah started to feel pigeonholed by her image as a pop act, and while her music had always contained elements of classic R&B and soul, she wanted to start embracing more contemporary urban and hip-hop sounds. Mottola was mistrusting of this move–-the documentary states he hired extra security whenever rappers were in the house––and a compromise was made wherein she could explore those other avenues only on her remixes.
Not coincidentally, her instincts were right; for the remix of “Fantasy,” she featured Wu-Tang Clan’s unique personality Ol’ Dirty Bastard, and the remix has since been seen as one of the first successful pop/rap crossovers. The album it came from, 1995’s Daydreamer, was a critical and commercial success, as well as follow-up album Butterfly. The success of both seemed to prove her point, only furthering the strain in her marriage. Unsurprisingly, Mariah and Mottola divorced soon after Butterfly, straining her relationship with the record label, which she would part after 1999’s Rainbow, which was successful in spite of label indifference.
Even though Rainbow was only modestly received, she still had enough clout to land a $100 million dollar record deal with Virgin Records, one that was touted as being the largest record deal of all time. Mariah decided to use this opportunity to create a pet project, a semi-autobiographical film entitled Glitter. Unfortunately for her, the film was a bomb, as was the soundtrack. Mariah believed Tommy Mottola was intentionally trying to sabotage her career and was seeking revenge for her newfound independence from the man who discovered her.
Glitter’s failure marked the beginning of a dramatic public slide, and it’s from this point that Mariah: The Diva, The Drama examines her career. It’s an ugly, embarrassing, and sometimes unnecessarily complicated fall from grace related to the combination of untreated mental health issues, the disconnect from reality superstardom causes, bad management decisions, and what could best be called a good old fashion career slump.
Yet Mariah: The Diva, The Drama doesn’t necessarily end on a down note. It shows how she managed to pull the reigns in on her career and maintain her superstar status, even at a time when superstardom doesn’t mean as much as it used to. It’s a fascinating look into a very talented woman rise and fall.