This is a story about Mariah Carey from when she was a singer, not a media personality.

By Amanda Wicks

On Saturday (September 17), Mariah Carey’s sophomore studio album Emotions turns twenty-five. Before the singer came to inhabit her persona and her persona became analogous with (and in some ways obscured) her music, Emotions found a burgeoning Carey showing the world what she was capable of. Here we take a look back at the album before Mariah Carey really and truly became “Mariah Carey.”

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After any long period in the music industry, it’s inevitable that mega-star singers run the risk of overshadowing their music. The transition from ingenue to established to legend—for those talented and fortunate enough to make it that longmeans their persona can become as important to the public as the music they release. That’s even more true for a certain category known as divas. Aretha Franklin, Diana Ross, Cher, Whitney Houston, Celine Dion and Mary J. Blige, to name a few, started outlike all artistsas unknowns. They became famous due to their stunning talent as vocalists. But with each passing year, their persona and behavior would capture as much of the public’s attention as their music. And the same is true of Mariah Carey, a once-in-a-lifetime vocalist. 

No one would deny that these singers have seriously impressive talent, panache or an ability to consistently churn out vocal runs that give listeners goosebumps. But, for me, there’s a certain divide between the music I grew to love from each of them, and how their personas would come to dominate their respective stories a few years into their careers. And this is especially true with Carey. For one, she wasn’t always “Mariah Carey” as the public knows her today, with her upcoming reality-docu series on E! or her put-downs or the general mannerisms that separate any artist from their art, thereby making it harder for listeners to fully engage the music without thinking of the looming diva persona behind it.

I remember Carey’s songs from my school dances. And we’re talking middle school here, not even high school. She, Dion and Boyz II Men were the go-to whenever the kids wanted to explore their burgeoning adult drives and get close with one another in a way that didn’t involve frenzied, frantic movements. Yep, the slow-dance jams. Throughout the 1990s, for those around my age, Carey was what Christina Aguilera would become for the aughts and Ariana Grande would become for the following generation: Capable of recording killer pop tunes and ballads, with a voice that should probably be considered lethal.

Before Music Box and Daydream elevated Carey to the next level on her climb to divadom, fans had her second sophomore album Emotions, the title signifying an exploration of love, heartbreak and everything that runs the gamut in between. It continued building upon the strong vocal power she displayed on her self-titled studio debut only one year earlier. My peers and I weren’t concerned about Carey the Diva because that person didn’t yet exist. We were smitten with her vocal range and the feeling it communicated in her songs. Without “Mariah Carey” taking away from the music, her earlier work allowed us to reflect upon the emotionally strained crossroads we found ourselves standing at before entering our true teenage years. That’s what great pop music does: It reaches multiple audiences. Listeners of all ages can have a different reaction to the lyricsand even the melodic constructionbecause it’s the kind of fare that invites such multitudinous interpretations. On “Can’t Let Go” what Carey sang about could sound like a crush that never worked out to me and my fellow sixth graders, but to someone in their 20s, 30s, or 40s it represented a far deeper emotional moment. “Even though I try I can’t let go/ Something in your eyes/ Captured my soul/ And every night I see you in my dreams/ You’re all I know, I can’t let go,” she sings on the chorus. Interestingly enough, listening to it now I’m transported back to middle school. Rather than reinterpret the lyrics as a contemporary listener with a different set of “ears,” I’m overtaken by the nostalgic quality it contains for me.

Listening back to “Emotions” now, the title track and the single that led the album, it feels so quintessentially, perfectly ’90s. In the way anyone can listen to Madonna or Cyndi Lauper from their earlier work and go “’80s!” Carey’s first four albums had that slick production quality that always came with a strong, steady beat, some kind of keyboard and smooth-as-silk vocals. “Emotions” was electronic-pop before that designation took on an entirely different meaning in the late 2000s with EDM. Then there’s the note she reached on the song! studied mainstream commercial singers’ vocal range and Carey comes in second, reaching a high G7 on “Emotions.” As high as she could go, she wasn’t a pure soprano singer. She could delve down into alto territory when she wanted, and Emotions showed off that range.

The video for “Emotions” certainly didn’t show any diva signs. Carey and friends drive around while she sings. It’s such a relaxed moment, one that seemed to set the stage for the two studio albums (excluding her Christmas album) she released next, when she wasn’t afraid to let her hair down without first straightening, styling and primping it.

The relationship between artist and fan is a special one, but it also requires a journey of sorts. I, as the listener, agree to continue listening to an artist as they grow, explore, change, etc. As a music writer and a fan, I continue to go on this journey daily with some of my favorites, but Carey will also be someone who reigned supreme in the ’90s for me. 2005’s The Emancipation of Mimi was fantastic for the R&B-laden fare it offered, but Carey will always be the killer singer I knew and listened to in middle school, before she became Mimi, before she celebrated her birthday’s “anniversaries” to keep herself young, before she released the most quintessentially diva-titled album, 2014’s Me. I Am Mariah… The Elusive Chanteuse Back when the music was the thing I knew best about her, and that music stood strong as love-laden ’90s jams and ballads. 


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