By Mary Sollosi
September 29, 2020 at 11:55 AM EDT
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Credit: Andy Cohen Books

Mariah Carey’s memoir opens with the great line: “I refuse to acknowledge time, famously so.” As if to establish the rules of the book, then add, with a toss of hair, but you knew that.

Most readers of The Meaning of Mariah Carey, which the record-smashing songstress wrote with Michaela Angela Davis, probably already did know that (and are happy to stick to Mariah’s anti-schedule), but there’s plenty in the 337-page volume that will surprise even the most devoted Lambs. Most surprising of all, though, is perhaps how elusive the chanteuse remains even when she makes herself so vulnerable.

She may not keep time, but it’s well known that Carey can keep rhythm, and that’s a more accurate measure of how she tells the story of her life. While the memoir’s four acts are chronological, the short chapters within them aren’t necessarily, and her storytelling is most effective in these distinct, vivid anecdotes rather than thoroughly contextualized narrative. Isn’t that the way we remember things, anyway?

The book’s first and best section, “Wayward Child,” relies the most on these well-chosen vignettes, each as piercing and specific as a song, altogether giving an impressionistic rendering of her fraught childhood. (She punctuates her memories, too, with her lyrics that were inspired by them, and the Audible version of the book, read by Carey, contains musical interludes.) The daughter of a Black father and Irish mother, Carey grew up with a brother and sister who were older and darker (in their energies even more than their complexions, she observes) than her, in a home — actually many homes, adding to the instability — where she never knew safety. The earliest childhood memory she shares is of cops breaking up a brutal fight between her father and brother when she was 3 years old; among the last is Mariah’s 20-year-old sister allegedly trying to pimp her out at age 12.

Her childhood is filled with danger, trauma, violence, fear — and music. A mostly informal education from her opera-singer mother and her friends comes so organically to the life of a little girl who had so little else, it reads like destiny that she and music found each other amid such turmoil. And it’s what takes her, of course, to the next phase in her life, in a sharp switch from want to abundance, neglect to suffocating control.

Carey’s account of her marriage to Tommy Mottola — who, for example, once screamed at a dinner party that Thanksgiving was canceled because Carey had expressed admiration for an artist in whom Mottola was uninterested — and their life in the mansion she called “Sing Sing” is harrowing. Mercifully, it overlaps with her emergence as an artist, and her writing about her life in music, while less shocking than many of the personal details, offers great insight and behind-the-scenes tidbits as well as displaying her sincere devotion to the art form (and to her fans, whom she shouts out repeatedly).

Carey’s voice is as distinctive to read as it is to hear: She addresses her reader as “dahling” or “baby” here and there, and her constant, flexible use of the word “festive” reveals it to be a deeply held personal ideal rather than just a vaguely pleasant adjective. Even in describing her lowest lows (and there are some bad ones), the writing is never austere; like her narrative structure, Carey’s prose has rhythm and high drama, savoring moments and details with melismatic indulgence.

The singer explains elements of her larger-than-life image — including some of her famous “diva” behaviors — by explicitly linking them to pain; for one, she often has photo shoots with voluminously blowing hair because she so desperately longed for the flowing waves she saw in shampoo commercials as a child, while her own textured tresses were constantly tangled, forsaken by the adults around her who didn’t know how to care for it.

That untamed hair is emblematic not only of the extreme neglect of her childhood, but the racial otherness that she has felt throughout her life — and that she expresses in some of the memoir’s most perceptive, affecting passages. As a child, her awareness of racism develops in cruel waves (there are three different, and differently devastating, stories of people she knows finding out her father is Black); as an adult, she has constantly had to assert her own racial identity in an industry (and with a first husband) that tried to erase her Blackness. She reacts to the word “urban” every time she brings it up.

The last three decades become somewhat muddled in the telling as her career becomes richer and her adult life more complicated, making it harder to prioritize — not to mention that, once she’s famous, there are publicly known pieces to correct or gaps to fill in. She can’t disregard time in these later sections, where everything needs more context, and The Meaning loses some clarity for it. (In an error that speaks to this confusion, one paragraph appears twice, 40 pages apart; it somehow feels appropriate, however, that the passage is a reflection upon the delayed triumph of Glitter.)

So, too, does it become more conspicuous when she leaves things out, like the bipolar diagnosis she revealed two years ago (“because I don’t feel like there’s a mental-illness discussion to be had,” she told Vulture last month). She is also better at starting stories than finishing them (a habit one could attribute to her being an Aries, which she mentions repeatedly). This applies to the memoir as a whole but was most disappointing in the case of her romance with Derek Jeter, the beginning of which makes for some of the book’s dreamiest, most hopeful moments.

It’s hard to begrudge her these omissions, though, when she’s recalled such great suffering and even greater survival. She’s already explained how pieces of her persona are armor, and in which moments she forged them; let her keep some stories. They belong to her.

In an early anecdote, the police are called to little Mariah’s home after a violent scene. “One of the cops, looking down at me but speaking to another cop beside him, said, ‘If this kid makes it, it’ll be a miracle,’” Carey recalls. “And that night, I became less of a kid and more of a miracle.” By the end of the compelling if imperfect Meaning of Mariah Carey, you believe it. She’s a miracle, a memoirist, a singer, a songwriter — the girl’s got range. Famously so. B+

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