Her memoir, The Meaning of Mariah Carey, has its dishy moments, but it’s the vulnerable, candid recollections of her life off-stage that imbues every song she wrote with deeper significance.

By Hilary Hughes
October 05, 2020 at 11:18 AM EDT
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Carey performing at Cathedral Of St John The Divine in 1994.
| Credit: Kevin Mazur Archive/WireImage

The Meaning of Mariah Carey is brimming with memoir gold, stacked with anecdotes and ruminations on the more private moments — many of them painful — of a very public life. It’s a generous look into the experiences that shaped Mariah Carey into the Grammy-decorated, record-setting Billboard chart champion she is today. But what makes her first book so breathtaking is what gave her the stories to fill these pages with in the first place: her voice.

From the first chapter to the heartfelt acknowledgments, Carey — who penned Meaning with culture journalist Michaela Angela Davis — tells her life’s story with the air of a long conversation, the kind of heart-to-heart that begins casually but excavates profound hurt, disappointment, anger, and sadness once an intimate trust has been established with her counterpart. She alternates between a friendly prose and the endearingly campy tone of her stage banter, which fans will recognize in every “dahling!” and parentheticals that read as if they were spoken directly to the page (“I wanted to be sentimental, not bleak” being one of them). 

At times, you can picture her smokey eyes narrowing, her voice hardening, as she revisits the traumatizing incidents that peppered her loveless marriage to Tommy Mottola, the record executive and former Sony Music president who inked Carey’s first record deal, or the devastating schisms she weathered with her family. (Literally, in some instances: she invokes the sensations of brewing storms to describe the tempestuous arguments that would erupt between her mother, Patricia, her father, Alfred Roy, and her “ex-brother” Morgan and “ex-sister” Alison — to the point where she could sense a coming conflict the way one call smell the rain before it pours.) The metaphors may be familiar, but they’re rarely cliché or overwrought — a demonstration of her lyrical prowess when applied in this nonfiction format.

Carey explains it all, and as long conversations with confidants do, The Meaning of Mariah Carey weaves throughout her personal journey at a pace that presents the intimate moments and accomplishments as symbiotic signposts: her work gives her struggles and joys deeper context, and vice versa. It helps that her prose is multi-sensory, which not only brings the reader into scenes she’s re-playing but into the emotional depths of them, too. You can practically taste the mulled wine her mother would brew to make things “festive” for family and friends in their modest Long Island homes throughout her childhood. The same goes for the linguine with white clam sauce her father would lovingly cook up when she’d visit him at his Brooklyn Heights apartment on Sundays. But Carey’s eye for detail and willingness to share it is deeply effective when it falls on the tough times as well, and she doesn’t shy away from discussing the dynamics and events that fractured her family. Patricia, a white woman, and Alfred, a black man, and their children endured overtly racist cruelty from family, neighbors, classmates, and strangers alike, and it left a brutal impact on their youngest daughter. When Carey describes the sharp and “sterile” setting of her racist grandmother’s home, we’re standing there with her and sensing the hostility Carey did; later, when she paints a vivid picture of being taken to a card game with a group of older men, she winds up in a room reeking of stale beer and “unspeakable perversities,” and we feel a rapid heartbeat of panic in her words. 

“I created the fun and free girl in my videos so that I could watch a version of  myself be alive," writes Carey in her new memoir.
| Credit: Andy Cohen Books

These vibrant memories are met with her imploring, internal dissections. She draws clear lines between cause and effect throughout the book, whether it’s unpacking the complexities of her biracial identity by literally detangling the curls she couldn’t tame in adolescence, or something as simple as her gravitation towards the ocean (which she fondly attributes to her mother). Carey reveals more about her marriage to Mottola in these pages than she ever has, but she does so with a purpose: this is as much about acknowledging the emotional scars of a suffocating relationship as it is laying the personal foundation of her songwriting. By the time Carey and Mottola walked down the aisle in 1993, she was an established pop star and the marquee artist of her label: she had released two studio albums (1990’s self-titled debut and 1991’s Emotions), collected multiple Grammys at the 1991 ceremony, and watched several singles soar to the No. 1 spot on the Billboard Hot 100. But in spite of her meteoric rise, Carey felt grounded and trapped in the palatial mansion she shared with Mottola — one she likens to a prison — and draws a direct line between her miserable marriage and her work (fitting, as their personal life as a couple was fully entwined with their professional one). 

“I created the fun and free girl in my videos so that I could watch a version of  myself be alive, live vicariously through her — the girl I pretended to be, the girl I wish was me,” she writes of the work she dove into to cope. “...I smuggled myself out, bit by bit, through the lyrics of my songs.” Later, when Carey finds an intimate companion in Derek Jeter and pours her feelings for him into “My All” and the rest of her Butterfly album, her language is sincere and buoyant with genuine affection — girl talk, but mature; confessional without manufactured drama. 

The Meaning of Mariah Carey has its dishy moments and flair — consider the source, dahling — but it’s the details and the vulnerable, candid recollections of her life off-stage that imbues every song with deeper significance. She maps the inspiration for her albums and treats each cameo from an artist or collaborator with the reverence of a true fan: she recalls how she defended the legitimacy of hip-hop and R&B in conversations with Mottola after Ol’ Dirty Bastard contributed to the remix of her 1994 smash, “Fantasy,” and appreciates the creative chemistry and kinship she found in Jermaine Dupri, who co-produced much of 2005’s The Emancipation of Mimi. She encourages the reader to delve deeper than the songs, the tabloid fodder and her most memorable projects — yes, Glitter too — as each backstory offers necessary crucial context, even if the topic at hand is rooted in a dark moment. But she also savors every bright moment, and shares that warmth and joy with her readers — especially when she opens about her twins, her son Morrocan and daughter Monroe. 

The lines may be blurred between her public and private lives, but Carey’s candor is what turns these moments big and small into legends. This is the true meaning of Mariah Carey: when it comes to her story and her music, her voice is as strong on the page as it is on the stage — and she is the only reliable narrator she needs.

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