When I first encountered Andrew Chans work nearly a decade ago, my response was akin to that of hearing a great new recording artist: Who is this?! He was writing about Jazmine Sullivans 2014 album Reality Show, and clearly listening to women artists with what James Baldwin, quoting Henry James, might have called perception at the pitch of passion. Since then, weve had a chance to talk about our love of pop divas, academic training in race and culture, and something more basic that I might call a sheer appetite for performance: as critics, we are trying to explain but also to generate a felt sense of what makes singers so moving.
Chan exercises this skill across Why Mariah Carey Matters (University of Texas Press, 2023). Whether he is describing the leathery lows of Careys voice, the sly insouciance of a track like Fantasy, or the nuanced meaning of Candy Blinga song poised precisely between bitterness and sweetness that acknowledges that some losses can never be restoredhe is explaining why Mariah matters to pop history and, more specifically, to her fans. In a sense, the book tells a story about contemporary fandom by tracking Careys spectacular survival of the transition from the analog to the digital age. Chan shows how fans have analyzed, emulated, and obsessed over her music in online forums, while also finding comfort and salvation in more private, intimate encounters with her voice: I cant separate my love from Mariah from the belief that her voice has saved lives, including gay ones like mine, he writes.
In the following conversation, we delve into the nature of these encountersincluding the gifts and techniques through which Carey creates them.
Emily Lordi: I want to begin by saying frankly that I love this bookthat as I was reading it, I just kept annotating it with exclamations of surprise and appreciation. I know you started writing it in the wake of the publication of Mariahs memoir, The Meaning of Mariah Carey, and Im interested in the fact that you included less biographical background in your book than some readers might expect. What youve written is the story of why her musicianship matters. I wanted to ask you about this choice to keep her at arms length.
Andrew Chan: Im glad you picked up on this. I did have some initial hesitation about doing this project because of how recently her autobiography had come out. But I realized that what I wanted to do was very different. My book is primarily a work of criticism, and I was looking to fill a void that I felt existed in writing about Mariah. There werent any books that went into sufficient depth about her music, what it does, and how it does it. I knew early on that I wasnt interested in focusing on her celebrity persona or picking through the details of her personal lifeexcept in the instances where those details could help illuminate something about how the music achieves its effects and how we respond to it.
Maybe this is rigid or old-fashioned, but I tend to think that, while its important to consider an artists intentions and her biography, that information should never crowd out the sensory, textural, emotional qualities of the aesthetic experience. At a certain point, the art has to be given space to stand on its own. And maybe this is what led me to begin the book with an anecdote about me stumbling on YouTube videos that analyze Mariahs vocal style and skills. Those videos are incredibly, almost hilariously granularand nerdy!in the attentiveness of their listening. And I think, like them, this book expresses a desire to get close to the music, to put our ears up to it.
EL: I love that you emphasize, in the book, that this sound is not just the result of Mariah being born with a great voice, but that she arrived at it through experimentation and innovation. You also make a point to not privilege her songwriting and production over her vocal genius.
AC: Mariah is incredibly deliberate in how she creates her sonic world. I think its interesting that theres been an effort among some Mariah superfans, particularly those who want to see her receive her flowers, to accentuate her songwriting above her other skills. Mariah has even said a few times that she thinks of herself primarily as a songwriter. I understand this impulse. Its partly a way of addressing the fact that many people dont know Mariah has cowritten almost all of her songs. Its also a response to what is considered important and worthy of respect in music culturewhether its Bob Dylan or Joni Mitchell or Prince, the musicians who have been most revered in the rock era are singer-songwriters who operate at a kind of auteurist level, who sort of style themselves as lone wolves. Thats a dominant model of artistic greatness.
Mariah is incredibly deliberate in how she creates her sonic world.
But I didnt want to just take that framework as a given. Yes, Mariah is a brilliant songwriter; shes got a distinctive sense of humor, an uncanny ear for catchy melodies, and a gift for creating sonic pleasure. But whats crucial is that shes writing for her own voiceher writing and her production are often driven by the marvel that is her instrument. Thats why I think its more interesting to talk about how these different skills work together and bolster one another.
EL: Within African American literary studies, which is my first point of entry, I think of the work of Farah Jasmine Griffin, who talks about the practice of trying to legitimate Black artists through a Western-civ frameworkRalph Ellison gets compared to Herman Melville, for instance. Theres this impulse to identify a white male analog as a way of authorizing Black genius.
AC: Right. And in the case of Mariah, that problem is compounded by a historical lack of representation and valorization of Black women singer-songwriter-producers, at least in the context of pop and R&B. Now, I certainly dont want to give short shrift to the work of women like Valerie Simpson, Patrice Rushen, Angela Winbushfemale R&B pioneers who preceded Mariah. But in the era that Mariah came up in, audiences hadnt been exposed to a lot of images of Black women artists calling the shots and practicing their studio wizardry.
But if you listen to Mariahs music across the decades, its hard not to notice her attention to detail, how all the elementsfrom her lead vocals to the backgrounds to the ad-libs to the instrumentationclick into place, in a delicious way, regardless of who shes working with. And this level of attention is evident in the way she talks about her music in interviews.
Another thing about Mariah that doesnt conform to prevailing narratives of musical genius: shes a heavily, openly quotational artist. In this way, she is fundamentally hip-hop. Thats not to say that all or even most of her songs incorporate elements of other peoples work. But, like many of the iconic hip-hop artists of her time, she does get a lot of her creative, compositional fuel from the quotation of preexisting music. Interpolation and allusion are generative forces in African American music, from jazz to R&B to hip-hop. So if youre fixated on pure originalitywhich, of course, doesnt existas a prerequisite for genius, then youre going to miss out on the conversation with music history that Mariah has sustained throughout her career. Shes a great practitioner of sampling, and she knows how to use the inspiration of preexisting music to create something thats her own.
Another thing about Mariah that doesnt conform to prevailing narratives of musical genius: shes a heavily, openly quotational artist.
EL: What do you think are her greatest sampling achievements?
AC: I could go on and on about this! Of course, I have to mention her use of Tom Tom Clubs Genius of Love, which serves as the foundation for Fantasy. Mariah brought Genius of Love to coproducer Dave Jam Hall, and because it was a song that had inspired several hip-hop riffs and remakes in the 1980s, it allows for a dense layering of music-historical associations.
In the book, I talk about how Im fascinated with the fact that Mariah often chooses source material from the 80s, the decade she grew up in, rather than canonical old-school soul and funk samples. Thats part of what makes her taste in samples so distinctive. For her, sampling is connoisseurship; its tied to her experience of R&B in the era of her youth. And shes often highlighting R&B artists who didnt have huge crossover success on the mainstream pop charts, people like Stacy Lattisaw and Loose Ends and DeBarge.
EL: I love thatthis idea that shes using sampling as a way of promoting artists who didnt benefit from the major institutional support she had right out of the gate
AC: Yes, exactly. Theres a fierce attachment to R&B history in her music that I find really moving.
I will also add that, if I had to name my favorite instance of sampling in Mariahs music, Id have to go with something thats more of an interpolationas in, the source material has been reperformed and rerecorded, rather than being directly lifted and looped. Its in her hip-hop remix of I Still Believe, from 1998, which interpolates the song Pure Imagination from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. Its one of her wackiest and funniest choices of a musical reference, but she isnt exactly playing it for laughs; its seductive and beautiful while also being utterly absurd and even a little creepy.
But can I ask you quickly about the Whitney Houston book youre writing now, which Im so excited about? I assume these questions about authorship are also relevant to what youre writing, because Whitney was a genius vocalist who did not write her own songs. How are you handling that, with regard to these dominant narratives weve just talked about?
EL: Yes, all of this is definitely relevant. Ive been thinking about the cultural narrative that people with great voices are just born that way. You say in the book that flaunting this kind of voice is almost like a supreme act of vanity, like preening. But I love this idea of just letting your light shine, not hiding it. And theres an undervaluation of the amount of work that goes into cultivating a naturally beautiful voice. Whitney talks about this in interviews, that her singing is more than a notion. You have to practice and rehearse, and she certainly trained for years with her mother, Cissy Houston.
People do talk about Whitneys instinctswhich is an idea that makes me nervous, because of its proximity to the idea that Black art is just a primitive, spontaneous expression of natural abilities. At the same time, I do think some people get to a place where they just know what to do! They werent born knowing, but they have a particular capacity to learn very quickly and integrate musical information from different sources and then use it in the service of their own art. So, I guess this is all to say, I am trying to mediate between the discourse of naturalness and the idea of rigorous study when discussing Whitneys art.
AC: I love that were talking about this. There is something that I note in a section of my book that focuses on the influence of gospel music on Mariahs singing: I say that she has an intuitive sense of how to fill and decorate musical space. And though their vocal styles are quite different, this intuition, which is obviously the result of years of study, is true of Whitney as well. Both of these women are masters of the art of ad-libbing, which you examine so magnificently in your book The Meaning of Soul. I mean, listen to a Whitney song like Exhale (Shoop Shoop), and you realize that all the choruses are basically built out of ad-libs!
EL: OK, as a last question, I want to ask you about Mariah and the sublime.
AC: Well, youve hit on something in the book that Im a little insecure and self-doubting about. I was worried about the invocation of the sublime and the ecstatic being a turnoff to some readers. This kind of talk felt like it could easily get overwrought or overblown. I was nervous that people just wouldnt take me seriously if I brought the language of spirituality into my analysis. You cant prove that something is sublime.
But at the end of the day, I had to just be honest about my experience of Mariahs music. The words transcendent and sublimethese have a long history and tradition behind them. If were going the literary route, we could talk about Edmund Burke, or Emily Dickinsons idea that poetry is the thing that takes the top of your head off; if were going the cinema route, which is my main professional background, we can talk about directors like Carl Dreyer or Andrei Tarkovsky or Kenji Mizoguchi.
But at the end of the day, I had to just be honest about my experience of Mariahs music.
This might sound silly to some people, but I believe Mariah, in her way, belongs in this tradition. I was thinking about my young self listening to Mariah, getting head-to-toe body chills. What is sublimity if not that? Whether its Dickinson or Tarkovsky or Mariah Carey, these artists operate at the edge of whats possible, and they use our capacity for awe to usher us into another reality.
The only thing I could do to help prop up this claim was to break down the elements that help Mariah achieve these effects. In the book, I talk about a pivotal moment in a deep cut from 1997, called Outside; she performs most of that song in a very wispy, fragile, breathy tone, but at the climax, all of a sudden her voice explodes into a powerful belt, with almost no warning. Its a shock to the ears, but it comes from a place of raw emotion; this is an autobiographical song about her experience growing up as a mixed-race girl.
That stylistic choice is strategic; she knows that she is creating a rupture and asking the listener to dive into it with her. In neuroscience, theres the concept of mirror neuronswhen we witness someone doing something, we are simultaneously imagining and sensing ourselves doing it too. When we hear Mariah singing, those neurons are firing away in our brains. When her voice moves, we cant help but move with it.
Andrew Chan writes regularly about music, film, and books for 4Columns. His work has also been published by the Criterion Collection,Film Comment, NPR, theNew Yorker, andReverse Shot.
Emily Lordi is a writer and critic who has published three books on Black music and culture:Black Resonance(2013),Donny Hathaway Live(33 1/3 series, 2016), andThe Meaning of Soul(2020). She is currently writing a biography of Whitney Houston (forthcoming in 2025) that reassesses her genius and impact. Her essays and profiles have appeared in several venues, most frequently theNew Yorkeronline andT: The New York Times Style Magazine, where she is a writer at large. She is a professor of English at Vanderbilt University, and lives in Nashville.
Andrew Chan’s Why Mariah Carey Matters is available now from University of Texas Press.