Mariah Carey was born with a miraculously exceptional vocal instrument. Despite decades of oversaturated media coverage of her career and personal life, very little is known about her childhood development and personal discovery process of the craft of singing. Mariah is never asked in interviews the questions that every professional singer would love for her to answer: When you first began singing by mimicking your opera singer mother, did she attempt to guide or advise you? Were you aware that your vocal strengths were, from both a technical and stylistic perspective, diametrically opposed to the classical vocal technique practiced by your mother? Did she express concern about the long-term health of your vocal cords when you lifted your chest voice above F5, G5? Did you fight with your mother over the kind of singing that you wanted to pursue?
We can only presume Patricia Hickey gave her blessing to daughter Mariah’s dream to pursue non-classical singing. In her early albums, the explosive power and technical perfection she unleashed in “Vision of Love,” “I Don’t Wanna Cry,” were spellbinding. Her detailed control over the movement of her voice in the complex riffing sequences (and her fiercely accurate pitch throughout) felt both viscerally spontaneous and yet masterful. What was her process? What could she tell us about the physical execution of the sound that she was producing? What was her pre-performance procedure for warming up her instrument? We don’t know BECAUSE NO ONE ASKED HER. She was interviewed by philistine morons who only asked her if she liked being famous and if she had a boyfriend. Good God.
Lay people watch and hear a great singer, and respond with admiration and applause. Singers watch and hear a great singer and our own instruments instinctively, physically match the placement and breath needed to recreate the sensation of executing that same sound within our own bodies. When we witness great singing, our appreciation and understanding is that much more profound, because our bodies and minds understand the sheer work that is required to make that sound come out.
Same is true with our understanding of WHY certain singers have the impact that they do on the average listener. Mariah Carey’s most stylistically similar predecessor, Whitney Houston, was highly valued as well for her precision, power, and pitch accuracy. But Whitney had a brighter ring to her sound, and the core of her voice was set higher. That brightness allowed her to raise her chest voice to the same pitches as Carey or Aguilera or Clarkson, but it made more sense to the ear for her voice to go there. But with Mariah Carey, the voice had a thickness, warmth and roundness to the sound that made it seem that much more an Olympic feat to raise all that vocal weight into a belted G-sharp 5.
Above Mariah’s extremely high belt were her whistle tones, the stratospheric head voice pitches that give us some insight into her opera-imitating beginnings. Reminiscent of Mozart’s Queen of the Night, Mariah showed us often that her control of her instrument extended beyond the belted Gs, that she had more than a working knowledge of her head voice, and that she could expertly support and spin it with her breath.
Carey’s producers in the early 90’s made their biggest mistake when they decided to literally write these whistle tones into the melodies of her songs. In “Emotions” and “Someday,” these pitches are NOT OPTIONAL. She is forced to go to those notes in live performance because audiences had been repeatedly hearing the recorded song on the radio for months on end. But the (mostly) men who helped Mariah record those songs (David Cole, Robert Clivillés, Walter Afanasieff, Tommy Mottola), wanted to take full advantage of the beautiful young woman who was a musical freak of nature. And for all they knew, the fickle audiences of their industry, pop music, could discard Mariah in a matter of a few years, demoting her to a Walgreens cashier in less than a decade. So a high-F in verse one it is!
Those men never expected Mariah to be just as famous, just as worshipped, twenty-six years later.
All singers’ voices mature over time. It is a natural part of every singer’s evolution and in most cases, the changes are gradual. With careful observation and nurturing, most singers adjust their technique throughout their careers and spend their lives wrapped in scarves, not speaking when it can be avoided, and blasting humidifiers all night long in order to preserve the talent that makes them valuable (yours truly, for example).
Which brings us to New Year’s Eve 2016 and Mariah’s tragic flaws. Massive worldwide fame comes with access to sycophants and large quantities of high quality alcohol. And shady folks like Brett Ratner who aren’t going to say “Hey girl, don’t you have to sing a 2-hour concert tomorrow in Oslo? Maybe we should pass on that ninth bottle of Cristal.”
Let’s face it. All you needed to see back in 2001 was her bizarre striptease on TRL to know that Mariah Carey had gone completely bonkers. Who knows if she was even thinking about her voice for long stretches of time, the very thing that hurtled her to such prominence?
Producing consistent professional quality sound with your voice requires great pragmatism, personal sacrifice, and ferocious discipline. When you’re Mariah Carey, NO ONE around you will require you to exhibit those qualities. When you’re Mariah Carey, they will bring you more Cristal even if you sound like Brenda Vaccaro in a wind tunnel. If you’re Mariah Carey, they will patch in a 26-year old recording of your whistle tones on New Year’s Eve on live national television because you are still physically alive but no longer able to do what you were put on earth by the Lord to do.
It was the perfect storm. Maybe the monitors really didn’t work. Maybe she really couldn’t hear the backing track. But we all saw much more going on New Year’s Eve than technical difficulties. We saw a spoiled megastar give up on her one and only job. We saw rage and resentment that would be unleashed later on cowering assistants and publicists instead of directed toward the one person who could have saved the performance: herself.
If Mariah Carey wants to resurrect her voice she must first repair two other things: her physical health and her spirit. The human voice is a mirror to both. She must strip herself of the gaudy, lazy, sequin-encrusted lifestyle and remember the young woman in a simple pair of black pants and plain black jacket and a swipe of peach lip gloss who stopped the world cold with her unplugged voice. She must seek out people, specialists, and especially a highly experienced speech-level singing vocal technician, to bring her voice back to the best it can be today. Because it is worth it to the whole world to see Mariah Carey be excellent. Because when she is excellent, she is truly sublime.
This is my Vision of Love for you, Mariah.
Make It Happen.
-Miki Yamashita, lyric soprano, Los Angeles Opera