I know why the caged bird sings

Mariah in Australia, January 2013Long before there were Little Monsters and Beliebers, there were Lambs. The Lambily, as they are collectively known, are the devoted fan-army of singer-songwriter Mariah Carey, she of the 200 million albums sold, and the piano-worthy octave range.

The Lambily are a big global Mariah Carey family (Get it? Lambs. Family. Lambily!), and the Australian branch of the tree has had much to celebrate this past month, when the diva finally returned to our shores, fifteen years after her last visit. It is the Lambily who helped sell out her Sydney arena concert in just four minutes, and the Lambily who fought back on Twitter and Facebook after most Australian critics appeared to have witnessed an entirely different set of concerts to the ones she performed. The Lambily are indeed fiercely protective of their girl – and the truth is, when it comes to Mariah Carey, they get a lot of practice at it.

Few artists with such success have been so maligned by both the public and the press through-out their career. In the early days Mariah was too white-bread, to over-produced, too saccharine. Then she divorced her Svengali-come-husband Tommy Mottola and became too urban, too slutty, too black. In recent years she’s copped too fat, too demanding, too high maintenance. Mariah Carey has always been considered a little bit too much of everything in fact. And of course, a whole lot of crazy.

From a feminist perspective I pay close attention to the way our female achievers are portrayed, and what they are celebrated for. When it comes to Mariah, there is a real disconnect between her acheivements, and how she is represented by the press. It was never more apparent than when respected media, including MS magazine and the BBC, ran with the now infamous and completely made up Mariah quote about skinny kids in Africa; that a comment so obviously satirical was widely reported as true revealed just how willing people are to believe the worst about famous women. And importantly, how easy it is to cast doubts on their having driven their own success.

When that spoof interview went viral Mariah was already a prolific songwriter with albums that not only included global pop hits like Emotions and Fantasy, but were peppered with less commercial tracks exploring her struggles with identity and her biracial heritage. The readiness to believe that quote, and the portrayal of Mariah as vapid in the main stream press spoke volumes on how we classify female celebrities. The biggest-selling female artist of all time couldn’t possibly be beautiful, talented, successful and smart. No, she had to at best be stupid, and at worst, ignorant. Certainly, should she live large and enjoy her achievements, she had to be shallow and self-involved, as opposed to … well … successful.

The bad press got worse when Mariah collapsed from exhaustion in 2001. There was a type of glee in the reporting of her breakdown, a schadenfreude Mariah in Melbourne, Australiaplayed out on front pages all over the world. This was a young woman who had endured an abusive relationship with Mottola and was taking her first steps, barely out of her twenties, to wrest back control of her life and career from both her much-older husband and the global corporation he represented. The lack of sympathy or respect for Mariah at the time floored me. It also gave me a newfound respect for this gutsy chick when she picked herself back up to take on the Machiavellian Mottola. And won. By surviving the knocks, and being just as successful without him, or so more so in fact, when you consider the global smash that was her comeback album The Emancipation of Mimi.

For his part, Mottola fed right into the bias, and still claims responsibility for Mariah’s success. In a new tell-all book released this month Mottola explicitly takes credit for her career. He neglects to mention that when Mariah met Mottola, she had already written many of the songs that went on to be hit records. No-one, least of all Mottola, seems to consider that Mariah made Mottola’s career as much as he made hers. It was her voice, and her songs, after-all.

As Mariah goes into her first season as a judge on American Idol, here’s hoping the long arm of Mottola no longer reaches her, despite the book release. I suspect she’s finally been able to shake him off, with both a resurrected career and a happy marriage to the gorgeous and younger Nick Cannon. Together they parent ‘DemBabies’, the adorable twins recently introduced to Australia. For his part, Nick appears to have no problem celebrating the fact that his wife is powerful, successful, and a woman in control.

I celebrate this too, but then I’m a bit of a lamb myself. The truth is I don’t just like Mariah Carey. I love Mariah Carey. I love her in a singing into a hairbrush, foot-stomping kind of way. I love her in a screaming from the front row kind of way. Okay, technically in a crying from the sixth row kind of way, but you get the idea. I love how she helped pioneer the now classic pop-rap cross-over when she recorded Fantasy with ODB. I love that she also covered the holy trinity of make-me-cry-as-a-kid songs, Without You, Endless Love and Against All Odds. And I love her even more for her throaty laugh, her wicked sense of humour and her random moments of loveable crazy that the press just don’t seem to get. And don’t even get me started on Christmas.

But most of all, I love that one of the most successful singer-songwriters of our time was once a scrawny, poor, bi-racial girl who didn’t fit in, who married too young and nearly got swallowed up by an industry that wanted to both hold her up and cut her down … but survived it all. By writing and melisma-ing her way through whatever was thrown at her, and finding her freedom in the process.

Somebody cue Hero and find me a hairbrush. This lamb feels a tribute coming on!

MC concert

Mariah Carey recently performed a sell-out tour of Australia.

She appears on American Idol from January 17th, and will release her 14th studio album mid-year.

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