It takes a village to promote an album, and on Tuesday before Thanksgiving, Mariah Carey has at least 10 people with her when she arrives at the Electric Lady Studios in New York. It's a makeup person and a hair person, a manager and publishers, a lawyer and what can be a bodyguard, and a whole different group of people who are difficult to place. Mariah is tall in high heel, black boots and perfectly made up, with hair as straight as I've ever seen hair, two earrings that shine from the ears and a megawatt smile. Everybody is in good spirits, like a winning sports team in the wardrobe in half-time.
Although this is the kind of infrastructure necessary for celebrity in the 21st century, it's just the window dressing. When things go down, Mariah and I turn off to a quiet room in the recording studio for a discussion of life and music. The mother of two reclines put her feet on the coffee table, asking for red wine for us, and in the middle of the interview she asked the manager for pizza from an order her team had made. She wants a piece of pepperoni, but nobody left, so she usually eats a regular slice, balances it on her pink-painted nails.
When you think of Mariah, you probably have a picture of the ultimate diva that drinks in diamonds, and although she seems to wear some expensive jewels (two butterfly rings on her fingers – one gold, a silver twinkle in the light) is inviting and relaxed here in the studio, eager and engaged when she talks about the care she takes in her art. That's something she has not always had the opportunity to discuss, as her fame has often inspired more questions from journalists about her dating life than her songwriting process.
Yes, she has been remarkably famous for almost 30 years, and yes, she has had 18 number 1 singles on Billboard Hot 100. But she also wrote most songs, which have not only been a smart business decision but a key to her consistency. Mariah Carey singer always sounds like Mariah Carey songs because they always is Mariah Carey singer. Her sound is solid as always on her 15th album, Caution, her preference for mid-tempo shines a constant in a world moving from trend to trend with increasing speed. She has an eerie understanding of what fits her sunshine and champagne singing voice, which is sometimes said to team up to seven octaves so she can beat the celestial whistleblower.
On a Mariah classic like 1996's "Always Be My Baby", there is a sweetness baked right in, and many of her texts have over the years promoted fantasies of honey and heroes, butterflies and dreams. But she is also great with a kiss she shows Caution and its lead track, "GTFO", is about as much a breakup song as you can hope to get when the next fool breaks your heart. The album is a cool, safe and sexy affair, stable in its pleasures, with stand-out collaboration with Ty Dolla $ ign on the lavish "The Distance" and with Blood Orange's Dev Hynes on the easy "Giving Me Life." And then it's "Portrait", moments of introspection that Mariah makes sure to wear on each plate, and as it points to ups and downs in a life lived in the eyes of the public eye. "Where am I from here?" She asks for the song. "How do I get away?"
But just because she can be serious does not mean that the scary diva aspect of her image is not important to her. At a time when celebrities win by showing out how real they are at Instagram, there is something fabulous escapist – practically Mae West – if the larger than life persona Mariah radiates. She sometimes uses the royal "we" when she refers to herself and reminds endlessly in GIF melodramatic to shed her black sunglasses, say with her proclamations and preferences for words like "moments" and "dear" who serve as a cat mint for an internet that loves zippy one-liners. And she knows this. Her mother was an opera singer – the original definition of diva – and Mariah tells me she has so much fun playing the over-the-top aspects of personality we have seen.
She is also a fighter. She had a tough childhood, which contained little money and the parents' tumultuous divorce. She has always had the impression, like a biracial child, that she was a true outsiders, a feeling that has fallen asleep in adulthood. As a teenager, she was locked into a record deal with Sony (like her soon-to-be and now-ex-man, Tommy Mottola, race) that helped her become a superstar but limited her freedoms, creative and otherwise.
It took all her early career to break out of the contract, with the subsequent 1997 album Butterfly as a declaration of liberation. She has had to clean her own path a number of times, including after her career shook her star in the 2001 movie glitter and associated audio tracks. She traveled with one of the biggest hits in her career, 2005's "We're Together." Two weeks ago she got the last laugh glitter soundtrack jumped to # 1 on iTunes charts after the fans had organized a # JusticeforGlitter campaign. At this point it seems that even her flops are hits.
In an industry that builds its most glorious stars just to destroy them, Mariah is still a reliable source of happiness for so many. She is a soothing pop luminaire that is embedded in all our psyche-tucked in between visions of birthday lights blowing out and the bedroom singing-alongs- but she's also a human right here in front of us, a warm voice that always sounds right.