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The number ones: Mariah Carey's "My All"

Wednesday 8 June 2022

The number ones: Mariah Carey's My All | mcarchives.com
Mariah Carey was really into Derek Jeter. In 1997, when she was working on her Butterfly album, Mariah was still technically married to Tommy Mottola, the Sony Music exec who'd signed her to Columbia, but the couple was already in the midst of separating. Mariah didn't let the world know any of this until she published her memoir in 2020, but she took a solo vacation to Puerto Rico during that time, and she did it because she knew Jeter would be there. Mariah and Jeter had secretly hooked up once on a Manhattan rooftop, and Mariah wanted more. She got it.

Derek Jeter was the inspiration for "Honey", the chart-topping lead single from Mariah's Butterfly album, and for "The Roof", the album's Mobb Deep-sampling European single. Carey also had Jeter in mind when she wrote "My All", the grand ballad that marked the end of a particular stretch of her career. Ever since Mariah had first signed with Columbia, Tommy Mottola had been pushing her to sing big, demonstrative show-stoppers. Mariah was less and less interested in songs like that, and she was more and more interested in exploring the rap and R&B that she loved. But even though she and Mottola were on the outs when she worked on Butterfly, she still had to work with the guy.

Butterfly still had a handful of the melodramatic slow-dance numbers that Mottola favored, so there's a fun little irony in how the last of those big Mariah ballads - the last of that particular kind of big Mariah ballad, anyway - was a love song for the guy that Mariah really wanted to be banging when she was extricating herself from Mottola's clutches.

In the '90s, Mariah Carey recorded most of her big ballads with one key collaborator, the Russian-Brazilian producer Walter Afanasieff. Up until 1990, Afanasieff had been a studio musician who worked with Narada Michael Walden, the big-deal producer who had worked on Mariah's self-titled debut album. Just before the album came out, though, Mariah came up with a big new ballad called "Love Takes Time". When Mottola heard Mariah's demo of the song, he insisted that it needed to be on her album, which was already being pressed up. (Early copies of Mariah Carey don't include "Love Takes Time" in its liner notes.) Columbia boss Don Ienner, who liked what Afanasieff had done with Walden, had hired Afanasieff as a staff producer at the label, and Afanasieff got the call to rush-record "Love Takes Time" quickly enough that it could show up on Mariah's album.

"Love Takes Time" became Mariah's second single and also her second #1 hit. It led to a big career for Afanasieff, who worked on eight of Mariah's 19 chart-toppers. That success led to more big assignments for Afanasieff, who also produced the pop versions of grand movie ballads like "A Whole New World" and "My Heart Will Go On". Mariah and Afanasieff had a lot of success together, but when she finally got away from Mottola, she didn't want to make music with Afanasieff anymore. The two never collaborated again after Butterfly. (Afanasieff's work will appear in this column again, and we'll even see him and Mariah here again. That won't happen for a while, though, and it'll happen with a song that the two of them recorded long before they stopped collaborating.)

In Fred Bronson's Billboard Book Of Number 1 Hits, Walter Afanasieff says that he and Mariah split apart because he needed to maintain a relationship with Tommy Mottola: "Mariah felt that shutting her relationship with Tommy was also a cleansing of who she was. She felt that part of what she was dropping was the schmaltzy pop singer ballad kind of stuff he was so adamant about." Afanasieff was a go-to guy for schmaltzy pop singer ballad kind of stuff, so Mariah might've stopped working with him even if he hadn't maintained such close ties to Mottola.

I tend to think that Mariah's songs with Afanasieff are generally some of her least interesting work, though they definitely made a few bangers together. Mariah and Afanasieff co-produced fully half of Butterfly together, but Mariah has said that she had more control of the process by then. In the Bronson book, she says, "I was dictating a little bit more in terms of production. I was saying this has to be a little more sparse, we need to tone it down here. It was the real me finally coming out." Like a butterfly.

"My All" is definitely a whole lot more sparse and toned-down than almost anything else that Mariah ever made with Afanasieff. Mariah got the idea for the "My All" melody when she was in Puerto Rico with Derek Jeter. She and Afanasieff finished the song in her home studio, which was in the giant mansion that she and Mottola shared. Instead of slathering strings all over the song, Afanasieff left a lot more space for Mariah's voice, surrounding her with soft synth-hums and minimal drum-machine echoes.

Other than Mariah's voice, the lead instrument on "My All" is a Spanish-style guitar that sounds pretty similar to what David Foster had used on Toni Braxton's massive hit "Un-Break My Heart" about a year earlier. Mariah had a grandmother from Venezuela, and she loved hearing Latin music in Puerto Rico, so she wanted some of that sound in her song. Growing up in Brazil, Afanasieff had heard plenty of that: "Hearing Russian music and Latin and Brazilian music my whole life, I went into an old-fashioned sort of Russian, Latin-Spanish chord progression melody, which was hardly being done." But that guitar isn't a guitar; it's Walter Afanasieff using a Korg Trinity to mimic the sound of a guitar.

In her own book, Mariah writes, "My All was the realest, boldest, most passionate love song I'd ever written. I brought to it the Spanish undertones, the warm breeze, the ecstasy of desire, and the agony of separation that I remembered so clearly." She also says that the song's relative spareness was a deliberate choice: "This song was about life and death, and I didn't want it to get lost in any over-the-top schmaltz. I needed it to be strong and simple. I wanted the vocals to be the centerpiece, the focal point in the mix, with a stripped-down track behind them."

On the page, Mariah's "My All" lyrics could easily pass for schmaltz. There's not a lot of specificity to "My All", probably because it would be a couple of decades before Mariah was OK with letting the world know who she was singing about. Those lyrics are all fairly generic love-song mush, with Mariah singing about the exaggerated importance of this particular love: "I can't go on living in the memory of our song. I'd give my all for your love tonight." But I do like the bit where Mariah sings that this guy is "vividly emblazoned" in her mind - the same impulse toward weird SAT-word phrasing that once led Mariah make an album with the objectively insane title Me. I Am Mariah… The Elusive Chanteuse.

Mariah Carey lyrics never look right on paper. That's not the kind of writer that she is. You need to hear her sing this stuff. That's especially true of a song like "My All", which is just a total vocal showcase. In the beginning, Mariah sings "My All" as a torch song, alternating between a low purr and an airy coo, both seductive. But as the song builds, Mariah goes absolutely bugnuts with melismatic runs - displays of technique that double as displays of passion. Even if you don't love the song or the singing style, it's genuinely breathtaking to hear Mariah cut loose on a track, bending notes the the point where she's almost tying them up in knots. Given everything that was happening in her life at the time, it's possible to hear the end of "My All" as a howl of need and desperation, a plea from someone who desperately wants her life to change.

I have a natural aversion to big, demonstrative ballads, and "My All" isn't exactly an exception to that rule. It's never been one of the Mariah Carey songs that really stood out to me. There's no immediate hook, no moment of giddiness, nothing that really moves me. I'm not exactly bummed out that she stopped working with Walter Afanasieff. But I respect "My All". It's not too often that a chart-topping single shows that combination of wild technical expertise and raw, vulnerable sincerity. The exact details of Mariah Carey's life weren't necessarily obvious in a song like "My All", but she was definitely feeling things, and I can feel her feeling those things.

Butterfly wasn't as big a hit as Daydream, Mariah Carey's previous album, but it still sold millions. By the time Mariah released "My All" as a single, Butterfly was triple platinum, on its way to quintuple. Other than first single "Honey", though, its songs weren't really connecting. "The Roof" and the Bone Thugs-N-Harmony collab "Breakdown" are both great songs, but Mariah didn't release either of them as singles in the US, possibly because they weren't hitting at radio the way that she wanted. (Mariah was always keenly aware of her chart standing, and I'm willing to bet that she didn't want to release any singles that didn't have a real shot at #1.) When it came time to release "My All", she wasn't taking any chances.

In September of 1997, months before the "My All" single came out, Mariah sang the song on Saturday Night Live. For the "My All" video, Mariah enlisted the fashion photographer Herb Ritts; he'd already directed clips for big hits like Janet Jackson's "Love Will Never Do Without You". The "My All" video looks very much like a perfume commercial. It opens with Mariah looking incredible, laying on a capsized boat while floating in a silent-film-looking sea. Eventually, a male-model type rescues her. Presumably, this was Mariah doing her best to capture those Titanic perilous-nautical-romance vibes.

That wasn't the only "My All" video. Mariah commissioned a bunch of "My All" remixes, and she re-recorded her vocals for at least one of them. The big remix came from Mariah's friend and frequent collaborator Jermaine Dupri, and his take on the song sounds nothing like the original. In his So So Def remix, Dupri built the track around a sample of "Stay A Little While, Child", a 1986 single from the British R&B group Loose Ends. (Loose Ends' only Hot 100 hit is 1985's "Hangin' On A String (Contemplating)", which peaked at #43.) With that sample, Dupri built a bubbling, synthy beat that turned "My All" into something smooth and dancefloor-ready. That remix also had verses from Lord Tariq and Peter Gunz, the New York rap duo who were riding high on the success of their only real hit, the 1997 Bronx-pride banger "Deja Vu (Uptown Baby)". ("Deja Vu" peaked at #9. It's an 8.)

The "My All" remix didn't change the world the way that the Puff Daddy remix of Mariah's "Fantasy" had done a few years earlier, but it's pretty cool nonetheless. Tariq and Gunz do their best at flirty repartee, and the beat bubbles just enough to change the track's context completely. Mariah made a grainy, no-frills video for that one with Diane Martel, who had directed her "Dreamlover" video.

There was another big "My All" remix, too. David Morales, Mariah's regular remixer, did a bunch of different house versions of "My All" including a crazy gospel-inflected reworking that stretched the song out to nine minutes. It sure seems like the Morales remix is Mariah's favorite version of the song. When she sings "My All" live, she often arranges it as a medley, going from the original into the Morales version.

"My All" seems a little bit like a paper #1 hit. It's an important song to Mariah Carey fans, but it only held the top spot for a week, and it didn't immediately become part of popular culture, the way a bunch of other Mariah songs have done. Those remixes, which are different enough that they're practically entirely new tracks, presumably helped the song out on the charts. So did Mariah's appearance on the first VH1 Divas Live special. That show aired a week before Mariah released the "My All" single. Mariah opened that show by singing "My All", going from the original ballad version to the David Morales house remix. The moment of transition was exciting, and Mariah's hair was enormous.

As the Butterfly album cycle wound down, Mariah tried to figure out the next step of her career. She knew that she couldn't keep working with her ex-husband, so she flew to Japan to meet with the head of the Sony corporation in an attempt to either secure her release or to get Mottola fired. It didn't work, but she felt that the company respected her. She still owed Sony more records, and later in 1998, she released #1s, the first of her best-of compilations. It sold five million copies.

One of the new songs that Mariah included on the collection was a tribute to an old friend. Brenda K. Starr, the Latin freestyle singer who'd hired an unknown Mariah as a backup singer and who'd taken her to the party where she met Tommy Mottola, had her biggest hit when the 1987 ballad "I Still Believe" reached #13. For #1s, Mariah covered "I Still Believe" and took it it to #4. (Mariah's version is a 4.)

Another of the songs on #1s was supposed to be a big hit, but it didn't happen. At the behest of Dreamworks exec Jeffrey Katzenberg, Mariah got together with Whitney Houston, her longtime chart rival, for the duet "When You Believe", the end credits song from the Biblical cartoon movie The Prince Of Egypt. This was the first and only Whitney Houston/Mariah Carey duet, and you'd think that it would be an automatic chart-topper on that alone, but no. Unfortunately, "When You Believe" is boring, treacly dogshit. The song won the Oscar for Best Original Song, but it peaked at #15.

"When You Believe" might've been an indication that Mariah Carey wasn't as bulletproof on the charts as she once appeared. But Mariah wasn't anywhere near done. We'll see a lot more of her in this column.

(Stereogum)


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