Mariah Carey, A Genius of the Remix

On today's 30th anniversary of Music Box, we're revisiting how Carey's performative, constructional brilliance and house masterpieces shaped an entire era of pop music

Music Features Mariah Carey
Mariah Carey, A Genius of the Remix

Like few pop-diva superstars of her time, Mariah Carey is a masterful songwriter and producer who knows how to work the constraints of the paradigmatic pop hit—its traditionally repetitive structures, its brevity—to her advantage. Sometimes she’ll push against those limitations, but she’s also perfectly happy to color within the lines, and her remarkable ear for infectious melodies is evident in her record-breaking success on the Billboard Hot 100 chart: nineteen number-one singles, more than any other solo artist in history. Like most pop perfectionists, she is an expert at crafting songs that are closed systems, songs in which every choice sounds inevitable and each moment possesses its own logic and charisma.

Perhaps because of her proficiency in pop conventions, Mariah’s work has often been dismissed by critics as formulaic—Time Magazine once called it “Nutrasweet soul.” Rarely has she been discussed as a creative shapeshifter or a taker of risks. But more than three decades after her debut, it’s time she received credit for the experimental inclinations she showed in the early ’90s. If her best-known material reveals her attentiveness to pop radio, the dance remixes she began recording at the height of her fame signal her indebtedness to the club—a Dionysian domain of entertainment culture less encumbered by sales stats or traditional song form, a place where her musical id could be set free from the strictures of the hit factory.

Growing up, I was only faintly aware that Mariah’s remixes existed. When my family got internet access in the mid-1990s, listservs and chat groups were emerging as oases of community in the strange new digital wilderness. These forums drew lambs from every corner of the world, and some of the most fanatical were given to dissecting the contents of Mariah’s maxi-singles, remix-packed releases that I couldn’t find in my youth, which was spent mostly in the suburban American South and Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. It wasn’t until my early adulthood, when a lot of obscure music became available through torrents and YouTube uploads, that I got a chance to listen to these records that had seemed so mythical to me. It was then that I realized the extent to which Mariah had re-envisioned so many of her signature hits, sometimes giving them two or three extreme makeovers on a single disc.

With 1993’s Music Box, her third studio album, Mariah began to exert an unusual amount of control over her remixes—an irony, considering it’s one of her least sonically and thematically adventurous LPs and is perhaps still best known for the anodyne self-help ballad “Hero,” a song she once dismissed as “schmaltzy.” Mariah unveiled her unorthodox approach to remixing with one of the few tracks on the album that counts as a genuine artistic breakthrough. “Dreamlover,” Music Box’s lead single, was Mariah’s first collaboration with Dave “Jam” Hall, a producer who had perfected a mix of gritty beats and sweet R&B melodies loosely known as “hip-hop soul.” This was the first time she had teamed up with a hitmaker who operated primarily in the realms of rap and R&B.

“Dreamlover” has a stronger vintage flavor than Hall’s tracks for Mary J. Blige and Father MC, two Uptown Records stars who caught Mariah’s attention in the early ’90s. The song derives its throwback appeal from a looped sample of “Blind Alley,” a 1971 soul classic by the Emotions that has been frequently referenced by rap artists, most notably Big Daddy Kane. Much of the charm of “Dreamlover” lies in the ease it projects, despite the fact that the lyrics are preoccupied not with the fulfillment of romance but with an unsatiated longing for it. The music video—which marked Mariah’s first time working with director Diane Martel, who would later be instrumental in refashioning Mariah’s image for hip-hop audiences—shows the singer prancing in a field of grass and flowers in a long-sleeve shirt tied above her midriff. The girl-next-door imagery matches the sound: apart from a few sky-scraping notes, “Dreamlover” is more girl-group confection than tour de force, with a main melody that falls within a reasonably comfortable range and a chorus delivered with gently sun-kissed background vocals.

David Morales’s Def Club Mix of “Dreamlover” is an altogether different experience. Nearly eleven minutes long, the remix and its four-on-the-floor thump call forth images of sweaty, murkily lit nightlife, a world far removed from the open-air setting of the “Dreamlover” video. The first few minutes foreground Morales, who attacks the listener with an antic collage of blips and bleeps. A Brooklyn-born Puerto Rican American DJ, Morales had immersed himself in New York City’s club scene in the ’80s, frequenting legendary spots such as the Loft and Paradise Garage. The delirium of his take on “Dreamlover” established him as someone who could bring out a hint of the surreal in Mariah, who stretches her voice across Morales’s track with lusty eagerness, turning the sweet romanticism of the song into something feral.

Adjusting the melody and her intonation, the singer reimagines herself as a femme fatale, with husky tones reminiscent of Lauren Bacall—not a far-fetched association, given Mariah’s childhood love of classic Hollywood stars. And during the breakdown, when much of the instrumentation drops out, Mariah is all but panting as she commands the lover to “come and take me, take me, take me… baby, won’t you take my away!” If the album version of “Dreamlover” poses its “you” as the figment of a schoolgirl’s imagination, the Def Club Mix makes the beloved’s presence palpable through sheer force of desire.

In an era when house remixes were important promotional tools for pop artists hoping to make inroads into the influential gay club scene, Mariah forged a chemistry with Morales as strong as any she would share with future collaborators. The two would go on to scale even greater heights with the house version of 1995’s “Always Be My Baby,” a trippy space odyssey whose melody bears only a passing resemblance to that of the hit song, and a 2000 remix of “Can’t Take That Away (Mariah’s Theme)” that turns one of Mariah’s most self-pitying survival anthems into a series of thunderous, gospel-powered climaxes.

As someone who came into pop consciousness in the ’80s, Mariah grew up at a time when remixes were becoming a mainstream phenomenon. Nile Rodgers’s version of Duran Duran’s “The Reflex” was all over the radio, and Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis reimagined George Michael’s “Monkey” so elaborately that they raised the bar for creativity in the field. But Mariah went further than her peers, treating remixes not as an occasional indulgence but as a centerpiece of her art.

To understand her stature as a remix queen, it’s important to know how unusual it was for one of the busiest pop stars in the world to rewrite melodies and record all-new vocals for so many of her songs. Mariah handles her remixes as a great interpreter might approach a cover of someone else’s composition. She flips her own music in the same way Aretha Franklin reinvented Otis Redding’s “Respect” and Simon & Garfunkel’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” with an ear for surprise and possibility. In an interview, Morales said of their work together: “That was the first time that a singer came into the studio to re-sing a record. That changed the whole idea of what remixing was… Nobody heard Mariah Carey sing like that.”

This strategy wasn’t common, but it wasn’t without precedent. Remixing has its roots in Jamaican music culture of the 1940s and ’50s, when DJs would cobble together multiple songs and excise their less-danceable sections to create a seamless experience for clubbers. This art form had to be witnessed live. But when that art migrated to the United States and became prominent during the disco era, the word “remix,” once a little-known music industry term, came to take on different meanings—an evolution captured on wax. DJ Walter Gibbons broke ground by twisting Loleatta Holloway’s “Hit and Run” into unrecognizable shape, abandoning much of the original melody and centering the track on sighs and exclamations, with little regard for lyrical coherence. This recording and others like it drew attention to the ecstatic properties of the twelve-inch remix, an extended format that served as an ideal soundtrack to those sex- and drug-fueled trance states that can make time melt away on the dance floor.

In the contrasts between a song’s original and alternate versions, you hear how the closed system of pop music can be pried open. Every moment that through endless repetition has come to sound like a foregone conclusion is in fact a choice among an array of options. Yet even as Mariah saw the remix as an avenue of creative freedom, the format would have marked her as frivolous in the eyes of the predominantly white male critical establishment of the period—if they had even cared to listen. Rock was still the go-to genre among most music critics of the ’90s, and the album was the privileged object. Anti-disco sentiment, which had emerged out of a brew of homophobia and racism at the end of the ’70s, was alive and well more than a decade later, resulting in a dearth of serious criticism and journalism on dance music.

It takes an artist who can authoritatively inhabit multiple styles to show us just how straitjacketing musical categories can be. My favorite among Mariah’s early remixes does just that. It comes courtesy of David Cole and Robert Clivillés, dance-music superstars who achieved a crossover hit with 1990’s “Gonna Make You Sweat (Everybody Dance Now)” and whose impact on Mariah was as large as Morales’s. The C+C club version of “Anytime You Need a Friend” (another song that originated on Music Box) is wall-to-wall Mariah: there’s barely an inch of the track that isn’t covered in her riffing and caterwauling. If her collaborations with Morales are built on a give-and-take between producer and vocalist, with Mariah disappearing for stretches at a time to cede ground to the maestro’s sonic noodling, this remix suggests the forbearance of collaborators who knew that all they had to do was give the singer a big canvas.

This remix opens with a build-up consisting of only piano and vocals, giving Mariah a long runway from which to blast off, before a swirling beat changes the course of the track a minute in. Kicking a song off with vocal fireworks is a strategy Cole and Clivillés had employed three years earlier in their remix of Mariah’s 1991 hit “Emotions,” which features a sparsely accompanied opening section (later memorably sampled in Drake’s 2018 song “Emotionless”) in which Mariah plunges from the top of her belting register down to the basement of her range. This gutsy intro recalls the work of disco queens she admired, such as Jocelyn Brown, whose hit “Somebody Else’s Guy” was an inspiration for these wailing preludes.

In the C+C remix of “Anytime You Need a Friend,” the opening is just a taste of the excess to come. The track doesn’t follow the classic arc of a Mariah vocal, which tends to build drama at a systematic pace, saving its money notes for the grand finale. This performance charts its own anarchic path—a controlled collision of climaxes. In the final passage, at which point we’re almost worn out by Mariah’s athletic exertions, the diva decides she wants to time travel to the golden age of jazz. For two minutes, she scats with enough confidence (drawn from the years she spent improvising with her mother’s jazz musician friends as a teenager) to approximate Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan.

The physical endurance Mariah maintains over the course of this eleven-minute masterpiece lends weight to the song’s idealistic pronouncements on friendship. You feel the commitment it takes to love someone through hard times. The metaphor of Mariah’s vocal labors can be extended to the clubbers whose bodies the song aims to activate. As journalist Barry Laine noted in his coverage of the disco era, “The body reaches a point when it goes beyond exhaustion, exceeds its boundaries, and rather than tiring, works harder and produces more.” In the same way that Mariah pushes her voice to the brink, the track throws us into a state of ecstatic fatigue.

Though it took me many years to discover Mariah’s dance remixes, what I’ve come to love about them is the feeling that I’m rummaging in a drawer full of her drafts, notes, and false starts. In C+C’s “Anytime You Need a Friend,” you get a sense that she’s not interested in creating a smooth, cohesive experience for us listeners so much as she’s flooding our ears with every idea she couldn’t cram into the album version. Most of Mariah’s best music is characterized by precision, but these tracks are so loose and reckless—with minutes’ worth of vamping that feel defiantly unnecessary—it’s as if you’re watching a great artist splatter paint on a wall.

House’s electronic elements have sometimes been derided as mechanistic and inhuman, but there’s a live-wire immediacy in these recordings. In them, you get to hear Mariah navigate mazelike soundscapes with a moment-to-moment, pulse-by-pulse alertness. You start to wonder: How many different places can she take this melody? How will she keep this going? Listening to her on this track, I’m overwhelmed by the thought that her voice and, by extension, music itself are vital energies without limit or end.

The joyous sound of Mariah’s Music Box remixes is made all the more poignant by the context of her personal life: At the time the album was released, she was trapped in a toxic marriage to Sony Music CEO Tommy Mottola, from whom she would separate in 1997. It’s eerie to listen to the house masterpieces this era of her career yielded while also knowing that their exuberance emanated from an unhappy young woman who wasn’t even allowed to enjoy a night out with her friends. The fact that Mariah sounds so elated in these performances points to her brilliance as a pop illusionist—and to music’s power to meet emptiness with plenitude, to enact the kinds of liberation often denied its makers.

This essay was adapted from a chapter in Andrew Chan’s book Why Mariah Carey Matters with exclusive permission from University of Texas Press. Order Chan’s book here.

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