Oprah Winfrey launched the 12th season of her afternoon talk show recently, allaying fears that she might be retiring from the talk circuit with the announcement that she would be wielding a microphone at least until 1999; that way, she could use the medium to do good. Then she sat down and interrogated Mariah Carey about the bust-up of her marriage to Sony music boss Tommy Mottola.
Even though the singer was unresponsive, beyond declaring that this is her time to grow, leaving Ms. Winfrey flapping around unsatisfied like the emotionally ravenous carrion crow she is, the host cannot be fully faulted for her prurient interest. Suddenly, Mariah Carey has an angle. All the other globally feted formula goddesses have personal lives whose degrees of turbulence resonate within their music. Madonna, her selective amnesia at the MTV Video Music Awards notwithstanding, has always lived her life as one long, unfolding biopic with accompanying soundtrack. Janet Jackson asserted her individuality from that family and continues to document her journey into sexuality and self-awareness. Whitney Houston continues to try to transcend speculation over her contentious gender preferences and combative marriage. Toni Braxton’s career seems to be a prolonged exercise in shocking the preacher parents who kept her away from boys until her late teens.
But what do we know of Mariah Carey beyond her seven-octave squeak, her luxuriantly tousled ‘do and her fairy tale marriage to the mogul who mentored her? She trills prettily through lavishly produced records that sell up a storm and evaporate almost instantly. In videos, she’s an unaffected perky princess sitting on a swing, shrieking on a Big Dipper or frolicking in a meadow. The worst problem you could imagine befalling her is one of her party guests getting their tongue frozen to her ice sculpture. Baring her claws in an interview last year, Madonna hissed that she’d rather be dead than be Mariah Carey singing her happy little songs.
Not for the first, or last, time in her career, Madonna looks like a fool, because the new Mariah Carey album, Butterfly (Columbia), is a letter full of tears. After a decade’s worth of stretching the syllables of Hallmark homilies, Ms. Carey finally has something to sing about. In the course of this past year, she has become estranged from her husband, fled from their palatial dwelling in Bedford Corners, N.Y., jettisoned her longtime manager and lawyer, and started her own record label. She’s also been romantically linked to hip-hop impresario Sean (Puffy) Combs, New York Yankee shortstop Derek Jeter and rapper Q-Tip from A Tribe Called Quest. The video for “Honey,” the first single from Butterfly , portrays Ms. Carey handcuffed to a chair in the middle of a mansion, subject to the unwelcome attentions of an aging Italian. Seconds later, she breaks for freedom and starts singing, “It’s just like honey when your love comes over me.…” Once submissive and demure, Ms. Carey seems to be declaring herself liberated and libidinous.
On the strength of “Honey”-whose remix video features the barely clad canary flirting outrageously with Puff Daddy and his batboy Mase- Butterfly promises healthy doses of candor and fantasy. It delivers both of these, but in unexpected ways. After “Honey,” the only up-tempo song on the entire album, Ms. Carey dissects the dissolution of her marriage in flowery terms. “Blindly I imagined I could keep you under glass,” she intones on the title track. “Now I understand that I must open up my hands and watch you rise.” You may cringe at the if-you-love-something-set-it-free sentiment, but lounge acts and drag queens the world over will now be able to include in their repertoire a standard worthy of being warbled alongside “The Rose” and “I Will Always Love You.”
Ms. Carey stays in a moist mood throughout, reflecting on trysts past in “The Roof” ( Remember, we did it on the roof? ) and “Fourth of July” ( Remember, we did it on the Fourth of July? ). Putting her silky whisper next to the stoned burr of Krayzie Bone and Wish Bone of Bone Thugs-N-Harmony, she chronicles post-split misery on “Breakdown.” For her collaboration with the ubiquitous Missy Elliot (“Babydoll”), she paints a vivid picture of herself drunk and lonely in a hotel suite, checking the phone for messages every minute.
For much of Butterfly , Ms. Carey reins in her trademark vocal swoops and spirals, so the moments when she breaks the mood and reverts to type are particularly disconcerting. “My All” and “Whenever You Call” are standard devotional anthems-Ms. Carey has shattered glass with Identikit renditions a million times before-but amid the confessional nature of the rest of the album, they sound like the caterwauling of a Miss America contestant showing off in the talent round.
Both songs are co-written with her seasoned musical director Walter Afanasieff, who redeems himself with Butterfly’ s two other out-and-out multi-Kleenex tear-jerkers. “Close My Eyes” has Ms. Carey reflecting on her fast-track ascendancy and wearily admitting ” … maybe I grew up a little too soon.” Then there’s the closing song, “Outside.” Back in 1990, her debut hit, the unsingable “Vision of Love,” caught the attention of some listeners with its opening-verse admission that the singer “suffered from alienation.” None of her subsequent output would ever elaborate on that line. But sometimes, you’ve just got to pour it all out: “It’s hard to explain, inherently it’s always been strange, neither here nor there, always somewhat out of place everywhere, ambiguous without a sense of belonging, to touch somewhere halfway, feeling there’s no one completely the same.” Had Billy Corgan squawked those same words, Midwestern teenagers by the thousands would have razored them into their arms.
If you thought Mariah Carey’s music was bland and vapid before, Butterfly won’t alter your opinion one iota. The strings still shower, the keyboards still tinkle, and she still soars over the parapets before the final chorus. But if you never thought of her as human before, Butterfly will change your mind. Prick her and she bleeds.