Mariah Carey and the Grammy Awards are not friends.
Yes, the legendary diva has won five Grammys, but her history with the Recording Academy is spotty at best. With 20 #1 singles and two Diamond-certified albums to her credit, Carey’s five wins seems modest. How does one of the foremost artists of the 20th and 21st centuries only have five trophies to her credit, two won for her debut and three won 15 years later?
Ironically, her record-setting success, and her marriage to former Sony Music president Tommy Mottola, may have played a part. Carey’s extraordinary voice and songwriting abilities should speak for themselves. However, Mottola’s overwhelming presence in the music industry and Carey’s meteoric rise to superstardom (unfairly credited to Mottola) made her an easy target to be taken down a peg, or fourteen.
Fourteen is the number of Grammy nominations Carey received from 1992 to 2001. She won none of them. Her most shocking losses came in 1996, where Carey was nominated for six awards for her Daydream album. She opened the ceremony with “One Sweet Day,” her Record of the Year-nominated duet with Boyz II Men. Afterwards, she sat in the audience and watched as Seal, Alanis Morissette, Annie Lennox, The Chieftains and Van Morrison, Joni Mitchell, and Anita Baker triumphed over her. The devastating snubs had an air of defiance wafting around them. Mariah Carey might’ve been on the top of the world, the Recording Academy seemed to say, but not here.
A decade later, Mariah Carey pulled off a undeniable hat trick, even to the finicky Academy. After a period of professional and personal turmoil (harrowingly retold in her memoir The Meaning of Mariah Carey), Carey roared back to pop domination with The Emancipation of Mimi. Her tenth studio album sold over 6 million copies in the U.S., her biggest seller since Daydream. “We Belong Together” sat atop the Billboard Hot 100 for fourteen weeks, reviving her chart fortunes. Critics referred to the album as a comeback, as “redemption.”
The Recording Academy recognized Carey’s redemptive comeback with eight Grammy nominations. For the first time in ten years, Carey performed at the ceremony. Dressed in a white gown with sheer white panels flowing from the bodice, she took to the stage for a medley of “We Belong Together” and the gospel-influenced “Fly Like a Bird.”
It was the bravest performance of Carey’s career. Her songs are difficult to sing live, with melismatic runs and shifts in pace and key that would exhaust any vocalist lacking her skill. “We Belong Together,” with its rapid-fire verses and explosive climax, is the apex of romantic bombast. Carey’s voice in the first verse is breathier, somewhat thinner than the recording. One could argue that her voice had weakened after 15 years of pop stardom. She doesn’t mask it though. Her vocal is raw, unfiltered, and nakedly emotional. It was a clear retort against critics of her past performances.
And then there’s the climax, the most difficult section of a very difficult song. Carey explodes into it, as if she reserved her energy in the beginning because she knew what fans were waiting for. She doesn’t skimp on the delivery either, sprinkling in deviations from the melody while still expending potent power. Her voice’s rawness comes through once more, shaking the clarity of the song’s memorable final note. Again, perceived weakness gives way to naked emotion and, most importantly, vulnerability.
“Fly Like a Bird” celebrates Carey’s vulnerability, shifting her mode from romantic songbird to exalted spiritualist. She resets the table by melding the two techniques into one extraordinary display. Carey is a noted perfectionist. However, in this celebration – of her comeback, her career, her triumphant return to the Grammys stage – she tosses it aside.
Carey sets herself free. She gives herself over to the backing choir, the rousing arrangement, and the stage, running across it with zeal. She could’ve easily faltered in the moment. The risk makes it particularly riveting. Instead, Carey soars and reaches performative heights she never had before. What she might’ve lacked in technical proficiency, she makes up for with pure transcendence.
There are ways to read this performance, especially in context of Carey’s complicated and messy relationship with the Grammys. It can be another chapter in her unprecedented recovery arc, culminating in an evening where she won her first trophies since her debut. (She did not, however, win Album of the Year and Record of the Year; those went to U2 and Green Day, respectively.) It can also be seen as her defiant response to the Recording Academy that discounted her talent and punished her for either her commercial success or close proximity to Mottola.
I think a more useful, and poignant, reading removes the Grammy context altogether. As I wrote earlier, Carey and the Grammys are not friends. Carey has gone on the record since then that she doesn’t care about them anymore. The Grammys’ involvement in this performance is almost incidental.
Carey overcame a precipitous fall from grace after a decade of pop prominence. She proved herself as a hitmaker and an album-seller fifteen years into her luminous career. She did it without Sony, Mottola, and the Grammys. Carey had nothing left to prove. So, when given the opportunity to return to the Grammy stage, she let loose. She didn’t have to worry about crystal-clear vocals or diva posturing. She was simply Mariah, gifted storyteller and accomplished vocalist.
While certainly a top Grammy moment of the 21st century, this performance is the best reflection of the title of her award-winning album. This performance was the true emancipation of Mimi, of Mariah Carey.
See more in the “Performances That Pop” series.