Book Review: Why Mariah Carey Matters by Andrew Chan ★★★★

I’ve spent the last few days in a Mariah Carey shaped hole, chronologically working my way through her discography on Apple Music (other music services are available), while reading Andrew Chan’s adoring and insightful book, Why Mariah Carey Matters. Chan has convinced me that we have never really given the elusive chanteuse her due as one of the great gay divas.

Chan’s book, part of the University of Texas Press’ Music Matters series, is a holistic critical examination of Carey’s work, linking her lyrics and influences across 15 studio albums, spanning three decades (and counting). It cuts through the noise of tabloid stories and cultural events to focus on the voice and intent of its central singer.

As I read Why Mariah Carey Matters I kept wondering why I didn’t love her more. My best friend is an unabashed “lamb” and while I’m the right age to have grown up with her entire repertoire, my adoration always lay with the likes of Madonna, Kylie Minogue and Tori Amos, with side trips into Whitney Houston and Sarah McLachlan (depending on the album). Mariah was always just there on the charts. She was part of the radio wallpaper.

Listening to her albums as I read, I began to understand her as an omnipresent force in my life. I never appreciated her early R&B albums or the queer-adjacent double life she was leading. She was playing at the polished pop radio girl by day while unleashing her true self in gay club remixes by night (re-recording her vocals to transform the radio hits into thumping house anthems). Her career was emulating the life of many queer people in the 90s, hiding in plain sight but only being our authentic selves in the safe space of our bars and clubs. She was living in her own musical closet right before my eyes. 

I enjoyed having Chan reaffirm my own love of her mid-career, camp-fests Rainbow and Glitter – the kind of accessible low points that tend to rally the support of the gays (just as we stuck with Madonna through the critically bashed albums Erotica and Bedtime Stories, and Kylie through Body Language and Kiss Me Once). Why Mariah Carey Matters even introduced me to Carey’s later albums I had all but ignored.

Chan’s book isn’t just a fan’s only hagiography. It delves into the intersectional issues surrounding race and sexism that have swirled around Mariah as well as dissecting her skills as songwriter and producer. Why Mariah Carey Matters makes the case for Mariah Carey’s place in the pantheon of great musical artists and it’s hard to disagree with its central argument, that for all her accolades, mainstream success and her over-the-top camp persona, we have overlooked the nuance and artistry underneath. Now I just want to go to a gay club and hear those 90s house remixes all over again!

By Chad Armstrong

Why Mariah Carey Matters is published on September 12th, 2023 by University of Texas Press. Author Andrew Chan will be doing an in-person signing and conversation at Greenlight Bookstore in Brooklyn, New York on Thursday, September 14th at 7.30pm. Click here for details.

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