This story is one among many in CIRCUS' second print edition celebrating women in music. Pre-order your copy here.
—story by Bianca Betancourt @bybiancabee
I spotted a meme upon my Twitter timeline last week that made me stop everything I was doing to first laugh—and then reflect. It was one of those unintentionally hilarious images of a young girl, probably six or seven years old, eyes closed, one hand on their heart, another holding a microphone seemingly looking like they’re living their best life at some concert, some show, or maybe just praising a young, baby Jesus at church one Sunday. The attached text read—”me singing ‘We Belong Together’ by Mariah Carey when I was 10 as if I could relate to the lyrics ‘When you left I lost a part of me...’”
It was hilarious and it was absolutely accurate. The Emancipation of Mimi was released in April 2005—I was close to finishing up the fifth grade. I had never kissed a boy—aside from when I was five years old and my mom found me innocently smooching a family friend’s son on the cheek in his playroom—but I had my fair share of unfulfilled crushes.
I was the unfamiliar, impossible to define, ambiguous brown girl at every school I attended growing up. I never had problems making girlfriends—I still talk to the same circle of girls I’ve known since the second grade, but my problems with boys when I was a child absolutely mirrored what I would surely experience as a young woman. Even though I knew nothing of love, of heartbreak—but surely confusing yearning and rejection—Mariah Carey’s music set the standard for how I was to process and handle my emotions in those in-between periods of self reflection.
When I was 11, the year Emancipation came out, I was mesmerized by Mariah’s comeback glow in the music video for “It’s Like That” when it premiered on TRL (!) and would bop along in the privacy of my bedroom to the beat as my sister played the single over and over via her iPod speaker when she got ready an hour before me for school for the day. The melody of ‘We Belong Together’ serenaded me to sleep many a Sunday nights when I would do my weekly ritual of listening to the entire album before going to bed, and Shake It Off was the glamorous, diva-centric tell off anthem I imagined I would play to any scorned future lover of mine as I drove off their driveway after releasing myself from for lack of a better word—their bullshit.
Over a decade later, I was 22, and still playing the album on repeat. My first real, adult love, had broken up with me not because I had done anything wrong, but because he felt like he would never be enough for me—so I was alone once again, because a man didn’t know exactly what to make of me. I was too much to figure out sometimes—not unlike the Elusive Chanteuse herself, Mariah.
The moment Carey broke into the mainstream with “Vision of Love” the self embedded moniker of “Diva” followed her wherever she went. While her public persona off the mic became synonymous with butterflies, rhinestones and no-nonsense policy regarding fluorescent lighting, Carey’s lyrical self was always emotionally vulnerable, self-aware and brutally honest.
Growing up, I always listened to music in phases—I would listen to artists and genres in almost binge like fashion, grow tired of the repetition I installed within myself, and then rediscover whatever I was originally listening to months to a year later. Once I hit my twenties however, Mariah remained a constant, and her songs served as a reminder that just as much as it was okay to embrace my independence, prowess and power, I just as much was allowed to yearn and long for love. Irregardless of gender and social setbacks—it’s the least a girl could still want.
Carey’s intensive musical catalogue is one that starts debates between you and your girlfriends—trying to decide what album, what era, which lyric—best defined not just the singer herself but soundtracked your individual life and livelihood as well. ‘Emancipation’ was my emotional and therapeutic rock through a year that challenged me learning how to be perfectly okay whilst on my own.
On the heel of one of those nights—where I told myself over and over again in my head that I was ‘an independent, badass bitch who needed no one’—and decided to force myself to go out and enjoy myself when I dreaded being social—Mariah made an appearance as only Mariah could.
Whilst sipping the grossest, most overpriced gin gimlet I ever ordered at a downtown Chicago hotel bar, I sat in the midst of Friday night chatter with my best guy friend moping about being broke, tired and wanting to give up while watching rich folk make drunken fools of themselves. We came to see a friend deejay that night, and when he texted me asking us what we wanted to hear, me being indecisive as I usually am when put on the spot, simply texted back—”Play a throwback!”
Two minutes later, the nostalgic beat of Mariah’s “Fantasy” played. Needless to say I did a double take, immediately thought said DJ became ten times more attractive, and in the bathroom minutes later, said a little prayer to show my thanks to Mariah. Not only did she navigate me through a necessary period of sadness and reflection, but she woke up my pair of very jaded eyes to show that something promising did exist—and it was right in front of me—and thus far, her music making me pay the fuck attention, has yet to be prove me wrong. Call it fate, call it a guy taking note of my Mariah-centric Twitter feed, but either way I’m thankful for the Carey narrated road that got me to where I am now—content, happy, paired but independent, and eager to take many more chances with her music soundtracking the good, the bad and the inbetween.