Mariah Carey has been called many things throughout her illustrious career, including diva, icon and legend, but lately another title has been forced upon her by her critics – has been. Thanks to her mastery of her five octave range, it has always been difficult to completely overlook Carey as a viable artist yet for the first time in over 20 years, her talent has been questioned.
This week’s Way Back Wednesday special will depict the major stages of Carey’s vocal development from her debut in the early 1990s to her most recent live performances in 2010. Let’s host the debate that has been raging on the online forums during the last few years and attempt to come to a suitable conclusion regarding the state of the songbird’s famed instrument.
Watch the selected live performances from Carey’s career below:
1991 – ‘Vision of Love’
1996 – ‘Make it Happen’
1999 – ‘Vision of Love’
2001 – ‘Never too Far’/'Hero’
2005 – ‘Vision of Love’
2008 – ‘Touch My Body’
2010 – ‘I Still Believe’
So, what exactly could we discern from this footage? It’s time to flesh out the details and explain the important points for our debate.
Carey’s voice was full, husky and robust when she first entered the industry. She had a very powerful belt and an unmistakeable grit to her voice, especially in her lower register, that set her apart from the other technical singers – Whitney Houston and Celine Dion – of that time.
Of course, Carey’s voice was undoubtedly in its prime in 1996 when she could sing almost any song with the greatest ease and her range seemed limitless. Additionally, her instrument was more flexible than in her early career and she was able to switch between her registers without strain or hesitation.
However, as Carey aged, her voice gradually got thinner and her husky vocal texture slowly lost its fullness. By 1999, her tone was starkly different and she sounded similar to a smokey Jazz singer instead of a colourful Pop vocalist. Additionally, her upper belting had become limited and she almost completely avoided performing in that part of her range.
2001 demonstrated a return to form for Carey and it sounded as though the inconsistent 1997-1999 period was short-lived. Unfortunately, her voice slowly became rougher from 2005 and by 2008 she was at the absolute lowest point of her entire career. Basically, Carey was better off lip-syncing than singing live in that year because her voice was so frail that she could not even handle ‘Touch My Body’ or should I say, “stop singing my part now baby?”
Luckily, pregnancy was a blessing on many levels for Carey and she rebounded once again in 2010. Her voice sounded strikingly similar to early 2005 and she could actually sing her old songs live without relying on a backtrack or cleverly directing the crowd to sing the major segments.
Still, the most important observation to be made while watching all of these videos and listening to Carey’s albums is that the many changes in her voice have caused her to become a far for efficient vocalist. Indeed, she has more control over her instrument than she did when she first entered the music scene.
Also, Carey’s is more fluid in certain registers. In fact, Carey’s head voice and whistle register are far more impressive than they in the 1990s – for instance, compare ‘It’s A Wrap’ to ‘Fantasy’ – and despite her lower register losing its strength, she actually has the ability to sing even lower than before.
Hence, similar to every singer in the industry, Carey’s voice has changed with age. Yes, there are several conspiracy theories regarding what caused certain shifts in her sound – alcohol, nodules and overuse – but the only conclusion that could be derived is that she is just a normal human being.
Ultimately, to call Carey a “has been” would be an unwarranted insult. Her voice may not be the limitless force that it was in 1996 but it is still in a class above most other vocalists. I sense that once a person sets the bar at perfection then anything less would seem inadequate.