I love Mariah Carey the way Mariah Carey loves Marilyn Monroe. Our love is born at the nexus of impossibility and identification. I wasn’t always sure what kind of love this was. It was not sexual or romantic, nor did I want to be like her. What I wanted, and still want, was proximity to the limitlessness of the world she had forged: I loved the key turning, the door creaking, the window flying open. I loved the secret place she made for me, for us.
Mariah sometimes describes her love for Marilyn as both an identification (curvy, feminine, “surprisingly” bookish, from a working-class background, brunette) and a fantasy (glamorous, elegant, sensual, powerful, a successful actress, a shiny thing, blonde) and sometimes both (Was she black? She never knew her dad, after all, and what about that triple-processed hair and the shape of her lips and ass?). In Dark Designs and Visual Culture, Michele Wallace observes this particular phenomenon:
It was always said among black women that Joan Crawford was black, and as I watch these films again today, looking at Rita Hayworth in Gilda or Lana Turner in The Postman Always Rings Twice, I keep thinking “she’s so beautiful, she looks black.” Such a statement makes no sense in current feminist film criticism. What I am trying to suggest is that there was a way in which these films were possessed by black female viewers. The process may have been about making problematic and expanding one’s racial identity instead of abandoning it . . . Disparate factions in the audience, not all equally well indoctrinated in the dominant discourse, may have their own way, now and then, with interpretation.
Perhaps the possibility of Marilyn’s blackness indexed both a desire and a claim. Perhaps it refashioned Marilyn, and perhaps it refashioned the little black girl Mariah Carey once was—the little black girl she was trying to be, the little black girl she was trying not to be. Mariah marked Marilyn; Marilyn marked her back.
And Mariah marked me. In the ’90s, we all knew Mariah Carey was black even if the mainstream media had not caught up. Even if the record labels tried desperately to suppress it. But black people knew. I read Mariah the way she had perhaps read Marilyn, but rather than send myself up to Mariah, as she had done with Marilyn—imagining herself one day as the diamond-encrusted blonde vixen she would eventually become—I instead sent Mariah down to me. I read at the roots and ends of her shiny golden-blonde hair, I plumbed the dusky metallic undertone of her flat beige complexion, I looked deep into her eyes (as Irene says, “Ah! Surely! They were Negro eyes!” in Nella Larsen’s Passing), but above all I listened to her sound, to the crackling edges of her whistle-clean voice. I did not hope to one day be like her; I instead told myself that she was already like me.
What José Muñoz calls disidentification might describe this way of reading at the edges—these torn edges where the black substrate (to riff on Nathaniel Mackey) pierces through the white surface from below. A reading of and for blackness that likewise blackens its object—reading as an act of marking, an ongoing inscription against and alongside the text. It may be annotation, but it may also be the marking of possession, as Wallace puts it, of claiming. Where there is dissonance between reader and text, it is in these gaps that we attend to the fugitive meaning and excess signification that collects in corners and at edges, that accumulates and crusts over. This residual profusion imparts new meaning to the object and brings it differently into relief. “The disidentificatory optic” Muñoz describes “is turned to shadows and fissures within the text,” but it is also tuned to them—it not only sees presence in negative space but hears sound in silence, and can distinguish among various tones of silence: a caesura, a breeze, a held breath, a delicious quiet between lovers, the anxious aching still of a phone call that never arrives.
Credit to her incredible five-octave vocal range, sometimes Mariah’s sound exceeds sound. Her B7 whistle register escapes into a silence, a sound that only certain nonhuman life-forms can hear, a sound that hails the extraterrestrial, no, the celestial. Sound that dissolves the border between secular and sacred tones. We know when we hear her that there is, if not a heaven, at least another realm, another layer, a suspended paradise of honey, rainbows, cumulus clouds—simple signs from a cast-off iconography.
I love Mariah the way Mariah loves Marilyn. Only I didn’t have posters of her, like other young fans. I didn’t have posters of anyone. I lived in a room that always looked like it was maybe underwater or in a vault or in a basement. What I did have: an altar, a bowl of hair and cascarilla, a jar of honey filled with notes, a model human skeleton inside a glass dome, a life-size black Barbie with a lovelessly given uneven lob and nail polish for lipstick, large triangles of hand-painted wood, half-filled sketchbooks (more than twenty), half-filled marble composition notebooks (more than ten), books (more than a hundred), and stray papers (thousands). I was a child allowed to make the things around me, and to keep them too. I was a child encouraged to keep everything because “you never know what will happen.” It was both a threat and a promise. It was an invitation to think rigorously and often about the future, to be driven to create by both intense fantasy and intense fear.
Last spring, I visited Lauren Halsey’s installation we still here, there at MOCA in Los Angeles. we still here, there might be described as a room, or better yet a cavern, a grotto, an outcropping, a shrine to the priceless detritus of black life in post-Watts Los Angeles. She weaves together metahistories of the Great Migration, the Watts Rebellion, and the Black Arts Movement with personal memories, childhood bedrooms, your grandma’s house, and the everyday. Halsey combines the artificial and manufactured with languages of the organic, placing geological, almost glacial, rock formations and streaming water alongside Technicolor hair weaves, acrylic nails, patterned carpets, dollhouses, scattered tchotchkes and charms of black kitsch—fluorescent plastic pyramids, black ballerinas, bedazzled ankhs. Nestled among fake flowers and flourishes of glitter, these collected objects, which in another context might be understood as junk or scrap, are elevated to the status of precious stones, sprouting from the nooks and crannies of the grotto walls as if untouched and unmined. I think of Maud Martha’s dandelions: “yellow jewels for every day.”
With its rock walls and columns, the installation appears as both one room and several, outside and inside, an archive and a future-oriented pre-postapocalyptic shelter. As I walk through, I remember the collections that studded and adorned my own precious youth. In Halsey’s installation, I experienced what I feel when I listen to Mariah, what Edward Soja has dubbed the “thirdspace,” a sonic spatiality both real and imagined. I am in her dream, I am in my dream, I am in my room, her room, our room. It is (sweet, sweet) fantasy, it is real; my fantasies are real because I taste them at the edges of my mouth, sweet water gathering. I imagine running my hand over a black square velvet plate of gold chains, their stiff ripple as they torque in and out of flatness, the links pulling away and clicking into place. I imagine plunging my hand into a well of bobby pins, barrettes, beads, clips, those little combs that look like shells, those rough plastic rollers like tubes of coral. My hand remembers the intricate topography of intimate black places. I imagine my own archive of dusty Jordan and Nike boxes hosting the promise of a future return, our fantasies of investment, the Gold Futures of a generation. I dream them as a canyon in my room. I see the carpeted path cutting through, toward a raggedy desk into which I carved my crushes’ names. I was a dreaming teen.
For my 10th birthday my parents give me a portable CD player. Though I already have it on tape, the first CD I buy is Rainbow, Mariah’s seventh studio album, released in November of 1999. She is bigger here, in square dimensions, with golden hair and bronze skin, a rainbow airbrushed across her chest. On my new CD player, I have never heard her so clear or so close to my ears. I pore over the CD booklet, I learn all the lyrics, and I sing them (I am an only child; no one can hear me. I have my headphones on; I cannot even hear myself, but I feel myself meeting her notes and pauses and ad-libs with something that is not good, but free). But even before I understand the lyrics, and certainly before I can define many of the words in Mariah’s vast, intricate, fussy—distinctly African-American—vocabulary (the kind one acquires from reading the dictionary or the bible over and over), before all that, I feel the vibrations of her voice, the indulgent melodies, unlocking something inside me.
I grew up with black surrealists, black Marxists, black feminists, black poets, black artists, black filmmakers. My parents both grew up poor in New York City and then made things for a living: paintings and books. I was raised by people who, it seemed, made whole entire worlds out of the scraps of the day. Mariah did this thing I recognized, this conjuring of worlds out of nothing and on the go. She was my own, though. I found her and she spoke to me privately as I came into girlhood—not in any way that prescribed femininity but one that offered and allowed it to exist in extreme and dramatic ways, if and when I wanted. She was girlish, garish, emotional. And she was there for us, steady, even as the world around us found our melodrama, our girlishness, our emotional excess disgusting.
Yet the gender she modeled was something other than, more than. She gave us femininity invaginated, pushed to its limits, bubbled over, broken and wrapped around itself, aware of its own performance, its own irony, its play. She did not just celebrate fantasy; she embodied it. She taught me how to be a girl and a woman and a creature and a substance, how to create myself as new chemical arrangements, ungraspable, even while living in the quicksand of late capitalism. She made herself a subjectless subject, a subject diffuse and sparkling, shimmering—not subject at all, but glitter: always multiple, in excess, impossible to hold onto, impossible to get rid of the morning after the party. Caity Weaver reminds us that glitter is an “assemblage . . . a mass noun; specifically, it is a granular aggregate, like ‘rice.’” Never reducible to a single being, Mariah materializes that highest of praises—she is everything.
As such, Mariah allowed me to exist as a thing not here yet. I was undone, plucked from the surety of an identity, or what CosmoGirl quizzes taught me was “a personality.” I was delivered instead into the slippery space of self-fashioning. Mariah fashions a self outside of space and time (as she asserts, “time is not something I acknowledge”). She fashions a self outside of even the notion of self. She fashions what it means to fashion, to desire and dream and render that dream in flesh. From her I learned to remake myself every morning. She always sounds new because she comes from somewhere else, some world of her own divining. And yet, she always sounds familiar. The nostalgic well-worn groove of her sound is still a channel that carries me to another shore of possibility.
And if she embodied fantasy, or else the capacity to materialize a dream, her aesthetic practice was escape.
Within Mariah Carey’s extensive narrative and visual oeuvre, escape is figured as literally running away (as in the “Honey” video, where she escapes her captors by jumping out of a window and into a turquoise pool), being rescued (by a “Dreamlover”), being taken away (“just like the Calgon commercial,” she croons in “Shake It Off”), but also as a speculative mode, a deliberate bending toward an infinitely open future that is only possible through the mechanisms of dreaming, specifically daydreaming, that conscious, directed, and purposeful agitation of the imagination, especially during work or school hours. Mariah theorizes other futures while she’s on the clock or trapped in “bleak” dungeon-like mansions and suffocating contractual relationships with men and record labels. In her very first number-one hit (of 18), Mimi muses, “I've realized a dream / And I visualized / The love that came to be.” This is her famous “Vision of Love,” a prophetic enunciation that collapses desire, dream, and description. Other speculative number ones include “Someday,” “Fantasy,” and “One Sweet Day.” In “The Roof” she demonstrates her keen understanding of the infinite possibilities and fugitive lives made in the forgotten crevices of the urban landscape. A roof is not merely a roof but potentially also a place to gather, to party, to fall in love.
And in her words, I found identification too. As an absolutely prolific songwriter, Mariah has always made it clear that she loves words—how they sound and what they mean. She taught me big words that I felt on my skin: enamored, succumb, flourish, unbridled, elusive, blatant, nonchalant, guise, unyielding, gradually, rhapsodize, emblazoned, fervid, ominously, tentatively, entwined, obscure, sublime, reverie, wayward, dissipate, rapture. And when she could not find the right word, she invented it.
I grew up in a household doubly freighted by the importance not just of words but of demonstrating to others your access to, and command of, them. Almost all the black people I knew, regardless of class, spoke a kind of English laced with words finer than any queen of any Old World empire. It was not always a matter of being “articulate,” or proving your intelligence to white gatekeepers; it was more often a matter of spectacle, of flourish, of stylish assertion. In “Characteristics of Negro Expression,” Zora Neale Hurston (who would’ve got on with Mariah, I think) claims, “Every phase of Negro life is highly dramatized. No matter how joyful or how sad the case there is sufficient poise for drama. . . . There is an impromptu ceremony always ready for every hour of life. No little moment passes unadorned.” These last lines could easily describe Mariah’s mode of being, living, moving, working. I would argue that the elaborate and histrionic language that both Mariah and I would be inducted into, decades after Hurston’s essay, was not so much a matter of the ascendancy of the written language for formally educated black people but rather a matter of adornment—the will to adorn language, to inscribe ornately against, and in the margins of, master narratives.
The mastery of a certain scope of language is multiply freighted for Mariah too, resplendently self-fashioned after Marilyn, fashioned herself by Norma Jeane. In a recent piece on “Looking at Photographs of Marilyn Monroe Reading,” Audrey Wollen writes, “The public seems permanently surprised at [Marilyn’s] literacy, even when we are making a show of not being surprised.” Such a specter follows Mariah, too, and is often augmented by her perception as a diva, as “extra” or “crazy.” Like Marilyn, Mariah is hardly dumb, to which her exacting shade, dazzling wit, marvelous artistry, and business acumen are only partial testament. Yet her body, her aesthetics (both decorative and sonic), her pop-stardom, and even her enmeshment within black culture locate her within a mainstream narrative that hates and fears blackness, femininity, the popular, the common, the exceeding of enclosures, and the crossing of borders. And so Mariah is reduced to a ditzy diva and our appreciation of her limited to irony, guilty pleasure, or a plain indication of our lowbrow leanings. It is no wonder that Mariah’s love for Marilyn should be tied to the conflicting desires to love oneself and to be someone else.
To grow up poor. To be black. To be a woman. To be a (conventionally) beautiful, glamorous, excessive woman. To be a singer, a chanteuse. To be a star. One must also insist against one’s own vulnerability, one’s own absolute accessibility to a world made hostile against them. One must shore themselves up. One must come with a vo-cab-u-lary. One must forge the tools to write themselves. In the end, Mariah was her own dreamlover. She taught me how to live audaciously in the undeniable veracity of my own delusion—four words I learned from her.
Mariah not only charted a course for us but rendered and made manifest another possibility. She showed us it was right here if we were willing to make it and hold onto it against any encroaching power. Despite almost three decades of fugitive thematics, Caution, released this past winter, seems to be a bit more interested in staying, or perhaps more precisely in reinforcing the semipermeable membrane around the worlds we make against those who would take advantage, violate, or exploit. She tells one man to “get the fuck out,” and says “no” 106 times to another on “A No No.” Caution is about endurance and erecting boundaries, but it is also about holding space for yourself and others, about creating space in constant motion. It is almost as if, having finally found herself to be the site of refuge, she might rest and house those of us still on the run.