When looking at the history of pop music, one narrative that stands out is the Svengali. The oft-shadowy figure who controls and manipulates the career of the talented pop diva. The story of the Svengali has become a rock and roll cliché. The story of the Svengali and his muse almost always ends with the diva chafing under his control and striking out on her own. The split is rarely amicable. But it’s always necessary. Mariah Carey was married to Sony Music CEO Tommy Mottola, who lavished attention and the label’s resources to help build her career in the early 1990s.
From her self-titled debut album in 1990, Carey became one of the biggest pop stars of the decade, racking up 16 top ten hits on the Billboard pop charts and selling millions of albums. By 1997, when the pair announced their split, Carey was a pop superstar. She complicated the Svengali narrative because she was not only a fantastically photogenic and talented vocalist but also an accomplished songwriter, penning all her hits. Throughout the early 1990s, Carey’s image was carefully manicured and curated. Under Mottola’s tutelage, she was the perfect pop princess: beautiful, suitably chaste, and demure. Up to 1997, her signature sound was a perfect blend of her pop diva foremothers: Whitney, Aretha, Barbra, Bette, Diana, and Janet. She possesses a five-octave range, with a glass-shattering whistle register that recalls Ella Fitzgerald at her best.
Mottola and Carey married in 1993 after a few years of dating. Despite the large gap between their ages (when they met, she was 19, he was 41) as well as their large gap in power differential, the marriage went ahead. Mottola’s famed need to control extended to his marriage, and according to Carey, the relationship was stifling and emotionally terrorizing. When she finally wrested free from the controlling Mottola, Carey had the freedom to explore various artistic and creative avenues, including working on her image and sound. Specifically, she was looking to incorporate hip-hop – something of which Mottola seemed ignorant, believing that rap/hip-hop was a fad. But Carey “hip-hop added exciting, young energy to almost any other sound if done correctly.” 1
On her 1997 album, Butterfly, Carey emerged from her controlling marriage and overly orchestrated image and embraced a potent blend of pop, soul, and hip-hop. The album wouldn’t be the first time Carey looked to hip-hop when making music. A couple of years earlier, for her 1995 album, Daydream, Carey worked with former Wu-Tang Clan member the late, great Ol’ Dirty Bastard on the remix of her ninth number one hit, “Fantasy”. The duet was a huge critical and commercial success and showed Carey’s affinity and ease with hip-hop.
But Butterfly would build on the success of “Fantasy”, and Carey would bring on hot hip-hop producers, Sean Combs, the Ummah, Stevie J, the Trackmasters, Cory Rooney, and David Morales, with whom Carey collaborated in the past. Music writer Quentin Harrison points out that “Black music was core for Carey on Butterfly. But she expunged any of the safe, pre-Sugar Hill Gang retro-R&B sensibilities from past works. The long player situated Carey in the post-New Jack Swing, late 1990s overlap between modern R&B and hip-hop.” 2
Carey’s longtime writing partner, Walter Afanasieff, also returned, ensuring that despite Carey’s full embrace of hip-hop, her grand style of 1990s diva pop wasn’t completely abandoned. Butterfly would become one of Carey’s most successful studio albums, not only with buyers but with critics, who acclaimed the record’s stylish update of her sound and image. The album’s first single, “Honey”, her 12th number one, was a luscious sexy pop tune that rode beautifully on samples of “Hey DJ” by World-Famous Supreme and “The Body Rock” by the Treacherous Three. “Honey” would also create a signature sound for Carey, one that she would return to with her follow-up albums: she would precede her album releases with a lead dance single that would feature a prominent hip-hop sample and the contribution of a popular rapper. With “Honey”, Carey and her collaborators Combs, the Ummah, and Stevie J looked to the Golden Age of Hip-Hop, particularly with the Treacherous Three’s “The Body Rock” and its squelching bass.
The use of these two samples on “Honey” was a brilliant stroke of genius on the part of Carey because it placed the singer and her sound and image into the context of the history of hip-hop and its intersection with pop. Carey grew up around hip-hop, and as a child of New York, she saw the genre’s emergence in Gotham firsthand. Even as a young budding singer, she denied being associated with teen pop starlets Tiffany’s Debbie Gibson, insisting, “There was a bit of soul, R&B, and gospel-infused into my music, and I had a hip-hop sensibility.” 3 Though she brought that hip-hop sensibility to her early work before Butterfly, Mottola’s diffidence with hip-hop meant that she could only bring that sound into her music once she was symbolically free from his grip. That freedom meant that Carey could craft an album that would wholly reflect her musical vision.
To appreciate Butterfly, it’s essential to take Carey’s oeuvre. Though the record was her most assertive embrace of hip-hop and urban music in her career up to that point, her career had always looked to urban music, despite the popularity of her MOR pop ballads and her early 1990s dance-pop. Though “Honey” was seen as a transformative moment in Carey’s career, the song has echoes of some of her older work. Going as far back as 1993 to her classic smash hit, “Dreamlover” from her blockbuster album, Music Box. The song was pretty, light funk that danced on a sample of the pretty melody from the Emotions’ 1971 soul tune, “Blind Alley”. Carey credited “Dreamlover” as setting a template of sorts for her singles that would see her interpolate classic melodies and hooks in her hits. “Honey” works as a natural progression from “Dreamlover” to the remix of “Fantasy”. So, even if hip-hop had always been present in Carey’s work, it was far more pronounced on a record like “Honey”.
It’s also important to look at the pop music landscape in which Carey operated: though she saw shifts in trends, particularly when alt-rock and grunge dominated in the mid-1990s, Carey was able to maintain dominance. Still, she, like many pop singers of the early 1990s, moved away from the robotic dance beats and metallic sheen of mainstream pop records, looking to warmer, funkier sounds that also embraced sensuality. “Never before had a Mariah Carey album been so sensual,” Vincent Anthony declared. But he pointed out that “Butterfly is still subtle in its sensuality…Never raunchy, Butterfly is a beautiful soundtrack for love-making on a romantic evening.” 4 Throughout the decade, Carey saw peers like Janet Jackson, Jody Watley, Paula Abdul, and Karyn White look to deeper, more soulful music. Carey moved in a similar direction with her music, reflecting a profound shift and change in her personal and professional lives, reflected in the production and the empowering, inspirational lyrics.
The best songs on Butterfly were easily some of the best pop tunes of the mid-1990s, and the album tracks showed a singer-songwriter with a startling talent who also flourished by being teamed with fantastic collaborators. Though by 1997, Mariah Carey was a pop-perfect artist, selling 80 million records, Butterfly was a gratifying success, extending her dominance on the pop charts. The key to her success was the pairing of a fantastic voice and great, radio-ready pop tunes. Because she was a mainstream pop star, her skills as a consummate songwriter would be underrated, overshadowed by her incredible vocals as well as her beauty.
With Butterfly, Carey embraced that pop star side of her public persona but also matched that mainstream commercial aspect of her artistry with honesty and sincerity, making Butterfly her version of Joni Mitchell‘s Blue. On an emotionally open and raw song like the title track, Carey channels feelings of emotional captivity, singing, “When you love someone so deeply / They become your life / It’s easy to succumb to overwhelming fears inside / Blindly I imagined I could keep you under glass / Now I understand to hold/I must open up my hands and watch you rise.” Carey identifies with the captured Butterfly, beautiful like she, but entombed under glass on display. The imagery that Carey evokes with her metaphor is arresting and poignant, heartbreaking in its sincerity.
The emotional rawness of some of the songs on Butterfly shows Carey’s courage in allowing her audiences to get a peek into her troubles, particularly her difficult childhood and her wrenching relationship with Mottola. In her personal favorite, “Close My Eyes”, Carey shows her mastery of songwriting and performing. By telling her sad story, she transcends the status of a pop star and becomes truly a pop artist. The lyrics are frank in recounting a disquieting childhood in which she “learned many things little ones shouldn’t know.” She also hints at the emotional defense mechanisms she was forced to employ, sighing, “Funny how one can learn / To grow numb to the madness and block it away.” Carey’s lyrics are bruising and painful to hear, but there’s a catharsis, especially when they’re paired with the lilting chorus that has Carey chanting, belying the ache of the words with the brushed prettiness of the refrain. Carey wrote the lyrics and crafted the music with her longtime collaborator Walter Afanasieff, and the song highlights the pair’s prowess at building brilliant pop songs.
In much of Carey’s work before Butterfly, her lyrics rarely – if at any time – addressed race, specifically her racial identity. That is what makes the showboating ballad “Outside” so remarkable. A throwback to her Broadway style, the song zeroes in on her issues of growing up biracial. “Neither here nor there / Always out of place,” she sings, “Ambiguous / Without a sense of belonging.” Carey’s devastatingly vulnerable lyrics sum up her feelings, “You’ll always be / Somewhere on the outside.” Carey candidly shared how her label played up the ambiguity of her racial identity, hoping to downplay her Blackness.
Talking about the song and her sense of isolation growing up on The Oprah Winfrey Show, Carey said she felt “completely different. I felt like there was nobody who could fully understand my experience.” In writing “Outside”, she continued, “[The song] is about feeling ambiguous and without a sense of belonging,” citing colorism, she talked about feeling alienated and othered from both the white and Black sides of her family as well as the importance she feels in being a role model for biracial girls.5 Though Carey eschewed politics for most of her career in her art, personal politics have often found themselves in her work, and in a song like “Outside”, she was able to use music as a form of liberation.
Throughout Butterfly, Carey sings about the pain of heartache, musing on the collapse of relationships. On “Breakdown”, her song with two members of the rap group Bone Thugs-N-Harmony, the singer laments on the ruins of a love. Rappers Krayzie Bone and Wish Bone join Carey. The song is a highlight because Carey can bend and twist her flexible and malleable voice to ably mimic the distinct, clipped harmonies that made Bone Thugs-N-Harmony so exceptional. Critic Rich Juzwiak marveled at Carey’s performance, praising it by enthusing, “‘ Breakdown’ [is] one of the finest songs she has ever crafted…Mariah…mimics the staccato vocal style of Bone Thugs-N-Harmony…Not merely singing over a hip hop beat, the way most people fused hip hop and R&B in that era, Mariah delivered a more melodic version of Bone Thugs’ sing-song delivery.” 6
Juzwiak’s enthusiasm for the song is warranted. Carey’s voice slides from a light croon to a spirited cry. The skittery beats bounce with a breakneck speed, but Carey’s up to the task, being able to use her voice like an instrument, matching and keeping up with the pace. Despite the eccentricity of the track – it’s like nothing Carey has done before – the emotional weight of the song doesn’t cede to the sonic innovation. It’s at once an audio marvel and a wreak to hear, especially when Carey starts to break away from the tight vocal arrangements and harmonies to wail soulfully.
Because Carey is a songwriter, she rarely does covers, but the sole cover on Butterfly, “The Beautiful Ones” is easily one of the best songs she’s recorded in her career. After his death in April 2016, Carey was open about her close friendship with Prince. When paying tribute to him, she talked about how he “helped me through so many moments when I needed somebody to guide me through.” 7 “The Beautiful Ones” originally appears on Prince’s soundtrack to the 1984 film Purple Rain. The song is extravagantly long and maintains some of the original’s Minneapolis sound hallmarks: the off-kilter melody and the spare, skeletal production. Dru Hill joins Carey on this majestic ballad, with lead singer Sisqó sounding great, but Carey overshadows him with her stately charisma and star power. As a lovely tribute to Prince, Carey sings in a high register, an homage to the sexy falsetto he employs in the original.
So much of Butterfly feels new that listening to “My All” feels jarring because it feels like a throwback to the kind of work Carey and Afanasieff perfected on her previous albums. Though Butterfly displays sides of Carey’s musical persona that may have been merely hinted at or subdued before, it’s important to note that parts of the album still maintain some of the sounds that made her such a huge success. When commenting on the sound of her album at the release party at Pier 59 Studios, she downplays some of the chatter about her supposed switch to hip-hop by maintaining that “I don’t want people to be misled into thinking that’s an entirely new thing, that I’ve gone totally left field.” She adds, “It’s just that there are more hip-hop influenced tracks [on Butterfly].” 8 With “My All”, Carey seems to be paying tribute to herself, to the Mariah Carey who belted such gorgeous, elegant ballads like “Can’t Let Go”, “Hero”, or her cover of “Without You”. It seems that by 1997, she had perfected the art of the pop ballad. With its flourishes of Spanish guitars and theatrical vocals, it’s the definitive Mariah Carey slow song: extravagant, indulgent, and dramatic.
Alongside the music, a large part of Butterfly’s success is visual. Pop albums of the 1980s and 1990s were released with suites of music videos to sell the singles. Carey is the perfect music video star: not only does her music lend itself to the art form, but she’s gorgeous, and she has star quality, and charisma to spare. All of this means that the videos that were released with Butterfly were almost as important to the project as the record itself. For the “Honey” video, Carey was simultaneously unveiling not only a new sound but a new image. To do so, she created a Bond parody with herself filling in for the dashing agent. Filmed in Puerto Rico, the slim – but concise premise – has Carey subdue a group of muscular heavies before diving off the terrace of a mansion, landing in a swimming pool. Underwater, she wriggles out of her bandage dress, emerging from the pool, soaking a la Phoebe Cates from Fast Times at Ridgemont High. Video director Paul Hunter creates a visually appealing, sumptuous palette that set his diva in a color scheme that recalled the song’s title: various shades of caramel, beige, and ivory offset Carey’s vibrant café au lait skin and soft auburn tresses.
For the slower title track, Carey shared directing duties with cinematographer, Daniel Pearl to tell a story of emancipation and hard-won freedom. It’s tempting to interpret any of the work during this period as an analogy of her crumbling marriage to Mottola, and though the tone of “Butterfly” is far more emotional than the impish and cheeky “Honey”, both have arresting images of Carey escaping large mansions. (She nicknamed the gigantic estate she shared with her husband Sing Sing.) The scenes of Carey languidly reclining on a bed in the mansion are claustrophobic and tight, with Carey seemingly sequestered. Closeups of Carey are shot through peepholes in crumbling walls, and she’s filmed looking longingly outside through a window; Pearl and Carey also create intriguing shots with her singing on a landing, the light casting large shadows of the spindles which throw vertical bars across Carey’s face, implying incarceration and dovetailing with the song’s theme of liberation.
For “Breakdown”, Carey again took on the task of directing, this time working with Diane Martel. (The two worked together before on “Dreamlover”, “All I Want for Christmas Is You”, “Miss You Most (At Christmas Time)”, and on the Butterfly track “The Roof”.) The video for “Breakdown” is one of her most cinematic, borrowing imagery from Bob Fosse’s Cabaret with Carey recalling Liza Minnelli’s look as Sally Bowles. Throughout the video, Carey takes on varying guises, all variances on the showgirl, an interesting commentary on the role of the modern pop star as a showgirl. Though the song is about heartbreak and loneliness, the video is about performance and performers.
The presentation of Carey in different performance personae creates a narrative of Carey’s relationship with entertainment, specifically being an entertainer. Carey’s visual homage to Minnelli, the ultimate entertainer, is a visual link of sorts. One thing that is somewhat ignored about Carey’s evolution with Butterfly is her embrace of the eccentric diva persona – something that she’d do with more frankness. Carey’s adoption of the Butterfly as a logo isn’t just a handy metaphor for metamorphosis, but it also became a focal point for her visual presentation. After Butterfly, Carey would joyfully embrace the inherent campiness of a grown woman festooning herself with crystal-encrusted butterflies. Butterfly isn’t camp, but the video for “Breakdown” points in the direction of the witty camp, which Carey would later grow into. As Carey perches on the craps table in the video, she’s done up with feathers, the tableau simultaneously sexy and ridiculous. Martel and she show the baked-in silliness of entertainment.
With Butterfly, Carey found another career that proved to be artistically and commercially successful. The album would be widely considered magnum opus and a remarkable achievement. She would continue to work with hip-hop producers and rappers, essentially becoming so identified with the practice of singing over rap beats that when other artists produced similar pop singles, they were accused of biting off her style. As Jessica Littles noted, “[Butterfly] also catalyzed the pop music trend of collaborating with hip-hop artists (every other ‘pop diva’ would soon follow suit).” 9 Vincent Anthony agrees, asserting, “In the late 1990s, as R&B and hip-hop became more and more mainstream in pop music, singers began displaying a bit of hip-hop, rap-style singing. Most would credit this trend to the rappers, however, Mariah Carey was one of the first to release such rhythmic, rhyme-riddled recordings.” 10 Butterfly is rightly heralded as the finest work from Carey’s lengthy discography, and it would prove to become one of the finest albums of the 1990s.
1 Carey, Mariah with Michaela Angela Davis. The Meaning of Mariah Carey. Andy Cohen Books/Henry Holt, 2020.
2 Harrison, Quentin. “Fly Away: Mariah Carey’s ‘Butterfly’ Turns 20.” Albumism, 14 September 2017.
3 Carey, Mariah with Michaela Angela Davis. The Meaning of Mariah Carey. Andy Cohen Books/Henry Holt, 2020.
4 Anthony, Vincent. “Mariah Carey’s ‘Butterfly’ Is Music’s Most Underrated Album.” The 97, 16 September 2017.
5 “Mariah Carey Talks to Biracial Teens.” The Oprah Winfrey Show. S:13, Ep:220, 7 December 1999.
6 Juzwiak, Rich. “Mariah Carey’s Butterfly Is the Truth: The Album at 20.” Jezebel, 15 September 2017.
7 Steel, Carly interview with Mariah Carey. Entertainment Tonight, 21 April 2016.
8 Shearer, Mark interview with Mariah Carey. CNN Showbiz News, 18 Sept 1997.
9 Littles, Jessica. “20 Years Later: The Secret History of Mariah Carey’s Butterfly.” Essence, 26 Oct 2020 (updated).
10 Anthony, Vincent. “Mariah Carey’s ‘Butterfly’ Is Music’s Most Underrated Album.” The 97, 16 September 2017.