Mariah Carey’s State of Mind During Debut Album Is Examined by a Psychiatrist [EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW]
It’s hard to imagine Mariah Carey as anyone other than a diva. A sassy, cooing, eyelash-batting chanteuse with the pipes of a church organ and a penchant for wearing strategic cleavage-baring attire. However, she was once a regular 19-year-old rising artist with a dream and demo tape.
The fresh-faced vocalist out of New York had a run-in with luck — and some very influential industry heads — in the late ’80s. Carey had been mentored by Brenda K. Starr and signed by Columbia Records’ CEO Tommy Mottola but despite their professional support, her self-titled debut album was fueled by her five-octave vocal range and the accessibility of her content, competing with some of the strongest female artists in pop music.
Carey is a diary artist. While many strong pop singers enlist songwriters to ensure a hit, she granted her listeners access to the deepest recesses of her psyche through her lyrics. Her experiences — revolving predominantly around the intricacies of love and relationships — have become ours for consumption through every listen.
Her debut album, Mariah Carey, released on June 12, 1990, marks the beginning of her brazen openness and public vulnerability. It was her first diary entry, one that revealed notes on her state of mind and emotional development.
Dr. Shenitta Moore, a psychiatrist at Louisiana State University/Ochsner Hospital in New Orleans, has been a fan of Carey’s artistry since she first emerged on the music scene because of her connection to the content. As a professional whose career revolves around exploring the emotions of others, she admires an artist who can express her own so profoundly.
“With songs, you have four minutes to get the whole point across, confronting and articulating whatever emotions you’re trying to convey in a very short amount of time. And she makes it accessible. She’s able to gain empathy,” Moore tells The Boombox. “That’s incredible.”
So where was she, psychologically, at this point in time?
“She was around 20 years old. At that point, we don’t really know who we are yet. We’re still establishing our identities. On top of that, she had a lot of pressure on her,” Moore says of Carey being thrown into the spotlight and swiftly rising to fame. “The whole world is either loving her or doubting her at this point and that can constrain someone. There’s a lot of anxiety surrounding that.”
Carey’s entrance into the pop and R&B world was like a Cinderella story. It started out with her demo tape but as soon as Mottola got his hands on it, a team of well-seasoned musicians added their spice to the pot to create a project that went nine times platinum and yielded four number one singles, here in the U.S. alone. She was at the core of every song, though. Her creative energy, for the span of the year she was recording, was at an unfathomable high.
“Artists in general are sometimes prone to bipolar disorder,” Dr. Moore says, explaining how manic episodes can spark bursts of energetic creativity in painters, writers or musicians. “When people are manic, they can be very productive, creatively. They can stay up for days and still have tons of energy, with an inflated sense of self.”
Her debut album may very well have reflected these creative bursts as well as vacillating between an array of emotions, according to Moore. From whimsical on “Vision of Love” to torn and heartbroken on “I Don’t Wanna Cry,” she reveals the complexity of relationships.
On “Vision of Love,” Moore says that Carey creates an illusion about love, which is rather typical for individuals around her age. “She had — like we all did — these grandiose ideas about what love is. She is hopeful and idealistic,” she says. “And in a very good place.”
Watch Mariah Carey’s “Vision of Love” Video
And while there are superficial ideas about relationships, Mariah Carey contains introspection as well, indicating maturity. Carey grieves the loss of a relationship on “I Don’t Wanna Cry,” a later single from the album. “She expresses on this track a realization that she can’t sacrifice her happiness for the sake of a relationship anymore. One has to grieve in order to cope with any type of pain. Trying to skip this process could just cause it to appear 10 times stronger when you are reminded of it at some point down the road,” Moore shares.
The singer takes back her power on the upbeat and self-possessed “Someday,” where she abandons her heartache and promises her ex that he will regret the day he ever left. “Women often blame themselves for why a relationship fell apart. That weighs on the self esteem. And then once it’s over, to be able to get that confidence back is very important,” Moore says of Carey’s smug lyrics. “She seemed to really know herself and her worth. Not everyone has this keen self-awareness and insight at age 20.”
Mariah Carey was followed by several other platinum albums that showcased her pattern of emotional accessibility while retaining a sense of innocence. Steering clear of an overtly sexual persona allowed more room for content. When Carey’s marriage to Mottola ended in 1998, however, there was a very tangible shift.
“There are the usual stages of grief — anger and denial to name a few — when someone endures loss,” explains Dr. Moore regarding Carey’s separation from Mottola. “But it seems she really began exerting her independence. She seemed a lot happier. The music that followed her divorce was perhaps a declaration of who she truly is.”
Moore reflects on projects that followed her divorce in 1998 — Rainbow and her #1’s compilation: “She was dressing a certain way. She’d done her little surgeries. She was older so there was a sense of self acceptance too. She sang and wrote more lighthearted, uptempo tracks with fun features. If art imitates life, she was definitely liberated.”
While her confidence may have peaked around that time, her “breakdown” a few years later reflected physical and emotional overexertion. Exhaustion, as well as the overall failure of Glitter — a movie project and album so personal to her — may have been what pushed her over the edge. Glitter reflected a part of Carey’s own life story, so sour reception of the project could have even seemed like she, as a person, was being rejected.
Dr. Moore asserts that when an artist so invested in their career suffers what they consider a failure, depression, anxiety or panic attacks can occur. “These things are often situational, so we call them adjustment disorders. That’s when there’s a recognizable stressor and the behavior can subside once the stressor is alleviated.”
Remember her infamous “Ice Cream Meltdown” when she bum rushed Carson Daly on an episode of TRL in July of 2001? While promoting “Loverboy,” a single from the Glitter soundtrack, Carey strutted around in a skimpy outfit, handing out ice cream and speaking erratically. The pointless random banter is what Dr. Moore calls “racing thoughts” and it indicates a high level of anxiety and sometimes sleep deprivation.
“She’s restless and can’t seem to stand in one spot. Then she proceeds to take off her clothes,” says Dr. Moore. “When someone is manic, along with the inflated sense of self and impulsivity, they can be hypersexual. They can be more flirtatious, act proactively, even be promiscuous.”
Carey checked herself into a facility shortly after the incident, but regardless of how the media ridiculed her, the outburst was not uncommon for an artist of her magnitude. Especially one who has devoted her life to creating art for the public.
“It’s often said that women are hysterical, which has always been an issue,” Dr. Moore says about gender stereotyping when it comes to mental illness. “Mariah’s issues are seen as being ‘crazy’ while maybe she was really just sleep deprived and exhausted and had to be in the hospital.”
Since her debut album was released 25 years ago, through her various relationships and until today, Carey’s formula for her music has evolved in lyrical prowess and vocal style. She’s had an unprecedented amount of record-breaking singles that artists only dream of attaining. Still, we tend to focus on her weakest, most exposed moments. It’s enough to drive anyone a little crazy.
See Worst to Best: Every Mariah Carey Album Ranked