Review Summary: On Butterfly, Carey is not only evaluating the risk-reward of being honest with herself to the world, but finding a determination and certainty in the spiritual and creative flight that which she has craved for many, many years.I was a wayward child
With the weight of the world that I held deep inside
Life was a winding road
And I learned many things little ones shouldn't know
Yeah, after this album, lyrics began to (very slowly) be less reflective, all the way to "Touch My Body" and beyond. But from debut to 1997, Carey’s lyrics are, perhaps, the most poetic, self-reflective, and innovative at the height of 90's Pop/R&B-- for the transformation that she experienced, and, for which she was wholly responsible.
Shame, guilt, and self-love- and their irrevocable relationship in the forming of one’s identity is often a long and painful process for many people. Recently, I watched a discussion that took place April 2016 between British novelist Zadie Smith and Norwegian novelist Karl Ove Knausgård, which first involved trying to define the thematic material of his autobiographical novel series Min Kamp
(English: My Struggle), and the complexity in the subconscious self, the real “depths” that exist, contrary to common literary belief. I believe that there is a similarity between the intuition of Knausgård’s text, as well as the intuitive nature of Carey’s lyrical contributions to her music, particularly during her prime and global presence. Knausgård, in the conversation that took place with Zadie Smith, recalled the freedom he felt while working on this series, and his lack of awareness in drawing from shameful experiences- what he describes as “the outer world, being inside of you.” He claims that the real stake of these books is the “division between the inner and the outer…” and the fact that much of his sociocultural background is drenched in so much shame that people are disconnected from it, its alien nature assisting in his ability to write from it. In Mariah Carey’s most critically acclaimed yet commercially unsuccessful work upon release, eclipsed by her previous album sales, often regarded as her magnum opus- it is my belief that while Honey
’s music video has Carey plunging into the depths of a mansion’s pool as part of an espionage mission, she is simultaneously submerging into the metaphorical depths of her identity, hoping to emerge and find what she has been searching for her whole life.
Mariah Carey has a long-standing history of being directly involved in the creation of her records, from writing her own lyrics, to vocal arrangement, to production. On her eponymous debut album alone she is credited for co-writing on every track, and by Daydream
, Butterfly’s predecessor, she was involved and credited in the co-production and co-writing of every track, save the cover of Open Arms
by Journey. In promotional material and countless interviews following her debut, Carey made it very clear that not only was she responsible for writing her own material, but was willing to go to great lengths for her craft that, for instance, Love Takes Time
was recorded, mixed, and mastered last-minute over the course of three days, after the majority of the album was finished. Even the skeptical optimist in me finds it very difficult to believe any of the self-penned lyrics in her discography have been ghostwritten, in whole or in part, and not just by this example. Although Daydream is indeed considered a transitory artistic period for Carey, and the beginning of her creative choices coming to fruition in the final product; Butterfly is what’s on the other side. By analogy, if Daydream is Mariah Carey floating in the waters of her conscious mind, Butterfly is a series of attempts to finally see what lies beneath at the very bottom of it all.
There is a lot of lyrical content on Butterfly that relies much on Carey’s existing skills as a lyricist, and her innate ability to write about love and the difficulty in human relationships, as she did in her previous work. In track nine, Whenever You Call
, a piano-driven ballad co-arranged and produced with Carey’s longtime writing partner Walter Afanasieff, there is evidence of this fact. The second verse finishes with an acknowledgment and understanding that the narrator’s affection and empathy for another has compelled her to search herself, with greater transparency than ever before: “And you have opened my heart/And lifted me inside/By showing me yourself undisguised”. The distinction between the language used in this song and in album closer Outside
is one that, in my opinion, seems to deal with the relationship between the universal and the personal, like the other tracks on Butterfly, and Carey’s personal lived experience transforming into a universal thing- as a caterpillar metamorphoses into a butterfly, eventually. When Carey reveals her internal struggles with self-acceptance and racial identity in the lyrics and vocal performance on Outside, she is doing so with a level of transparency and intimacy that which she had not done prior to Butterfly. While her debut album has Carey grasping at the concept of systemic racism in There’s Got to Be a Way
on a global scale, Outside allows her to express her own uncertainties, insecurities, and constants that she believes in, such as her faith- that she has kept private and is only now beginning to shed, and perhaps, resolve.
It isn’t only within the ballads that these lyrical transformations occur, but in the mid-tempo R&B numbers Breakdown
, which are polar in their contrasts of Breakdown’s frustration and pain in a relationship, and Babydoll’s near-erotic level of intimacy and degree of sexual confidence and liberation. Breakdown is the realization of suffering at the hand of another, but claiming personal accountability in a need to not allow oneself or another to create emotional trauma that only damages existing scars. This is achieved not only with Mariah’s contributions to the record, but guests Krayzie and Wish Bone’s rap section, functioning as the bridge of the song, before, from a production and compositional standpoint- the lines “…going to extremes to prove I’m fine without you” and “…and I lie convincingly” converge into one-minute-and-thirty-seconds of self-actualization. This closure consists of layers of harmonies, ad libs, and backing vocals by Carey, reinforcement by Krayzie and Wish Bone that one must “better get control”, and the denial at the onset of Breakdown becoming self-awareness by its end, as demonstrated in the best way Carey can, which is enough. Between Breakdown and Babydoll, as well as Honey and The Roof
, she was able to marry and integrate the sounds native to modern R&B at the time with fresh and distinctive lyrical, rhythmic, and melodic choices while maintaining her artistic integrity.
Following Mariah Carey’s first world tour for her most successful album in her home country, Daydream, both fans and critics alike have observed over the years, that her voice suffered at the hand of her intention to please her international fans. Despite various phases of rest Carey has taken following Butterfly, most people believe that her voice will never return to the way that it was during the early to mid-nineties. It is well-documented throughout the history of vocal pedagogy that the human voice does indeed undergo significant changes, regardless of one being a professional singer or not, but that singers are often in their vocal prime during their thirties, particularly classical singers. It should be noted though, that not every classical singer has had to promote, record, tour, and use their instrument quite as much as Carey had to in the first seven years of her career alone, debuting at the age of 20. It can be argued, therefore, that Carey’s physiological changes to her instrument are not only responsible for several tracks on Butterfly being more subdued and less vocally taxing as her previous records indicate, but that this change to her instrument has left her neither a weaker nor stronger vocalist, but perhaps one- “...on the verge of fading…nearing the edge…” in the self-reflections on track eight Close My Eyes
, and one who, thankfully, “…woke up in time.”
Mariah Carey is doing exactly what she wants on this album. There is no more pretense than the fictional worlds and narratives created by her music videos for this album. She is doing what she wants, and doing it extremely well. Whether or not it’s what she wanted from the beginning, or just for a moment- this is her at her best, most honest self. As she writes in the titular Butterfly
, track two: “When you love someone so deeply they become your life/It’s easy to succumb to overwhelming fears inside…”, Carey’s evanescing relationship with her ex-husband and CEO-of-Sony comes secondary to her desire and need to “…prevent this hurt from almost overtaking me…”. On Butterfly, Carey is not only evaluating the risk-reward of being honest with herself to the world, but finding a determination and certainty in the spiritual and creative flight that which she has craved for many, many years.
Recommended tracks: Butterfly, Breakdown, Whenever You Call, Outside, Close My Eyes