Mariah Carey case study

Mariah Carey

UK based, vocal coach and self confessed vocal nerd, Chris Johnson, does a case study on the biggest selling female artist of all time, Mariah Carey. 

If you were to Google “Billboard Hot 100 achievements” you would find Mariah Carey in categories such as: “Most Weeks at Number 1”, “Most Consecutive Number 1 Singles”, “Most Top 10 Singles”… I could go on and on!

This obviously means that this lady has had a monster career, with 13 studio albums and 9 big tours under her belt. This also means that Carey has had a monster workload, too. That type of workload will inevitably present challenges to a singer.

Carey’s approach has morphed over the years in a way that has tried its best to accommodate these strenuous vocal challenges. And her brand new 2014 album (Me. I Am Mariah… The Elusive Chanteuse) gives even more contrast to her technique since her first album in 1990.

The Golden Days

And by golly were they golden! Vision Of Love knocked my socks off as a 9-year-old in ‘90. And the next album in ‘91, Emotions, was just as good. Listen out for her vocals here:

If It’s Over (’92) – Mariah Carey

The quick analysis of this is:

  1. Tone is round and consistent throughout the range – this gives us the indication that a singer is in control of the vocal mechanism and is making the changes necessary to good and healthy register transition. This also means the larynx is in a neutral (and occasionally low) position during singing—the jaw is free, and the lips are rounded.
  2. Volume is under control when ascending – higher doesn’t mean louder. Inability to do this is what often leads singers to damage their voices.
  3. Powerful, without being shouty – this means the intrinsic vocal muscles are operating well and aren’t imbalanced, which is facilitated by a)
  4. Relaxed body language – it completely suggests that most of the vocal work is being done by the voice.

The Later Years

Carey had major successes after her early efforts with Music Box, which I got for Christmas ’93, along with a Sega Megadrive. Anytime You Need A Friend combined with Golden Axe Arcade Game was euphoric to say the least. Amongst a bunch of other releases every other year after that, this record ended up being her biggest selling hit to date in 2005:

We Belong Together (’05) – Mariah Carey

The quick analysis of this is:

  1. Much brighter tone – this is signifying that the larynx is risen and lips are widened. This leaves a shorter length in the vocal tract, which thins tone.
  2. Pops and squeaks on the consonants – this sound isn’t just from this individual performance. It’s consistent with the original recording of the song and her vocal stylings at that time. They are achieved by a higher larynx, stronger than usual vocal cord compression and tension, and high breath pressure. Those sounds can sometimes point towards possible inflammation of the vocal cords.
  3. Rasp – at times there’s rasp, primarily from the vocal cord closure being affected somehow and creating noise. This can signify a possible medical problem with the vocal cords, high vocal cord tension, a closed throat, and/or high lung pressure blowing them apart.
  4. Tense body language – generally, looking like this is a whole body effort, with extra effort occurring in the middle/abdominals.
    NB: It’s highly likely this is a lip sync to a previous live vocal. It’s actually quite hard to find a performance of this song on any of the major televised performances that isn’t mimed.

A Familiar Outcome for a Modern Artist

The two super-hits above give a good technical comparison and highlight the nuances in her approach. The second song shows little imperfections in technique that don’t detract from the performance necessarily, but are warning signs of a potential vocal demise.

Being Mariah Carey, however, is probably quite difficult. The songs are mostly stratospheric in range, and the width of style spans super-breathy, whistle tone, ‘mixed’ voice, and a whole bunch of belting. It takes a very well-trained singer and an in-depth vocal health regime to offset the impact that all of that range and style can have on a voice—not to mention the busy schedule for 13 years between the two recordings—but, it is possible.

Carey had a vocal coach in her early years: her mother. Patricia was a New York City Opera mezzo-soprano and a freelance vocal coach. Maybe her influence and direction kept Carey nimble, balanced, and in-check in the beginning. There’s certainly some well-rounded and classic technique in the first clip that could suggest a traditional approach to voice training. As her career progressed into the next millennium she moved further and further away from that style of singing, into a more edgy and contemporary field. At this time she worked with one of her backup singers, who was also a vocal coach. But her vocal style side step closely correlates with the beginnings of her vocal struggles.

The Dreaded Nodules

Here’s an excerpt from an MTV interview with Mariah Carey in 2007:

“I have nodules on my vocal cords. My mother says I’ve had them since I was a kid. That’s why I have the high register and the belting register and I can still be husky. A lot of people couldn’t sing through the nodules the way I do; I’ve learned to sing through my vocal cords. The only thing that really affects my voice is sleep. Sometimes if I’m exhausted, I can’t hit the really high notes. My doctors showed me my vocal cords and why I can hit those high notes. It’s a certain part of the cord that not many people use—the very top. My natural voice is low. I have a raspy voice. I’m really more of an alto. But my airy voice can be high if I’m rested. […] When I was little, I’d talk in this really high whisper, and my mom would be like, ‘You’re being ridiculous’. I thought if I can talk like that I can sing like that. So I started [she goes higher and higher and higher] just messing around with it. I’d practice and practice, and she’d be like, “You’re gonna hurt yourself.” I’d tell her, It doesn’t hurt. If I were to try and belt two octaves lower than that, that would be a strain.”

In simple terms, nodules are scar tissue ‘nodes’ on the vocal cords generated from high impact, aggressive singing. If left without treatment they can inhibit the vocal cords properly coming together. When they are small and relatively new they may not interrupt vocal function in the lower register a great deal, but instead provide that sexy ‘husk’ that’s so appealing. A singer finding themselves in this pickle would need to be quite careful to not increase the size of the nodules, or worse still, haemorrhage them. Looking at Carey and her recent vocal stylings, she doesn’t seem to be singing like someone who is trying to rehabilitate nodules, but rather the opposite. As a result of what seems to be worsening vocal cord state, Carey tends to mime most TV performances as they have the biggest audience and highest impact on publicity. Her concerts still have truly live vocals, but sadly the number of on-stage vocal collapses grows as time marches on.

The Conclusion

It’s very hard to get the big picture here. We haven’t had the opportunity to look down her throat but, from what’s known about nodules, it doesn’t seem conclusive that Carey actually had them since childhood, or even today.

iSing resident ENT Dr Reena Gupta offers up some insight into Mariah Carey’s early 90’s sound:

“Her clarity of tone is just not achievable in someone with anything on their folds, even mild swelling”.

That leaves nodules less likely as they inhibit vocal fold closure across the range considerably. Nor could Carey access her signature whistle register with nodules, Reena continues:

“The perturbation in the wave produced by nodules would preclude the execution of the whistle register completely. Even though we don’t think that whistle is vocal cord, per se, the wave is still generated there and that cannot be possible with nodules.”

She also hypothesised that there is likely to be scarring of some kind on the vocal cord, which will adversely affect the way they function. Vocal gymnastics can be the start of abuse, purely because higher pitches and greater volumes all put vocal cords under extra stress.

Reena pointed out, Celine Dion deals with this by taking the opportunity to keep quiet. That’s right people; vocal rest is seriously underestimated in the daily recovery agenda. Lifestyle choices trash the ability of the voice to recover from demanding singing, and Carey has been known for dabbling in excesses like alcohol and other substances. Combine that with regular nights out and too many interviews… you’d have to be an Iron Man to get away with that.

From her statement above, Carey seemed to be a little complacent about her vocal situation. Even if nodules are present, they need to be carefully managed. Not many singers would escape a catastrophe unless they made a change to current vocal habits. Maybe she didn’t fully understand the impact of carrying on? She could’ve been misinformed, or she could’ve misinterpreted information from an ENT. She likely didn’t dedicate enough time to voice care and training. Who knows?

This is another impossible subject to predict from a coffee shop in Hampstead. But, it seems like there is certainly irreversible damage this far down the line. Although you might be surprised at how well singers can bounce back from situations like this, her chances of returning to former glory are probably forever dashed.

Whether anything could’ve been done or not, Mariah Carey was not able to carry on ignoring her vocal situation. Her most recent album hints towards an attempt to lighten the voice using a very raised larynx to brighten tone. This is a common tool in voice training to temporarily allow better transition between the chest and head voice without loss of power. In the short term it probably helped her greatly, but it will inevitably present another set of problems if adopted for the long term. For example, the duration of a world tour.

The voice of today’s pro needs a lot of maintenance. Jessie J is probably modern music’s most popular acrobatic singer, and she is well known for lifestyle choices that support her voice. Keeping fit, eating well, and specific voice training are all high on her list. That’s why she kicks butt week in and week out. Might seem like a drag, but the act of powerful singing has an even bigger pleasure payback than any nightclub cocktail. Success, vocal mastery and freedom of expression will also no doubt inject that feel good factor.

If you’re suffering from nodules, or indeed other vocal problems, seek specialist medical advice via your ENT department. Combine that with an experienced vocal coach and a lifestyle review, and you’ll be going some way to ridding yourself of those tricky little things.

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Chris Johnson is the co-founder and presenter of the popular iTunes singers podcast The Naked Vocalist. Based in London, he’s also a pro vocal coach and performer who has been working with touring rock bands, urban artists and West End lead actors since 2008.