the meaning of mariah carey

The Stories Behind 13 of Mariah Carey’s Biggest Hits

Photo: Samir Hussein/Samir Hussein/WireImage

Along with pulling back the curtain on her glamorous, difficult, and extraordinary life, Mariah Carey’s new memoir, The Meaning of Mariah Carey, proves she is a rare musical mind — as if you didn’t already know, dahling. Not only is she the solo artist with the most No. 1’s (19) and the artist with the most weeks at No. 1 (82), as well as the best-selling female artist since Nielsen SoundScan began tracking, she’s a formidable songwriter and producer and was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame at the beginning of this year. (And who else could pull off a whole secret grunge album?) Throughout her memoir, Carey shares the stories behind writing and recording some of her biggest and most personal songs, from her early Mariah Carey demos to her chart dominators and starry remixes to, yes, her iconic “All I Want for Christmas Is You.” Here are the stories behind 13 of Carey’s songs, as she tells them in her memoir.

“Alone in Love”

Carey started writing this Mariah Carey cut at the piano in her mother’s house, then recorded a demo of it at the studio of a producer for whom she sang backup. “I figured out the setup. I experimented with the songs,” she writes. “I did dance tracks, straight down the line, all different sounds. I learned how to produce under pressure. I was in the studio, doing it.” The song, she adds, “remains one of my favorites.”


Carey originally intended this Music Box hit for Gloria Estefan, for the Dustin Hoffman–starring movie Heroes. She came up with the chorus on her way back from the bathroom during a studio meeting. “As soon as I got back into the room, I sat right down at the piano and said to Walter [Afanasieff], ‘This is how it goes.’ I hummed the tune and some of the lyrics,” she remembers. “As Walter worked to find the basic chords, I began to sing, ‘and then a hero comes along.’” Carey first thought the song was “fairly generic” and calls the demo “a bit schmaltzy,” but she thought it worked for the movie. Sony Music’s CEO and her then-husband, Tommy Mottola, however, insisted the song go on her album instead. So Carey changed some of the lyrics: “I went to the well of my memories and dipped into that moment when [her grandmother] Nana Reese had told me to hold on to my dreams,” she writes. “I did my best to reclaim it, but it was a gift no matter who it was for.”

Carey debuted “Hero” during her Thanksgiving special, Here Is Mariah Carey — one of the first times she had realized her level of fame. “The initial trepidation I felt about singing it live for the first time in front of an audience was melting away as I thought about all the people who had lined the streets and packed the theater to see me that night,” she writes. “I decided that this song did not actually belong to Gloria Estefan, a movie, Tommy, or me. ‘Hero’ belonged to my fans, and I was going to deliver it to them with all I had.”

“Close My Eyes”

Carey started writing “Close My Eyes” while taking a bath after that Thanksgiving special, eventually finishing the song for her 1997 album, Butterfly. “Images of the scene I had just left — adoring fans screaming and crying — flashed through my mind, blending with painful recollections of my brother screaming and my mother crying, of myself as a lonely little girl in a neglected dress,” she confesses. “The enormity, complexity, and instability of the road I had traveled to get into this bath hit me. It was the first time I felt safe enough to go back and peek in on Mariah, the little one, and recognize what she had survived.”

“Fantasy” Remix

A fan of hip-hop since the beginning of her career, Carey was excited to work with Sean “Puff Daddy” Combs for a remix of “Fantasy,” which she suggested should feature Wu-Tang Clan’s Ol’ Dirty Bastard. Sony pushed back on the idea, she writes — “they thought he was certifiably crazy and that I was about to throw my entire fan base into shock.” But Puff made it happen. Carey was at home with Mottola the night Ol’ Dirty Bastard recorded, so someone called from the studio to play his verse. “Wheeeeeeeeeee! I couldn’t contain myself,” she writes of the moment she heard his iconic intro. “I may have even started jumping up and down on the bed!” Of the verse, she adds, “That was IT! Ol’ Dirty Bastard spit crazy brilliance and scorched our pristine white bedroom with the grime and righteous fun I’d been craving!” Mottola, who “generally considered rap background noise,” wasn’t a fan. “The fuck is that?” Carey remembers him saying. “I can do that. Get the fuck outta here with that.” Carey, though, says she couldn’t stop listening to the remix. “It felt like all the fun I had missed out on in my childhood,” she writes.

“The Roof”

Fans have long thought “The Roof” is about Carey’s relationship with Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter, and she confirms this in the memoir. Carey started coming up with the lyrics in bed after having a rooftop escapade with Jeter while she was still married to Mottola. She included the sample of Mobb Deep’s “Shook Ones Part II,” she adds, because she remembers the song playing on her way home from her date with Jeter. “‘The Roof (Back in Time)’ was my first complete docu-song,” she writes. “It’s exactly what happened.” Describing its importance to her, Carey continues, “It was major for me, not for any salacious reason but because any intimacy with another human being was not something I had experienced before, ever. It was an amazing feeling, and I was obsessed with replaying the encounter and fantasizing what it could lead to.”

“My All”

Carey started writing this Butterfly track — which she calls “the realest, boldest, most passionate love song I’d ever written” — after she secretly met up with Jeter on a trip to Puerto Rico toward the end of her marriage to Mottola. “I strategized and carried out another coup on behalf of my heart: I put everything I was feeling at that time into a song,” she writes. “It was a gigantic risk, because I knew Tommy assumed I was having a sexual affair (even though, technically, I wasn’t yet).” Her budding relationship with Jeter, she says, inspired her like never before. “There was an excitement and purpose awake in me that fueled me to a new level in my creativity,” she explains. “I was hearing different melodies, and I had new, real experiences to draw from.” Carey also co-produced the song with Afanasieff. “I needed it to be strong and simple,” she writes. “I wanted the vocals to be the centerpiece, the focal point in the mix, with a stripped-down track behind them. It was all about the emotion, the soul, and I sang it as if my life depended on it.”


Jeter continued to inspire Carey on Butterfly’s lead single, which she started in Puerto Rico. She says the sample of “Hey! DJ” doubled as “a secret shoutout to Derek Jeter. ‘Honey’ was a song about jonesin’ for that DJ feeling.” After hearing “Honey,” Mottola told Carey, “Well, I’m glad you were so inspired.” (She also writes that he knew “My All” “could never be about him” and that, before Jeter, she wrote love songs about imaginary characters.) “The bitterness!” she writes.

Carey also details the previously planned remix featuring the Notorious B.I.G. The idea came from her and Puff to replicate the feel of the “Fantasy” remix. Biggie had previously called Carey “kinda scary” in his song “Dreams of Fucking an RnB Bitch,” which she says made her reluctant to work with him, until Puffy arranged a call between them. “In true Biggie form — half pimp, half preacher — he said, ‘Naw, ma, you know, no disrespect,’ assuring me the song was all in fun,” she remembers. “I had no doubt he would come in the studio and crush it; that’s what Biggie did.” Biggie died before he was set to record the remix, which Mase and the Lox featured on instead.


Just as Butterfly was inspired by her relationship with Jeter, Carey drew on their breakup for this song off the album that followed, Rainbow. Specifically, “Crybaby” came from reminiscing with a friend on her relationship. “In my best Joan Crawford voice, I lamented, ‘The mother loved me! The sister loved me! The father loved me! It could have been perfect!’” she remembers. “There was so much energy surging through my body that the champagne glass I was holding completely shattered. I took that intensity and put it in ‘Crybaby.’” And if you’re going to criticize Carey for writing so many songs about Jeter, she already knows. “Let’s be honest, as an artist, I am the Queen of taking one morsel and making many meals from it,” she writes. “I milked and mined my limited time with DJ for much more than it was worth.”

“When You Believe”

This meeting of icons with Whitney Houston happened for the DreamWorks blockbuster The Prince of Egypt. “Everybody wanted to pit us against each other in some ‘battle of the divas’ — a tired but pervasive pathology in music and Hollywood that makes women compete for sales like emotional UFC fighters,” Carey writes. “To us, it never felt like a competition. We complemented each other.” That went for outside the recording booth as well. “She had a marvelous sense of humor,” Carey continues. “She started using my words and calling me ‘lamb’ — it was just pure fun.” Today, after Houston’s 2012 death, Carey remembers the song as “a testimony to the power of faith and, to me, sisterhood here on earth as it is in heaven.”


After Carey left her husband and Sony Music, she claims Mottola tried to “sabotage” her next project, the movie Glitter, which was still under Sony Pictures. She writes that she had planned to sample Yellow Magic Orchestra’s “Firecracker” for the song “Loverboy,” until a sample of the same song popped up on a track by one of Mottola’s artists: “I’m Real,” by Jennifer Lopez, “whom I don’t know,” Carey writes. “Tommy knew fucking with my artistic choices was particularly low. But I wouldn’t let him stop me.” She and producer Clark Kent sampled the Cameo song “Candy” along with some elements of “Firecracker” for the new “banging track” instead.

“Subtle Invitation”

Carey says “Subtle Invitation” is one of her favorite tracks on Charmbracelet, which she calls “actually a really good album.” Yet she stays cryptic about the story behind this jazzy love song. “That song is a great example of how I often take the small moments that happen in life and channel their larger significance so that my music can connect to people all around the world who are going through different experiences and coming from different situations and positions,” she writes. “Though the song was about a brief and fleeting fling, it wasn’t a resentful song. It was for anyone who could relate to experiences of losing a love but keeping the door open to it.”

“Fly Like a Bird”

As Carey was finishing a writing session with “Big Jim” Wright in the Bahamas, the chorus of “Fly Like a Bird” came to her. “I knew this song was going to be something meaningful,” she writes. “I begged him not to leave yet.” He stayed to work on the song and then went to New York City to record the live band. Carey worked on the vocals for two days straight at her studio in Capri. “I was lost in a song that would eventually be one that would often help me find my way out of the shadows,” she writes. She worked through the night and finished the song the next morning. “The sun was rising as the background vocals were peaking: ‘Carry me higher! Higher!’ I closed my eyes, knowing God had laid His hand on the song and on me.” Carey’s pastor, Bishop Clarence Keaton, reads two Bible verses on the track. Describing the song’s message, Carey writes, “I can’t handle this life alone, but the Lord will help me through it.”

“All I Want for Christmas Is You”

Carey’s legendary holiday hit dates back to her childhood Christmas memories. Particularly, she credits her “guncles,” Burt and Myron, with whom her family often celebrated Christmas, for supporting “the showgirl in me.” “It was from my little girl’s spirit and those early fantasies of family, and friendship, that I wrote ‘All I Want for Christmas Is You,’” she explains. She calls it “a risk” for her to record a Christmas album so early in her career, after just her third studio album. “I wasn’t in the happiest place when I wrote it,” Carey admits of “All I Want for Christmas,” which she wrote near the time of her and Mottola’s marriage. “I wanted to write a song that would make me happy and make me feel like a loved, carefree young girl at Christmas.” Twenty-five years after its release, the song became Carey’s 19th No. 1 as well as the first No. 1 of the new decade. Carey learned the news during a holiday vacation in Aspen. “That’s only something genuine fans, not just marketing plans, can do,” she writes.

The Stories Behind 13 of Mariah Carey’s Biggest Hits