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Remember the 1990s? Remember how Mariah Carey was our soulful savior – taking us through our first school dances and first heartbreaks with style, vocal dexterity, and heart? It may be an overstatement, but I’m drunk on the music and don’t care: she’s outdone herself.

I spent an entire day with her newest single, The Art of Letting Go, on repeat trying to figure out why, in my book, it ranks higher than Hero and One Sweet Day, and (although nothing could entirely beat it) gives Always Be My Baby a run for its money.

mariah carey

It begins with a crackle, a brokenness. Static that makes the audio alive with the implied weight of years. Couple that with the smoothness of strings that make me KNOW something truly dramatic is up, and I’m hooked. Granted, for a musical theatre nerd, this is not a huge surprise. But it gets better.

Almost as fast as it comes in with one mood, it breaks the smoothness with the “tss tss tss” of the drum and the gentle drop of piano chords on every other downbeat – adding a pulse to the song at the same time Mariah’s smokey, sassy, vibrato filled voice sings, “I’m making a statement of my own opinion. Just a brief little reminder to help myself remember I no longer live in your dominion.”

What are those lyrics? A run-on sentence? The word dominion? At first I’m completely taken out of the song thinking “oh no, please let the words live up to the melody,” but as she continues to build on that thesis with both flavorful pedestrian and oddly scholastic words, I become completely enthralled with the unsteadiness I feel. She’s starting a speech. And like the beginning of most speeches whose subjects are freedom and loss, it’s eloquent in its discomfort. Even if they seem silly to me from time to time, the lyrics seem truthful to her and that is enough for me to get it.

At this point, she brings me into the true meat of her song: her chorus. As unsteady as that first verse feels, the chorus brings us to an unfaltering knowing. As she begins, the strings tremble for a few counts, leave, tremble, leave. She’s working up the courage to say the truth. This is the point in her speech where she graduates from timid, vulnerable Mariah to grown up, powerhouse Ms. Carey. The smooth, legato strings come back and with it a voice that carries the weight of the past 20 years.

But the moment that you need to listen to on repeat just to catch its brilliance is her trill of the word “down.” She sings, “Letting go ain’t easy, oh it’s just exceedingly hurtful. Somebody you used to know is flinging your world around and they watch as you’re falling down.” You know when a leaf falls off a tree and it doesn’t just smack right onto the ground? It kind of wavers in the air, at one point you think it might lift off and fly away, but gradually, it finds its way to its gentle, final resting place on the ground? She does this with her voice. Her riff descends, floats, picks up, falls away, and lands. She paints a world on the word “down.”

The Motownesque, bluesy, heartache cry of this song continues. She makes the case in this speech of hers. We come to the bridge where she sings a small, stripped down version of “Baby, letting go ain’t easy.” It’s almost like she’s smirking now, whispering to her listener that this is the way of the world and she finds it (almost) comical.

mariah carey 2All this and then she rips into that last Take Me Home chorus that Mariah does like no one else. Belting out with crystal clear heartbreak and gutsy grit, she’s on her last leg and it feels like she almost doesn’t need the listener anymore. It’s not about the person she’s speaking to, or even the paying audience, it’s about her release. Releasing that voice at the top of her belt, shrugging off every last piece of control. She hurls out her last “down” on the strongest, straightest tone she’s got until finally letting it ripple to the bottom. All I can visualize is a skydiver flinging himself into the empty air and the feeling of utter commitment and abandon with which he has to jump.

Call me a child of the 90s, call me a sucker for a catchy melody, call me an unsophisticated pop music whore. It doesn’t matter. I won’t be able to hear you. I’ll be dancing down the streets of New York City with Mariah in my ear.

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