Role Models: When Mariah Carey Sings, Lucy Liyou Hears an Infinite Mythos

The experimental artist meditates on the legend, syllable-by-syllable.

I want to talk about Mariah Carey in a way that doesn’t diminish her music to mere narrative. An artist with 15 studio albums and counting is surely more interesting than a career highlights reel. 

I often think about how many times Mariah has sung the words “you, me, I.” If I’m feeling especially lonely, I think about how many times she’s sung the word “love.” The hundreds of ways she’s phrased these webbed letters. The number of notes she can fit into a word like “so.” In a word like “if.”

In the span of 14 sixteenth notes, there is “you.” No, let me try again. In this span, there are 14 yous. And the 14 you’s are all same-different people who have said “you, me, I, love, so, if,” in same-different ways at certain spans of your life. 

“I love you.”
“No, I love you.”
“No, I love you.”
“So… if you love me…”

There she goes again. She sings “you” and I remember what it’s like to see you from above and below. Evening and too close. You are walking. Now half-dancing. Tippy-toes.

Mariah Carey reminds me that there will always be new ways to remember “you” in the same way that I hope there are new ways to imagine “me.” More new ways than I can count on my fingers and limbs. 

To sing is to conjure. Not to emulate. When she sings, she gifts an infinite mythos. And in that mythos, I hear her encouraging me to do the same. To give myself a gift.

Mariah Carey: “Say ‘me’ for me. Now, who is ‘me?’”

Me: I am Lucy Liyou.
Me: I am quietest body.
Me: I am my sister’s best friend.
Me: Perhaps a woman.
Me: I don’t want to know.
Me: I would like to know.

I think this is the part where I sing. I climb, bellow, cliff.

I believe I have captured some of it — “me.”

And then I try many times more.

I get upset when people describe Mariah Carey’s singing as flamboyant, as if that was the only thing that mattered to her. To show off, to impress, to compete. I think she sings with an intention only matched by a handful of other singers, past and present. She has never suggested that melisma was the epitome of song. She has never suggested that an extensive vocal range and proper technique made you a good singer. In fact, she’s admitted that her five octave range, especially her whistle register, was a symptom of her vocal cord nodules which were either congenital or gained. She’s not too sure.

I can admit, as well as we all surely do, I catch myself every now and then getting caught up in the absurdly supernatural ability of her instrument. Regardless of its origin.

But I stop and I think about her name. Mariah Carey. How quickly I overlook the fact that before there was the voice, the “songbird supreme,” there was a name. A sound.

“Ma-ri-ah Ca-rey.” 

I try it. My jaw hangs at the end of -ah and then swings up with -rey. The pitch curls slightly sharp with -ri and my vocal cords at “Ca” await a swoop to finish the landing. 

Why does saying her name force you to open your mouth and keep it ajar? Why does it feel like an invitation to say, speak, sing more?

Because to sing is to conjure. Because when you sing the way she sings, with that much intention, you gift yourself an infinite mythos: the music of your words favorite and forgotten, scattered into syllables, pledging a nostalgia and epic that feels so ordinary, if ordinary could ever feel so large and so like…

“You, me, I, so, if, Ma, ri, ah, Ca, rey.”

I conjure up a memory. My head on your stomach in my mom’s room, in my grandparents’ apartment in Korea. You draw circles in my hair.

“I love you.”
“No, I love you.”
“No, I love you.”
“So…if you love me…”

And then I imagine what you would say next. What I would say next.

(Look into me.)

I think this is the part where I sing.

(Photo Credit: Bianca Chun)

Lucy Liyou is a Philidelphia-based experimental musician. Their latest album, Welfare / Practice, is out now on American Dream Records.

(Photo Credit: Bianca Chun)