Confessions (On Intimacy, or Supposing You Understand)

People who write professionally about Mariah Carey are required to note her staggering five-octave range, her fourteen top-ten albums, and her insane number of number-one singles (eighteen and counting). But I’m not here to count or be professional. I’m here to talk about Memoirs of an Imperfect Angel (2009), Mariah’s novel-length album, which is the thing I listen to while I try and try to write about intimacy.

“It’s a Wrap” is the eighth song on Memoirs, and it’s the song at which you just know the album is a failure. Produced by geniuses, it’s indulgent. It’s meandering, low-key, overlong, both overproduced and unedited, a lot of shimmer and very little shine. Mariah was and is and will ever be famous for her divaness. But on Memoirs, her voice takes to the wings, and her uncertain personality tries to stake out ground on center stage. “If I ever misrepresented my self-image,” she sings in a mumble, “then I’m sorry.” Which sounds redundant at best, or at first. Self-image is already misrepresentation, or so we are trained by professors who ain’t no Barthes to read music, and especially to read pop or female R&B music—as a splendid, top-heavy production in which the star, by the time we see her, has been deader than the author for however many light-years it takes. But not Mariah Carey. Mariah lives.

Ryan McGinley, Falling (Light Leak), 2013, C-print, 60 x 90''.
Ryan McGinley, Falling (Light Leak), 2013, C-print, 60 x 90''.

The 2009 New York Times review of Memoirs begins by asking us when Mariah stopped singing, and goes on to give us a good answer: “Of late,” writes the critic Jon Caramanica, “Ms. Carey has been whispering, as if newly scared of grand gestures.”

Indeed. If we’re looking at numbers: 9/11 happened ten days before the release and immediate failure of Mariah’s Glitter, an infamous film à clef with a seven percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes, and eight weeks after her first public breakdown, on TRL. The year before, she’d signed a $100 million contract with Virgin Records. Aren’t we all a little scared of grand gestures?

And speaking of efforts not made, I was seeing this guy —

(When I get to this part of the essay, it takes all my fear of never being asked to write again to not tear it up. I want to tear it up so bad. I want to get in a car with the windows rolled down and pull out onto the highway and toss the paper fragments out the driver’s side and go to New Mexico to work in a diner. I don’t even drive.)

For Roland Barthes, the mid-century automobile was “almost the exact equivalent of the great Gothic cathedrals.” He meant, he said, “the supreme creation of the era, conceived with passion by unknown artists, and consumed in image if not in usage by a whole population which appropriates them as a purely magical object.” He was writing about the new Citroën, and he said, not just of the car but of each and every thing he found beautiful, that “an object is the best messenger of a world above nature: one can easily see in an object at once a perfection and an absence of origin, a closure and a brilliance, a transformation of life into matter.”

Decades later, the musician Grimes tells us, by way of a song, that reality belongs to a bad or abandoned idea. Spelled “Realiti,” intended for a “failed album,” and accompanied by a self-made video from her 2012 tour in Japan, the barely salvaged track has lines like “we were scared and you were beautiful” and “when I peer over the edge and see death it’s as if we’re always the same.” At least, I think that’s what she’s singing, since her Mimi-style mumbling makes it both difficult and unnecessary to know. “Realiti” is an almost perfect song. Some people don’t understand how a quote-unquote failure can also be an almost perfect song, but I can’t think of any other kind.

I wish I had said to this guy I’d once been seeing, when I saw him again on a beach a year and a half later, that we were scared and he was beautiful, because I think it’s what I meant when I said things much less sweet. It was hard to talk to him about how I felt. It’s hard to talk about it now. I’d already written about it, so I thought it was over. Only the finished artwork is privy to its earlier lives. If a beautiful object makes us cry, it is because sadness is the accurate response, and not because tears mean anything, although they can. I wrote a beautiful piece about this guy I was seeing, a piece he never read, a piece I wrote because I knew he would never read it, and a piece that I read—out loud—to him—in the middle of a fucking sunrise. In Miami, when I was supposed to be inside my hotel room, thinking about art.

By now you’ve probably guessed that when I was seeing him, he was also, though I didn’t want to believe it, seeing me. We were like teenagers, but we weren’t idiots. A mistake is not knowing, or not knowing how. A mistake is just doing it wrong, but we did everything exactly like we said that we wanted it. “Isn’t that what intimacy so often is?” asks Rachel Kushner in her 2012 novel, The Flamethrowers. “Supposing you understand, conveying that you do, because you feel in theory that you could?”

Failures can be better understood as knowing what to do and how to do it and then knowing not to do it. Roland Barthes, knowing how to write a novel. All those preparations. Mariah Carey, knowing how to write a hit. All those songs on Memoirs and only one true hit: “Obsessed.”

After I read him the piece, one of the things I said to this guy was that I’d already said too much. I had taken apart the object I had made. I had, in a way, apologized for misrepresenting an image. I had killed the messenger, as Barthes would say if he had not been struck by a laundry van and had lived to an unreasonably lengthy age, and so I said to this guy that he had to say something now. I said to him, in different words, that he had to tell me why something so soft got too hard, and he said he didn’t know, and then he said nothing, and then he said that he just couldn’t do it. “I just couldn’t do it,” he said again. I wanted to reply with something more tragic, but I couldn’t, not for a minute, because I had thought of one complete sentence for the first time in months. Hours later, when I yet couldn’t sleep, I put in a pale pink notebook that the failed artwork is dangerous because it answers the insincere question: how does she do it?

Sarah Nicole Prickett is a writer in New York and the editor in chief of Adult. The video above is from a reading she gave in March 2015 at Dixon Place in Manhattan. 

Editor's note: This is an excerpt from Feelings: Soft Art,an anthology of work by writers and artists including Tracey Emin, Mike Kelley, Kevin Killian, John Baldessari, and Lynda Benglis, just published by Skira Rizzoli. The book offers intimate and ardent takes on—and examples of—works of art that make you feel fuzzy. Fittingly, the book is wrapped in felt and includes artworks rendered in terrycloth, yarn, feathers, and cotton. Used by permission of the publisher. Copyright 2015 Skira Rizzoli. All rights reserved.