This week, we celebrate the 25th anniversary of Mariah Carey’s MTV Unplugged. It's one of the biggest testaments to her talent and presence — and it's also one of her most underrated works.
Of course, in the quarter-century since the record’s release, we’ve come to know a very specific version of Mariah. We hear about the luxurious lives she’s given her dogs, the beauty line she’s reportedly launching, and detailed reports on the nature of her relationship with Bryan Tanaka. We know that Carey has crowned herself the Queen of Christmas and Queen of taking a bath while wearing only diamonds, and that she’s come to embody everything a real and true Diva™ should be.
And that's all lovely. But don't let it distract you from the fact that Mariah Carey can sing. Because while she may have lip-synched in Times Square on New Year’s Eve (and really, who cares if she did?), she most certainly did not at Kaufman Astoria Studios 25 years ago.
When MTV Unplugged was recorded and released, it came in the wake of a somewhat lukewarm response to 1991’s Emotions — an album that some critics felt showcased Carey’s range, but came up short in terms of artistic expression. Plus, she had yet to tour, which raised questions as to whether she could even sing live. So Mariah walked into a studio in Queens and recorded what would go on to become one of the most-aired episodes of the beloved MTV series, and an EP that hit No. 3 on the Billboard charts. With her Unplugged, she delivered the musical equivalent of “I’ll show you how valuable Elle Woods can be.”
Everything changed with this record. It showed that Carey’s voice was unfuckwithable — something anyone who'd been listening for the previous two years already knew — but it also showed off her unmistakable warmth and personality. Critics praised her charisma and the way she interacted with her audience. So yes: Mariah had long since established herself as a singer, but MTV Unplugged cemented her as a pop star.
In the words of a glowing year-in-review piece that ran in Entertainment Weekly that December: “Carey’s ... appearance was a vocal tour de force, proving beyond a doubt that in addition to her breathtaking pipes, she has developed a commanding stage presence. ... This rare public appearance reminded us there was a big-league performer inside that party dress.”
Which, sexist reference to her outfit aside, proves the point of Mariah’s MTV Unplugged. Considering Carey’s public appearances were so few and far between back in 1992, performing live on such a massive — and prestigious — scale elevated her profile above needing to run the typical tour gauntlet or having to rely on word of mouth to prove she could actually deliver IRL. Instead, she parlayed controversy over the authenticity of her voice into a nationally televised special, appealing directly to a wide audience while silencing critics with her range and her depth. She took control of her professional narrative and laid the groundwork for what the rest of her career would be built on: Mariah doing what Mariah wants to do. Because she can, and because she earned it.
And we’ve only ever seen her do the same since. Throughout the rest of the 1990s and well into the 2000s, Carey’s voice remained a constant, with her catalogue of singles serving as regular reiterations of what she’s capable of. Even when Mariah’s personal life or social media presence begin to eclipse her musical offerings, hitting play on “I’ll Be There” is enough of a reminder that the woman has spent a quarter-century breaking the sound barrier and has earned whatever antics she wants to participate in. And if anyone has a problem with that, maybe we can bang out a slew of tracks in front of a live studio audience.
Plus, that leather jacket was next level.