A Visit to New York's Mariah Carey Experience Pop-Up

Mariah Carey
Kevin Mazur/AMA2018/Getty Images

Mariah Carey performs at the 2018 American Music Awards at Microsoft Theater on Oct. 9, 2018 in Los Angeles.

What does one listen to on the way to New York's Mariah Carey Experience, a limited-time pop-up meant to celebrate the career of the diva and promote her latest album Caution? Do you cue up the buoyant tracks from Caution, a fresh collection of Carey's pop confections that have been garnering glowing reviews, including from Billboard, who called it "the perfect 2018 Mariah Carey album"? Or does one pull up classic Carey, from "Butterfly" to "Heartbreaker," songs old enough to drink and many even older than that? It's an extended musical journey that's on full display inside Sony Studios, less of a museum and more of a single floor of mini exhibits meant to bring her career to life. Oh, and sell some records.

Aside from a display of Mariah's actual dresses, the most notable part of the experience is a wall where one can listen to every one Carey's whooping 18 Billboard Hot 100 No. 1 singles with personal headphones, starting with her bow "Vision of Love" and continuing with tracks from 1997's Butterfly ("Honey" and "My All") and into the next decade with 2005's The Emancipation of Mimi ("We Belong Together" and "Don't Forget About Us"). The wall is just as much a walk back in Mariah's past as it is a look at the vast evolution of pop music, stretching from the glory days of CD sales all the way to Napster and streaming. The shifting properties of the industry are apparent as well. It was on 1999's Rainbow, for example, where the JAY-Z assisted "Heartbreaker" can be found; her 14th No. 1, its music video alone cost a cool $2.5 million, one of the most expensive released smack in the middle of the MTV heyday of the genre, and a far cry from today's budgets.

Rainbow also gives the Experience one of its most Instagrammable opportunities in a room full of them. Along with backdrops set up to mimic the vibe of Caution, the butterfly-swarmed cover from Butterfly and even a Christmas-themed photo booth honoring Carey's holiday classic "All I Want for Christmas Is You," it's a bed and neon rainbow ripped from the iconic David LaChapelle photoshoot for Rainbow that serves as a fun, albeit trashy, way to salute the smash album. (Lollipops are included and yes, your humble writer did partake.)

It was 28 years ago when Carey shot to stardom with her self-titled debut album and endeared herself to a generation of fans who loved her brash attitude, sugary-sweet pop hooks and all-around diva mentality, a label she by and large embraced. As the years spun on, Carey maintained a special perch reserved for her and the undeniable uniqueness of her career, even through public missteps (New Year's Eve 2016 anyone?).

"I've been so inspired by the journey she's had as a singer and songwriter," explained Jamie Shum, who was visiting the experience from Wappingers Falls, N.Y. "I look up to her a lot, so seeing this happen is a great way to bring fans from different backgrounds and generations together." And as a longtime Mariah follower, what does she think of Caution? "I've had the album on repeat since the day it was released," she notes. "I love it. It's so cohesive and consistent of Mariah. I like the fact she stays true to herself."

It's a continuing relevance that only a select few female pop singers have been able to achieve. Carey has maintained her brand despite a sea of mimickers, a cutthroat industry and fickle fans, many of whom have grown up and out of the Mariah machine.

Brooklyn's Bolden Bradley, another visitor, is one of the many other diehards who visited the experience and is frank about his perspective on Mariah's impact. "There's no one with this voice and there's no one who's as free to express herself as she does musically," Bradley explains. "It's unmatched and unparalleled. She's a prolific songwriter and has this sensibility to tap into emotions that you can resonate with. It gives you a glimpse of who she is as a person. Now we're going to take pictures and pretend to be Mariah Carey."

Find the Mariah Carey Experience at New York's Sony Square (25 Madison Ave.) until Dec. 4.