When Mariah Carey entered the music world via her blockbuster self-titled debut in 1990, many critics hailed her practically peerless voice and parade of No. 1 hits. Some were less enthused, however, praising her technical talents but opining she needed to develop a more distinct musical approach.
Whether critics were right about Carey’s style circa 1990 is a matter for discussion, but one prevalent viewpoint espoused by several writers 25 years ago is just plain wrong.
Namely, that Mariah Carey is white.
As (hopefully) everyone knows at this point, Mariah Carey is not white — or perhaps more specifically, she’s not just white. She’s African-American and Venezuelan on her father’s side and white Irish on her mother’s. But publications from Los Angeles Daily News to Playboy to the Herald Sun described her as “white” throughout 1990, an error that at least two publications (New York Post and USA Today) wrote to correct.
In an article from Dec. 6, 1990, Australia’s Herald Sun described Carey as “the new white U.S. soul singer with a reputed eight-octave range.” That’s wrong on two counts: Aside from not being white, Carey’s range is five octaves.
An article from the Los Angeles Daily News (picked up in the Nov. 8 edition of the Chicago Tribune) made the same mistake. The article is primarily about Billboard changing the name of its Hot Black Singles chart to Hot R&B Singles (the chart is now called Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs), but it erroneously mentions Carey as white in a one-off example. “The term ‘black music’ also has caused confusion when it includes releases by white artists. This week, Mariah Carey’s debut album is high on the chart and, in past years, George Michael has had the No. 1 album on the chart,” the article reads. (Incidentally, Michael’s father was a Greek Cypriot, which many would argue isn’t white.)
After Playboy ran an article about Carey in 1990 that described her as a “white girl who can sing,” reports surfaced via New York Post that she was furious with the writer of the piece. Shortly after, a spokesperson for Carey set the record straight to USA Today.
“Mariah Carey’s anger over a racial comment was blown out of proportion, says spokeswoman Judy Womack at Columbia Records,” reads the Nov. 20, 1990, USA Today article. “Friday, the New York Post reported that Carey was ready to ‘sock [black music critic] Nelson George’ because he called her a ‘white girl who can sing’ in his Playboy review of her self-titled album…. ‘My father was very upset,’ [Carey said]. ‘It seems that most people don’t know much about interracial children.’ Womack says the quote was taken out of context, and that Carey and George are friends.”
The New York Times, at least, got one big thing right about Mariah at the outset of her career. In a Dec. 26 year-end roundup piece, The Times noted that “the 20-year-old singer, who bears a marked vocal resemblance to Whitney Houston, [shows] the kind of talent that could have real commercial staying power.”