Mariah Carey's Butterfly Is the Truth: The Album at 20

Album cover via Columbia Records
Album cover via Columbia Records

You should never fully trust someone who’s trying to sell you something, but looking back at the press for Mariah Carey’s 1997 album Butterfly, which turns 20 on Saturday, it’s staggering how right she was. “This time period, and this album is about me putting more realness in terms of myself into the music and into the videos and being able to expand creatively and experiment,” is how she summarized her new attitude on a 1997 episode of VH1's Weekend Special. “Authenticity” is an angle many a pop star has tried on like an outfit—Lady Gaga is really more of a traditionalist singer-songwriter at heart, per the Joanne era, Katy Perry is now woke per her Witness press. Authenticity is obviously a dubious concept to invoke in a medium that is necessarily packaged and commercialized, as pop music is. We have no conclusive way of checking Mariah’s ability to externalize her internal life, but over the past 20 years she has consistently presented many of the themes that Butterfly introduced to her career. If this is a con, it’s an astonishingly long one. In terms of Mariah’s legacy, there are two major periods: Before Butterfly and after.


Butterfly was when Mariah got serious about beats—the growing hip hop influence in her work was never as pronounced as it was on Butterfly, thanks to collaborations from the likes of Sean “Puffy” Combs and Q-Tip on the first single “Honey” and a Mobb Deep sample on “The Roof.” R&B had been increasingly infused with hip hop since the early ‘90s (with Mary J. Blige’s landmark 1992 debut What’s the 411? cementing the melding of genres), but in 1997, it seemed a bold move for a pop star of Mariah’s caliber to go as far down that road as she did.

Before “Breakdown,” one of the finest songs she has ever crafted, I’d never heard a singer flow like Mariah does when she mimics the staccato vocal style of Bone Thugs-N-Harmony, whose Krayzie Bone and Wish Bone guest on the track. Not merely singing over a hip hop beat, the way most people fused hip hop and R&B in that era, Mariah delivered a more melodic version of Bone Thugs’s sing-song delivery, sometimes in double-time, giving the track a fast slow-jam sensibility we’d soon hear repeated in tracks like Destiny’s Child’s “Say My Name.” In this day and age, when there’s so much genre blending that it’s sometimes impossible to label an artist as merely “singer” or “rapper,” it’d be foolish to understate the prescience of “Breakdown.”


Though she’d been dabbling with samples since 1993's “Dreamlover” and had already worked with the likes of Jermaine Dupri, as well as Combs (on the Ol’ Dirty Bastard-featuring “Fantasy” remix), Butterfly marked a true investment in the music Mariah claimed she’d long been wanting to make, to the chagrin of her record company. “People were a little more apprehensive about me doing tracks that had a harder edge or working with people that might not be the typical pop producer,” she told VH1.

It wasn’t a radical revamping, but a dynamic tinkering that made sense. “I’ve maintained true to myself in every way: staying who I am in terms of doing the ballads and doing what I love to do, but being able to do the collaborations, like with Bone Thugs,” she said to Australian interviewer Molly Meldrum, touching on the more predictably schmaltzy songs on the album written with longtime collaborator Walter Afanasieff, like its title track and “Whenever You Call.” Pop stars are public servants, and this offering was posited as a particularly conscious negotiation between what people expected from Mariah and what she knew of herself.

Until Butterfly, Mariah had been, per John Pareles’s New York Times review of the album, “the girl next door with the startling vocal range.” Here, instead of merely opening her lungs and unleashing, Mariah sang often in a fragil, dulcet whisper. That, she explained, was a truer version of herself, as well. “This is me,” she told the Baltimore Sun. “I sit around all day and hum to the radio in my airy voice. I’ve always been really comfortable doing that.” She’s employed that style of singing regularly in the decades since—you can hear it in smashes like “Shake It Off” and “Touch My Body” and many, many album cuts. 2002's Charmbracelet is basically a sonic sculpture of whispers.

The aesthetic shift went well beyond Carey’s sound. The “Honey” video found Carey in outfits revealing her shape and cleavage. The shift from her preceding covered-up no-look look was “definitely much more true to who I am,” she told Barbara Walters in 1998. In her lyrics, there was at last the suggestion of sexuality—her object of desire in “Honey” is the “only one who makes me come running” she says, invoking the sly orgasmic imagery of Prince in “I Wanna Be Your Lover” (“I wanna be the only one that makes you come... running”). Over the space-age syncopation of “Babydoll” (co-written with Missy Elliott), Carey is going mad from her politely expressed horniness (“I wanna get intimate but you’re not within my reach”). Having recently split from her allegedly oppressive and emotionally abusive husband/label boss Tommy Mottola, Mariah was single and on her way to loving it.

In the years since, the cleavage has gotten more pronounced, the outfits have gotten skimpier (she wore a bandanna as a shirt in the 2001 “Loverboy” video), and sexuality is a permanent fixture in her palate of expression. She’s been mocked repeatedly for this—in 2000, Rosie O’Donnell called Mariah “trampy” to her face, and taking it in stride, Mariah announced, “We should all be able to express ourselves however we want.” Before we were really talking about slut-shaming as a culture, Mariah announced she would not have it be done to her. She has remained fastidiously nearly nude ever since.


Pronounced sexual blossoming is a trope within modern pop female stardom—examples include Madonna’s Erotica album, Janet Jackson’s janet., and to a much sillier extent, Miley Cyrus’s Bangerz era. A notable contrast within Butterfly is that while it did announce Mariah as a sexual human, it did so in a context that more broadly attempted to present Mariah as a multi-dimensional human being. “I’m sexual,” said Butterfly, “but that’s not all I am.” Continuing the theme of identity, Butterfly concludes with “Outside,” a ballad about being multiracial that contains a truly startling line to hear a superstar telling herself: “You’ll always be outside.” No matter what mass acceptance one achieves, she was saying, certain elements of childhood alienation remain unshakable.

“Close My Eyes” sounds like an even lite-er take on George Michael’s “Father Figure,” but lyrically, it’s an even darker meditation on past trauma. What that trauma is, she’s not saying—and she is, in fact, telling you that she’s not saying it: “I left the worst unsaid / Let it all dissipate / And I try to forget.” It’s frustratingly vague for those inclined to gawk and piece together why Mariah claims that she was a “wayward child with the weight of the world” who learned many things “little ones shouldn’t know,” but in its own way, “Eyes” is reflective of the paralyzing effects of suffering. You can take the girl out of the cocoon, but sometimes you can’t take the cocoon out of the girl.


Elsewhere, Mariah’s lyrics are almost zen-like in their painting of pictures without didactic theme. There’s the lovely “Fourth of July,” the kind of full-band number that you might hear Deniece Williams doing in the ‘70s (a continuation of the aesthetic of “Underneath the Stars,” a highlight of 1995's Daydream). There’s the nostalgia trip back to a warm, misty November night where Mariah shared a kiss with some dude in “The Roof.” Both merely present moments with nothing else to prove. And we all know how Mariah loves her moments. Sprinkled throughout Butterfly are the kind of 10-cent words that Carey regularly employs these days—she’s “breathless and fervid amid the dandelions” on “Fourth of July,” her “apprehension blew away” on “The Roof,” she’s trying to be “nonchalant” about her heartache on “Breakdown,” her absent lover is “emblazoned” in her mind on “My All.” The appearance of “abruptly,” “abandonedly,” “inherently,” and “ominously” on this album drive home the point that Carey has never met an adverb she didn’t want to cover in velvet kisses.

Butterfly is a slow album—besides a housey riff on the title track remixed by David Morales, the “uptempos” here like “Honey,” “The Roof,” and “Breakdown” are actually in head-nodding midtempo. The pivot in her sound effectively meant fewer sales—Butterfly is certified five times platinum by the RIAA, half of Daydream’s certification—but there’s often a price to self-expression, and Mariah seems to have paid it gladly.


Perhaps under the influence of the earth tones on its cover not to mention its release date, I’ve always thought of this as a great fall album—it’s a warm record full of slow jams. It’s also transitional—it set the path toward the lovably eccentric R&B legend Mariah has become. Format wise, Butterfly’s influence carried too, as Mariah would turn in many more of these full-length quiet storms—2002's Charmbracelet, 2009's Memoirs of an Imperfect Angel and 2014's Me. I Am Mariah...The Elusive Chanteuse are all saturated with slow jams. You could argue that Mariah has spent many years attempting to repeat the artistic success of Butterfly, but given how realized a statement it was, you couldn’t really blame her for trying.

Some Pig. Terrific. Radiant. Humble.


This was the era when her voice became noticeably less reliable and her tone changed a bit. I wonder if that was part of why she started doing her whispery singing more and more.