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Pier Dominguez

Pier Dominguez is a doctoral candidate in American Studies at Brown University. His dissertation, “The Melodramatics of Queer Race,” examines media and performance modes dismissed as melodramatic, trashy, kitschy, schmaltzy, and inauthentic. Formerly a teen biographer of Christina Aguilera, he has since written about Whitney Houston’s queer afterlife for Racialicious and his academic work has appeared in Camera Obscura and is forthcoming in the anthology Black Sexual Economies (University of Illinois Press).

“Of Whistles, Coos, and Doo-Wop: The Racial Kitsch of Mariah Carey’s Vocal Theatrics”
Recently voted #1 in an MTV survey of the 22 Greatest Voices in Contemporary Music, Mariah Carey is nearly universally acknowledged as “The Voice” of her generation. Yet there has been little critical attention devoted to the actual aesthetics of her vocal theatrics. Critics have exclusively focused on the influence of the schmaltz gospel melisma of “Vision of Love,” placing Carey into a genealogy that includes predecessors such as Aretha Franklin and Whitney Houston. Such a lineage highlights the strength, volume, and power of Black women’s voices. I argue Carey performs a complex and slyly campy relationship to voice, which is less about power and volume and more about a queerly racialized malleability, elasticity, and inauthenticity. As the auteur and producer of all her music, Carey foregrounds her vocal lines through simple lyrics, short verses, and long pre-choruses and choruses. Particularly in her lead promotional singles, she draws from influences such as ’60s girl group doo-wop, the soft soul of Minnie Riperton, and the post-soul falsetto squeals of Prince. Through a close reading—or listening—of both the aesthetics of her vocal performance and her visualization of its theatrics in music videos, I contend her songs are often about the style of her vocal theatrics as she performs the instabilities, artificiality, and inauthenticity of racialized femininity. In this way, I theorize Mariah Carey’s kitsch vocal performance and contextualize it as another element of her mixed race negotiation of racial innocence. I end by exploring the way her vocal performance of the kitsch of racial innocence has been taken up (perhaps unexpectedly) by white pop divas like Katy Perry and the multicultural girl group Fifth Harmony.

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