I didn’t grow up thinking I’d one day thank Mariah Carey for making my teen years not as brutal as they could have been. Like most gay teens grappling with their sexuality, I was thinking, How can I survive? And, more importantly, will I?
Mariah, like someone’s Madonna or someone’s Kesha, was my icon as a kid and even into my early college years for reasons that eluded me until I understood years later just why I needed her as the embodiment of who I sought to be: someone as strong as she seemed to become.
When her masterwork, Butterfly, was released 20 years ago, on Sept. 16, 1997, I was a closeted ninth grade loner so ruined by torturous self-esteem issues, childhood bullying, first-year high school anxiety, and constant feelings of being uncomfortable in my own skin that the night I zipped to the local 24-hour grocery store to snatch a copy of the album – a few minutes before midnight, just as they stocked the shelves with Butterfly CDs – I felt the kind of immense relief you feel when you have the support of a good friend. Troubles dissolved and euphoria fell over me. Nothing mattered but getting home, slipping into my twin-size bed and letting her music take me to utopia.
Mariah’s Butterfly would be my rock through my late teen years as I clung to the real-life narrative that led to the most poetic, soul-baring release of her 27-year career: Mariah, newly divorced at the time, utilized the butterfly as an emblem of newfound freedom. Enter the first single “Honey,” when Mariah wore a bikini, donning far less than the modest style she was initially known for. Musically, it was a major shift – finally, she was fully embracing the urban sound she was told to resist during the first seven years of her career. She was artistically evolved, personally transparent, and finally herself.
Mariah, it seemed, was telling awkward, gay and, yes, even suicidal me that everything – even this sad, sinking, seemingly-forever feeling in my stomach every time I felt sexually attracted to a boy – was a this-too-shall-pass moment, even if it didn’t feel like it at the time. That reassurance became helpful while reconciling my gayness and Catholic upbringing. At the time, I lapped up every lyric from Mariah’s own self-reflective ruminations regarding her own childhood adversity and feeling “neither here nor there” and “somewhere out of place everywhere,” as she so honestly put it “Outside,” a harrowing extension of the also-revealing “Looking In” from 1995’s Daydream.
I came out the summer between high school and college, and it was hard. But “Outside” played a critical part in letting me know that, no matter what, I’d be OK.
Though the gospel-tinged coda about being a social outcast was written specifically about Mariah being biracial, her lyrics – “early on you face, the realization you don’t have a space where you fit in” – have long spoken to the queer community as if she and they are kindred spirits.
I know this because Mariah’s empowering life narrative and self-reflective words saved my own life, but I wasn’t alone –numerous queer lives were saved, as I discovered after my genuine and surprisingly unguarded interviewwith Mariah Carey just over a year ago, in June.
The gravity of this full-circle conversation wasn’t lost on my mother, who really did cry when she heard the audio of her son and his childhood idol together on the phone. And fans responded emotionally too, including one from Greece who sent me this message:
“Since the first paragraph, I felt as if I was reading my own thoughts and feelings. As we are close in age (I was 11 when Butterfly came out, let’s put it that way), I feel as if our Mariah experiences may have a resemblance in terms of realizations, awakenings and ‘emancipations.'”
Another outpouring from a changed fan, this one even more personal:
“It’s wonderful to hear that she saved your life too. I’m bi, but that’s no reason she saved me. I was groomed and abused by several men. My innocence was shattered. I had a baby at 17 (1997) and it was that year I connected with Mariah. I grew up feeling on the outside, I didn’t belong, I was in so much pain. In 2003, I met Mariah. I wanted to tell her she saved me, but the words just wouldn’t come out. I’m so glad you did get to tell her. You weren’t just telling her for you – you spoke for all the lambs who have been saved by her music. Thank you so much.”
The thing is, the story was almost written without any mention of the deep personal connection I share with Mariah, but my dearest friends convinced me that it was the only way to tell it.
I’ve interviewed a number of celebrities during my seven years as a celebrity journalist for LGBTQ press, and it’s true: Interviewing Mariah didn’t feel like an interview at all. It felt a lot like I imagined it would, like catching up with an old friend, someone I leaned on during the most difficult time in my life who was there to tell me, “You are not alone.” So, naturally, the conversation did feel particularly easy and intimate, with me trading lines from “Close My Eyes” with Mariah and her explaining in depth why LGBTQ people, like myself, feel an affinity to her. “‘I was a wayward child’… trust me, I know those words by heart,” I told her.
“Trust me,” Mariah warmly replied. “I do too.” She finished the line: ‘…with the weight of the world that I held deep inside.'”
“I always wanted to have the freedom to be myself and I wasn’t in a situation where that was OK,” she also revealed to me, adding that before Butterfly, “I always had to settle for less than I wanted to be, and I wasn’t allowed to be who I was.”
It’s surreal to know those words were professed directly to me because for so long, that very sentiment –one particularly emphasized throughout Butterfly and its overarching self-discovery theme –was what kept me alive.
I am who I am –at one time, a closeted, repressed gay kid; now a journalist for gay press – in big part because of Mariah’s Butterfly. And 20 years ago, it set me free.
Writer Chris Azzopardi met Mariah Carey in August 2016 in Las Vegas after her team invited him out to Vegas to see her “#1 to Infinity” show. She told him, “Love your ensemble, dahhling!”