Singer, songwriter, guitarist
In an era when the label folksinger-songwriter does little to guarantee success, Tracy Chapman has seen her dreams come true. When Chapman takes the stage sporting short dreadlocks, blue jeans, and a turtleneck sweater, accompanied only by her acoustic guitar, listeners lean forward to hear her husky contralto pour forth poignant reflections on contemporary urban life. As Steve Pond of Rolling Stone noted, Chapman’s voice “is the sound of a smart black woman growing up in the city with her eyes wide open.”
Though she is a relative newcomer to the folk music circuit, Chapman has always made music an important part of her life. Chapman’s parents divorced when she was four years old, and she grew up with her mother and older sister in a largely black middle-class neighborhood in Cleveland, Ohio. At an early age she learned to sing, play the clarinet and organ, and compose simple songs that she sang with her sister, Aneta. While still in grade school Chapman began to teach herself how to play the guitar. She told Washington Post writer Richard Harrington: “I’ve been singing ever since I was a child. My mother has a beautiful voice, as does my sister. At that point I wasn’t really listening to that much music at all, except what my parents were listening to, or my sister. I think I just picked up a guitar because my mother had played it at some point—started teaching myself things and writing my own songs.”
Wanting to make a better life for herself than those she witnessed about her, Chapman worked hard to earn A Better Chance (ABC) minority placement scholarship to the Wooster School, a small, progressive, private high school in Danbury, Connecticut. In contrast to the metal-detector-equipped public high school she had attended, at Wooster she was thoroughly immersed in an atmosphere of social and political discussion. At times she had difficulties with her sheltered classmates; she told Time that “students there just said very stupid things. They had never met a poor person before. In some ways they were curious, but in ways that were just insulting.” The school was a haven for musicians, however. She met other guitar players who introduced her to a variety of popular music, including the early protest works of Bob Dylan. Chapman’s teachers recognized her talent and gave her ample opportunities to perform. In a gesture of support, the school chaplain took up a collection among the faculty and students and bought the young singer a new guitar to replace her battered one.
Despite the strong support for her musical talent, Chapman did not seriously consider music as a career. When she enrolled at Tufts University, near Boston, she aspired to become a veterinarian. However, a short while later she changed her major to anthropology with
Born 1964, in Cleveland, Ohio. Education: Tufts University, B.A. in anthropology, 1986.
Played ukelele, organ, and clarinet as a young child; began playing guitar and singing original songs at the age of ten; during high school, performed at school functions and at local coffee houses in Connecticut; while in college, performed at church services, on street corners, and in coffee houses in Boston, Mass.; signed a recording contract, 1986; live performer at clubs, festivals, and in U.S. and international concerts, 1986—.
Awards: Grammy Award for best new artist, for best female pop vocal performance, and for best contemporary folk performance, all 1989.
Addresses: Home —Boston, Mass. Office —c/o Elektra Records, 75 Rockefeller Plaza, New York, N.Y. 10019.
an emphasis on West African cultures, the field in which she eventually earned her bachelor’s degree. In college Chapman continued to perform her own compositions in coffee houses, on street corners, and at folk-oriented church services. She was offered a recording contract with an independent label but turned it down, not wanting to interrupt her education. Chapman’s decision proved to be fortuitous. One of her classmates, Brian Koppetman, approached her after hearing her play to suggest that his father might be able to help her singing career. The father in question was Charles Koppelman, the K in SBK, one of the world’s largest music publishing companies. At Brian’s suggestion, Charles Koppelman came to hear Chapman perform, and later he told Newsweek: “Her songs were wonderful melodies with important lyrics. That was enough. But when I saw her in front of an audience! When she smiled, everyone smiled. When she was serious, you could hear a pin drop.”
Chapman had considered working toward a master’s degree in ethnomusicology, the study of chiefly non-European music, especially in relation to the culture that produces it. But after graduating in 1986, she signed a management agreement with SBK, to be represented by Elliott Roberts, who also manages singers Joni Mitchell and Neil Young. A demonstration cassette taped by Chapman at the SBK studios eventually led to a recording contract with Elektra Records.
Chapman settled on producer David Kershenbaum and hired a backup band to contribute to the record for Elektra. Describing Chapman’s voice to Time, Kershenbaum said, “The timbre of it is rare to find. It instantly disarms you.” Because she is a prolific songwriter, there was no lack of music from which to select the pieces that make up her self-titled debut album. Tracy Chapman breaks all of the rules of popular music marketing. The melodies wander and are oddly phrased, and many of the songs explore serious subjects—racism, domestic violence, the failed American dream, material and emotional self-determination—and do not fit the format of commercial radio. The background instrumentals are limited, focusing attention on Chapman’s percussive use of the acoustic guitar, and one selection is even sung a cappella. In seeming defiance to trends, Chapman’s album rose to the number one position on Billboard’s best-seller chart without discernible airplay and engendered a music video, which alternates segments of Chapman singing in her usual concert attire and still photographs of gritty real-life scenes.
For just this sort of blunt realism, reviewers describe Tracy Chapman as downbeat, particularly the cuts “Talkin’ ’bout a Revolution” and “Why?” Yet Chapman remains hopeful that her music can reach a wide audience and deliver a message. As she told the New York Times: “On a certain level, I think something positive is going to happen, though I don’t think it’s necessarily going to be an actual revolution. Even though I’m a cynic, there’s still a part of me that believes people will get to a certain point where they can’t stand the way things are and have to change the way they think.”
The power of Chapman’s songs to motivate change lies in their psychological realism, their universal poignancy. With an eye for detail, Chapman uses just enough specifics to suggest events or situations known to listeners regardless of where they live. She chronicles in song the human condition. When asked about her songwriting ability, Chapman told Musician writer Kristine McKenna: “I don’t have structured writing habits. I’ve written hundreds of songs and have enough material for three albums so I don’t see writing as a problem. I play my guitar every day and always have fragments of ideas floating around my head, but I never force a song into being. My songs aren’t autobiographical, but they usually combine a variety of things I’ve seen, heard or read about. Occasionally it will be something that happened to me, but I’ll combine that with other things.”
Chapman has frequently been compared to folksingers Joan Armatrading, Joni Mitchell, and Phoebe Snow. Some reviewers see her as “a bridge between the folk music revival of the eighties and the socially conscious folk movement of the sixties,” a bridge girded by the efforts of another female folksinger—Suzanne Vega. Chapman balks at being labeled, whether the label is folksinger or black woman artist. As she told a Chicago Tribune writer: “I don’t just think of what I do as folk music, which I define as music rooted in an Anglo-European tradition, but as music that also reflects Afro-American black music. Personally, it wasn’t a matter of being drawn to a particular music; in a sense, the instrument you play defines what you play.”
Chapman’s performance schedule has no doubt been influenced by her social conscience: the Sisterfire festival in Washington, D.C.; Amnesty International’s worldwide Human Rights Now! tour; and a march to commemorate Dr. Martin Luther King. Chapman takes to the stage with more ease than she wears her star status, however. Even as a young dreamer, Chapman never expected to sign with a major label, and when she did she didn’t foresee the popularity of Tracy Chapman, albums and person.
Her second record, Crossroads, was tremendously popular, selling 4 million copies in the first five months of its release. Because of her repeat success many critics believe that a resurgence in protest music is likely in the 1990s, thanks in part to Chapman. Not altogether comfortable with her celebrity, she admitted to McKenna, of Musician: “The idea of being famous doesn’t appeal to me because I hate parties and it seems like it might be one big party. I value my privacy and I’m not used to dealing with lots of people. The prospect of wealth is scary too. When you’re poor your first responsibility is to yourself, but when you have money you have to think about other people—and other people are definitely thinking about you!”
Tracy Chapman (includes “Fast Car,” “Baby Can I Hold You,” “Talkin’ ‘bout a Revolution,” “She’s Got Her Ticket,” “Behind the Wall,” “For My Lover,” “If Not Now…,” “Why?” “Across the Lines,” “Mountains o’ Things,” and “For You”), Elektra, 1988.
Crossroads, Elektra, 1989.
Chicago Tribune, August 14, 1988.
Detroit News, September 4, 1988.
Musician, June 1988.
Newsweek, June 20, 1988.
New York Times, September 4, 1988.
Rolling Stone, June 2, 1988; June 30, 1988.
Time, August 15, 1988; March 12, 1990.
—Jeanne M. Lesinski
Pop vocalist and songwriter Mariah Carey set the music world ablaze when her self-titled debut album was released in 1990. Featuring the hit single “Vision of Love,” the disc provoked critics to rave over Carey’s seven-octave vocal range and gospel-toned voice, and eventually sold more than seven million copies worldwide. She has been compared to the late pop soprano Minnie Riperton, the Peruvian singer Yma Sumac, and, most often, to superstar Whitney Houston. As reviewer Ralph Novak asserted in People, Carey “sings with extraordinary control, driving power, lovely pitch, and wide range.”
Carey was born to a mother who had sung with the New York City Opera and remained a vocal coach throughout Carey’s childhood. Carey’s mother influenced her a great deal, the singer revealed in Seventeen. “I knew from watching and listening to my mom that singing could and would be my profession.” She recounted further that her mother “had to tear me away from the radio each night just to get me to go to sleep.” Carey also enjoyed listening to the record collection of her older brother and sister, especially albums by Gladys Knight, Aretha Franklin, and Stevie Wonder.
When Carey was 17 she left her family home on Long Island, New York, to live in New York City. Sharing an apartment with another aspiring musician, she waited on tables to earn her living while making demo tapes of original songs to give to music executives. Carey eventually got a job as a backup singer for a small record label. One of the vocalists she sang for, Brenda K. Starr, was sufficiently impressed with her abilities to introduce her to Tommy Mottola of Columbia Records. At Starr’s insistence Carey gave him one of her demo tapes. Mottola listened to it in his car on the way home from the party where the meeting had taken place; he called Carey to sign her the next day.
Carey worked on recording her debut album for the next two years. Mariah Carey was released by the time the singer turned 20. Carey co-wrote and arranged all of the songs on the album, though critics have not been particularly impressed by her non-vocal efforts. Novak called the tunes “uniformly forgettable, both melodical-ly and lyrically”; Alanna Nash of Stereo Review commented that “none of the ten songs sticks in the mind.” Nevertheless, Carey’s single “Vision of Love,” raced up the pop and adult contemporary charts, eventually reaching Number One. She gained further exposure on national television by singing “America, the Beautiful” before the first game of the National Basketball Association finals at Michigan’s Palace of Auburn Hills. Carey’s debut album also contained the tracks “Someday” and “There’s Got to Be a Way,” which Nash described as “social-consciousness raising.”
Born c. 1970; daughter of a vocal coach and former opera singer.
Worked as a waitress and backup singer c. 1987. Recording artist, 1988—.
Awards: Two Grammy Awards; one for best new artist, 1991.
Addresses: Record company —Columbia/CBS Records, 51 West 52nd St., New York, NY 10019.
“What you remember” about Carey, however, said David Gates in Newsweek, “is the voice—all seven octaves or so of it, from purring alto to stratospheric shriek.” Likewise, in spite of her criticism of Carey’s songwriting, Nash did affirm that Mariah Carey “is as exhilarating as a ride on the World’s Tallest Roller Coaster.” Amusement parks came to the mind of a Seventeen reporter as well, who noted that the “lissome diva carries the listener away on a riveting … roller coaster of sound.” Not surprisingly, in light of such comments, Carey’s efforts on the album garnered her a Grammy Award for best new artist 1991. As Novak concluded, “She is just about a lock to become pop music’s biggest sensation since Whitney Houston.”
Mariah Carey (includes “Vision of Love,” “There’s Got to Be a Way,” “I Don’t Wanna Cry,” “Someday,” “Vanishing,” and “All in Your Mind”), Columbia, 1990.
Glamour, October 1990.
Newsweek, August 6, 1990.
People, July 16, 1990.
Rolling Stone, August 23, 1990.
Seventeen, October 1990.
Stereo Review, October 1990.
Genre: Pop, Disco, Rock
Best-selling album since 1990: Music Box (1993)
Hit songs since 1990: "Hero," "Dreamlover," "Fantasy"
As one of the most successful artists of the 1990s, Mariah Carey has reached the same pop star status as other females such as Celine Dion, Janet Jackson, and Whitney Houston. Known for a singing style that draws on soul and rock, Carey has had a number of dance-pop hits.
Raised in a musical family, with a mother who was a former opera singer and voice coach, Carey started her career at a young age by singing on R&B sessions while still at school. Having moved from Long Island, New York, to New York City at the age of seventeen, she started writing songs with arranger Ben Margulies. Her songs fused pop, gospel, and soul in a way that maximized her vast vocal range. Carey's break came when she signed with Columbia Records and started on her debut album, Mariah Carey, in 1990. With a string of top hits, "Vision of Love," "Love Takes Time," "Someday," and "I Don't Wanna Cry," the album became a great success, winning her Grammy Awards for Best Female Artist and Best New Artist.
Carey's talent as a singer became obvious to millions of fans. With a strong soul vocal style that exuded exuberance through its wide register, and a stylishly sexy image, she continued to produce albums that sold well. Her next two releases included Emotions in 1991 and MTV Unplugged in 1992. The latter included a live performance recorded for MTV within an intimate setting where the audience was able to respond to her spontaneously. Backed by a group of talented musicians, Carey managed to pull off a mannered and reflective performance that was epitomized by tracks such as the Jackson 5's "I'll Be There."
In 1993 she released her best-selling album, Music Box, with which she went on tour. This album consists of two of her most memorable hits, "Hero" and "Dreamlover," which reached the top of the charts all around the world. In both of these songs Carey's delivery is overdramatic and impassioned with her squeezing out every drop of sentimentality in a style not unlike that of Barbra Streisand. While the songs on the album are stylishly performed and well produced, there is a lack of imagination in the lyrics, which mainly deal with themes of love and yearning. In addition, Carey's vocal parts are not profiled enough in the mixes of these songs. As a result, the songs lack a sense of conviction and direction. It was perhaps the oversentimentality and excessive performance that resulted in mixed reviews during her first tour.
Following her marriage to producer Tommy Mottola in 1993, her next album, Merry Christmas, was released, featuring the number one single "All I Want for Christmas Is You." The appeal of this song lies in its clever production with catchy chords, overdone bell sounds, and sleighbell connotations. Even more success was enjoyed by Carey with her next hit single, "Fantasy," from her 1995 album Daydream. The other big hit from this album was "One Sweet Day," a collaboration with Boyz II Men, which topped the U.S. charts for sixteen weeks. For many, the material on this album signified a maturity in her style, not least for an adult-oriented public impressed by her musical craftsmanship.
In 1997, having separated from Mottola (whom she later divorced), Carey released her next album, Butterfly, which showed a determination to succeed alone. All sorts of references are found in the songs that relate to the theme of her survival and freedom at the breakup of her marriage. Not as up-tempo as her previous dance-style hits, these songs are intended for listening, hence their ballad style. Tracks such as "Butterfly," "Babydoll," "Break Down," and the Prince cover "The Beautiful Ones" are all poignantly delivered in a controlled and sensual manner. With this album, Carey finally sealed her credibility as pop diva.
Her star status was evidenced by the recording of a duet with Whitney Houston in 1998, "The Prince of Egypt (When You Believe)," for her forthcoming greatest hits album, #1's. The chemistry of these two stars visible in the promo video was enough to confirm Carey's standing as pop diva. In fact, Carey's peak in terms of fame came at the end of the 1990s. With the hit "Heartbreaker," from her 1999 album Rainbow, she became the only artist to ever have topped the charts each consecutive year of a decade. Stylistically, this hit is a blend of hip-hop and R&B, with a melodramatic expression forcing its sassy delivery. In contrast, the duet with Snoop (Doggy) Dogg on the track "Crybaby" shows off the groove-based panache of Carey's material and represents one of the high points on this album.
During the early 2000s Carey's popularity waned. Her next album, Glitter (2001), the soundtrack for the film of the same name, in which she starred, struggled to achieve its intended commercial success. As it was her Virgin Records debut, a breakdown between artist and record company resulted. She subsequently formed her own label, MonarC. With her ninth album, Charmbracelet, released in 2002, there was little sign of a comeback as a disappointing collection of tracks characterized a notable decline through a jaded performance.
Having become one of the best-selling female artists of the 1990s, Carey's success at the beginning of the new millennium dwindled. Negative critical response to Glitter and Charmbracelet did not help her career, and only time will tell whether she can make a comeback to her previous superstar status.
Mariah Carey (Columbia, 1990); Emotions (Columbia, 1991); Music Box (Columbia, 1993); Merry Christmas (Sony, 1994); Daydream (Columbia, 1995); Butterfly (Columbia, 1997); #1's (Columbia, 1998); Rainbow (Columbia, 1999); Charmbracelet (Mercury, 2002). Soundtrack: Glitter (Virgin, 2001).