The Emancipation of Me(mi)
The month was April. The year was 2005. I—a scrawny, ill-proportioned boy of 16, with skin the color of Lily’s peanut butter—had set out in the mild morning heat for our quaint town mall.
I began my day knowing how it will be spent. It would start with a 14-minute journey to Robinson’s. I remember vividly how I left home to do just that, with the clanging of our iron gate as it closed behind me. I didn’t even try to hide the spring in my step.
You see, I had marked April 11th on my calendar like it was my birthday. And who could have blamed me? After months of revisiting various websites and countless hours of staying tuned to the radio (a thing that began and ended in this period in my life), it was finally here. For those who’ve had to wait for something with great anticipation, you know what it feels like when the wait is finally over.
The day of The Emancipation of Mimi’s release ultimately became a hot one, scorching even. Smack dab in the middle of summer, with the 9 AM sun hovering somewhere above me, I walked. I couldn’t look at the sun, of course; I only felt it. The sky was cloudless, blue as it could ever be. I felt a drop of sweat drawing a line behind my back and still another one rolling just below my left ear. I kept on, feeling my bag jostling next to my waist. In it was the money I had saved from skipping recesses and denying myself after-class trips to McDonald’s.
When I reached Robinson’s, I sat on its front steps, in front of its still-closed doors. The security guard, fidgeting with his phone, was oblivious of me. I knew I was too early. I wanted to be the first one in the music store. I wanted to hear the whole 50 minutes and 10 seconds of it. I didn’t have to search for what the word emancipation meant; it was defined in Mariah’s website: To set free from care or restraints.
I had gained a bit of freedom myself at this juncture in my life, having hurdled high school in a fashion not a lot could emulate, having been able to secure a spot in the top university.
I was a generally a happy boy on the outside. A lot of things were working out for me. Inside, however, there was a growing tumult, a barrage of self-perpetuating questions regarding my identity.
High school graduation, entering college—these times told me I was growing up. And growing up made answering these questions more urgent. Who was I? What would I become? Where is my niche? Every day that came and went, with these questions unanswered, I got a little bit more lost. I remember looking at the mirror and not liking what I saw—the way my hands moved, how I could easily roll my eyes, or just the way I stood. I even hated that I loved Mariah so much, something I shared with one of my closest friends. Being bullied about this was another thing we shared. In hindsight, maybe it was because I didn’t want to be queer and yet everything I knew pointed to just that. (Why is it that a lot of us like Mariah?)
At 16—in a devoutly Catholic family, in a provincial town, inside a campus where everybody knows everyone, where your parents are both professors—growing up gay was an unnecessary scourge. Life is unfair, isn’t it? I had a support group, though, comprised of a few good friends, but most of them were to study in other universities in far places. I guess that added, too, to the dreading of the growing up part. In a lot of ways, college was the beginning and the end. And in this paradoxical time, little did I know, The Emancipation of Mimi would serve as its soundtrack.
My love affair with Mariah Carey began in our car, in a parking lot. I was with my father and he had just installed a CD player. He had me listen to My All and pointed me to notice the texture of the singer’s voice, how she easily glided from a breathy, sultry coo to a strong chest voice. I listened. By the start of the new millennium, I was already purchasing copies of her albums and had memorized all of her runs and melismatic ways.
I had also learned about her story: How she was discriminated as a child, for being of mixed decent, for being somewhere in between. How their family car was burned and their dog poisoned because her interracial family lived in a white neighborhood. How this molded her and made her strive to be more. How she already knew at a tender age that she was going to sing for the rest of her life, how she wrote her feelings, made them into songs, which would later become no. 1 hits. I started to be a true fan, I think, at that point—the previous years, I was just mildly obsessed about her.
Her life became even more fascinating, particularly in the light of all her achievements in the music industry, not to mention the influence she’s had on so many artists. She vehemently denies it, but to a teenager, her life easily looks like a fairytale. That is, up until her famous breakdown in 2001, following her debut film Glitter tanked in the box office and its accompanying soundtrack’s sales failed to compare with her previous releases. (Interestingly, the album was released on 9/11. Yes, that 9/11.) She received bad publicity after bad publicity and people forgot that she had at least one no. 1 song for each year since her debut, nor that her collaboration with Boyz II Men, One Sweet Day, was and still is the longest-running no. 1 song in music history (16 weeks), and never mind that she had just received the Artist of the Decade award by Billboard. All these and more in less than a decade, but one failure was all it took to relegate her to pariah status.
Mariah sort of bounced back late 2002 with Charmbracelet–easily forgettable save for the lead single, Through the Rain, which became an anthem here in the Philippines. She became quiet afterwards. Rumors about Mimi went around in late 2004. Here, only a few people cautiously predicted it to be her comeback album. Most didn’t want to bet on her. She was easily a has-been in the early 2000s and understandably so. She had been counted out. I wasn’t one of them. In fact, I was betting on her, to prove her critics wrong. I saw myself in her, somehow. Growing up, I was bullied and teased a lot, for acting soft, for reading books too much, for liking to hang out with girls more often, for not being sporty, and for favoring Mariah Carey songs.
Mariah has claimed music saved her life. Whenever she’d feel low, she’d write lyrics or listen to the radio. I realized that I did the same, only I listened to her music. Songs like Hero, Through the Rain, My Saving Grace, and Can’t Take That Away (Mariah’s Theme) have helped me get through a lot of dejection. And my showing up there, half an hour before the mall opened was my thank you, my statement that I was rooting for her, like how she rooted for me.
That day, after getting my copy of The Emancipation of Mimi from the town mall, I immediately went home and locked myself in my room. I placed the CD gently in the player and carefully unraveled the album inlay, which to my surprise doubled as a poster. I looked at the large photo of a woman in gold, beaming with triumph, like a phoenix from the ashes. I took a deep breath and pressed Play.
I—a scrawny, ill-proportioned boy of 16, with skin the color of Lily’s peanut butter—had set out to find saving. Being in this world was harsh, I had learned early on. But within the confines of my room on that hot summer day, in spite of everything, life seemed fair. The month was April. The year was 2005.
This essay first appeared on Unread.com