She may be associated with having made one of the most panned films of all time and embody the excesses of the diva in American pop culture, but take a moment to consider this: Mariah Carey has more writing credits on Billboard number ones than any woman in history. Heartbreaker, released in 1999, did not earn her one of them, maligned at the time for its similarity to her former track, the game-changing Fantasy. Contemporaneous critical discourse beat her with a stick for self-plagiarisation, but the discussion failed to acknowledge the profound scenes of self-flagellation that defined its multi-million dollar promo video.
The setting is one rich with dramatic romantic possibilities: the Multiplex cinema. Actor-cum-walking-waxwork Jerry O’Connell plays the eponymous heartbreaker, Mariah’s ex-beau, out on a cinema date with his new girl, a dark-haired replicant of Mariah herself (hereafter, ‘Black Mariah’*). Mariah arrives with a crew of sassy pals to the same film (a superfluous extradiegetic sequence narrated by Jay-Z’s rather phoned-in guest verse), where they attempt to thwart Heartbreaker and Black Mariah’s coupling using an arsenal of popcorn missiles.
During an interlude our heroine trails Black Mariah to the ladies’ room. As her antagonist adjusts her (disturbingly amplified) cleavage in a mirror, Mariah politely attempts to strike up a conversation. Black Mariah, miffed by the popcorn assault, turns on a spiked heel and hurls a clatter at Mariah. A fight ensues, all acrobatic kicks through bathroom stalls, slammed doors, and yelping chihuahua. Its denouement is not shown to the viewer, but the video culminates with Mariah taking her replica’s seat beside Heartbreaker and pouring a bucket-sized soft drink down his lap. This is no well-intentioned ice bucket challenge – the gesture says ‘I am so over you.’
It does not take too much of a stretch to identify the video’s Heartbreaker with Mariah’s real-world ex, former head of Sony Music, Tommy Mottola**. Married at the beginning of her career in 1993, Carey says she “longed for someone to come kidnap me back then.” The realisation of this fantasy was a long-term abusive relationship, professional and personal, whose toxicity Carey described as culminating in a ‘private hell’ that led to years of trauma after its eventual end in 1997.
We gain more insight into the relationship between Mariah and Heartbreaker in 2008’s ‘Side Effects’:
I kept my tears inside cause I knew if I
Started I'd keep cryin' for the rest of my
Life with you
I finally built up the strength
To walk away/don't regret it
But I still live with the side effects
This meditation gives deeper insight into the scarring effects of abusive relationships and the internalisation of pain that comes with them. When Mariah countenances BM in the Heartbreaker video it is significantly through a mirror. Mariah sees herself as object, identifying herself as the cause of her broken relationship with Heartbreaker. Her mirror image is a contortion (in the vernacular of the video’s imagery a sluttier, more unpleasant, darker version of the ‘real’ Mariah) that has been shaped by Heartbreaker himself.
Why do we so willingly wear the cilice of failed relationships? Rarely do amorous splits begin with the vilification of the broken-up-with; most often they launch with mea culpa. A period of self-examination is regular. Very often the diagnosis is damning: what could I have done differently?
Heartbreak is a lonely business – we are separated from the other we perhaps feel adequately intimate enough with to help us transcend radical life changes. The confessional of relationships is replaced by the ritual of the girls/boys night out, an opportunity for friends to offer an external perspective and shift the focus back to the broken-up-with. As herein, they tell us “he’s a cheat” – see also “she doesn’t know what she’s missing”, “you’re better off without him”, “you’re way out of her league”.
This perspective shift is altogether more complicated after an abusive relationship terminates. Mistrust from within the relationship leaks as toxic spill to other friendships, rendering the input of others as platitudinous.
The video’s apparent physical conflict, like that of Palahniuk’s Fight Club, is in fact played out in the psychic realm. Mariah’s engagement with this warped totem of herself casts it as aggressor, opening up the possibility of confrontation between subject and object. In a Hollywood culmination befitting of its mise-en-scene, she triumphs in this confrontation – in defeat of herself as object, in the dissipation of Black Mariah from the mirror, she has sublimated this distorted alter-ego to her own ‘true self’. This, and not the upturned Coke bucket, represents Mariah’s true victory.
Yet the saccharine tone of the song and accompanying video, its setting in the theatre of illusions that is the cinema, makes the problem-catalyst-conflict-resolution difficult to swallow. We know that life is not a movie, nor a multi-million dollar music promo – too often we are left locked in the bathroom with our own Black Mariahs while Jerry O’Connell sits back and enjoys the show.
*Incidentally, the nickname given to Thomas Edison’s Kinetographic Theatre, America’s first film production studio.
** A true villain; the man carried around a Glock in his briefcase, vetoed the release of ‘Fantasy’ and, most frighteningly, inflicted Billy Joel on the world.