Oct 12

MARIAH CAREY – “Without You”

FT + Popular51 comments • 5,702 views

#702, 19th February 1994

The problem with the phrase “vocal gymnastics” – if used as a pan – is that plainly gymnastics are awesome. Their poise, control, grace, swiftness and fluidity – why wouldn’t these be things you’d aspire to in pop, why wouldn’t you expect applause? But these are manifestations of technique*, and pop thought ran aground on technique years ago, setting up a series of straw oppositions to deny it. Technique versus emotion. Technique versus passion. Technique versus excitement. Why not have them all? Mariah could, and sometimes did – if you could do the giddy things she does with her voice on “Emotions”, say, why wouldn’t you?

You need the songs for it, though. The part of Mariah’s success that British critics really couldn’t deal with wasn’t so much the range as the material; a higher concentration of ballads than the average star, and ones which seemed particularly placid, at that. A listen to her ’98 Greatest Hits record persuaded me that (disappointingly perhaps) I still wasn’t down with many Carey slowies. Once the bpm rises she’s enchanting, but at ballad pace most of her singles still sound torpid.

“Without You” may be a slow number, but sticking to the Nilsson blueprint provides enough material for any performer. In fact, Carey is controlled and respectful here, even at the crisis point – her voice bending and fluxing but always reforming before it deliquesces entirely. If – as a wise commenter on the Nilsson thread pointed out in response to my underrating “Without You” – Harry’s melodrama on his take carries double weight because it’s a breadown of an urbane, soft spoken persona, the same thing works for Carey in reverse: we all know how much she could freak out on this record, but she just about doesn’t. She stays devastated but strong, bolstered by her multi-tracked, gospel-tinted backing selves: the record’s best touch.

A good track, then? The truth is, I can’t love it, or even move much beyond admiration. It’s not the song, and it’s certainly not the singing, but I run into the same wall I did when I was writing about the operatic ballads of the 50s – there’s no side to it. “Without You” is monolithically straightforward: it comes from a place of noble and complete seriousness I can’t totally relate to.

*the other thing about gymnastics, of course, is that they are a sport with judges. It’s not fair to blame Whitney or Mariah for the hijacking of their singing style by Reality TV performers – you don’t choose your imitators – but the unrestrained, often glorious showiness of their performances maybe lends itself to benchmarking. But such worries are for later.



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  1. 1
    weej on 12 Oct 2012 #

    Of course we can have vocal gymnastics with feeling, it’s when they’re ramped up to disguise a *lack* of feeling that the ‘fake’ bell rings. Here the trills start too early, they sound out of place – I suspect that she knows it’s supposed to be sad, but beyond that doesn’t really get it. Too young, maybe. Anyway, for whatever reason, it leaves me utterly cold too, and it shouldn’t.

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    thefatgit on 12 Oct 2012 #

    Before listening to “Without You” by Mariah, I gave Badfinger’s original a listen. What I was hoping to glean from it, I’m not sure. What struck me was the difference between the “I can’t live//” of Badfinger (clipped, stemming the flow of tears) and “I can’t LIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIVVVVEEEE” of the Nilsson/Mariah model which suggests they’ve both figuratively thrown themselves off the bridge, and succumbed to the emotion. To be fair, I’m not sure which version is more devastating, but today I’m choosing Mariah. It’s a 10.

  3. 3
    Mark G on 12 Oct 2012 #

    The video (a live performance) begins with a “I’d like to sing for you now, a song I love” type spoken intro.

    Which basically means, it’s a performance, and nothing more. Ten? no. Barely four for me.

  4. 4
    sükråt tanned rested unlogged and awesome on 12 Oct 2012 #

    She evidently loves singing the song, that’s not fake at all — but the person she can’t live without is forgotten the moment she rolls off into her first warm-up twirl, and the reason she can’t give any more is she’s entirely absorbed in the feel of her own voice and what it can do. I love Mariah, so I don’t mind when she’s just vamping for her own amusement and because she can, but I think I prefer her when the sheer bubbling physical vim of her gift actually parallels the content of the song.

  5. 5
    Brendan on 12 Oct 2012 #

    Whereas I always thought Nilsson’s version maintained dignity in the face of the rather overblown sentiment of the lyrics, with Mariah I hear none of that and she sounds like a spoilt child throwing a tantrum. I guess it’s the diva in her that makes it impossible for her to sing it any other way.

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    lonepilgrim on 12 Oct 2012 #

    i was expecting to dislike this, but didn’t mind it as much as I thought I would. Partly it’s because I found Mariah’s glossy rendition oddly appealing. She communicates an enjoyment of the song without going off on one just for the sake of it. The sense of unhinged emotion that bursts out from the Nilsson version is only present as a faint perfume in this one but I suspect I would hate this version more were she to try to project some fake sense of loss. Nevertheless, I still think a 5 is about right. I wouldn’t turn it off if it came on the radio but I wouldn’t pick it on a juke box.

  7. 7
    speedwell54 on 12 Oct 2012 #

    The song I like. I’ve nothing against the song. Unfortunately to me, the vocals sound like a spitting image version.

    I was working in a very unhip record store at the time, and for a few weeks it seemed parent album “Music Box” was the only thing anyone was buying. Most of the customers weren’t regular buyers, and most of them, weren’t buying for themselves. Valentine’s Day was just around the corner, and I think had Family Fortunes been surveying that week, it would have been right up there.

    Up until this single I didn’t find her annoying, and I sort of liked her previous release, “Hero”, which- aside from making “truth” a two syllable word- is okay.

    I think she could have sung this far better than she did. 5

  8. 8
    Mark G on 12 Oct 2012 #

    See, there are a few MCarey songs/singles I like, whereas not many Whitney ones…

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    Lazarus on 12 Oct 2012 #

    I try to avoid looking ahead, so I’d completely forgotten about this one. Yet I was one of those who bought the ‘Music Box’ album (I liked Hero as well, it’s been a bit spoiled for me since). I really like early Mariah; ‘Vision of Love’ was a glorious debut, and should have been Top Five at least, and was the first of many chart-toppers for her in the US. This, I believe, is the only time we’ll be seeing her on Popular. I don’t mind this and could stretch to a 6, but I always felt that, whether she liked the song or not, it was something she had to do, or was told she had to do, to get a UK Number One. Interestingly, among all her US chart-toppers, this only got to no. 3 there.

    At this stage, how many songs had been Number One for two different acts? I know it happened a few times in the Fifties (‘Singing the Blues’ for one) but it doesn’t seem to have been a feature of the 70s and 80s. Of course, there would be many more ahead – and, with the benefit of TV exposure, at least two titles which would gain a third lease of life.

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    Tom on 12 Oct 2012 #

    I would have to check, but I THINK we’ll be seeing her again, though not alone. And if I’m right it’s nothing remotely to look forward to.

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    swanstep on 12 Oct 2012 #

    @1, weej. I think your ‘Too young’ point is very well taken. Mariah seems to have adored the song since she was a child, and, honestly, this record feel to me like a technique-heavy extension from that original place of non-understanding rather than a proper interpretation of the song (so for me Mariah here is like the anti-Sinead). Looking ahead, I’m saddened that ‘We Belong Together’ just missed getting to #1 and so won’t trouble Popular: that’s a Mariah slowie I can get behind (the interpretive weight there seemed to be carried by MC’s desperately needing-a-comeback in-the-real-world; whatever, it worked gangbusters).

  12. 12
    flahr on 12 Oct 2012 #

    10: We will, and it isn’t.

  13. 13
    MikeMCSG on 12 Oct 2012 #

    Unbearable – prior to this I thought she was a more acceptable Whitney but this proved they were as bad as each other.

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    tonya on 12 Oct 2012 #

    X Factor had a Mariah night a few years ago and I thought it was odd that all the songs they chose were the big cover ballads. Is that Syco lowest common denominator shenanigans or is that really all she’s known for in Britain? Seems to me that if you don’t listen to Fantasy and Dream Lover and Always be my Baby and Heartbreaker and We Belong Together and on and on you’re kind of missing the point.

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    flahr on 13 Oct 2012 #

    Well, “All I Want For Christmas Is You” isn’t a big slow ballad!

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    hardtogethits on 13 Oct 2012 #

    This was the first NEW number one of the Millward Brown chart era.

    The day after chart was announced, with Mariah at number one, I had an interview for a job at the charts department of Millward Brown. I was a little surprised at the lack of interest they showed in the things I was doing at the time – my attempts to understand any relationship between pre-release airplay and first week chart position, for example. On the whole though, I thought the interview was going VERY well.

    Then, the very senior manager on the interview panel threw in the rather conversational double-question “So, did you hear yesterday’s chart? What did you think?” I responded along the lines of “There were a few real surprises, weren’t there? I really didn’t anticipate Mariah Carey at number one!”

    I can only assume that this remark was mistaken as a challenge to the integrity and/or the accuracy of the chart. The chap genuinely seemed to go into a sulk, any rapport we had was lost and the interview faded away into nothingness. I left the building knowing I hadn’t got the job.

    So, the record reminds me of an unusual day. Had this not gone straight in at number one – or, alternatively, if I had foreseen its status as an instant chart topper – then I might have got the job. I might have been working on the charts, which would have fulfilled a childhood dream, it being all I wanted to do between the ages of 9 and 24. I might have moved to a different part of the country; might never have met my partner; might never have started a family. Maybe I should be thankful to the record for all the things that have happened to me since it went to number one.

    And yet, and yet, and yet. The surprise I expressed was not suspicion of the chart, but surprise that a record with these characteristics could go STRAIGHT IN AT NUMBER ONE. Characteristics being of course a dreary soulless cover of a well known song, available on an album so the fans would already have it. Obviously, I should have known better. Firstly, Jason Donovan had done it five years before. Secondly, I overlooked that this had been pitched at the Valentine’s Day market. Even now though, looking back, I am surprised it held on at no 1 as long as it did.

    So I won’t apply the new catchphrase “this is where is I lost interest in the charts.” I still haven’t lost interest. But, truly, this is where I stopped loving the charts.

  17. 17
    Billy Hicks on 13 Oct 2012 #

    There are much, much, worse examples of ‘Take a good song, mess with the notes and scream/warble til you’ve killed it’ coming up over the next two decades at least, for me anyway. No, it’s not as good as Nillson’s. But is it still ‘good’? Yes it is. The up-and-down pitching is a bit annoying at first (“can’t live any mooorrwooorrrrorrrrore”) etc, but again, there’s worse. Once she hits the big bit then all is right again. A decent, pleasant cover that I’ve only been aware of in recent years.

    #16 – That is a brilliant ‘Sliding Doors’ kind of story :D I’ve got one similar, but we need to wait until a long-lasting #1 that flooded the chart in the summer of 2007 for it…

  18. 18
    thefatgit on 13 Oct 2012 #

    I guess I’m swimming against the tide on this one, but I was genuinely glad to see this got to the top. It’s one of my favourite songs anyway, and award the Nilsson a 10 also. I’m surprised that there’s an air of “meh” about it on here. Early Mariah was a delight, quite simply because she didn’t fit the mould back then. She happened to come around at a time when I was getting close to the love of my life, so a lot of early Mariah has been bound up in personal feelings I was experiencing at that particular time. The songs off “Vision Of Love” and “Music Box” were our soundtrack. I loved the fact that she could comfortably enter into Minnie Riperton territory, without being overtly show-offy about it. The 5 octave register just came naturally to her. I dunno, I guess I’m being subjective.

    I did another comparison study with Chris De Burgh, who did a straight copy of Nilsson’s reading, with maybe a few De Burghisms thrown in and found myself liking his version as well (not a 10, but maybe a 7). This coming from someone who would normally go to any length to avoid CDB. I’m not sure I have managed to find a truly bad version of “Without You” (yet).

    Compare this to “All By Myself” by Eric Carmen, soon to be covered by C****e D**n (no danger of waking the Bunny, it made top 10) in a few Popular years time. That’s also a song I adore but, thanks to Frank Sinatra of all people, isn’t as bulletproof as “Without You” appears to be.

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    a tanned rested and unlogged lørd sükråt wötsît on 13 Oct 2012 #

    Other songs I have on itunes with the words “without you” in them:

    Within you without you (Cheap Trick Beatles’ cover): vg tick
    Christmas Ain’t Christmas New Years Ain’t New Years Without the One You Love (OJays): vg tick
    No Leaving Without You (Paris Hilton): vg tick
    Reunification Rainbow (from the No Motherland Without You album by North Korea’s top supergroup Pochonbo Electronic Ensemble): vg tick

  20. 20
    swanstep on 13 Oct 2012 #

    Heh, for me:
    Love will never do (without you), Janet Jackson
    With or without you [U2 cover], Scala And Kolacny Brothers
    Without You [2 versions], Talk Talk
    Without You Near (reprise), Markus Schulz and Departure with Gabriel and Dresden
    And, stretching it, as itunes search is wont to do:
    Your Thing Ain’t No Good Without My Thing, Marie ‘Queenie’ Lyons.

  21. 21
    a tanned rested and unlogged lørd sükråt wötsît on 13 Oct 2012 #

    Just checked out the Badfinger original: I suppose it may grow on me, but for the moment Mariah > Nilsson >>>>> Badfinger

    Caveat: I don’t really like the song itself, taken as a serious proposition, so obviously I’m going to prefer the version wandering blithely past the extreme pass-agg self-regard of earlier versions in favour of an idly and yes cheerfully virtuosic self-absorption (where it’s obvious she CAN live without him quite easily, she has her voice to play with, and it’s much more fun than he was!) … the latter attitude suits my temperament much better!

  22. 22
    wichita lineman on 14 Oct 2012 #

    “it’s obvious she CAN live without him quite easily, she has her voice to play with, and it’s much more fun than he was!”

    That’s why this version leaves me cold! If the lyrics mean so little to her, it isn’t ever going to work for me.

    I was trying to think of previous comparable Popular entries. I think Tom made a similar comment on Cliff’s We Don’t Talk Anymore – that he’s so pleased to be singing a song that sounds like a number one, it detracts from the song itself.

  23. 23
    Billy Hicks on 14 Oct 2012 #

    My ‘without you’ iTunes list is perhaps the most regrettable and bizarre.

    [2009 bunny] – Kelly Clarkson
    Without You – David Guetta feat. Usher
    [2010 bunny] – Alexandra Burke
    and ‘Can’t Smile Without You’ by Barry Manilow.

    If that doesn’t sum up my eceletic music tastes, I don’t know what does.

  24. 24
    Chelovek na lune on 14 Oct 2012 #

    I think this may actually be the penultimate no 1 single I ever bought….(the final one being in the following year).

    I can’t argue with the general consensus that she sings it well, but too happily and with possibly too much disregard for the lyrics.

    I’d still rate it as a decent cover version, all things considered, and supremely listenable. I’d think I’d even go so far as to say I’dalso be hard pressed to name another single by Mariah that is clearly superior to this. And I’d kind of appreciated some of underperforming, underrated earlier singles – “Love Takes Time” is an absolute gem, and as for “Make It Happen” – – well, I’d love to hear the Sounds Of Blackness do a take on that, I think it could work fully gospelled-up….

    But a couple of more obvious very memorable and pretty decent singles aside…too much of the rest of her output was was just too….lightweight.

    Not sure if it had become apparent by this time that Whitney was clearly still superior (if perhaps more irritating).

    #23 re eclectic musical tastes. About the time this was no 1 I had just moved to the east coast of Scotland. The local radio station, Radio Tay used to play a jingle, boasting, in all sincerity, that it played “every kind of music, from Roxette through to East 17”. Your list is at least a little broader than that foul promise….

  25. 25
    JLucas on 15 Oct 2012 #

    I’m not sure this song hasn’t become a bit of an Albatross for Mariah in terms of how she’s perceived in the UK. While in America she’s a bona-fide legend (18 #1 hit singles!) over here her own material never really took off in the same way. She’s a bit of a Janet Jackson – many, many hits, few that people would really remember. Unlike Janet, she did get that elusive #1, but with a cover version of an already well-known song.

    Combined with her later #1 and the fact that her original hit with the longest non-seasonal shelf-life has been the mawkish ‘Hero’, you get a singer who looks for all the world like an all-voice no-substance karaoke/talent show staple and little else. Which does some injustice to her, as she’s actually a very gifted songwriter with moments of surprising depth in her catalogue.

    That said, I do struggle with a lot of her hits, especially the early stuff. Most of it is very forgettable and of its time. Emotions and Fantasy are great pop songs, as are Always Be My Baby and Dreamlover. But the rest of those #18 US chart toppers you’d be hard pushed to distinguish, or indeed hum. She only ever made one truly great album -1997’s Butterfly, which only spawned one serious hit (Honey) and was mostly overlooked. In recent years she’s tried a little bit too hard to remain current, largely without success, although We Belong Together was masterful.

  26. 26
    flahr on 15 Oct 2012 #

    To add to the list:

    “The Bed’s Too Big Without You”, The Police
    “Better Off Without You”, Summer Camp
    “I Don’t Want To Live Without You”, Foreigner
    “I Can Do It Without You”, Kaiser Chiefs

    Best of those four clearly the Summer Camp one which is utterly terrific in much the same way as “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” (which was apparently performed on X Factor today so you never know it could be bunnied when we return next week). I also for some reason have a Menswear cover of the above-mentioned Barry Manilow song. It’s quite good, although it does not sound particularly Menswearish (AND NO THIS IS NOT A TAUTOLOGY).

  27. 27
    Ed on 15 Oct 2012 #

    For me it’s:

    Bunnied Kelly Clarkson
    ‘Without You’ by David Bowie. It’s from ‘Let’s Dance’, which I thought I knew pretty well, but I had no memory of this whatsoever. It was even released as a single in some places, apparently. Quite pretty while it lasts, in fact, but I have already forgotten it again.
    Stretching: ‘Watching You Without Me’ by Kate Bush, an utterly lovely song from the ‘Ninth Wave’ section of ‘The Hounds of Love’.
    And the cover of ‘Within You Without You’ by Sonic Youth. A clumsy rumble, really redeemed only by the fact that it was done for charity. It’s on ‘Sgt Pepper Knew My Father, the NME covers album that also includes the no longer bunnied Wet Wet Wet version of ‘With a Little Help…’ that was a number one in 1988.
    The choice of charity looks more controversial now than it did at the time; it was done in aid of Childline.

  28. 28
    Chelovek na lune on 15 Oct 2012 #

    “My First Night Without You” by Cyndi Lauper: top drawer stuff, with the opposite problem that Mariah has here: almost, but not quite, overperformed.

    Still, three better songs of loss and desolation, at least, come from the Go-Betweens (who it is fair to say will not be troubling us here), even if they don’t use the exact words: “Dusty In Here”, “Second Hand Furniture” or, most glorious and poignant of all “Just A King In Mirrors”. Listening to any of those, and then to this, just play up how very much she isn’t feeling it, and indeed almost certainly wouldn’t have had such a big hit had she been feeling it.

  29. 29
    swanstep on 15 Oct 2012 #

    I’m on a bit of a Howard Goodall jag right now…and Without You shows up about 30 mins into his ep. on Harmony, e.g., here.

  30. 30
    Izzy on 16 Oct 2012 #

    I accidentally deleted my entire iTunes library last week so can’t play this game; but back in my indie days I do remember my drummer once pleading his eclecticism thusly – “I mean, I listen to the Senseless Things and The Levellers”

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