Oct 12

MARIAH CAREY – “Without You”

FT + Popular52 comments • 6,302 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. 31
    wichita lineman on 16 Oct 2012 #

    The Byrds – Here Without You (Gregorian folk rock from Gene Clark)

    The Birds – No Good Without You (Motown – originally an Isley Brothers song – given some needling white noise guitar bursts and super-maudlin backing vocals by Ronnie Wood’s beat group)

    Roger Nichols & the Small Circle Of Friends – Kinda Wasted Without You (exquisite very-in-love A&M harmony pop)

    Paul Williams – I Won’t Last A Day Without You (Nichols’ writing partner on a bunch of Carpenters hits. His voice sometimes reminds me of Gene Clark, or Michael Stipe)

    Billy Fury – I’m Lost Without You (a Teddy Randazzo song that literally sounds like the end of the world)

    The Supremes – My World Is Empty Without You (their fastest single and their darkest single)

    The Searchers – I Don’t Want To Go On Without You (“here in the gloom of my lonely room” – baroque, ornate Merseybeat, also recorded with aplomb by the Escorts)

  2. 32
    lonepilgrim on 16 Oct 2012 #

    Billie Holliday – I Get Along Without You Very Well
    sweeping strings; tinkling piano and Billie’s trembling tones

    The Delmore Brothers – I’m Lonesome Without You
    high, lonesome harmonies and some twangin’ guitar

    Viola Wills – Gonna Get Along Without You Now
    uh-huh, a-ha – it’s a sprightly disco classic

  3. 33
    Mutley on 17 Oct 2012 #

    Re 32: “Gonna Get Along Without You Now” may be a disco classic but some of us have got along with it for a lot longer than that. It was first recorded by Teresa Brewer in 1952, and was a hit for Patience and Prudence in 1956.

  4. 34
    Cumbrian on 17 Oct 2012 #

    Playing along, I’ve only got one that hasn’t already been mentioned:

    Without You, I’m Nothing – Placebo

    Re: Mariah. Chalk me up in the anti-camp, I’m afraid. Mariah has done better than this. Nilsson did better than his version (notably “you’re breaking my heart, you’re tearing it apart, so fuck you” – which sounds like a more likely emotion to me than the sentiments of “Without You” – I mean would anyone (apart from those with more serious psychological problems than their relationship), when faced with a break up, exclaim that they couldn’t go on living without their soon to be ex?). Badfinger did better than theirs. I know it’s a classic but I’m just not on board with the song itself.

  5. 35
    Mark G on 17 Oct 2012 #

    Sometimes it’s about everyman’s response, and sometimes it’s about one persons.

    Sometimes it’s about how you feel over a long period, sometimes it’s purely about the right now.

    Doubtless, whoeveritwas woke up the next morning and sang the ‘You’re tearing me apart’ song with impunity in a pragmatic sense.

    and maybe not.

  6. 36
    Tommy Mack on 17 Oct 2012 #

    This has probably been mentioned before, but it always seems odd to me that, for such an accomplished and acclaimed songwriter, Harry Nilsson’s two biggest hits are the two he didn’t write.

  7. 37
    Tommy Mack on 17 Oct 2012 #

    I suppose it’s not that odd really: he always mixed covers in with his own stuff and I guess if you can write your own good stuff, the covers you pick are going to be songs that do something other than your own stuff. Still, shame Mariah didn’t plump for Mr Richland’s Favourite Song or My Old Desk or One…

  8. 38
    Martin F. on 18 Oct 2012 #

    The aforementioned, plus:

    Van Eijk – Living My Life Without You
    Late-90s Eurovision takes an early, tentative shuffle towards “urban” with this passable number delivered by a chap in warpaint and a basketball vest. He spent three minutes on stage with painful feedback in his ears and was last seen in a Bergen supermarket, telling off his infant son for touching all the fruit and veg.

    Re-Union – Without You
    The last time the Netherlands featured in a Saturday night Eurovision final – back in 2004! – having faltered at the semi-final stage ever since, even with the occasional involvement of Father Abraham. They’ve just hired Anouk (she of Some Hits You’ve Half-Heard Of, in Other Countries, in Them Days) to defend their colours in Malmö in 2013. Good luck to them.

  9. 39
    Mark G on 18 Oct 2012 #

    Oh,get you lot with yr fancy itunes libraries! My mp3 collection is scattered over lots of DVD backups..

    anyway, I’ll add “I’d be far better off without you” Sandie Shaw, one of those “the b-side was better’ singles.

  10. 40
    will on 18 Oct 2012 #

    I’m with Cumbrian on this one. I’ve always hated the song and regarded it as a load of self-pitying bilge.

    Upthread it was mentioned that Valentine’s Day may have been a factor in this going straight in at Number One, which if true is a bit scary. Who on earth would buy what basically amounts to aural emotional blackmail for their significant other?

  11. 41
    Lazarus on 20 Oct 2012 #

    OK well I’ve found her future Number One (and no, it’s nothing to look forward to) – in fact, she contributed to another, but as one of many vocalists. She’s nailed her colours firmly to the r’n’b mast in recent years, duetting with a bewildering array of partners – some of them extremely well-known (Snoop Dogg, Jay-Z), others … well, Jermaine Dupri, Krazy Bone & Wish Bone and Mystikal mean nothing to me I’m afraid. While I’m sure she’s enjoyed that more than she would have belting out an endless succession of ballads, it’s had a catastrophic effect on her chart placings, here as well as in the US. The first singles from albums have performed respectably, but others have stalled well outside the Top 50. Now a judge on ‘American Idol’ I gather, where she’s had some sort of diva bust-up with another former duet partner, Nicki Minaj.

  12. 42
    Mark M on 22 Oct 2012 #

    Re 41: Mystikal is a frequently incarcerated Desert Storm veteran best known for this excellent Neptunes-masterminded bit of James Browniness (video for the radio-friendly, retitled version).

  13. 43
    hardtogethits on 5 Nov 2012 #

    Tom – it must be a struggle sometimes.

    Don’t Opt Out Please.

  14. 44
    punctum on 5 Nov 2012 #

    I dunno that Tom’s “giving up” as such; after all, one of his favourites is up next! Am sure he will post about it as and when he’s ready to do so. In the meantime there will be plenty of TPL updates to keep you going, and MSBWT will also be back soon (as Lena is currently working on a MAJOR post here).

  15. 45

    Also you can read about Adam and the Ants while you’re waiting!

  16. 46
    hardtogethits on 5 Nov 2012 #

    Wrt the next number one, my INITIAL thoughts were:

    Let’s move on from Mariah: Dispose Of Old Product

    The next number one is not profound: Don’t Overanalyse Or Ponder

    Why are we waiting?: Don’t Overestimate Our Patience

    It must be tough sometimes for Tom, does he know how much we hang on his words?: Don’t Opt Out Please

    I realise I’m being repetitive, but I’m lost for (meaningful) words when I think about what’s coming up.

    TPL is great Marcello. Tried to post something there but was foiled. Will look again.

  17. 47
    punctum on 5 Nov 2012 #

    If you mean your Voulez-Vous comment, I got it and posted it (and even responded to it!).

    tbh I’m sort of lost for words with Popular now. Not in a literal sense but the need for me to say anything about each entry dissipated after (and probably before) Mr Blobby. I look at what’s coming up and I think either (a) it’s part of a number one album so I’ll say what I have to say about it on TPL, or (b) I can’t be bothered to say anything about it. I mean, I could do a long comment about e.g. the next entry but really I don’t see the point; seems a better use of my energies is to concentrate on the albums and just nod here every now and again, or else shut up if I really have nothing to say about…well, 1994 was a great year for music but not a great year for number one singles, and I’ll leave it at that.

  18. 48
    Caledonianne on 9 Dec 2012 #

    Think Tom’s about right. The pyrotechnics are skilful, but run counter to the lyric.

    On the Itunes game.

    There’s also a Janis Ian song called ‘Without You’ (quite up-tempo for JI!). Like Lonepilgrim I have the Viola Wills, and ‘I get along without you very well’ – versions by Linda Ronstadt and Carly Simon. There’s also The Carpenters ‘I won’t last a day without you’, namechecked above under its author Paul Williams. And, of course, Randy Newman’s ‘Livin’ without you’

  19. 49
    Erithian on 11 Jan 2013 #

    Coming late to this (inevitable now I’m fighting the kids for computer time!) I can only echo some of the points made above, in particular weej and sukrat early on – the trills start too early and she’s enjoying the song too much to feel the emotions evoked. Even with Whitney on IWALY, there’s a control in the early stages and a buildup that you don’t get here. In fact, taking the “vocal gymnastics” theme, listen to the way the audience applauds a couple of times during the song after a particularly impressive multiple-note – as if Beth Tweddle has just pulled off a good leap on the asymmetric bars.

    In the end, though, she’s not looking to impress the likes of us, she’s got the audience lapping it up and who cares what we say? And at the end there’s the sweet, gorgeous, modest smile and you defy anybody not to go “aahhh” just for a moment. A performance, yes, but not an interpretation.

  20. 50
    Patrick Mexico on 5 Apr 2013 #


    I should apologise for this rating, but my decision is final – and like a band who in a perfect world should be troubling Popular 10 times over, guilt has nothing, nothing to do with it. An eight-year-old with a Bart Simpson complex won’t find anything in this like he can do with Cappella – Move on Baby or Blur – Girls and Boys (a song which lied to me that Faliraki and Magaluf were some kinds of adult Disneylands), but I find it as much of a chore to get through now as I did then. It doesn’t really fit Mariah’s image then or now – and her take on Bringing on the Heartbreak also made Def Leppard sound even more like bad nasty men who poo on their sisters.

    However, I have to act with some dignity in this post, given the tragic circumstances surrounding the song’s different incarnations. I remember my parents saying “Nay, it’ll never be as good as Nilsson” as a subconscious obituary. But, though that version’s got more vim and vigour than any lame eighties “power ballad” even though it’s a natural tearjerker, and the Badfinger version displayed pleasant Beatles 2.0 craftsmanship, I’ve always found both the chart-toppers just about “okay”, a kind of baroque manic depression. Maybe, once again, it’s an age thing, and at least it’s not that future bunny with terrible make-up who take the mickey out of cancer or something (I know, I know.) I think the “2” is solely for Mariah Carey’s “Glitter.” (I haven’t seen it. It’s just the idea.)

    In a chemical world, talk is very, very cheap..

  21. 51
    Stephen Emmett on 15 Apr 2020 #

    I want to bring up something here. Another factor in this song going to Number One (the Mariah Carey cover, at least) was the fact that it was ironically released four weeks after Harry Nilsson’s death from a heart attack the previous month, and like previously mentioned before, it was the Valentine’s Day effect.

    There are several other bunnies like this where I want to shake my head in inexplicable anger and just bash the radio in two…

  22. 52
    Gareth Parker on 29 Apr 2021 #

    I agree with Patrick Mexico’s (#50) rating of 2

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