Some of that lack of acclaim may a function of age -- Mariah, being a dozen years younger than Madonna, hasn't left quite so long a shadow on pop history -- but mostly, it's a matter of focus. From the first, Madonna was unabashed about adding an arty edge to her music, if even it cost her commercial ground.
So even though the intensely personal "Oh Father" was nowhere near as big a hit as the fluffy, inconsequential "Who's That Girl," Madonna was cheered for daring to address such deep issues.
Carey, by contrast, has tended to keep her hits light and tuneful. That's not to say she never seemed serious -- songs like "Outside" from the album "Butterfly" and "Looking In" from "Daydream" definitely drew from Carey's introspective side -- just that her albums generally emphasized melodic bliss over lyrical depth.
With "Rainbow" (Columbia 63800, arriving in stores today), all that changes -- and for the better. Because even though the album is every bit as catchy as Carey's previous platinum-plus releases, there's enough going on in these songs to make the listener pay as much attention to what she's saying as how she's singing it.
Granted, some of the songs take a little work. Listen to the rap and the rhythm arrangement, and "Heartbreaker" (the album's first single) seems just a light-hearted party song.
Listen closely, however, and the song is revealed as a critique of romantic cruelty, decrying sexual game-playing even as it acknowledges how easily one can be sucked into the game.
Fortunately, the message isn't quite as oblique in "Heartbreaker (Remix)," which rethinks the groove and brings in rappers Missy Elliott and Da Brat to provide pointed commentary on the player in question. Even so, it's telling that Carey leaves the bulk of the dirty work to her guests, letting the melody mask her own lyrical thrusts.
"Rainbow" is full of such feints, from the itchy, minor-key funk of "X-Girlfriend" to the near-baroque vocal layering of "Did I Do That?" In both cases, Carey is dealing with complicated emotional issues, and -- on the lyric sheet, at least -- is definitely speaking her mind.
But the music speaks only to the underlying mood, distracting us from the specifics of he-said/she-said and letting us focus on the overall emotional arc.
In a weird way, that actually makes these songs more effective than if Carey were to have pushed each song into operatic overdrive. But because she holds back so much, it makes us pay more attention when she cuts loose. That's certainly the case with her cover of Phil Collins' "Against All Odds," which builds at a slow simmer before erupting into a breathtaking boil on the final chorus.
A similar dynamic is at work in the understated melancholy of "After Tonight," in which Carey offers an overdubbed, one-woman duet that never quite gets to the vocal fireworks it seems to promise. There's a hint of release in the modulation that sets up the last verse, but as Carey pulls back, we realize that it's because the song is not about the glories of love, but the dissatisfactions of a relationship that just isn't working.
Carey brings her heart-on-sleeve approach to a head with "Petals," a moody, emotionally charged ballad that finds Carey exorcising a host of personal demons. It's the sort of thing that could have come across as hopelessly self-indulgent, but Carey folds her feelings into the music so adroitly that even those who have no idea who she's talking about (which would be most of us) will find themselves deeply moved by the way she expresses her sorrow and regret.
But what really makes "Petals" pay off is the way Carey and co-producers Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis channel its sad catharsis through the quiet contemplation of "Rainbow (Interlude)" and into the hopeful uplift of "Thank God I Found You." It may not be as obvious or dramatic as what Madonna offered on "Like a Prayer," but it's every bit as artistic -- and just as deserving of our respect.