Even amid a staggering body of work, Alfred Hitchcock's 1958 film Vertigo stands out for the sheer tragedy of its story. A private detective begins a tortured, obsessive affair with the woman he's been hired to tail. She commits suicide. For weeks afterward, he languishes in a gray fog of depression, until he meets someone who could be her doppelgänger. What follows is one of the most depressing sequences in all of cinema, as the detective (played with twitchy, nervous intensity by Jimmy Stewart) attempts, with increasing desperation, to remake this new woman (Kim Novak, with bewildering and bewildered seductiveness) in the image of his dead love.
While unrequited love has motivated a vast array of movies, books, and songs, Vertigo illustrates, with heart-crushing specificity, the harrowing torment of love requited and withdrawn. As hard as it is to want what you can't have, there's something even more existentially fucked in realizing that you had the thing and then lost it. The fruitless attempt to recapture it can poison successive relationships, casting a shadow long into the future.
In drug parlance, it's called "chasing the dragon." In musical terms, it may as well just be called "pulling a Mariah."
Mariah Carey, a pop and R&B singer who is blessed with the hat trick of a five-octave voice, movie-star looks, and shrewd business sense, would seem to be the last person you'd associate with heartbreak. But, in her best work, Carey reckons with precisely that form of adult loneliness: the lingering feelings of things long past, never to return. This year saw the 20th anniversary of "Fantasy," which subversively repurposed the Tom Tom Club's bouncy "Genius of Love" to subtly devastating ends. While the sound is all shimmer and sunrays, the lyrics portray a love that verges on the stalkerish: "Images of rapture, creep into me slowly/As you're going to my head, and my heart beats faster/When you take me over, time and time and time again/But it's just a sweet, sweet fantasy, baby."
Those aren't the thoughts of a balanced person with a daylight crush. They were the introduction of Carey's endless cycle of idolization and demolition. Hers may sound like a very pop-oriented, bubbly kind of infatuation—but you can also hear her taking the romantic fixations that percolate below the surface of classic love songs just a bit too far. Her breakup songs ache the same way. Just as Jimmy Stewart's private eye in Vertigo pursues his obsession with dogged persistence even as he realizes the unhealthiness of its depths, Mariah Carey keeps singing for all she's worth, never able to fully reconcile the memory of what was with the reality of what is, and isn't.
The most devastating diptych in Carey's discography is the one-two punch of mega-hit "We Belong Together" and its follow-up single "Don't Forget About Us" from her exemplary breakup album, 2005's The Emancipation of Mimi. In "We Belong Together," Carey's longing is once again couched in the style of an R&B ballad, but it's also abject: "The pain reflected in this song/It ain't even half of what I'm feeling inside" and "When you left, I lost a part of me." The refrain is a naked exhortation: "Come back, baby, please."
She takes things even further in "Don't Forget About Us," in which the news that her ex is "in a new relationship" leads her to reveal what may be a slightly delusional view: "You'll always be in my heart, and I can see it in your eyes, you still want it, so don't forget about us." (It's not difficult to see how those lyrics might pose a problem for this unnamed man's new squeeze—whether or not they're accurate.)
Of course, these songs both flowed from the ever-giving well that was "Always Be My Baby," that guitar-dusted lament of the mid-1990s, which, despite its sentimental title, is the most compelling of all Carey's ballads. Coming off Daydream (the same album that birthed "Fantasy"), "Always Be My Baby" is the first and most potent of Carey's breakup anthems, a resigned ode to everlasting love that stings with the acknowledgement that it's never coming back—and bears at least a hint of threat. "You'll always be a part of me," she sings on the hook (notice a trend?). "I'm part of you indefinitely/Boy, don't you know you can't escape me/Darling, 'cause you'll always be my baby."
In Vertigo, Kim Novak's will is progressively broken by the madness of Jimmy Stewart's desire. She realizes that Stewart is slowly transforming her into the image of his deceased love. When he buys her the exact green dress his beloved used to wear, she finally snaps, imploring him: "If I let you change me, will that do it? If I do what you tell me, will you love me?" To which the detective replies, terrifyingly, "Yes, yes."
The conviction that no one else will ever compare is what dooms the protagonist of these Carey songs, the same way it dooms Stewart. The hunger is all-consuming because they've tasted what they're yearning for, and no matter how desperately they try, they know they'll never taste it again.
"We both know nothing comes close to what we had, it perseveres," Carey coos on "Don't Forget About Us," before begging her lover to come back: "We can't let the fire pass us by, forever we'd both regret." Before the song is over, she's tried everything, from playing it casual ("Just let it die, with no good-byes/Details don't matter, we both paid the price"), then worldly ("I'm just speaking from experience/Nothing can compare to your first true love"), then devious ("And if she's got your head all messed up now/That's the trickery"), then grandiose ("I bet she can't do like me/She'll never be MC"). But however many approaches she takes, the song's true voice is one of unrelenting supplication: "Don't, baby, don't, baby, don't let it go/No, baby, no, baby, no, baby, no/Don't, baby, don't, baby, don't let it go."
Just as insane longing and passion destroy the protagonist of Vertigo (and the object of his desire), the woman in Mariah Carey's breakup songs is locked in a perpetual, impossible quest to recapture the past. That's the problem with obsession: To the one who's obsessed, it feels like love. And like the love Carey sings about, when it's real, it's forever.