Butterfly, Fly Away: Mariah Carey’s first emancipation

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September 16, 1997.

Seventeen years ago today, Mariah Carey released what is widely considered to be her most creative, introspective, and best, album to date; her “magnum opus.”  Regardless of whether or not you agree with the those definitive statements, there is no denying that 1997’s Butterfly marked a defining moment in Mariah’s life – personally, professionally, and artistically.

To appropriately analyze and speak about Butterfly, one must first contextualize it; encapsulate the experiences of that particular time in Mariah’s life, if you will.  Released amidst the swirling of rumors of her separation and divorce from then-husband Tommy Mottola, Butterfly, its imagery, and lyrics caused quite the stir and raised many questions.

In my piece about “Honey,” the album’s lead single, I examined how the music video for the song helped sparked some of these rumors.  “Honey,” while lyrically is about sensual yearning, is symbolic for the emancipation Carey experienced by it’s release.  Never before had she been free to sing so sensually, or dress so provocatively.  Even then, it wasn’t exactly approved.  Rather, she no longer allowed herself to be controlled and did it anyway.  With an end result so undeniably infectious, the powers that be couldn’t deny Mariah her moment… to fly.  Of course, the powers that be were mainly her then-husband, Tommy Mottola, who wanted her to look and sound a certain way (a wholesome pop princess).  That of which, she did not agree with.

As a result there were rumors of Mariah’s separation from Mottola.  Another rumor was of a budding new relationship with New York Yankees star player, Derek Jeter.  In fact, both of these rumors turned out to be quite true.  And, the lyrics on Butterfly, in retrospect, act as a verification of both.

However, it is not the gossip worthy details of Carey’s love life hidden in the album that make it a defining moment for her.  Rather, it is how she transformed the events of her personal life into such a creative, introspective form of artistic expression.  The lyrics are among her most poetic and honest to date and, as evidenced by how near and dear she holds the album to her heart, some of the most important.

It is not only Butterfly‘s lyrics that render it so important.  Sonically, the album moved in a direction that was distinctively more urban for the “pop diva.”  A transformation that began via baby steps on 1995’s Daydream, was now complete.

While of course there are still some “big Mariah ballads” on Butterfly  (the title track, “Outside,” “My All,” “Whenever You Call”), in comparison to her earlier efforts, the production is more sparse.  On these ballads the focus, rather, is on the very honest lyrics and emotional, yet more subdued vocal performances.  Equal in number to the ballads are the very urban, midtempo tracks (“The Roof,” “Breakdown,” “Babydoll,” “Honey”).  All featuring lush, understated production that fit right into the mid-90s R&B mold, these tracks have become classics in Mariah’s catalogue and created a blueprint still followed by Mariah and those she has inspired.  Finally, there are the tracks that are somewhere in the middle; not quite modern R&B mid-tempos, yet not quite the typical “big Mariah ballad,” but are R&B ballads nonetheless (“Close My Eyes,” “Fourth of July,” the cover of Prince’s “The Beautiful Ones”), and the house reprise of the title track, “Fly Away.”

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Similar to how the album can, more or less, be divided into four categories sonically, the same can be said thematically when analyzing its lyrics.  For the purposes of our Butterfly album series on EST. 1997, the tracks will be divided into four thematic categories, titled using some of Mariah’s favorite words and phrases:

  • Emancipation
  • Yearning For the Nostalgia
  • Yearning For the Intangible
  • Letting Go

This week’s focus will be the theme of emancipation on Butterfly.  Included in this grouping are the title track, its reprise “Fly Away,” and “Honey” (which has been discussed earlier in the article as well as in two others a few weeks ago).

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“Butterfly” is perhaps the most important track on the album.  While “Honey” kicks the album off and is symbolic for her emancipation, the title track is literally about emancipation.  However, it is expressed quite figuratively.

In the song, the narrator is trying to hold onto someone who no longer wants to be kept, and is slowly coming to a realization that her efforts are unsuccessful.  Fearful of losing the person’s love, she sings, “When you love someone so deeply that they become your life, it’s easy to succumb to overwhelming fears inside.”  This lyric highlights how sometimes, in love, people allow their fears to cloud their judgement and avert them from making the best choice for both parties involved.

The song’s metaphor, of course, compares the protagonist to a butterfly.  She sings, “Blindly I imagined I could keep you under glass, now I understand to hold you I must open up my hands and watch you rise.”  Of course, the “glass” refers to the idea of keeping an insect in some sort of glass jar entrapment, while the idea of her opening up her hands and watching him rise symbolizes the butterfly’s flight sung about on the chorus:

“Spread your wings and prepare to fly

For you have become a butterfly

Fly abandonedly into the sun

If you should return to me

We truly were meant to be

So spread your wings and fly

Butterfly”

The chorus harkens back to the cliché but ever so true idea that “if you love someone, let them go and if they come back, they’re yours.”  Simple, yes, but effective.

The second verse perhaps contains one of the song’s best lines: “Wild horses run unbridled or their spirt dies.”  With this line, she acknowledges how wild horses have this innate and essential desire to run freely.  When kept contained by humans, horses lose this freedom, and thus the narrator is essentially the equestrian, while her love interest is the horse.  She expresses gratitude, by admitting, “you have given me the courage to be all that I can” and returns the favor by setting him free, but remaining optimistic: “I truly feel your heart will lead you back to me when you’re ready to land.”  Here, she acknowledges that he is not ready to settle down but believes that when he is, he will return to her.

Finally, the song’s soaring and emotional bridge brings it all full circle.  After the very selfless decision to set him free, she tearfully confesses about how painful that decision is, “I can’t pretend these tears aren’t over flowing steadily, I can’t prevent this hurt from almost overtaking me.”  However, she realizes that it is necessary and unavoidable and finally says goodbye, because she knows that he needs to experience how it feels to live freely at this point in his life: “I will stand and say goodbye for you’ll never be mine until you know the way it feels to fly.”

The song comes to a soaring climax with perhaps the most impressively emotive vocal runs of Mariah’s career as she sings the lyrics to the bridge and the close of the otherwise very subdued track.  But, why was she so emotional about this topic?

In a 2007 interview with Interview magazine, Carey revealed that the song was actually her “wishing that that’s what he [Tommy Motolla] would say to [her].”  So, when she wrote “Butterfly” she was not embodying her own perspective.  Rather, she was speaking to herself.  Essentially, the song is written from (what she wished was) the point of view of her husband.  It was was what she hoped he would have said to her at that point in their relationship, as they were poised to separate.  In the same interview, she admitted that, at the time, she “really believed that [she] was going to go back to the marriage.” She didn’t think the separation would be permanent. However, she explained that circumstances changed and some necessary things just didn’t happen, and ultimately, they never did get back together.

The music video helps to illustrate the truth behind the song, as well.  Mariah was the butterfly.  She was trapped.  He kept her under glass.  She was the horse in captivity, and he the equestrian.  She needed emancipation.  He would not allow it.  However, what differs between real life and this song, is that he was selfish and did not willingly afford her that freedom.  Instead, she had to break through the glass, break out of the stable, and set herself free.

And that, is how we got the Butterfly albumOnce she made the brave and empowering choice to take control of her life and her music, she was able to release this very personal body of work to the world.

The “Butterfly” reprise, “Fly Away,” opens with these words:

“Don’t be afraid to fly

Spread your wings

Open up the door

So much more inside…

See the light inside…

Don’t let your spirit die…”


Undoubtedly, she is singing to none other than herself.  With these words, she coaxes herself to be courageous, escape her entrapment, and emancipate herself, her heart, and her creativity.  Then she, very admirably, shared it all with the world.

Next week, we look at three more tracks from Butterfly, focusing on the theme of Yearning For the Intangible.

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