Reliving the Splendor: Mariah’s nostalgic storytelling on Butterfly

Vincent Anthony
10 Min Read

Arguably the most captivating tracks on Mariah Carey’s Butterfly are the trifecta of “The Roof,” “Fourth of July,” and “My All.”  On each of these songs, Mariah showcases her lyrical prowess not solely through rhyme or clever lines, but rather through her superb and imagery laden storytelling.  All three have one thing in common: she is yearning for a love she experienced in the past and is feeling nostalgic as she longs to experience it once more.

On the album, these three songs are sequenced in succession; “My All” comes first.  She opens with the line, “I’m thinking of you in my sleepless solitude tonight.”  Of course, the memorable chorus soon follows, on which she passionate declares: “I’d give my all to have just one more night with you, I’d risk my life to feel your body next to mine.”  

On “My All,” Carey implies a risky rendezvous that perhaps she should not have been partaking in; not too much of a stretch considering her relationship status at the time.  She further elaborates on her memories of this rendezvous: “I can see you clearly, vividly emblazoned in my mind.” This excellent use of her impressive Mariah Ca-bularey makes one point quite clear: this man left quite the impression on her mind.  However, he is, for whatever reason, unattainable.  She comes to that realization, ending the verse by singing, “And yet you’re so far like a distant star I’m wishing on tonight.”  

Some think that this song is a reference to her post-marriage relationship with Derek Jeter, which perhaps began before the release of Butterfly and “My All.”  The use of the racially ambiguous, young handsome men in the videos for “Honey” and “My All” do well to help this theory.  On the climax, the song is enhanced by Mariah’s impassioned vocal performance as she lets all of her feelings of yearning loose in the final repetitions of the chorus on this Latin-inspired ballad.  With this she makes it quite clear that, regardless of who she is talking about, she indeed feels very strongly.

In a genius sequencing choice, “My All” is followed by “The Roof,” which boasts some of Ms. Carey’s most vivid lyrics that truly paint a story with an unparalleled depth.  Perhaps here, Mariah is recounting the specific details of the rendezvous she was pining over on “My All.”  Built over a sample from Mobb Deep’s “Shook Ones” the track is hip-hop at its core, with its thumping bass-line and enchanting yet urban atmosphere.  (The “remix” features the rap duo, as well.)

“The Roof” is of course set on a rooftop on a “misty,” “warm November night”; she even mentions that it “wasn’t raining – yet” which foreshadows later events in the (song’s) story.  In the first verse, she shares her inner monologue, confessing “my heart was pounding, my inner voice resounding, begging me to turn away but I just had to see your face to feel alive.”  Here, she characterizes herself as once again having this intense, sensual yearning for the subject of her desires.  Her desires, she so wonderfully describes, had her “twisted in a web” likening her love interest to a spider, thus making herself the entangled prey.

There is also a certain sense of taboo to the lyrics of the song, seen by lines such as “my apprehension blew away, I only wanted you to taste my sadness as you kissed me in the dark.”  The line not only refers to her apprehension, but also gives a wonderful metaphor of him “tasting” her sadness.  Both of which leave the listener with questions: “Why is she so apprehensive?  Why is she so sad?”

Following the first verse, we meet the first incantation of the chorus in which she reveals that, with this song, she is going “back in time, to relive the splendor” that existed between herself and this mysterious man, “on the roof top that rainy night.”  

Mariah takes the masterful storytelling up another notch on the second verse, which opens with the cleverly rhymed line, “And so we finished the Moét, started feeling liberated.” Here, she attributes her surrender to him to the effects of a little champagne, yielding liberation.  She further addresses the taboo of the encounter and the yearning she felt for him, expressively singing, “I threw caution to the wind and started listening to my longing heart.”

Finally, he “softly pressed [his] lips to” hers, which brings light to “feelings [she’d] suppressed for such a long time.”  This moment clearly was therapeutic for her, again evidenced by the following lyric: “For a while I forgot the sorrow and the pain and melted with you as we stood there in the rain.”  It is remarkable and impressive how Carey is able to weave such intricate meaning and emotion into one line, yet still create rhyme.  This, though, is the case for many of the other tracks on Butterfly, “The Roof,” however is one of the best examples.

On its bridge, she admits to being in love.  In one of the final choruses that follow, she provides some interesting, poignant, and telling ad-libs.  Recalling the lyrics of the bridge, she coos, “Last night I had the strangest dream.  It was actually quite symbolic. I whispered that I love you very subtly.”  Almost unnoticeable, this ad-lib seamlessly intertwines itself into the harmonies and melody of the chorus.  This “dream” she references may be the very inspiration behind the song.

The nostalgia continues on “Fourth of July.”  Of course referencing America’s own Independence Day, its title could also be symbolic for Butterfly being her own declaration of professional, creative and romantic independence.  The song, however, tells the story of yet another rendezvous that took place on the summer holiday.

Whereas “The Roof” was filled with inner monologue, a complex plot, and characterization, “Fourth of July” matches it with its descriptive imagery.  Nearly every line paints a mental picture, each as beautiful as the next.  Describing the “Roman Candles soaring above,” she sings about how “sparkling colors were strewn across the sky” during her twilight date.

Next, she describes being “starry eyed on the flowery hillside, breathless and fervid amid the dandelions.”  It almost sounds like a description of a Claude Monet painting.  She goes on to compare the love and happiness she feels to the “wind through the trees” as her lover sighed “with a sweet intensity.”  Again, expressively describing this scenario with unmatched, yet effectively beautiful figurative language.

Truly, the song is filled figurative language; it could be content for a master class in writing poetic imagery.  However, it too has the nostalgic yearning found in “The Roof” and “My All.”  Of course, written in the past tense, she is looking back on this memory with fondness, with hopes of recreating it.  Unfortunately, she implies that the realization of her desire is unlikely.

This implication is best illustrated through this lyric from the final verse: “Tentatively kissed goodbye, and went our separate ways. And I never felt the way that I felt that Fourth of July.”  She says that they tentatively kissed goodbye, indicating an air of nervousness or uncertainty surrounding their last goodbye. Clearly, she was unsure of if the opportunity for them to be together once more would present itself ever again.  Though, the desire is clearly there and seemingly mutual.

If Carey were to never write a song with quality lyrics again; it wouldn’t matter.  These three songs from Butterfly (and really, the whole album) are more than enough proof that Mariah Carey is a capable and masterful songwriter, lyricist and poet.  Her storytelling on these tracks could challenge even the most acclaimed writers.  Unfortunately, because she is considered a pop star, her songwriting is often overlooked.  Hopefully she will receive the respect she deserves in time.

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Vincent is the founder of the magazine and has had a strong passion for popular music since, well, 1997! If it's not obvious, his favorite artists include Destiny's Child, Mariah Carey, Janet Jackson, Michael Jackson, P!nk, and many more. Vincent lives in New York, where he is a high school English teacher, and currently he is pursuing a Master's in Journalism at the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at CUNY.