The Butterfly Effect: Mariah discovers The Art of Letting Go

Vincent Anthony
13 Min Read


Our month long tribute to Mariah Carey’s Butterfly ends with this week’s reflection on three of the album’s most emotional tracks: “Breakdown,” “Close My Eyes,” and “Outside”. These songs, along with the title track, are the most personal and introspective on the album. Like Janet did with The Velvet Rope, Mariah let the public into her innermost feelings like never before via the lyrics to these songs. And, on all three, she deals with the concept of “letting go,” which is a constant in her catalogue. However, aside from 1995’s “Looking In,” never before had Mariah written songs so intensely personal.

First, there is the heartbreaking “Breakdown,” featuring guest verses from Bone Thugs-n-Harmony’s Krazyie Bone and Wish Bone.  Simply, “Breakdown” can be summarized by the first lines of the second verse: the song details what “you do when somebody you’re so devoted to suddenly just stops loving you and it seems they haven’t got a clue of the pain that rejection is putting you through.”   She asks, “do you cling to your pride, and sing ‘I Will Survive’?”  or, “do you lash out and say, how dare you leave this way?” – with “Breakdown,” she infiltrates the mind of the listener by relating to an inner monologue nearly everyone has experienced. It is a song about heartbreak, yes, but its so much more than that.

Without a doubt, “Breakdown” is one of the most honest songs in Carey’s catalogue, but it also may be one of the most honest songs ever written. She deals with every stage of a breakup. First, the bombshell: “You called yesterday to basically say that you care for me but that you’re just not in love.”  He’s hit her with the harsh truth, which is quickly followed by outward denial: “Immediately I pretended to be feeling similarly and led you to believe I was okay to just walk away from the one thing that’s unyielding and sacred to me.”  Of course, her lie of “feeling similarly” is merely a defense mechanism; an falsification of strength in the face of heartbreak.

As if the sheer and undeniably heartbreaking honesty of the lyric isn’t enough, somehow she also manages to rhyme nearly every fifth syllable or so.  The rhyme in this song is inarguably impressive; for its frequency and complexities.  Mariah is not rhyming simple words here, she is weaving rhymes internally by pinpointing particularly syllables, and accentuates each rhyme by stressing said syllables as she sings.  It’s all done very subtly, yet flawlessly.

On the chorus, she illustrates the story of her masquerade to hide her pain, saying how she tries to be “nonchalant about” the breakup and goes to “extremes to prove” she’s “fine without” him.  Lying to friends “convincingly,” to hide her self-described suffering “underneath the guise of a smile.”  She admits that she wears a disguise, however it all comes off eventually: “I go home at night, turn down all the lights, and then I breakdown and cry.”  That, of course, is the crying stage.

It is assumed that with this song she is referencing the end of her marriage to Tommy Mottola, which of course we have talked about before in relation to the Butterfly album.  However, it is interesting that she talks about wearing a disguise – because it is threefold.  The disguise hides her feelings from him, from her friends, and from her fans.  As a public figure she had to feign happiness to avoid the hard questions about her relationship.  It wasn’t until the release of this album that she alluded to any issues in her marriage.  For Mariah, her art – her songwriting – is how she lets go.

Another interesting note about “Breakdown,” is how it is sung.  Partially modeled after the singing style of Bone Thugs, “Breakdown” has a unique melodic flow.  While she perhaps chose this because of the nature of the collaboration, it could have been deeper than that.

On the chorus she sings about “trying to be nonchalant about” the situation.  For most of the song, her vocals fit that very description – she sounds nonchalant.  She sounds, for the most part, subdued – okay, even. It is not until the end of the song that she “breaks down” and lets go of all her emotions in the final ad-libs.

Perhaps symbolic of when she she goes home at night to breakdown and cry at the end of her day, the end of the song finds her doing just that as she ad-libs lines like, “How do I feel?! I’m losing my mind!” and “What do you think? You’ve gotta know I’m suffering.”  In addition to those, she adds numerous impassioned ad-libs where she simply sings, “I cry” to close the song.

“Breakdown” is revered among fans and critics alike as being one of Mariah’s greatest songs, and rightfully so.  A title held that no doubt makes the diva very proud.  As adamant as she is about being respected as a songwriter, “Breakdown” is a true testament to her abilities.  Not only that, but on “Breakdown,” her words are at the forefront – not overshadowed by a bombastic, overstated vocal performance.  With “Breakdown,” her vocals are effectively understated; the focus is in turn placed on what is being stated.

However, “Breakdown” doesn’t encompass all that Mariah had to say on Butterfly.  On “Close My Eyes,” she reaches back into her childhood memories as a lens through which to evaluate her adult-self.

“I was a wayward child, with the weight of the world that I held deep inside.  Life was a winding road and I learned many things that little ones shouldn’t know,” she sings.   Here, she candidly speaks about the pressures of her childhood experiences, perhaps referencing how society’s issues had a negative impact on her life.  She grew up multiracial and impoverished on Long Island, in New York.  She has recalled racial tensions being high in her suburban neighborhood during the 1970s.  Learning about things she didn’t need to know, perhaps calling back to experiences with racism, the effects of her parents’ divorce, or even her older sister’s struggles with drugs and the like.

In the chorus, she admits: “Still I feel like that child as I look at the moon, maybe I grew up a little too soon.”  Often, she jokes about being “eternally twelve” but, in all seriousness, the abrupt and untimely end of her childhood has clearly had a lasting effect on Carey. No doubt her parents’ divorce has a direct connection with the loss of her childhood.

She mentions more seemingly unspeakable memories in the second verse, singing, “Funny how one can learn to grow numb to the madness and block it away.  I left the worst unsaid, let it all dissipate, as I tried to forget.”  Here, she talks about a coping mechanism she utilized: ignorance.  She tried her best to “block away” the memories of these seemingly tragic experiences, though clearly her attempts were futile.  Instead, she chose to acknowledge these struggles through song in a final attempt to let go of the negative experiences from her past.

In the bridge, she is more hopeful and optimistic.  She sings about being on “the verge of fading,” but then saying, “thankfully I woke up in time.”  From this point on she sings more triumphantly, perhaps symbolic of her successfully letting go of the pain and being able to move forward.

The album closes with a final moment of introspection: “Outside.”  Here, Mariah addresses the insecurities she faced throughout her life in regards to being multiracial.  With lyrics such as “neither here nor there, and always somewhat out of place everywhere” she aims to connect with others who have experienced similar feelings of isolation.  However, with lines like “ambiguous, without a sense of belonging to touch,” she directly alludes to being multiracial.  Ambiguous of course means that something is open to more than one interpretation.  Not usually used in reference to a person, Mariah very cleverly utilizes the word here.  As someone who isn’t distinctly identifiable as one race or the other, this was a struggle she undoubtedly dealt with growing up: people trying to figure out “what she is.”

“Outside” has very distinct similarities to some of the themes seen on Janet Jackson’s Velvet Rope.  Both ladies deal with this idea of harboring a desire to fit in and belong, or as Janet says, “feel special.”  On “Outside,” Mariah sings about “standing alone, eager to just believe it’s good enough to be what you really are.”  Another interesting choice of words here: she says “what,” not “who.”  Normally, in such a phrase, a person would say “be who you are,” but she instead opts for “what“: another direct reference to her race rather than “who” she is.  With this phrasing, Mariah is making a statement that things such as race, gender, or sexual orientation cannot and should not define “who” a person is, or how they are judged.  It’s no coincidence that “Outside” has also become an anthem for Mariah’s gay fans, who are able to relate to this feeling of inadequacy due to “what” they are.

In the emotionally charged bridge, she passionately declares that, “blind and unguided, into a world divided, you’re thrown.”  A reference that, for her, is most likely referencing her race, but for the listener can be related to any number of situations (male/female, straight/gay, fat/skinny, popular/unpopular, etc.) which truly makes this song universal.

One of the most quotable lines of the song is: “recognize you were born to exist.”   With positive messages like this embedded into the song, it is curious that she ends the song seeming pessimistic, singing, “you’ll always be somewhere on the outside.”  However, all things considered, perhaps she doesn’t mean it in a negative way – perhaps she’s merely acknowledging that fact, but owning it as a positive thing.  After all, why does she need to be on the “inside” if she has been so successful on the “outside”?

One must wonder then, what is she outside of?  Maybe the same Velvet Rope that Janet Jackson speaks of: the imaginary distinction between those who are “important” and those who are “not.”  These two influential divas prove that by being on the outside, they can still prosper.  Letting go of the constructs that produced the expectations that brought them down were the first steps toward fulfillment and emancipation for both Mariah and Janet.

In the years to follow Butterfly, Mariah continued to let go of her various personal experiences and emotions through the release of deeply personal songs.  As our series on Butterfly ends, we begin our next Mariah series: The Art of Letting Go.

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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.