mariah carey’s 'obsessed' was a precursor to the #metoo movement
It's been 10 years since its release but Mariah Carey’s ‘Obsessed’ still resonates today.
Still from Mariah Carey's Obsessed video
It’s been almost ten years since Mariah Carey dropped her infamous single Obsessed. It’s a song that offers listeners a blistering account of what it’s like having a guy stalk and harass you for years. But talk to people on the street and they probably only know it as “that one about Eminem”.
That’s because after the song was released, fans and music critics alike went into a frenzy of speculation that this was the diva’s clapback to Eminem’s song Bagpipes for Baghdad, in which he makes a plea to rekindle a romance, while also calling Carey a “fucking whore”. Non-stans might not know that since 2001, rumours have swirled that these two (briefly) dated. It’s something that Mariah has always vehemently denied, while Eminem continues to bang on about. Nevertheless, the he-said, she-said media circus, fuelled by an online stan war in the comment section of each artist’s YouTube videos (which still rages on today), dominated public discourse when it came to Obsessed. Headlines like “Mariah Carey fires back at Eminem” were everywhere, with some critics arguing that Obsessed was just a publicity stunt designed to “help Mariah stay in the headlines for weeks to come -- long enough to fuel hype for her album”.
"We missed a significant opportunity to shine a necessary light on the misogynistic abuse Mariah was singing about in Obsessed."
Rather than take what Mariah was saying in Obsessed seriously, it was quickly dismissed as an insipid diss track unworthy of any meaningful cultural analysis. So we missed a significant opportunity to shine a necessary light on the misogynistic abuse Mariah was singing about in Obsessed. In the wake of the #MeToo movement, Obsessed and the deafening silence surrounding Eminem’s virulent attacks against Mariah not only take on extra resonance, but also foreshadow the ongoing struggle to build a mass movement against sexual assault in the music industry.
Instead, the fact that Mariah decided to speak out against the misogynistic gaslighting that’s so pervasive in our society was ignored. In Obsessed, Mariah calls the subject of the song out for ‘ Lyin’ that you’re sexing me’ and wonders why he’s “ Tellin’ the world how much you miss me / But we never were, so why you trippin’?” It’s no coincidence the song specifically asks women to join in with lyrics like “ All the ladies sing”, or that Mariah never confirmed that the song and video were even about Eminem. Obsessed’s target was never one person -- it was a universal anthem for women.
When Eminem inevitably retaliated against Mariah with The Warning, it was dismissed as just another latest in a string of women Eminem had attacked, including Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera, Lindsay Lohan and Amy Winehouse. Sounding like a petulant manchild with a persecution complex, Eminem starts the track by saying he’s the victim: “Only reason I dissed you in the first place / Is because you denied seeing me”. He then threatens Mariah with blackmail, rapping “ Bitch shut the fuck up ‘fore I put all them phone calls out”, and subsequently declares he has “ Enough dirt on [her] to murder [her]”. After calling Nick Cannon (Mariah’s then-husband) a “faggot ”, he says: “ Like I’ma sit and fight with you over that slut-bitch-cunt that made / Me put up with her psycho-ass over six / Months and only spread her legs to let me hit once”.
What we should have been talking about was how Eminem’s lyrical outburst read like a populist rallying cry for angry, angst-ridden men who want to control women and keep them in a secondary, subservient place. He attacked Mariah precisely because she was seen to be defending herself in a way that no woman he had insulted before ever had. His response was a harrowing precursor to today’s rising backlash against progressive politics and growing anti-feminist movement. Men are the “real” victims because women are “suddenly” surging forward. The cost of ignoring this was to invite this sentiment’s unbridled growth and the damage it continues to inflict on women everywhere.
Instead, after The Warning was released, Rolling Stone claimed the rapper had “completely eviscerat[ed]” Mariah in “true Eminem fashion”, while Entertainment Weekly said we “knew this was coming” because “Eminem has never been good at letting grudges go”. The writer goes so far as to say Mariah “bears some responsibility for keeping this dumb story going”. It’s worth noting these critics are all men.
The message was clear: Mariah brought this on herself. Eminem’s attack was her fault. It didn’t matter that he had technically started it with Bagpipes for Baghdad. The blame lay squarely on Mariah’s shoulders. She deserved this because she should have let it go and said nothing. This was unapologetic victim blaming in action.
What also insidiously underpinned much of the public reaction and media coverage was what The Guardian’s Laura Snapes referred to as “the myth of the unbridled male genius”. As she explains: “The male genius is the norm from which everyone else deviates. He sells records, concert tickets and magazines. And because he resembles most of the men who run the industry, few of them are in any hurry to act when he is accused of heinous behaviour, lest their own actions come into question.”
It’s no secret that throughout most of Eminem’s career, he’s been dogged by criticisms of rampant homophobia and misogyny. But none of it ever really sticks, owing to his position and authority as a musical genius. The conversation around Eminem has always taken place on the terms of fawning critics, hyping him up as the “hip-hop Elvis”. No one put it better than Giles Foden in The Guardian in 2003 when he wrote: “Nevermind the misogyny and homophobia, Eminem is a brilliant poet.” Ultimately, Eminem’s “art” protects and shields him from criticism, and when accused of bad behaviour he can hide behind his Slim Shady persona.
Time and time again, women’s voices, talent and experiences are disparaged to protect the reputation of male musicians. Women’s credibility is always thrown into question as a sweeping sense of disbelief arises with any accusation of sexual misconduct. From Kesha’s legal battle to free herself from Dr. Luke, to Phoebe Bridgers’ accusations of abuse by Ryan Adams, to Latresa Scaff and Rachelle Washington going public about allegedly being sexually abused by R Kelly, women who come forward risk their career and have every detail of their story unpicked for contradictions. Women are liars until proven otherwise.
The way Obsessed was turned into a reductive portrait of a fading diva who should never have gone up against one of the world’s “greatest rappers” is emblematic of the challenges we’re still grappling with when it comes to taking women's experiences seriously. Particularly for Mariah, her ‘diva’ moniker means she rarely gets the credit she deserves for her artistry. This is despite having either written or co-written 17 of her 18 US number 1 singles -- more than any other singer in history. In an interview with V Magazine, she acknowledged this, saying: “A lot of people see… this diva; they see hair, make-up, body and clothes… they don’t think songwriter. But I look at myself as a songwriter first, and then a singer.”
When asked about #MeToo last year, Mariah revealed how she coped with situations of controlling men “by turning a negative into a positive”. Which is what she did with Obsessed – she turned one man’s ongoing harassment campaign into a top-10 hit. But she also, purposefully or not, captured the way our misogynistic society tries to vilify and discredit women who speak out.
Ten years on, Mariah’s still dispatching those unworthy of her company with her trademark wit on songs like GTFO. Meanwhile, Eminem’s recent music and behaviour, including a lyrical takedown of Trump supporters and apologising for using a homophobic slur against Tyler, The Creator suggests he is willing to adapt to today’s changing culture. But that doesn’t mean change is also coming to the wider music industry. Men remain the dominant gatekeepers in the industry. Whether that’s as label executives, managers, radio DJs, critics, journalists and even musicians themselves, men are still very much in control and can exercise their power and influence to shape (or hurt) a woman’s career. The industry’s complacency in responding to cases of male violence is symptomatic of just how institutionalised misogyny is within the music industry. It’s everywhere and not nearly enough of us are challenging it. Mariah Carey, and all women, deserve better.