The Number Ones

April 12, 2008

The Number Ones: Mariah Carey’s “Touch My Body”

Stayed at #1:

2 Weeks

In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.

Nobody stays on top forever — or, at least, nobody’s supposed to stay on top forever. When Mariah Carey’s 11th album came out, people were starting to concern-troll her. Mariah’s trademark was always her gift for ridiculous vocal pyrotechnics, the range that let her fly up into dolphin-squeak whistle-register falsetto seemingly at will. After 18 years in the game, though, Mariah was not flexing that voice the way she’d once flexed it. Instead, she was relying on different tricks — clipped half-rap cadences, dense clusters of syllables, smears of robotic Auto-Tune. Was Mariah Carey’s voice finally breaking down? Was that how her historic run of hits would end?

This question was a whole new wrinkle in the Mariah Carey narrative. People had already thought Mariah Carey’s career was dead when her movie Glitter bombed and she was hospitalized for an emotional breakdown. After a couple of underperforming albums and record-label splits, though, Mariah came back with The Emancipation Of Mimi, the biggest album of 2005. Her song “We Belong Together” topped the Hot 100 for that entire summer. Mariah’s commercial instincts were still plenty sharp, so maybe people had to worry about something else.

Mariah Carey gave her Emancipation Of Mimi follow-up a profoundly silly title: E=MC2. (The E stood for Emancipation.) It’s true that the Mariah of E=MC2 doesn’t sound much like the singer who made “Vision Of Love” 18 years earlier. But there’s never been another singer who was able to surf the zeitgeist more successfully than Mariah. She understood the importance of rap music before any of her ’90s pop peers, and she was singing over rap beats when that was still considered a risky career move. By 2008, Mariah was pushing 40, but she was still finding ways to meet the moment. In adjusting her style to the mechanized beats of the late ’00s, Mariah Carey basically did the Michael Jordan thing. When her body stopped being a spectacular dunking machine, she mastered the fadeaway jumper. In making that switch, Mariah scored what seemed like one last #1 hit.

Mariah Carey recorded her E=MC2 album at the home studio in her Honeycomb hideout in Anguilla. After The Emancipation Of Mimi, Mariah could work with anyone she wanted, so she brought in the biggest hitmakers of the moment. Mariah recorded some of the album with her old comrade Jermaine Dupri, but she also reached out to the other artists and producers who ruled the charts: T-Pain, Stargate, Swizz Beatz, Danja, Young Jeezy, Scott Storch, DJ Toomp. For the all-important first single “Touch My Body,” Mariah turned to The-Dream and Tricky Stewart, the writer/producer team who’d just given Rihanna the pop blockbuster “Umbrella.”

After “Umbrella,” The-Dream and Tricky Stewart were on fire. The-Dream was starting to make his own records, and he was leaning hard into the echoing-stutter trick that he used on the “Umbrella” chorus. Dream and Tricky were working with big stars like Mary J. Blige and Usher. A few months after “Umbrella,” The-Dream also co-wrote and co-produced the young R&B singer J. Holiday’s #5 hit “Bed,” which sounded a whole lot like “Umbrella.” (It’s a 6.)

Mariah Carey didn’t consider “Touch My Body” to be some deep, personal statement. Instead, she used the words “cute” and “fun” to describe the track. “Touch My Body” is both cute and fun. It’s also horny, and it’s probably a bit more revealing than Mariah meant it to be. Mariah co-produced the track with Tricky Stewart, and she co-wrote it with Tricky, The-Dream, and Crystal Nicole, the Atlanta-born R&B singer who sometimes went by the name Cristyle and who was signed to Jermaine Dupri’s So So Def label. (Crystal Nicole doesn’t have any Hot 100 hits of her own, but her songwriting work will appear in this column again.)

“Touch My Body” is a sex song, and that’s really all it’s supposed to be. On the track, Mariah’s delivery is a breathy staccato, and the lyrics are mostly invitation: “Put me on the floor, wrestle me around, play with me some more.” But “Touch My Body” can’t escape the reality that Mariah Carey is galactically famous, so even a fun hookup is at least a tiny bit fraught. On the first verse, Mariah sings about gossip and sex-tape leaks: “If there’s a camera up in here, then I best not catch this flick on YouTube.” (Unless I’m forgetting something, “Touch My Body” is the first major hit to use the word “YouTube” in its lyrics. YouTube was already on its way to becoming a dominant force in the way that we consume music, but in those early years, songs like “Touch My Body” mostly seemed concerned and intrigued about the site as a place where sex tapes could be disseminated, even though that’s not how YouTube has ever worked.)

Mariah’s tone on “Touch My Body” is playful, but she’s probably not joking when she issues warnings: “If you run your mouth and brag about this secret rendezvous, I will hunt you down.” People are always up in Mariah’s business like a Wendy interview. (That’s Wendy Williams, who was still talking her shit on syndicated radio and who hadn’t yet made the leap to TV stardom.) Because of that constant threat of privacy invasion, even a relatively carefree song like “Touch My Body” has a shadow hanging over it. Mariah can’t get to the stuff about getting caressed like a tropical breeze until she gets the verbal NDA out of the way. That’s how a supposedly fun song like “Touch My Body” reveals that Mariah Carey’s life doesn’t really seem to be much fun at all.

At least for me, “Touch My Body” is one of those songs where the surveillance-state subtext is more interesting than the actual text. Mariah’s performance on the track is still impressive. She sings it with the sort of flexible bounce that she’d been using for years at that point. At the end of the song, she belts out some wild ad-libs over her own backup vocals, a trick that she’d been doing forever. Those ad-libs might not be as explosive as they’d once been, but it was clear that Mariah could still sing. She could also come up with a frothy, dazed hook, and “Touch My Body” has one of those.

But “Touch My Body” just isn’t ultimately much of a song. The staccato production has always bothered me. On “Umbrella,” Tricky Stewart’s track left tons of room for Rihanna’s voice to stand by itself, icy and monumental. But Mariah Carey has never had much use for empty space. On “Touch My Body,” the keyboards are thin and repetitive, and they sound like they’re playing “Chopsticks.” The drum programming is a wan shadow of the kind of thing that Timbaland was doing a few years earlier. I like the plinked-out piano hook, but it’s not enough to make the song stand out. Ultimately, “Touch My Body” sounds like a happy shrug — one more victory lap from a singer who just couldn’t lose.

“Touch My Body” was always bound to succeed. Mariah Carey had all the momentum in the world after The Emancipation Of Mimi. She probably could’ve released anything as her next album’s first single, and it still would’ve gone to #1 on iTunes downloads alone. For the video, Mariah once again worked with Brett Ratner, who’d already directed a bunch of Mariah videos and who’d become an A-list multiplex auteur. (At the time, Ratner was between Rush Hour 3 and The Tower Heist. The sexual assault allegations against Ratner didn’t come out until years later.)

The “Touch My Body” video is a fantastical cartoon about a romance between Mariah and Jack McBrayer, who was a couple of years into his run as the cheerful bumpkin page Kenneth on 30 Rock. In the video, McBrayer plays a computer-repair guy who shows up to fix Mariah’s connection speed. She meets him at the door in her underwear, and he’s shocked enough to attempt a Mariah impression. Pretty soon, McBrayer is seductively playing Guitar Hero and dressing up like a prince to walk a unicorn around Mariah’s yard. When the clip ends, we find out that McBrayer has been daydreaming the whole time and that Mariah has barely noticed him. The video is funny, but you could read it as one more troubling confession about the price of fame. Mariah can’t even get her internet fixed without the repair guy imagining that they’re about to fall in love.

Mariah Carey really did fall in love around the time that she released E=MC2. Her friend Da Brat had been trying to set her up with Nick Cannon, who’d already starred in the very good movie Drumline and who’d moved onto hosting the MTV improv-comedy show Wild ‘N Out. (Cannon is also a musician; his highest-charting single, the 2004 R. Kelly collab “Gigolo,” peaked at #24.) Mariah met Cannon at the Teen Choice Awards, and they quickly became a couple. Cannon is 10 years younger than Mariah, and she found herself having fun around him. Mariah thought about casting Cannon in the “Touch My Body” video role that went to Jack McBrayer, but she didn’t think he could be convincingly nerdy enough. Instead, Cannon starred in the clip for Mariah’s follow-up single “Bye Bye,” which peaked at #19.

When “Touch My Body” jumped to #1 the week after the iTunes single went on sale, Mariah Carey pulled off a historic feat. “Touch My Body” was Mariah’s 18th #1 hit, which meant that she broke Elvis Presley’s record for the most #1 hits from a solo artist. (Some of those Elvis chart-toppers were from the pre-Hot 100 era, so as far as this column is concerned, Mariah already had that record locked up.) For some of those #1 hits, Mariah had used Billboard rules to her advantage, but she wasn’t the only one doing that. Mariah played the same game as everyone else. She just played it better.

With that chart achievement, people didn’t pay too much mind to the relatively weak performance of E=MC2. The album went platinum, but it went platinum once, which put it six million copies behind The Emancipation Of Mimi. None of the other singles made the top 10. Mariah had other things going on. She and Nick Cannon got married in 2008, and she cancelled her plans to tour behind the album. Years later, Mariah said that she didn’t tour because she’d just suffered a miscarriage. Mariah and Cannon’s twins were born in 2011, and the couple broke up three years later.

For many years, it looked as if “Touch My Body” would be Mariah Carey’s last #1 hit. She didn’t seem to have a problem with that. Mariah kept releasing music after E=MC2, and she picked up the habit of giving her records extremely funny titles. (2014’s Me. I Am Mariah… The Elusive Chanteuse is obviously the funniest, but don’t sleep on 2009’s Memoirs Of An Imperfect Angel.) In the years after “Touch My Body,” Mariah only landed one more single in the top 10. In 2009, she got to #7 with “Obsessed,” an extremely funny diss track about Eminem. (It’s an 8.)

Mariah slid pretty naturally into the legacy-artist role. In 2009, she sang at Barack Obama’s Inaugural Ball and Michael Jackson’s memorial. That same year, she jumped into acting again, which probably wasn’t easy after Glitter. In Precious, Mariah took a de-glamorized supporting role as a social worker, and she was great in the movie. She’s taken a few more roles since then; I like her work as the mayor of Gotham City in The Lego Batman Movie. Mariah’s also released some good music; I’m partial to “#Beautiful,” the Miguel duet that she released in 2013. (#Beautiful” peaked at #15.)

Mariah spent 2013 as a judge on American Idol, and she got a lot of attention for feuding with fellow judge Nicki Minaj, an artist who will eventually appear in this column. I seriously can’t believe someone thought it would be a good idea to put those two on TV together. As 2016 turned to 2017, Mariah gave a widely mocked performance on Dick Clark’s New Year’s Rockin’ Eve; she and the producers blamed each other. A year later, Mariah returned to perform on the same show, this time without incident. In 2020, she published an extremely entertaining memoir. She settled some scores with that one.

As Mariah eased into the established-legend part of her career, she could always tout her insanely successful chart run. In 2015, Mariah launched a greatest-hits residency in Las Vegas that was built around her 18 #1 hits. She showed up for the first date of that residency leading a parade of 18 trucks, one for each of her chart-toppers. That same year, Mariah collected all 18 of her her #1 hits on the compilation album Number 1 To Infinity. (The bonus track “Infinity” peaked at #82.) Mariah didn’t know it, but she wasn’t quite done racking up #1 hits yet.

“Touch My Body” was the last time that a new Mariah Carey song ascended to #1. Many years later, though, a change in Billboard rules pushed an older song up the charts, and that song has returned to #1 for a few weeks every single year. Unless something changes, that song will probably break the record for the longest-reigning #1 hit of all time. Mariah was already a legend before that song started its recurring chart run, but that song pushed her into some unmapped territory that we hadn’t seen before. We’ll get to that song eventually.

GRADE: 5/10

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BONUS BEATS: Here’s a fan-made video of Aretha Franklin, a legend who’s been in this column a couple of times, singing “Touch My Body” at a 2008 show in Washington, DC:

BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the trippy “Touch My Body” remix that the dance duo Teengirl Fantasy released in 2009:

The Number Ones: Twenty Chart-Topping Hits That Reveal The History Of Pop Music is out now via Hachette Books. It just wants to make you feel like you never did. Buy it here.

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