Just what is the draw of divadom? What makes someone want to support gilded hissy fits and glittery passive-aggression brought to a high art? Better yet, how did Mariah Carey reach this level of queenliness in this day and age? Aftermath pondered those things as he walked through a throng of bundled-up and grown-up boys and girls waiting for their valeted cars outside Verizon Wireless Theatre after Carey's near sell-out show there Wednesday night.
True enough, Carey still has the pipes that brought her to the big leagues in 1990. Nowhere once during last night's gig did her gift let her or her fans down. But we still wonder how amazing she would sound on a stark stage with only a band and her voluptuous self freed of the trappings of dancers and half-nude trapeze shows. At this point in the game she shouldn't need anything but the bare minimum to get her message across. Whatever that may be from album to album and press junket to press junket. By the time an artist is 40, like Carey will be next month, their basic career arc has already been written for better or worse. When Madonna hit 40 in 1998 and had Ray Of Light on the market, everyone thought "Well, that's who she will be until the day she dies." It's settled at that place in time. She won't deviate far from the home base. Any reinvention will merely be slight and, done solely to shock those who aren't hip anyway. There is a distinct difference between the age of your art and the age of your body.
Carey is still the artist she was in 2000, and that's not such a good thing. The glittered-and-glossed act is now sort of clunky, when female artists her age and even younger are constantly digging into their toolboxes for ways to push things forward. Look at Lady Gaga and Rhianna, for example. Carey hasn't moved from her seat at the glam table since the second Clinton administration. She can get married and act in movies to bolster a respectable offstage aura, but onstage and on record, she is completely stunted. Does anyone feel like she is the drunken cougar at the party in the too-tight dress putting on slurry airs to woo a non-existent element here in 2010? She's been a googly-eyed glamour girl living a pool of champagne (her own brand, probably) making the same product now for at least the last six album cycles. The only that has changed has been the length of her dresses and the expert hired-gun R&B production teams behind each track. You aren't making statements anymore; you are making shiny round plastic excuses to squirrel $175 away from someone. Carey went out on time directly at 8:30 p.m. without a diva delay, which was surprising and slightly aggravating since we were running late. We made it in the hall halfway through her first song, so it's not like we missed anything but screaming and pre-curtain hollering. A mash of "Butterfly" and "Daydream" began the night, with the singer doing her signature mike in one hand and gospel hand reaching up to the roof pose. That's the one you see in wax museums the world over.
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You can only sing in front of distracting dancers whilst surrounded by retina-searing lights for so long until you turn into the female 1970s Elvis. That was the stage in the King's career, during the concert film Elvis: That's The Way It Is, when he stopped being this striking and sexual mass of rock and roll and became a glorified massively-sequined Vegas lounge act who could somehow sell out the Astrodome in minutes. Carey is quickly reaching the level of lounge act gone wild. Even in Elvis' later years, his voice was superb when he would forget the lyrics to "Are You Lonesome Tonight?" just as Carey still stands strong up against "Honey" and its dated Puff Daddy shambling.
Carey's voice is still there, you could hear it full tilt glory during the sticky-sweet pop of "Always Be My Baby" and "My All" from 1997's Butterfly. What she has been trafficking in on new material like "It's A Wrap" and "Obsessed" from last year's Memoirs of an Imperfect Angel and going back to 2005's 'We Belong Together" and "Shake It Off" comes off as a desperate youth grab. Its fine if you want to wrangle in the vodka-soaked gals in the freak-um dresses and the guys who wear foundation and dress like True Religion jean ads. That's awesome and is hella admirable. But at least drop the diva schtick and embrace the excess you are spitting. We can't help but imagine how Carey would sound in front of a crack R&B band like Black Joe Lewis & The Honeybears, stalking a stage in an A-line dress and howling hellfire about her man. To hear that voice soar over a live snare crack and a sweaty brass section would be sickeningly transcendent. That's just the tired ramblings from a music critic starved to hear a gifted artist use their God-given lungs for good and not for mediocre. Call Aftermath crazy, but we want to see Mariah Carey succeed.