Rumors of Mariah Carey's demise have been greatly exaggerated, she proved last night during the first of six sold-out, Christmas-themed concerts at New York's Beacon Theater. For much of the show, she was in as good of a voice as you could expect from a diva who's in her 25th year of wailing for the public's consumption.
Signs of Carey's vocal deline went viral earlier this month when she performed her perennial smash "All I Want for Christmas Is You" live on NBC. Though she was on pitch for most of the song, she sounded out of breath and audibly missed notes. Her face was pained. The entire affair was decidedly less than festive.
The ensuing ridicule caused Carey her biggest public humiliation since her flop pseudo-biopic vanity project, 2001's Glitter. "Remember when Mariah Carey could sing? Most millennials probably can't," is the exaggerated, Perez Hilton-esque way that Timothy Burke opened his post on the performance for Deadspin's culture site the Concourse. "Only Rep. Peter King could vocalize something more tone-deaf in New York today."
I remember when Mariah Carey could sing because she still can sing. Her voice is still a marvel, it's just less reliable than before. That makes for some underwhelming performances, but also some overwhelmingly good ones when she is on. In fact, seeing Carey now, at 45, is genuinely exciting if you are invested in her at all as an artist/performer. Her early concerts were non-events, a reiteration of what her recordings already made clear. Yes, she could sing, but that's about all she could do. Now that the voice is shakier, there is real tension at her shows. Going into last night's, I felt a level of stress that I assume sports fans do when they sit down to watch their favorite teams play important games. (Sports fans raise the back of their hands to their foreheads and mutter, "Daahhhling," when they're nervous too, right?) When she started singing "O Holy Night," toward the end of the show, I felt my pulse quicken.
At that point, she had made her way through 10 songs from both of her Christmas albums, 1994's Merry Christmas and 2010's Merry Christmas II You. Every once in a while, she'd just not sing a particularly difficult note (especially if it followed an equally difficult note), and I thought I detected a lip-synched section or two. I'm not fully convinced that the powerful bridge of her cover of Darlene Love's "Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)" was live, for example. But there were no songs she mimed top to bottom. In the same way that plastic surgery can be tasteful (think Judge Judy), so can lip-synching, as Carey's judicious choices proved.
Still, "O Holy Night," is one that starts big and builds to a towering climax. And for the most part, aside from a line or two that I assume Carey just couldn't strain hard enough to get out, she delivered. It didn't feel like 1994 all over again, but it also didn't feel anywhere close to doomsday. During the next song, "Hero" (the night's only non-yuletide offering), the monitor pack fell from the back of Carey's gown during the second verse and she halted the song. She explained the pack slipped off because of sweat, which was more honest and human than I'd expect from her. "You can't deny the voice, though," she added. No one argued. Yep, that's our diva.
She asked the audience, still on its collective feet after the standing ovation "O Holy Night" received, if she should take it from the top. They encouraged her to, and she did. I felt my stomach drop. She had just done so well in full voice for an entire verse and a chorus, and now she was going to do it all again? It was like having to restart a difficult video game level you'd been acing until your little sister stepped in front of the TV. Maddening. But she did it again with no noticeable flaws, and she finally saw the truth, that a hero lies in her.
The final song was, of course, "All I Want for Christmas Is You," which Carey sang more fluidly than she did a few weeks ago on NBC. I noticed her dropping some strained notes (no "on" during the "I'm just gonna keep on waiting...," she skipped a, "What more can I do," and no "sleigh bells" ringing). But in a show that was supported by a booming live band and Carey's trusty trio of backup singers, there was so much to fill in the spaces Carey left.
This song was a surreal spectacle. A grown man wearing a plush head-to-toe Frosty the Snowman costume and another dressed as a teddy bear danced amongst female back-up dancers dressed as elves. Male and children back-up dancers dressed in all white. The entire concert was performed in front of what must have been a 25-foot Christmas tree, and the arch over the Beacon's stage was covered in giant foam-board snowflakes. A screen behind the tree played a video of two arched rows of cartoon snowmen rotating. Carey was dressed in a red and black sequined gown. There was an explosion of glitter at the song's climax and then fake snow fell over the stage.
Carey tends toward chaos, and there it was again, but this time it was Christmas chaos. This time it was controlled.
[Top image via Getty]