There’s a popular mythology out there that says that certain things — like pop divas and Fortune 500 companies — never die. I’m not talking your average, run of the mill pop star, or even your Britneys and Shakiras; nor am I talking about fast money buzz brands or simple Wall Street darlings. No, no: the institutions of which I speak are those that achieve a certain cultural resonance, revel in a certain mystical power, seem omnipresent and innovative even when it’s been ages since they’ve done something new. It’s the Whitney Houstons and Coca Colas, the Janet Jacksons and McDonald’s — glittering examples of the pull of the popular, the charms of capitalism, and the awesome power granted to those who transcend trends.
But within the last year, we’ve seen two shining stars tarnish and fall. Both point to the fallacies of big business, the dangers of deregulation, and the heartache that can come when performance is pushed to its unhealthy limits. In the case of Enron, such market hubris resulted in the energy crisis in California and the continuing fall out what should probably be known as “Enron-gate”. With Mariah, her lack of meeting sales expectations with 2001 Glitter and corresponding film turned a music maven into an entertainment embarrassment.
One can experience Mariah Carey’s Greatest Hits, then, like that good old tilted E in downtown Houston — with a certain smug irony or sad regret. We’re a culture that disdains failure, often using it as an excuse to revisit and discredit the past, even if we enjoyed its fruits or reaped its rewards. But unlike Enron, the artifacts of Mariah’s career were not the result of hocus pocus that looks dastardly in retrospect. They were bona fide monetary successes, buoyed by popularity that knew no bounds. Mariah Carey has had 15 number one singles, and more number one singles than any artist in the 1990s. She has sold over 150 million albums and singles internationally. She has influenced countless female vocalists after her. At 32, she is already a living legend — even if she never sings another note.
Mariah’s Greatest Hits moves chronologically through that remarkable career, beginning with “Vision of Love”, the 1990 single that introduced the singer to instant stardom. Still, after so many years and songs, it’s by far among her best, if not the best — a simple testament to the incredible pipes that gave her a permanent place in pop cultural memory. From its first moments, the song demands to be legendary — a gong crash smolders low as Mariah’s gospel-inspired vocals hum confidently, grandly. Built like it was intended to be sung in a church, Mariah’s angelic crooning flies heavenwards, backed appropriately by a choir. And anyone who remembers hearing that song for the first time in those days has to fondly recollect its most eye-popping moment: that note, so high it seemed humanly impossible, sung as effortlessly as if she were speaking her name.
Ballads with the tremendous resonance of “Vision of Love” come once in a career, if a singer is lucky — and Mariah Carey, for a long time, was very, very lucky. Greatest Hits also includes “Love Takes Time” and “I Don’t Wanna Cry” — two more stupendous tracks on her eponymous debut. Mariah, then and later on, sang unselfishly for the love starved and the lonely, as if she were put on this earth to do so. Her lyrics were exactly what you wanted them to be: simple, memorable, and absolutely true. (Yes, Mariah, I don’t wanna cry. Love does take time to heal when you’re hurting so much.) Remember, though, that Mariah also became a pop princess, hammering out fast numbers with a zeal and determination. She somehow mastered the art of the hook that was both catchy and artful — something Christina Aguilera, just one of Mariah’s disciples, has yet to truly perfect. “Emotions” off her 1991 release of the same name, is one of the strongest of her early work, each verse peppy and playful, punctuated with the spike of her stratospheric high notes.
As Mariah’s career progressed, the sincerity so endemic to her earlier material waned, inversely proportional to sex appeal that increasingly became part of her image. Sure, Mariah Carey has always been marketed on her looks (don’t forget that spandex number she was wearing in her video for “Vision of Love”), but she’s also banked on her innocence and even godliness. How else to explain the churchy overtones on her first album, or a song like “Make It Happen” (on Emotions, also on this compilation), about power through prayer? Still, she delivered countless gems — “Fantasy”, “Always Be My Baby”, “Dreamlover”, or “Honey”, which showcased a saucier Mariah determined more than ever to make her mark in the world of pop, not just R&B.
Then, there are the covers. Only Mariah could revisit a classic like the Jackson Five’s “I’ll Be There” and inject it with a vigor that could make it ring for a whole new generation of listeners. And “Endless Love”, covered in 1994 with Luther Vandross, gives that song the heft of female vocals it has always deserved. (Eat your heart out, Diana Ross!) Greatest Hits also includes “I Still Believe”, a noteworthy cover even if you can’t recall who did it first. Missing, however, are Mariah’s more recent forays into cover-land, like her take on Phil Collins’ “Against the Odds”.
Near the end of Greatest Hits is “Can’t Take That Away”, a song subtitled “Mariah’s Theme” off 1999 Rainbow. It’s a sweeping track that, at this point, is hauntingly ironic. “There’s a light in me that shines brightly,” Mariah sings, the backing music at bare bones, showcasing her signature style. “They can try, but they can’t take that away from me.” It’s impossible not to think of what transpired with Mariah in mid 2001 when listening to it: the nervous breakdown, the paparazzi, the speculations, the pathetic pleas, ending in the official buy out of her EMI recording contract in January 2002. A diva relies not only on her light from within, but also that from outside — and these days, the spotlight on Mariah is definitively off. And we all know what happens to a pop star without media — kinda like what happens to an energy company that falsifies its earnings.
Though, I was reminded by an article in the New York Times last week that still, months after the debacle that shook the business world to its core, there are folks who wake up every day and go in to work at Enron. And, somewhere out there, there’s still a Mariah Carey — a talented singer who wakes up every day, who enjoys the benefits of an illustrious career that, despite its turn for the worse, was almost completely without a sour note. If Enron can attempt to outlive such a brutal beating, good old Mariah should be able to take this temporary, though tragic, denouement. Perhaps pop divas do never die. And that’s something worth singing about.