In the spring of 2001, Mariah Carey’s multi-album, multi-million-dollar record deal with Virgin Records was announced. It was worth a reported $80 million for four albums. This deal came after a decade of recording for Columbia Records, selling over 100 million albums and scoring over 20 top 10 hits. The signing came near the end of the giant record deal era, which peaked in the 1990s when artists like Prince, R.E.M., Michael Jackson, Madonna, and Barbra Streisand signed colossal record deals. This was years before the internet and streaming gutted record sales. Carey’s deal with Virgin Records was reminiscent of the enormous contract the label signed with Janet Jackson (who had two record-breaking signing deals with the label, including an $80 million contract in 1996)
The first project for Mariah Carey’s much-ballyhooed Virgin debut was anticipated with bated breath because it was going to coincide with her film debut, as well. Initially tagged as All That Glitters, Carey was reportedly going to put together a semi-autobiographical film and work on the soundtrack. The album was doomed to fail because of two reasons. First, the film – released as Glitter – was met with unanimous critical scorn, with critics calling it one of the year’s worst films. The other reason Glitter didn’t do well was its release date: 11 September 2001.
The terrible reception of the film and its commercial flop stretched to the album, too, which was then Carey’s lowest-selling album. The stench of the film also extended to the soundtrack, and critical reaction to the record was mixed, at best. That’s unfortunate because listening to the album 20 years later, it’s clear that Glitter is easily one of the greatest dance-pop albums of the past two decades. A smart, loving paean to 1980s dance-pop, post-disco, synthpop, and pop-funk, Glitter is a brilliant work of genius. A pastiche of neon-spiked MTV disco and millennial urban-pop, Glitter is an important album that deserves to be ranked alongside other post-2000 classics like Radiohead’s Kid A, Amy Winehouse’s Back to Black, Eminem’s The Marshall Mathers LP, and Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot.
Not only does the album’s film keep critics from taking it seriously, but dance-pop, particularly the mainstream-heavy kind of pop that Mariah Carey recorded, was never well-respected by critics. But it’s a mistake to dismiss it as facile pop music – instead, it’s a smart record that looks to New York City club culture of the 1980s, the Minneapolis sound, as well as Black and queer pop art of the ’80s. The recent fan effort to revisit Glitter’s reputation is well-deserved, as #JusticeforGlitter is one of the few pop social media trends that’s valid.
During the months leading up to Glitter, Carey also experienced personal troubles, including some concerning behavior, including a rambling appearance on MTV’s Total Request Live, in which the diva came on the stage, passed out ice creams to the audience members, and then proceeded to perform an impromptu striptease. Other instances of troubling appearances followed the TRL performance, and eventually, Carey was hospitalized.
These troubles seemed to overshadow the record and its first single, the excellent “Loverboy”. The tune followed a pattern that Carey had established a few albums ago: putting together a midtempo dance song that played off a dominant sample. For “Loverboy”, it’s the 1986 Cameo hit, “Candy”. Carey’s tune lifts the wide bass and the revving guitars from the classic ’80s R&B tune.
As the song struts on the Cameo sample, Carey builds on that hook with various layers of her vocals, stacked like Lincoln Logs – some are harmonies, some are sexy murmurs, and we also get some soulful shouting. Released three months before the album’s release, the song was another massive hit for the singer, climbing all the way to number two on the Billboard charts. Unlike the lead singles of previous Mariah Carey albums, “Loverboy” managed to garner the year-best sales with little promotion due to Carey’s personal issues.
Produced by Clark Kent, a hip-hop DJ, and producer, with Carey’s input, the song is a seamless update of dance-funk. Carey’s pretty and powerful voice takes on different shapes, tones, and volumes as she shines on the excellent track. Kent’s work is superb on “Loverboy”, but the best tracks on Glitter are produced with Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, who helped define ’80s funk-pop by their work with Janet Jackson. Though their collaboration with Jackson represents their best music, they share outstanding chemistry with Carey. And because Glitter is an homage to Jackson’s Control-era music, it makes complete sense that Jam & Lewis were called on to help create this record.
The songs done by Carey and Jam & Lewis are stunning. The film tells the story of a fictional Mariah Carey alter ego, who makes it as a pop singer in the 1980s, singing funky, techy dance-pop. That means that funk-pop maestros like Jam & Lewis are vital to the success of the album. Included is a cover of “Didn’t Mean to Turn You On”, a big hit for ’80s dance diva, Cherrelle. The wise choice was to essentially recreate the song, seemingly note-by-note, though Carey’s vocals are more forceful. The song is a fun roller-disco tune that would have scored many a roller rink birthday party had it actually been released in the 1980s.
Another Carey/Jam & Lewis jam, “Want You”, is a midtempo club jam with squealing bass, strumming bass, and squishy synths. It’s a sexy souped-up funky number that pairs Carey with soul singer Eric Benét. The song is a mind-bogglingly fantastic blend of ’80s funk with Mariah Carey pop, a flawless blending of these two different sounds. Benét, known more for neo-soul, does well in the more synthetic settings, and it seems like a duet partner as charismatic as Carey also makes him a bit more flamboyant and campier to match the affected datedness of the sound.
Carey’s slower numbers and produced with Jam & Lewis sound like the boudoir slow jams that the duo created for Janet Jackson. They bore the trademarks of those classic soulful pop ballads: pillowy synths, subdued beats, muted vocals; time feels like it stops when these songs play, their loose structures seem like they are allowed to find their way as Carey sings the sensual lyrics.
Aside from the participation of Jam & Lewis Glitter, the other nod to club and ’80s dance culture on the album is the cover “Last Night a DJ Saved My Life” from the classic dance song electro-dance funk band Indeep. The song is an essential moment in the history of post-disco dance music, a banger that highlighted the critical role of the Disc Jockey in dance and club music. These creatives were responsible for scoring euphoric nights in clubs like the Limelight, the Tunnel, Danceteria. What Glitter was working to do is capture that dark, sparkly moment in New York City dance club culture (which it does very well – the film, not so much)
Carey captures the gritter, pre-Giuliani New York with “Don’t Stop (Funkin’ 4 Jamaica)”, which works on jazz trumpeter Tom Browne’s genius disco-jazz funk classic “Funkin’ for Jamaica (N.Y.)”, a tribute to his native Jamaica, Queens. The nasally, high trumpet is piercing, as it gives way to a tight, funk number that practically swaggers. Mystikal’s gruff vocals dominate the record, but Carey’s sweet harmonies act like pretty drapery, supporting the rapper’s charming and leading presence.
Along with Mystikal, other contemporary rappers like Busta Rhymes, Nate Dogg, Ja Rule, Ludacris, and Da Brat appear, making the record feel fresh and modern even if it’s swathed in ’80s fluorescent pop. The brilliance of Glitter is that it not only recreates ’80s dance-pop, but it doesn’t feel stale, nor does it feel old. Instead, it’s a great project in which contemporary artists look to the ’80s not only as inspiration but as their musical blueprint: they are self-consciously recreating the ’80s and doing so with an eye-winking camp, but the record works as if it was new and vital. Although it’s camp, it’s not mockery.
The failure of Glitter took a toll on Carey’s career and life. She admitted to Jimmy Fallon on The Tonight Show that the film’s flopping nearly “ruined” her life. The album’s lack of sales and her personal issues prompted Virgin to cancel its contract with Carey, giving her about $30 million to terminate the deal. Carey’s career would languish, her subsequent albums and singles would disappoint until 2005’s The Emancipation of Mimi. That album would reset her career, gifting her with a second act, and it would sell over ten million copies and boast a series of smash hit singles.
The phenomenal success of Mimi and its follow-up, 2008’s E=MC², her well-received acting in Lee Daniels’ 2009 film Precious, as well as the perennial success of her holiday single “All I Want for Christmas Is You” let Carey move on from the problematic memories of Glitter. But Glitter should not be relegated to footnote status – it’s a brilliant, innovative, and witty record that should be recognized as a classic.