Sharps & Flats is a daily music review in Salon Magazine
In her long seven-year reign at the top of the pop charts, Mariah Carey’s records have sold in excess of 80 million copies. Yet she has never done a U.S. tour, seldom plays live except in the most controlled environments and only does the kind of substanceless and butt-kissy interviews which preclude her from being seen on the covers of most reputable major magazines. That Carey’s record sales have been propelled entirely by videos and radio rather then media hype ought to be a sign of their inherent worth, but more likely they’ve simply been fueled by the bottomless pockets of her husband, Sony head Tommy Mottola, whom Carey, in her wisdom, has used to guarantee herself an endless front of industry influence.
This isn’t to say that Carey isn’t also talented. The woman may have a ruthless career plan, but she also has genuine pipes and, seemingly, her finger directly on the pulse of the populace. This year, Carey, now sure of her fan base, divorced Mottola just in time for the release of “Butterfly,” her fifth and cheesiest LP yet. Like her previous LPs, it is one long exercise in sugary corn — the music is so overproduced, so layered and harmonized and full of fa-la-la vocalizing, that one is hard-put to figure out where the melody begins within each mix. As for emotional content, Mariah Carey makes Whitney Houston look like PJ Harvey.
In short, Carey clearly never underestimates the general public’s appetite for dreck, and from a commercial point of view, she seems to be justified: It is, after all, Carey and not Madonna who is the bestselling female artist of the ’90s. But artistically, she is a negligible force — not to mention a bit of a thief. One of her more objectionable practices is to inject the mildest and most accessible aspects of hip-hop into her deeply bland music. On “Fantasy,” she stole giant chunks of the Tom Tom Club’s fab “Genius of Love”; she shamelessly covers sure-fire hit songs like Michael Jackson’s “I’ll Be There”; and perhaps most cynically of all, she pretends to a gospel background that rings entirely false. Here, her seven-minute-long cover of Prince’s “The Beautiful Ones” — a duet with Dru Hill — is a case in point: She can turn the heaviest numbers into pure maple syrup, and then add an extra spoonful of sugar, just in case.
Carey also works with artists like Boyz II Men, Sean “Puffy” Combs, Wu-Tang Clang’s Ol’ Dirty Bastard and members of Bone, Thugs ‘N Harmony, the implication being that Carey — who is half-black, though she doesn’t look it — has street cred, that despite the kabillion dollar pad in Westchester, she’s a homegirl at heart. But don’t you believe it. “Butterfly” is white as snow, and twice as icy, full of treacly songs about True and Endless Love, two things which Carey must know very little about. Carey’s celebrated seven-octave range is not in evidence here — she covers maybe two at most, and those are all at the top of the register, so she sounds like a slightly concupiscent child. Indeed, lyrics from “Honey” and “Babydoll” describe the fantasy love life of a particularly unimaginative but somewhat precocious 10-year-old girl, and the theme song “Butterfly,” which involves some lifts from an Elton John song, is, if possible, even gaggier than that. Alas, I wouldn’t want any 10-year-old girl I know looking up to a woman whose self-conception involves being a sexy baby doll, a gangsta’s homegirl and a rich old man’s ex-wife all in one. Even Madonna has more integrity than that.
Gina Arnold is a columnist at the East Bay Express in Berkeley, Calif., and the author of the just-released book "Kiss This: Punk in the Present Tense" (St. Martin's Press). More Gina Arnold.
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