Peak: # 1
The critical rehabilitation of Mariah Carey shows what silly things smart people can say once they’ve committed themselves to defend “pop” against all comers. Petulantly scaling octaves because they were there, Carey flattened the theatrical self-presentation of soul music into a form of therapeutic solipsism. Her lack of agape reduced diva aggrandizement to melodrama; her lack of humor reduced the human voice to an impersonal force of ego. If there’s such a thing as “white elephant pop,” here it is. Hunters, raise your rifles.
And yet, if Mariah steadily accumulated defenders for reasons both autobiographical (her emancipation from evil old Tommy Mottola ginned up sympathy) and stylistic (her embrace of the hipper and hoppier new R&B courted a black audience), there was, to be fair, a third reason: She got better. Even as American Idol institutionalized the showboating that had made Carey a star as a “real” “musical” alternative to rap and teenpop, Mariah herself learned to downplay her high wattage overkill. “We Belong Together” and “Don’t Forget About Us” are among the least oppressive ballads of her career. Still, Carey remained a curiously passive-aggressive superstar: her performances rarely owned up emotionally to their physical and sexual power, a shortcoming that rarely befell lesser voice technicians like Beyonce or Mary J.
On “Touch My Body,” Carey sounds, for once, like a powerful woman declaring her sexual prerogatives, and a newly lithe interpretive flexibility accompanies that confidence. The way the light swagger of “‘Cause if you run your mouth and brag/ About this secret rendezvous” slows to the husky, declarative “I will hunt you down” demonstrates the technique of a smart singer, not merely a physically gifted one. The lyric is healthily amused by celebrity pitfalls like Wendy Williams interviews and sex tapes — Mariah’s not even averse to the latter as long as the only copy stays with her. And Tricky Stewart and The-Dream skillfully soundtrack a playful sexual encounter — insistent synth-fuzz rubbing up from underneath, a piano tinkling down on the track from above.
How appropriate that Carey’s next most playful hit, “Obsessed,” would tease Eminem, since by decade’s end the rapper’s synthesis of insecure wheedling and untrammeled virtuosity had come to resemble Mariah at her worst. And how sad that she herself would then (finally!) cover “I Want to Know What Love Is.” That event only confirmed what had been audible for years: that Mariah’s true forebear, spiritually and aesthetically, was not Aretha Franklin but Lou Gramm, and that power ballads will never, ever let you know what love is.