Mariah Carey: comeback or calamity?

When I watched Mariah Carey sing the opening number at last Friday’s 2001 Radio Music Awards on TV, I couldn’t decide if I admired her gutsy presence or deplored her woeful performance.

Throughout her song, Carey hit all her notes distressingly off-pitch. Only the determination of the backup singers seemed to keep the tune from spiraling out of control. The single note Carey hit dead-on was her trademark high-octave yelp at the end. This was dutifully cheered by an adoring and largely female audience.

Carey wore a stark black dress which struck me as totally out of sync with the tone of others on the show. Her outfit seemed more appropriate for a B-girl in a honky-tonk roadhouse than for a major musical personality. Upper body parts hung out in ways that suggested they were crying out for support. Not that I don’t admire a well-displayed hunk of anatomy. Nobody felt more enthusiasm than I for that tantalizing shawl dress which once hung on Jennifer Lopez.

The effect of Carey’s garb became intensified by the washed-out look of her face, particularly in one backstage shot. Makeup should have corrected that.

I admire a fighter. Carey obviously is struggling back from a succession of personal and professional blows. Yet, maybe she tried too hard, or too soon. Her performance at Friday’s show made me wonder if she is teetering on the edge. Is she about to follow LeAnn Rimes into the pit of obscurity?

I have always had this ambivalent feeling about Carey. Her vocal performances seemed to me to depend heavily on the quality of her backups and choreography, though not to the absurd extent of Britney Spears. I tried to watch Carey’s TV show where she returned to her old high school. I found her personality so boring I quit the show partway through.

Yet, Carey represents an almost-mystical success story. Born of mixed-race parentage, she has complained she was not black enough to be accepted as black, not white enough to be white. Her father deserted the family. He left Mariah and her mother struggling to make ends meet.

I cheered when Carey dumped Tommy Mottola. He was the husband who junked his then-wife to marry Carey in 1993. It was Mottola, the Sony Music Entertainment president, who “discovered” Carey. In 1990 he brought out the album that stamped her the newest superstar. Critics and audience alike marveled at her five-octave range.

At the time of their split in 1998, Carey said Mottola was too old for her. She felt like a bird in a gilded cage. Pictures of him indicated he looked nothing like a young girl’s dream prince. Subsequent reports suggest he was more of a Svengali-like influence on her.

I approved when she took up with Derek Jeter, the New York Yankees shortstop. Although I am no sports expert, I would classify Jeter as the most outstanding baseball player active today. He appears a sure bet for baseball immortality. Further, Jeter comes off as the guy everybody likes. A refreshing change from the spoiled bad boys that dominate professional sports today. Yet, the pressure of publicity broke up that romance.

I sympathized with Carey when she endured her first bout with exhaustion. A person who grew up a nobody never loses the fear of slipping back. Her movie “Glitter” proved a disaster, cinematically and musically. There were ugly rumors that Mottola maneuvered a release from his own record company to torpedo Carey’s musical effort. Mottola, of course, denied it.

Currently, Carey finds herself the butt of every comedian’s joke. Jay Leno recently described a certain show business attraction as “no dancing and no music, like ‘Glitter.'” A columnist for Entertainment Weekly magazine noted that Carey signed up for a series of appearances on the TV show, “Ally McBeal.” The columnist predicted Carey’s stint on McBeal would end just in time for her next collapse from exhaustion.

With all my sympathy for her personal travails, I cannot become enthusiastic about her current singing. Her mother, Patricia Carey, an opera singer and vocal coach, has said, “From the time Mariah was a tiny girl she sang on pitch.” My question is, why doesn’t she sing on pitch now?

I’ll take performers who sing on pitch all the time, like Shania Twain. Twain has no five-octave voice, for sure. But she hits those notes dead center. Come back, Shania, from your having-a-baby sabbatical. Let us hear on-key singing again.

Meantime, Mariah, good luck on your rehabilitation. But tighten up the performance, will you please?