Pariah Carey

(Originally published on MOLI 4/17/8)

There are two classic mistakes critics, particularly pop music critics, make: 1. Hating something just because it’s popular, or 2. Liking something just because it’s popular. On Tuesday’s Soundcheck Smackdown on WNYC radio, I was set up as the representative of the former position, while Slate critic Jody Rosen repped the latter. The topic of debate was “Mariah Carey: Bimbo or Brilliant?” We were somewhat role playing (or at least I was. I don’t know; maybe Jody really does think Carey is in a league with John Coltrane and Led Zeppelin). It was fun.

I didn’t and wouldn’t call Mirage (her high-school nickname) a bimbo; in an act of feminist reversal I learned from Ann Powers, I only call guys bimbos. I don’t think Carey’s stupid: She strategically married early in her career, has wisely followed the winds of pop change, and got loads of money from a record label for whom she only had to deliver one record. She’s always been involved in her own songwriting and musical direction; she’s not a puppet (though she does like to play the victim). And yes, I do envy her ability to hit a lot of notes I can only dream of.

But skill is not the same as talent. Carey has an impressive vocal range and a somewhat superhuman ability to pack countless notes into one syllable, yet I don’t think she’s a great singer. She’s not inventive, she’s showoffy, she coos, she lacks soul. Rosen compared her to John Bonham and Coltrane, but to me, she’s like Joe Satriani, who can pick the shit out of a guitar, but it still sounds like noodling to me.

That said, I don’t hate her. That would be too easy. Two things I will say for Mariah for sure: 1. She’s a survivor. Her career has lasted 18 years, and she just passed Elvis to have the second-most number-one singles in music history (the Beatles are number one). 2. She invokes passion. People — regular people, not just critics — love her or hate her. You can see that in the comments at the Soundcheck site, some of which are a lot smarter than anything Jody and I said. I once reviewed a Mariah concert, and it provoked the second greatest amount of hate mail I’ve received in my career, thank you very much. (My Chemical Romance fans beat her out some tenfold, however).

So what do you think: Mariah Carey, brilliant or, um, overrated?

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