If you’ve never seen Mariah Carey performing live, either in person or on film, you’re missing out. There’s something about an MC performance that’s difficult to comprehend: how did somebody who seems to care so little about communicating any sense of joy, or really any emotion beyond exhaustion, come to be so successful as a performer?
And yet, she has legions of fans who love her as much for her once very good singing voice as her legendary and intriguing diva persona.
To be perfectly honest, Carey hasn’t released a decent single since 2005’s We Belong Together, and hasn’t given a killer live performance since at least then. Her popularity seems to be sustained entirely by the air of superiority she projects, her fights with rapper Nicki Minaj and other divas, and stories of the outrageous demands she makes on those around her.
So it was with some hesitance but a great deal of curiosity that I watched the first episode of her new reality show (which she refuses to call a reality show — it’s a documentary), Mariah’s World. The series follows the singer’s life as she embarks on her 2016 European tour and plans her subsequently cancelled wedding to James Packer.
In explaining why she decided to create a series for the US network E!, the channel behind Keeping Up With the Kardashians and its various spin-offs, Carey said: “I thought it would be a good opportunity to kind of, like, show my personality and who I am, even though I feel like my real fans have an idea of who I am … A lot of people have misperceptions about this and that.”
Carey serves as an Executive Producer, which makes Mariah’s World one of the most intriguing and bizarre exercises in image control ever put to air.
She achieved her American Dream, and this series, more than anything, seems to suggest that she wants the world to know about it.
Carey opts to tell her story via a series of genuinely hilarious pieces-to-camera, the best of which has her reclining on a chaise lounge, flanked by fresh flowers and a grand piano, wearing just an elaborate corset, panties, fishnets and diamonds.
There is money everywhere in this Mariah’s World. Seriously, if you thought the Kardashians shamelessly flaunted their exorbitant wealth, just watch this show. I don’t think there’d be a single shot in the first episode of her wearing less than a few lazy thousand dollars worth of jewellery, clothes, make-up or accessories.
The series opens with James Packer’s extraordinarily lavish yacht because, well, why wouldn’t it? Carey reminds us that she “did not grow up this way”, but it seems she’s taking none of her wealth for granted today. She achieved her American Dream, and this series, more than anything, seems to suggest that she wants the world to know about it.
Later on, her sycophantic, dragon lady manager Stella Bulochnikov tells a new young recruit assistant that there’s “no crying” allowed in her workplace and that she’s not allowed to have a boyfriend or go on a date for the first 12 months of working there (Somebody call Fair Work, immediately!). Carey then goes on to say that she’s always needed somebody ruthless like Bulochnikov, who has cut the dead weight of those working for her who want to get paid for “doing very little”.
It’s a camp performance of the highest order: utterly absurd, but seemingly rooted in the gravest of intentions.
Bulochnikov then tells Carey she should ditch two of the dancers for her upcoming tour to save money. It’s tough financial times for Mariah.
In another scene, Carey tells the camera that she’s wearing sunglasses indoors because the room has fluorescent lighting, and she stipulates that she can’t be seen without sunglasses in fluorescent lighting. She makes no apologies for being a control freak. But later on, she talks about how the “music comes first”, and how hard she works on her shows.
I’ve never seen a greater failed portrait of a serious artiste. It’s a camp performance of the highest order: utterly absurd, but seemingly rooted in the gravest of intentions.
The question hanging over the whole thing is: exactly how self-aware is Mariah Carey?
Does she relish her reputation as being difficult and demanding? Does she define herself by the eccentricities she’s best known for? (Her alter ego/arch nemesis Bianca makes a truly bizarre an appearance early on.) Or is she just so wealthy and comfortable that she doesn’t care if the world thinks she’s a little bit nuts?
In many ways, the series is infuriating to watch. But by the end of the first episode I found myself with an unexpected sliver of respect for Carey.
She’s not the type of woman who you might’ve expected to tame the Capitalism beast, but she managed to do so by being very cunning, and she elevated herself to a position of supreme wealth and comfort. She grew up as a poor, working class African-/Irish-American girl from divorced parents, and eventually became a singing superstar engaged to a billionaire.
There’s something about her attitude which seems to say to the world: you told me greed was good, so of course I’m going to flaunt what that got me. You did this.