Report: Mariah Carey, Sydney, 2013

At her Sydney concert last night, Mariah Carey was in a state of suspension. Not in the literal sense,  the way that Pink will likely swing from the ceiling at the same venue in March of this year, instead Carey dangled in the mid-point between camp and credibility.

Her show harked back to the all-singing, all-dancing live variety revues of simpler times, replete with all the technical difficulties that often marked such performances.

In what would prove to be a piece of foreshadowing, Carey's husband/warm up act, DJ Nick Cannon dropped 'That Shit Cray'. Between her hubby's exit and Carey’s entrance, we were left waiting with the house lights up for almost half an hour. When she did emerge, in silhouette behind a backlit white curtain, it was always for intervals. Tracks frequently ended in total darkness and you could, on occasion here the garbled murmur of stage directions coming through the sound system.

For a show that was supposedly all about Carey, there was also a great deal of everyone else. The diva exited frequently and haphazardly, aided by an army of strapping young extras. Her backup dancers received individual introductions and extended solos,  at one point, with no Carey in sight, her backing band performed a Michael Jackson track. Fans came on stage: a six year old who had been named for the singer and the manager of the Mariah Carey Australia Facebook page. One (the child) was presented with a santa hat that said ‘Lamb’ while the other gave Carey an honorary beauty school certificate.

Later, to a dramatic drum roll and almost horror film soundscape, Carey ate a spoonful of vegemite. “Someone get me a champagne in 1.5 seconds or everybody’s fired!” She declared immediately afterwards.

In a two hour show, Carey sang, by our count, eleven songs. You may think you have a working knowledge of Carey’s career – Emotions, Butterfly, Rainbows, Glitter and her subsequent emancipation from Glitter – but this show seemed to assume a great deal more background intel from its audience than most. Carey’s onstage patter, as much hosting routine as between-song banter, floated largely without context for all but the superfans, creating the impression that there were two shows happening simultaneously. Her pre-cued fan interactions were also confusing for those without an intimate knowledge of the diva’s back story.

For those used to arena shows from pop stars with strictly 21st century oeuvres, Carey’s performance brought back good and bad elements of days gone by. The good: the show was entirely live, with backing singers, not  tracks. Carey’s vocals, up to and including that piercing little dolphin squeal, were more than up to the job, and she would occasionally, flirtily improvise. Her costume changes – dresses ever shorter and shinier that glittered manically in the spot light – were also a welcome bit of simplicity against pop’s landscape of robot tights, monster claws and cream shooting cupcake bras.

The set-up, however, left a lot to be desired. The stage was small for a space so large, and three huge display screens were all that was on offer in terms of extra visuals. No props or custom lights.  Clip art backdrops of pulsing hearts and sequinned curtains accompanied her ballads, and for two tracks, Carey performed seated on a cream chaise lounge, a blanket across her lap to compensate for the shortness of her frock.  At one point, as a cheaply rendered moon hung huge over a second gen graphic lake, and black butterflies fluttered across the screens, my friend whispered to me “This is what it looks like inside her head.”

To close the concert Carey doubled down on ‘Hero’ and ‘We Belong Together’, finishing of course, in a blaze of glitter and glory. Not a single holiday song touched her lips, and she skipped many of her biggest hits, but ultimately, it didn’t seem to matter.

Carey gives the impression of a woman doing exactly as she pleases. Whether it’s leaving the stage for gaping minutes and performing reclined in a blankie, or utterly, radiantly busting it out. Her taste is compellingly questionable, and you’re never sure whether what is transpiring is genius, madness or laziness. Like light refracting from an ocean of Swarovski crystals, Carey is baffling, but also mesmerising.

Photograph: Ashley Mar via the SMH.


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