This Is Your Brain on Cheer: What Mariah Carey's Christmas Concert Marathon Taught Me
Mariah Carey at the Beacon Theatre, December 2015
Sachyn Mital for the Village Voice
When I initially requested review tickets for all eight of Mariah Carey's holiday concerts, I didn't think that the ask would go through, just based on the sheer absurdity of it: Who would make one reviewer sit through eight rounds of the same program in a two-week time frame? (More to the point: Who would actually volunteer for that kind of insanity?) And most importantly, why the hell would Mariah and her management agree to such a thing?
The answer to that is why not, frankly. Mariah Carey — who has been honing her long-term residency chops in Las Vegas with her Caesar's Palace spectacular, #1 to Infinity, to which she'll return in February — is more than capable of nailing eight nights of exhaustive vocal acrobatics in a ten-day period. She's got decades of road time under her belt, having long ago become one of those touring-circuit workhorses who must quickly adapt to the constant grind of this weeks-long hustle. Daily performances, in fact, have long been the norm for those of her rarefied pop-star stature: A quick look at Taylor Swift's 1989 Tour dates shows that 4–5 concerts a week has been typical for her; Rihanna will be adhering to the same schedule, for the most part, on her upcoming Anti World Tour.
And true to form, Mariah has kept up with her younger counterparts, going to work four nights a week with tea and honey at the ready and a roomful of patrons eager to get on their feet. She may not be flying to Tokyo only to hop back on the jet and head to Johannesburg or Mexico City the next day, but she's still making like the Katys and Arianas and Tori Kellys of the world: showing up to a venue and belting her heart out for a minimum of 75 minutes a night, and with more days on than off per week. Still, she was going in with a handicap: The reviews for last year's Christmas spectacular were lukewarm at best — and came following her disappointing performance at the Rockefeller Center Tree Lighting Ceremony — so expectations were adjusted accordingly.
With #1 to Infinity, Mariah's running through the top hits from her catalog, a program that plucks from different periods in her career and offers variation based on that criterion alone. With All I Want for Christmas Is You, she willingly signed up for eight nights of Yuletide material — extending the run by two shows over 2014 — and everyone knows there are only so many times you can hear "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing" before you'll want to dive into bed and avoid leaving it again until December 26. This was the assumption, anyway: that Christmas music is fine and good in small, seasonal doses, but that a daily diet of "All I Want for Christmas Is You" would drive you crazy if you were subjected to it an additional eight times on top of the onslaught that greets you at Starbucks counters and shopping malls the world over.
Mariah loves Christmas — like, really, really loves it, as she told us every night — but as someone raised on the Time-Life Treasury for Christmas who knows every single snowy Bing Crosby standard by heart, I can tell you that that shit gets old. The only way to spice up a week of daily Christmas concerts is by bringing something new or glorious to the table that makes you forget the night before, and Mariah one-upped herself with every passing show. She could've been warming up, as the strength of her performances grew at an exponential rate from that first shruggably fine night at the Beacon to the sensational closer. She also could've been totally fucking over "Christmas Time Is Here" by night four and figured she'd challenge herself with a new run or a few more moments spent traipsing about her whistle register. Girlfriend is human — her hugely endearing banter (and personalized touches) showed this in spades — and thankfully the audience was far more forgiving of the few flawed moments than it had been in 2014.
Now that those two weeks are over and done with, the last question is easily answered: Mariah — and her management, her PR, her whole team — welcomed me to the Beacon because they knew what they were doing, and I was a fool to doubt them. They knew that I'd be surprised by how great she sounded. They knew I'd be completely stunned by her take on "O Holy Night," which could be one of the most glorious songs I've ever heard performed live. They knew I'd roll my eyes at the sexy reindeer dancers, the dudes pop-and-locking in white tuxedo jackets and fingerless gloves, and the hokey dialogue in the cheesy scenes drawn up for her costume changes. They knew I would enjoy "All I Want for Christmas Is You" because I have ears and eyes and feelings and lungs that fill with air like a regular human. They knew I'd walk away from the Beacon thinking about how she lives up to the hype of the Nineties, and the Aughts, and that she has no problem running those scales and hitting those high notes 25 years removed from the release of her debut album. They knew I'd leave the eighth night feeling like I'd just left the first.
(They probably didn't know how much I'd love Hotline Bling Frosty, but whatever. I REGRET NOTHING.)
Maybe the secret to Mariah's longevity isn't that she can sing the hell out of and write pop songs with lasting power or contribute modern Christmas standards to the canon. Maybe she's the sole person who can take a cheesy premise and turn it into an ageless party that forces us to quiet the voices of doubt, cynicism, and greed for a second with a killer soundtrack and a few candy canes thrown in for good measure. She may not be lapping the globe like Taylor or dancing all over creation while belting her heart out like Beyoncé, but she spent two weeks nailing an equally challenging feat: She blew expectations away, reclaimed her reputation, and did so while throwing the glitziest, goofiest holiday party imaginable. Just show up and enjoy yourself, dahhhhling — it's Christmas and Mariah's on the mic, for Chrissake.
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