Last night at the Beacon Theatre I watched Mariah Carey hit the high notes I’d hoped to hear (and not, ’cause some of those notes are beyond human recognition), run scales with the stair-taking might of Rocky Balboa, turn screaming fans into emotional puddles simply by offering a second of eye contact, charm her way through stage banter honed by two and a half decades of spotlit experience, and generally spread her personalized blend of holiday cheer.
I’m going to be doing this again tonight. And Thursday night. And every night through the duration of Mariah’s run at the Beacon Theatre, which wraps up on December 18. I am going to eight Mariah Carey holiday concerts in ten days, and I’m doing this for the sake of Christmas spirit, the extreme emotional highs and lows of pop-music fandom, and the batshit insanity born at the nexus of the two. I’m going to embrace my inner lambdom — and I’m going to do so in an ugly holiday sweater at some point, I’m sure.
Mariah Carey is one of the most respected, recognized, and weirdly maligned pop stars of the last century, a vocal talent in a class all her own and a diva who embraces all of the attributes, positive and negative, that the role entails. Unlike her peers — with the exception of the late great Whitney Houston — Mariah has been leveling the expectations for what an r&b and pop vocalist can do, in that her five-octave range has been giving even the most seasoned greats at La Scala pause since her self-titled debut dropped in 1990. Before Christina, Beyoncé, and Ariana could even walk to the microphone, Mariah was pushing the limits of her range, getting low without bottoming out with her husky fry (see “Can’t Let Go” from 1991’s Emotions), and giving seraphim a run for their money with her preternaturally lofty headvoice (I could list all the tracks she hits glass-shattering highs on, but I’d run out of space). “Emotions,” “Fantasy,” “Honey,” “Always Be My Baby,” “Hero,” “Heartbreaker” — her singles are affectionate, and unapologetically so: chart-topping love notes that air flirtatious frustrations and declarations of adoration in the same breath.
And then there’s “All I Want for Christmas Is You.” This is the reason for Mariah’s season, the bedrock of this holiday spectacular and of any holiday soundtrack curated since 1994. That year was good to Mariah — Music Box would go on to become the second highest selling album of the year — but her first Christmas record and its instantly recognizable single hold the keys to Mariah’s cultural immortality. Merry Christmas is the bestselling holiday album of all time (sorry, Bing Crosby); “All I Want for Christmas Is You” has been streamed nearly 82 million times on Spotify. (For comparison, “Always Be My Baby,” her second most played track on the platform, clocks in at a sound 25 million plays.) Nine years after its release, Love Actually gave “All I Want” a boost by working it into the plot of the rom-com, thus cementing its status as something more than another Christmas song. The tune is up there with “Jingle Bell Rock,” “Feliz Navidad,” “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree,” and “Run Rudolph Run” as a holiday standard that embraces the cheese while doing right by the current musical landscape. Just try and watch this clip from the Tonight Show of Mariah, the Roots, Jimmy Fallon, and a bunch of gleeful, sweater-clad sprites sing it without warming up the darkest recesses of your emotional entrails. TRY. I DARE YOU.
It made sense for Mariah, then, to helm a holiday special of some kind, and her takeover of the Beacon in 2014 was a fitting endeavor that gave her the chance to prove it. Based on the success of that run, she returned to the venue this December 8 for the second annual All I Want for Christmas Is You concert series and left trails of snowflakes and glitter in her wake. Having never seen Mariah perform live, I’ll admit I was curious — and set the bar of my expectations low. I figured she’d start off slow and refrain from belting the hell out of her more challenging choruses for the sake of preservation; eight shows in ten days is a marathon and not a sprint, after all. And she’s nothing if not a consummate professional with a larynx to maintain.
Mariah’s off notes were few and far between at the Beacon, even if she rarely strayed from the safe side of her range and ducked the mightier, more adventurous turns of her delivery. The weird, breathy spells of “O Holy Night” and a Marilyn Monroe–esque treatment of the Vince Guaraldi Trio’s “Christmas Time Is Here” were quickly forgotten when she’d let loose with the soaring, heavens-scaling high notes we (read: I) stupidly assumed she’d avoid outside of the confines of a studio. The only (and rare) head-scratchingly strange moments came in the filler numbers that kept the audience happy while Mariah made her costume changes, but that had more to do with logistics than anything else: The gospel choir assembled to back Mariah and sing their own rendition of “Carol of the Bells” was paired with what could’ve been a gorgeous interpretive ballet, but based on the choir’s a cappella take on the tune, the footwork of the dancers was just as loud as the ding-dong-ding-DONGs and the like. With two Christmas albums under her glitter-spackled belt, Mariah’s got more than enough material to round out a setlist that stretches over the course of an hour and fifteen minutes; the inclusion of some of her greatest hits — most notably “Emotions,” which was downright euphoric with that gospel choir involved — was smart and intensely satisfying for even the most newly minted of Mariah fans.
“All I Want for Christmas Is You” was solid, so here’s hoping it goes from great to life-affirming as the week goes on. On the whole, Mariah’s first night at the Beacon made for a satisfying and thoroughly enjoyable opener, one that piques curiosity and quells doubts about what she can still bring to the stage night after night in a pretty package tied up in a bow and placed under a metaphorical ten-foot tree. (Mariah did stress that her Christmases involve real reindeer — she said this twice for emphasis — and a ten-footer every year.)
By December 18, I’ll either be sporting a butterfly tattoo, some Hallmark-endorsed Mariah Christmas gear, or, at the very least, an imaginary membership card to the lamb squad, because it’s easy to see that the fans who come out to see her in droves show up for the sensational moments and the imperfections, too. I could also wind up crouching in the corner of the music lair here at the Voice office, clutching my knees to my chest and rocking back and forth while humming “YoUuUuUuUuUu BABAY” to myself until my boss notices that the growing pile of mail on my desk is about to topple over and crush me. Either way, one thing’s for sure: The power of Mariah Carey’s holiday-championing prowess is a force to be reckoned with, and if it can inspire eight nights of good cheer that make otherwise sappy, traditional, or cheesy sentiments go down smooth, it can inspire one listener to be present for all of it, to get to the heart of why that song says what countless others can’t about the holidays. Namely, me.