Mariah Carey is one of pop music’s most powerful vocalists, though you wouldn’t have known it from her performance on Dick Clark’s Rockin’ New Year’s Eve With Ryan Seacrest. On Sunday Night, fighting the 10-degree weather with a fluffy white coat over a glittering cutout dress, Carey took the Times Square stage at 11:30 p.m., a half-hour before the ball drop that would ring in 2018. Before her set began, she complained of a lack of hot tea, which apparently had been promised. It was a joke, or she tried to play it off as one. On Twitter, haters pounced on Mariah as if she was treating a New Year’s performance like scaling Everest.
That’s because last year, on the very same stage, Carey’s career seemed to disappear into thin air. She was caught out lip-synching to her hit “Emotions” and ultimately just gave up, asking her dancers to escort her off the stage midway through a verse.
The blowback was immediate. The New York Times called the performance a “train wreck,” and everyone involved immediately began pointing fingers at one another. Producers for the show claimed that Carey was sloppy and failed to rehearse adequately. Carey’s PR representatives told Billboard that the producers of the show set her up to fail, forcing her to go on without a functioning earpiece. Time magazine ranked the performance in the Top 6 lip sync snafus of all time, along with Ashlee Simpson’s now-legendary 2004 Saturday Night Live performance, when she came out to sing her second song of the night and a backing track started playing the vocals for her first song, and a 1989 Milli Vanilli MTV performance, when a pre-loaded “Girl You Know It’s True” started skipping and repeating the same phrase over and over again.
“Any allegations that she planned to lip-synch are just adding insult to injury,” Carey’s rep told Billboard. In 2018 (and 2017), one of the greatest criticisms of an artist is not singing live. It’s an insistence on authenticity from a culture drunk on spectacle. The targets of this condemnation are usually women, and particularly women of color — Beyoncé was chided for pre-recording the national anthem rather than risk a slipup at Obama’s 2013 presidential inauguration; Jennifer Hudson was called out for doing the same at the 2009 Super Bowl — rather than men. When Yo-Yo Ma pantomimed playing his cello during Obama’s 2009 inauguration, it barely made the news. Bruce Springsteen sang live over pre-taped tracks at that year’s Super Bowl, and no one much cared, because, well — why, exactly? Because he sang while the E Street Band mimed? What makes that better? (And does anyone raise hell when Springsteen misses a note?)
There is maybe no worse place for an artist to sing live than in Times Square on New Year’s Eve. The space echoes so badly that you can hear the bounceback in the microphone of everyone talking, and this year it was absolutely, brutally cold (the second-coldest New Year’s Eve in Times Square history). But Carey was there to atone. She came out despite the cold with her live microphone and did the damn thing without a backing track. Carey sang two songs: “Vision of Love” — her first single, released in 1990 — and “Hero,” from 1993. Both were fine performances. With a couple of bending notes and melodic flourishes, she proved, well, that she can still sing. But Mariah Carey has proven herself enough. She has been in the limelight for more than 25 years. We know she can sing. There’s absolutely no reason to force her to.
Forcing her to sing felt like a form a cultural penance. Or maybe a contractual obligation. Either way, it wasn’t great TV. Despite headlines claiming redemption from the New York Times and Billboard, I’m not sure Carey really did redeem herself. Nothing about the performance was especially memorable (which, after last year, may have been the point). In order to sing live in the freezing cold, Carey had to stand basically still at center stage. Because she had to sing live, the song choices were safer, and the performance worse.
“That is why she’s Mariah Carey,” Ryan Seacrest proclaimed when they panned back to him, but it must have been a pre-written line, because that — the stiff demonstration of a powerhouse vocalist — is not why she’s Mariah Carey. What makes Mariah Carey is the glamour, the glitz, the backup dancers, and the interaction with the audience. All that had to disappear so that she could sing live.
Immediately after Carey’s performance, the show cut to Britney Spears live in Vegas. Spears, with a giant headpiece microphone strapped basically to her nose, was clearly not singing live. That’s because no one in their right mind goes to Las Vegas to determine whether or not Britney Spears can sing. People go to be entertained, and to entertain in a stadium, in an unforgiving venue like the terrace of the Capitol or Times Square, you absolutely cannot sing live.
Lip-synching deserves a bad rap when it is used to cover up a new artist’s inability. But more often, lip-synching is used to guarantee a good performance, not to disguise failure. New Year’s Eve is just the beginning of lip sync season, when the most viewed musical performances of the year pile up, with events like the Oscars, Grammys, and the Super Bowl. If Justin Timberlake wants to redeem himself from his last Super Bowl performance, you can bet he’ll be lip-synching when he performs at halftime this year. The main thing driving the demand for live singing seems to be pure cynicism that performers are frauds trying to dupe us. But pop music is all about facade, all Chinese walls and intentional leaks and calculated releases. Part of the beauty of a live performance is the suspension of that cynicism, the willingness to be entertained. And that, entertainment, is the job of a pop star. I’ll take a lip-synched joyride over a lifeless live performance every single time.