American Idol’s announcement that Mariah Carey would be replacing Jennifer Lopez shouldn’t have come as a surprise to anyone. More than an actual talent search, the show has essentially become a career rehab of sorts for the celebrity set, enabling stars of dimming wattage to amp up their earning power through the magic of TV, get a pay day, and then move on (or in Paula Abdul’s case, just enabling amped-up stars).
Of course the show is nominally about music and wholly about television and that’s why so many of the judge’s own loose grasp on the subject—singing, ostensibly—matters so much less than the ability to create memorable reality TV moments, usually some sort phony conflict (or in Paula Abdul’s case, speaking in tongues and an ongoing struggle to remain alert.)
Being a purist, I am bothered when singing coaches are bereft of the ability to sing. I think it perpetuates mediocrity. Oh, I know it must seem precious at this point as we’ve all become inured to auto-tuned pole dancers, but I’ll risk seeming crotchety to have a few easy laughs at the expense of the hypocrisy of American Idol, especially if I can expose the subterfuge of recording studio technology along the way.
Would any singer worth her salt have really cared what Paula Abdul or Jennifer Lopez thought about their ability were it not in the context of a TV competition? Back in 1989, everyone knew Paula Abdul couldn’t really sing. Even in those pre-pro-tool days, there was trickery afoot in the studio. The tape would be sped up to give Paula’s itty-bitty voice a stool to stand on if she was a little shy of a note, or sometimes background vocals would be mixed forward to create a more pleasing blended sound (for more on this, see studio singer Yvette Marine’s lawsuit against Abdul). Though singing wasn’t her strong suit, Paula had other attributes: a winning smile, dancing ability, and— most importantly—a handful of records that were so good your Aunt Gladys could have had a hit with them. The infectious froth of songs like Forever Your Girl, Straight Up and The Way That You Love Me offset Paula’s primary liability: the absence of a singing voice. I think it’s safe to say that at any time in the pre-music video era, Paula Abdul would have continued being a cheerleader for a while and then transitioned into a new career—something like being a buyer at Bloomingdales—and it the world would have been none the worse for it.
J-Lo is another story entirely. The high-profile Latina was already a film star and happened to be in the right place at the right time when Ricky Martin exploded on the Grammy Awards in 1999, setting off a Latin music craze. With beauty, charisma and some catchy songs—many produced by my old “friend” Ric Wake and written by his stable of writers—Jennifer was well-positioned to ride the wave, but did anyone actually ever think she could sing? Certainly not Betty Wright, the legendary R&B singer (“Clean Up Woman”) who coached J-Lo in Miami around the time of the first record. Betty would sing “do, re, mi” and Jennifer would sing back “mi, so, la!” Poor Jennifer was unable to sing back simple notes because she was tone deaf! The few times I met her she was super nice and very warm but a singer? It’s generally an indicator when the best thing you can say about a ssomeone’s voice is “she has a great ass.”
Which leads me to Mariah. Before some of you queens get all defensive, let me say for the record, I liked Mariah at the beginning—the Vision of Love and Unplugged era. Who didn’t? The Long Island lark had some great early singles, a big, expressive voice, and—though it seems odd from this vantage point—a quality of sweetness to her (or at least the illusion of sweetness). Then she went nuts: married Tommy Mottola, blew out her hair, got all hoody and—in what may be the first-ever case of “crossing over” in the wrong direction—went from singing pop songs that everyone loved to essentially being a guest vocalist on her own records whispering unmemorable hooks over hip hop beats. Leave it to Mariah: while most folks strive to broaden their fan base, she went backwards!
Something else happened around the time of Mariah’s latent self-blacksploitation: she seemed to be losing her voice—whole sections of it! First I thought it was a bad day or off-performance, but certain problems seemed to consistently present themselves: persistent hoarseness, the inability to sing softly with tone and, most distressingly, the loss of all of her top notes (the belting ones, not the freaky whistle notes that only dogs can hear—those she kept).
Eventually, I realized that her painful, scorched earth vocal sound wasn’t a stylistic choice but the result of vocal damage and that she never sang live anymore without a huge choir filling in the blanks. Most depressingly, friends of mine who were sound people, told me of her predilection when performing “live” to actually only sing certain lines of a song—the ones that were still available to her and less intimidating—and lip sync the more challenging stuff. It’s a little depressing to always see the “man behind the curtain,” but that’s what happens when you know the sound man. For a realistic comparison of the deterioration of Mimi, watch this:
You would think that if you were Mariah Carey and you were having vocal trouble, you would get help from a coach and a doctor, right? But that requires work and Mariah, never the studious type, is nothing if not lazy. I remember when I worked for Diane Warren, Carey came up to the studio for a few days to work on some song for Rainbow and there were two things that happened that were big red flags. First, Mariah lazed around on the sofa in the lounge (she loved to lounge) while her friend and background singer, Trey Lorenz, was in the studio singing all the guide vocals and runs for her to copy. Though not uncommon these days, it’s not a good sign when someone who is referred to as an important singer of great aptitude needs another singer to feed them the licks; it reflects either a lack of imagination, a lack of skill, or a lack of interest, (or some combination of the three, any of which are not qualities frequently associated with mentoring.)
The second red flag was when I tried to have a conversation with Mariah about her musical influences and she looked at me blankly, as if I had asked her to explain how electricity works. For some reason I brought up the subject of Edith Piaf, at which she scrunched her face up and said “I don’t know who that is, are you sure you don’t mean Edith Bunker (referring to Jean Stapleton’s character in All In The Family) and then exploded in peals of laughter like she had just told me something humorous.
It surprised me that Mariah didn’t know who Edith Piaf was and didn’t seem curious to find out, but it shouldn’t have. Fortunately for Carey, the tabloid age had arrived, thus ensuring that although she had lost her voice, she had retained her status as a celebrity and, for American Idol, that’s the only thing that matters. She’ll do well on the show because of the perverse logic of reality TV: the worse you do, the more you succeed. She can’t fail! Reality TV may be the only world where if you show up drunk and act like an eighth grader, you’re considered a winner and make more money. What makes for good TV is not the same as what makes for good music or meaningful conversation. Just ask Paula…if you can wake her up!
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