The butterfly has returned to Las Vegas

Monday 6 August 2018

This summer, legendary diva Mariah Carey brings an all-new residency to Caesar's Palace. Although the new show does not veer too radically from the tried and true, the night I was in attendance was an exhilarating 90 minutes that gave fans a revamped setlist, unforgettable diva moments, and beautiful costumes and sets - not to mention a surprise on-stage proposal.

The butterfly has returned to Las Vegas |
Despite her utterly astounding list of accomplishments - including selling over 200 million albums, having more #1 songs on the Billboard Hot 100 than any recording artist other than The Beatles, writing and performing the most popular song of the decade in two consecutive decades 1990s, and 35 Grammy nominations - Mariah Carey has never been known as a touring act in the same way as her contemporaries. While Madonna, Celine Dion, and (to some extent) Whitney Houston were going on ambitious tours, Mariah's live performances were sparse.

After she burst onto the scene in 1990, she was initially reluctant to perform live. This was likely a combination of three key factors - her self-professed stage fright, the remarkable control exerted over her at the time by her manager and later husband Tommy Mottola, and the fact that she rose to super stardom in a time when the money was not in touring but in album sales. And make albums she did.

In the 10 year period from 1990 and 1999, she released 9 albums - 6 traditional full-length studio albums, 1 (now legendary) Christmas album, 1 live album, and 1 greatest hits package featuring new songs. As a result of her lack of live shows, there were those who initially questioned whether she even had the chops to perform her songs outside the safe confines of the studio. She silenced those skeptics with earth-shattering performances on various live television programs, including the Grammys, Saturday Night Live, and - most memorably - MTV Unplugged.

Between 1990 and 2003, she went on tour 8 times and played a total of just 44 shows. In contrast, big voiced singer-songwriter Adele played a total of 121 shows in support of her latest album in a 17 month period in 2016-2017. In 2004, Mariah and her team clearly realized how the tides were turning toward an emphasis on live performances and were aching to reconnect with audiences after two consecutive albums that disappointed on the charts (the soundtrack to 2001's infamous Glitter and 2002's Charmbracelet).

In 2003, she began an aggressive 69-show tour of mostly intimate venues across North America, Europe, and Asia. This was a clear turning point in her career and helped set the stage for her massive comeback album, The Emancipation of Mimi, which was released in 2005. A tour in support of that blockbuster album, entitled The Adventures of Mimi, played 40 shows across North America, Asia, and Africa in 2006 and grossed a robust $28 million. Played mostly in arenas, it was a brief glimpse of what Mariah's early career would have been like if it started in a different era. She closed out the second decade of her career with The Angle's Advocate Tour, a 26-show tour of intimate venues in support of her underrated 2009 album Memoirs of an Imperfect Angel.

Things were drastically changing for Mariah both personally and professionally as she entered the third decade of her career. She was newly married to actor/comedian Nick Cannon, she gave birth to twins, she took her stab at the singing competition craze with a contentious run as a judge on American Idol, and she suffered a debilitating arm injury on the set of a music video. We recently learned that during this time she was also coming to terms with her Bipolar II diagnosis and finally receiving treatment. She was far more likely to be found in the tabloids than on the Billboard charts during this period, but she nevertheless remained a force in popular culture.

2014 was a watershed year in Mariah's career, but not for the reason many probably expected. That year, a great deal of hype surrounded the release of her 14th studio album, Me. I Am Mariah... The Elusive Chanteuse. It was absurdly titled, frequently delayed, poorly marketed, and disappointed commercially, all of which belied the fact that it sounded remarkably fresh (embracing disco, gospel, and hip hop more boldly than she ever had before) and featured some of the best cuts of her career (the Stevie Wonder-featuring "Make It Look Good" and the Miguel duet "#Beautiful"). She went on a brief 20-date tour through Asia and Oceania to support the album, but it was a series of concerts she did at the end of the year that marked the true turning point.

In December 2014, Mariah completed her first residency. It was a series of 6 sold-out Christmas shows at New York City's historic Beacon Theater. The concert series, appropriately entitled All I Want For Christmas Is You after her legendary holiday hit, has recurred each year since and grown in scope. In 2017, she played shows in Las Vegas and the UK in addition to New York, and this Christmas will be taking it all over Europe. It has already played to over 100,000 people and grossed over $10 million in revenues.

Perhaps inspired by the success of this run, she booked a residency at the Colosseum at Caesars Palace, the historic venue that had been home to Celine Dion and Elton John's residencies for several years. The hook to her show is that for the first time she would play all 18 of her #1 singles (a feat that is second only to The Beatles) in one show. The residency, entitled #1 to Infinity, played 50 shows between 2015 and 2017. With an audience of over 176,000 and box office revenue totaling $24 million it didn't quite match Celine or Elton's runs but it was an unqualified success and led Caesar's to ask her back for a revamped residency in 2018.

The butterfly has returned to Las Vegas |
Mariah's revamped Las Vegas residency, The Butterfly Returns, is cleverly titled. Of course, it works on the most literal of levels - Mariah is the Butterfly and she has returned to Las Vegas. But even the most casual of Mariah fans will recognize the subtext. In her anthemic, fan favorite 1997 ballad "Butterfly", she sings of letting someone fly away to find themselves and explore the world, knowing that if they are truly meant to be together they will return. The butterfly's return is the culmination of this liberating moment from 21 years earlier. In addition, the title invites comparisons to the parent album of that song (1997's Butterfly), which was hardly her greatest commercial success, but is widely heralded by critics and fans as her finest creative hour.

Mariah has stated at numerous points in the past that she would love to do a series of intimate shows with lesser-known fan favorites. This is not that show. Vegas has to be about the recognizable hits given the fact that in contrast to traditional tours that play to die-hard fans, residency shows are often populated by casual fans passing through. She cleverly curated the setlist to reflect this balance. She cut 6 of her #1s (1990's "Someday", 1991's "I Don't Wanna Cry", 1992's "I'll Be There", 1993's "Dreamlover", 1999's "Thank God I Found You", and 2006's "Don't Forget About Us".) In their place, she included club banger "It's Like That" (2005), the inspiring, gospel-influenced anthem "Make It Happen" (1991), slow-burn R&B ditty "Shake It Off" (2005), recent gem "#Beautiful" (2013), and the first single of hers that didn't hit #1, the searing ballad "Can't Let Go" (1991).

Interestingly, "Can't Let Go" was included as the result of a social media poll that Mariah initiated asking for fan input on the setlist. Additionally, there is a section of the setlist that rotates to include other songs that the fans requested. The night I was there it was her early #1 "Love Takes Time", which naturally was included at her previous all #1s residency show, but other nights of the residency it included songs she hadn't performed live in years, like her cover of Brenda K. Starr's "I Still Believe" (which hit #4 in 1998) and "Can't Take That Away" (a personal anthem which failed to chart in 1999).

In addition to switching up the setlist and taking input from fans, there were several other musical surprises at the July 14th show. She played "Heartbreaker" as a mashup of the original single and a cover of Diana Ross's disco classic "Love Hangover", which Mariah first debuted nearly two decades ago at a tribute to Ross. She played remixed versions of "Emotions" and "Make It Happen". During costume changes and introductions, the band and back-up singers played snippets of a host of lesser-known songs from her catalogue (including "Sweetheart", "Say Something", "Loverboy", and "Migrate"). And frequent collaborator Jermaine Dupri unexpectedly showed up to rap his part on "It's Like That".

And there were several non-musical surprises as well. She unveiled an entirely revamped set design and wardrobe over her prior show, this time focusing less on glitz, prop, and cleavage and more on classic elegance. The dancers handed out champagne and brought some lucky fans up to the audience for a raucous rendition of "Touch My Body". She walked through the audience to greet the fans as longtime backup singer Trey Lorenz kicked off the first verse of "#Beautiful". And we even got an onstage proposal as she invited one of her backup dancer's boyfriends on stage to pop the question. It was a romantic, inspired moment that featured Mariah uncharacteristically willing to cede the spotlight and celebrate the love of a young, gay, interracial couple that exemplifies the majority of her fan base.

The packed crowd ate up every moment, with audience members constantly being reprimanded by security for trying to rush close to the stage and a few for shouting out to their queen without restraint. There were murmurs abound about how wonderful she looked and how she sounded. And there was definitely a sense of relief.

The big question constantly being thrown around is whether she can even sing anymore. She has had a couple of high profile debacles on live television, including her infamously screechy and scratchy vocals at the 2014 Rockefeller Center Christmas tree lighting and the much-ballyhooed 2016 New Year's Eve show where she stopped signing completely due to technical difficulties. Moments such as these gave the Mariah haters their lifeblood. There are countless trolls who flood music message boards with elaborate conspiracy theories and mean spirited rants about her live vocals.

I used to get worked up about this, but lately I have started to see it in a new light. The fact that there are people who dedicate themselves to analyzing her past and present vocals with such fervor ultimately only underscores how legendary they are. Imagine a voice meaning so much to so many people that perceived imperfections and deterioration cause such an internet meltdown. While trolls scream that she's a "has-been", the intensity with which they scream it ultimately serve as proof for what an enduring legend she is.

I have always found these criticisms of her vocals to be curious, as I have seen her perform live a total of 8 times across very different venues and stages of her career and have never once been disappointed. Sure she increasingly relies on her backup singers at times and appears to sing along to a backing track on certain numbers. And no she can't hit all the notes she could at 20 with as much power and effortlessness. But every time I have seen her live, she has displayed countless moments of pitch-perfect, hair-raising, spine-tingling vocal ecstasy. Her voice may be more variable than it used to be, but isn't that to be expected given how vocally complicated her early music was and the fact that she's been at this for nearly 30 years.

Another reason this criticism has never impacted me as much is because I have always appreciated her songwriting just as much as I have appreciated her vocals. People so often forget that Mariah co-wrote every song she has ever recorded, with the exception of covers like "I'll Be There" and "Without You", and the singular case of "When You Believe", the Oscar-winning theme song from The Prince of Egypt that she released with the late Whitney Houston. This is in contrast to those who write some of their hits (e.g., Madonna), those who slowly got into co-writing some of their songs as their careers expanded (e.g., Beyonce, Britney Spears), and those who solely sing songs written by other people (e.g., Celine Dion, Houston). Her contribution to songwriting is particularly under-appreciated and one that can outlast any decay of her vocal cords that could befall her in the future.

The last few years have seen Mariah's career shift from one focused on topping the Billboard charts to one focused on cementing her legacy. And what a legacy it is. I still eagerly await the release of her next album (rumored this fall) and still don't rule out the possibility of a medium-sized comeback to relevance with the right material. But I'm okay with acknowledging that her hottest days are behind her. And increasingly, it looks like she is as well.

The setlist (from the July 14th show):
1. Honey
2. Shake It Off
3. Make It Happen
4. Fantasy (Bad Boy Remix)
5. Always Be My Baby
6. Vision of Love
7. Emotions
8. Beautiful
9. One Sweet Day
10. Can't Let Go
11. Love Takes Time
12. My All
13. It's Like That
14. Heartbreaker (Love Hangover Remix)
15. We Belong Together
16. Touch My Body
17. Hero


There are not yet comments to this article.
add comment login create account edit account

© The Mariah Carey Archives 1998 - 2019