How Mariah Carey is winning Christmas again

Monday 4 December 2023

How Mariah Carey is winning Christmas again |
The icon is back in the holiday spirit and bringing it on a nationwide tour: "Last year wasn't my most fun version of Christmas ever, so come hell or high water, we're going to have fun!"

The Hollywood Bowl is an open-air venue in the hills above Los Angeles. Since 1922 the 17,500-person space has welcomed legends such as Billie Holiday, the Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, JAY-Z and Adele under its iconic, concentric-arched shell. There's a little quirk about the Bowl, though. Because of its location in a residential neighborhood - from the stadium seats, concertgoers can gaze upward at cliffside mansions - the shows always start on time because the music has to stop by 11 p.m.

Mariah Carey is famously - some say fabulously - late. It's mid-November in Los Angeles. A cold front has lent a slight chill to the air, giving just enough permission for the sold-out stadium filled with Mariah Carey's fans, known as Lambs, to don their gay apparel. Which is to say, thousands of Lambs are bundled up in various combinations of Christmas beanies, glowing Christmas-tree-bulb necklaces, Christmas sweaters and Mariah Carey-branded sweaters and sweatshirts. (Still Christmas-themed.)

She is the Queen of Christmas, after all. For years fans have said as much. Carey proclaims, "It's...Time!" every year on November 1, turning the seasonal colors from orange and black to red and green. She then presses play on her mega hit "All I Want for Christmas Is You" - her "love song for the holiday" - placing it back in our heads as a jingly, jangly, joyful earworm. For Lambs, the holiday anthem not only feels like Christmas, it's a call to action. It's a hymn, really. And on this night they are here to worship.

Last year be damned. It was right around this time in 2022 that, in a move Lambs found collectively dour (one termed it more specifically a "hate crime"), the Federal Trademark Board formally denied Carey the title of Queen of Christmas. But looking out at the crowd, I am not sure even the U.S. government could deny the palpable, unanimous opinion: Mariah Carey is the Queen of this season. (Dolly Parton says so, it should be noted.) And, if not of Christmas, then perhaps, well, let's just say Mariah Carey is the Queen of All Things Festive. Period.

She also knows how to deliver a Christmas miracle. At exactly 8:30 the lights dim. An enormous bow-wrapped package is wheeled to center stage. The opening orchestral arrangement chords of Carey's contribution to the holiday begins. "All I want for Christmas is you, Mariah!" a fan screamed next to me, Mariah's wide smile and the words "It's Time!" spread across his chest. "She saves my Christmas," he says to his friend sitting next to him. "Every year."

The present spins around. There she is. "I think we could all use a little joy, especially right now," she tells the crowd, with wide eyes and a serene smile, the look on her face somewhere between archangel Gabriel and the Elf on the Shelf.

A week earlier, Carey is running late. Inside an L.A. photo studio "We Belong Together", one of her No. 1 hits that spent 14 weeks at the top in 2005, booms through the vast space. Fake snow flutters to the ground.

Wait a minute, this is too deep (too deep)
I gotta change the station
So I turn the dial, trying to catch a break
And then I hear Babyface
I only think of you
And it's breaking my heart
I'm trying to keep it together
But I'm falling apart

The song won two Grammys and is Carey algebra, which is to say when her open-a-vein songwriting is added to unparalleled vocals, multiplied by a delicate piano melody and then divided by a pulsing backbeat. Armed with a five-octave, getting-to-a-whistle range, Carey has been working that formula since debuting in 1990.

But it's her vulnerability that's paramount. Carey has always left it all in the lyrics. Over the years, as Carey had ups (she's the first artist to top the Billboard Hot 100 chart across four separate decades) and downs (divorces, struggles with mental health), she took her Lambs with her. Today she has 19 No. 1 hits, only one less than the Beatles and the most of any solo artist ever.

So, yes, she's become one of the most successful singers of all time. She's also written a bestselling memoir. She's performed as an actress (Precious), established herself as an entrepreneur (she's sold diamonds, she's bottled liqueurs) and - this is why she's blowing polyacrylate polymer snow and wrapped up in a red bow - she's created an entire brand under the umbrella of Christmas.

She dropped her first holiday album in 1994; a move most artists make at the end of their career, not the beginning. Since then she's added a second holiday album, two Apple TV specials, two children's books and, of course, her annual Christmas concert. Oh, and on the night of the Bowl, she released an immediately sold-out Mariah Carey Barbie. As all roads with Carey lead back to the North Pole, the 11.5-inch Mariah is dressed in her gown from the "All I Want for Christmas Is You" video.

Not too much later early, even, by Mariah standards! Carey has arrived, and the photoshoot is in full swing. Carey's The Emancipation of Mimi album continues. Carey stands in a short gold dress from Celine. She turns, poses, looks up with a grin - a signature move - and plays with her hair. Suddenly, as her mid-aughts, mid-tempo "Joy Ride" plays, a spotlight lands squarely on her. Her gold dress refracts the light over the entire room like a disco ball.

"This looks like an ornament," Carey, 54, remarks, looking down at her dress. The photographer, Nino Muñoz, says, "We've got to do it. Do you have an ornament already?" "I do, but it's not like this." A thought bubble appears over her head. She's still thinking decorations a couple of hours later when we sit down to talk. She's talking about the two Christmas trees awaiting her and her kids at home in New York.

"I have two different styles of trees at home," she says. "One is the more grand, kind of gold and cream and sparkly angels and butterflies tree that I have every year. It makes me really happy. The other one is like a Charlie Brown tree. Peanuts forever!"

How Mariah Carey is winning Christmas again |
Carey likes to say she's "eternally 12 years old". She also likes to say she lives "Christmastime to Christmastime". In fact, she refuses to believe in years altogether. "Years? What are years?" she asks me sincerely, albeit with a twinkle in her eye. She's 54, it bears noting. "I'm unfamiliar with them." Touching up her cheeks with blush (Milani rose powder in "Coral Cove", if you're wondering) her longtime makeup artist Kristofer Buckle bites his lip to suppress a giggle.

"For the Charlie Brown tree, we do Polaroids of ourselves and put them on the tree. And it's fun because it's a sad little tree, but we decorate it, and it's cute, and it's got the colorful lights. And every year I try to save ornaments my fans have made for me, so we put them up on that tree as well."

"But I'm not with my trees now." She's on the road. For many years her annual Christmas concert was mostly limited to New York City and Las Vegas. This year she's taking it national for the first time, with a 14-city tour.

"I've been working day and night on this one," she says. "I worked with some incredible people on this, like Miss Debbie Allen." The Fame icon, 73, served as creative director and choreographer on the tour. "I'll be doing songs I've never done before, some duets." She smiles a slight grin. "I've got to keep some surprises."

Spoiler alert: Two surprises are the addition of a pair of high-profile cast members to the repertory company. Her 12-year-old twins, Moroccan and Monroe (whom she shares with ex-husband Nick Cannon), are performing with her. It's somewhat of a full-circle Christmas moment, given that she was pregnant with the twins when she wrote one of her favorite holiday songs, 2010's "Christmas Time Is in the Air Again".

"That song was inspired by songs from the '50s," she says. She's into the standards, she says. Every year she listens to Nat King Cole's "The Christmas Song". "Some songs like that will give me a melancholy feeling. But I still just soak that up because I love it so much. At the holidays, I love listening to the songs I grew up hearing." She begins to recite the lyrics of her song.

Even Old Scrooge makes a Christmas wish
For a honey to hold Christmas day
And to feel love like ours always

Carey wrote the ballad with the Hairspray composer and lyricist Marc Shaiman. "He's very Broadway. I don't want to put him in just one category. But he's very strict with the way he writes. So I really enjoyed that process." She dips back into the song:

Mr. Grinch simply can't resist
Warming up when he looks our way

"That was us," she laughs at the songwriting memory. "I was pregnant, and that was us really just focusing and having a great time creating what turned out to be one of my favorite Christmas songs that I've ever written. Marc and I wrote the lyrics and everything together, so that was a great experience. Some people I can't do that with, but with him, it was great."

Carey beams with pride when asked about being on stage with her newest coworkers. She's not sure if her kids will be performers later in life, but she is enjoying sharing the stage now. "As they grow up and decide what to do with their lives, it's really nice for me to be able to see them performing onstage." Carey says she doesn't want to speak too much for them, wanting to let Roc and Roe, as she calls them, be their own people. "I even like watching them getting ready, preparing to perform. Tonight, before I left the house, my son was practicing on something he's doing for the show." During the show Roc raps during "Here Comes Santa Claus", and Roe sings with her mom on "Jesus Born on This Day".

Of course, she's not always her kids' costar. She's also Mom while on the road. "We're going to see how I juggle those two responsibilities," she says with a shrug. She pauses. "I don't know. Just everybody has to do what their jobs are. If their job is to go to school for three hours a day, they have to go to school for three hours a day. And if their job is also being on stage and being a part of the show, then they have that." She takes a deep breath. "Part of my job is to rest and relax and know, 'OK, everybody's got this covered, and I'm going to get out there and perform.'"

In Why Mariah Carey Matters, writer Andrew Chan's examination of Carey's creative evolution, published earlier this year, he posits thusly: "Extreme talent begets extreme mythology— - and as (unproven) legend would have it, Mariah hits the notes only dogs can hear, the notes that shatter glass, the notes that she says once opened a fan's garage door. But of the handful of American pop singers who have been treated with this degree of relevance, few are celebrated for their artistry outside the vocal booth. Indeed, few can claim to have written all their signature songs, produced and arranged for other artists and directed several of their own music videos, as Mariah has. It has always been easier for the casual listener to assume Mariah is an interpreter of material rather than the auteur behind it."

I'm thinking about this passage as Carey improvises a song about mopping. While she mops the stage floor. In the middle of her concert at the Hollywood Bowl. Let me explain.

Carey's "Merry Christmas One and All!" concert is a tidy 90-minute affair. Over the course of 27 songs and medleys, she does four costume changes, sings with her two kids, celebrates both a secular and a religious view of Christmas - at one point, while in an iridescent robe and gold starburst crown, she resembled a Renaissance version of both Jesus and the Mother Mary - and effortlessly dips in and out of hits such as "Honey" and "We Belong Together" before ending in a rousing, swelling, All together now! version of "All I Want for Christmas Is You".

In the middle of the show, right after Monroe leaves the stage and just before her glam squad arrives onstage for a touch up, Carey spies a puddle on the floor. She pauses. "Would it be frightfully terrible if someone got a mop and cleaned that up?" Within seconds, a person appears brandishing a wide-brush mop.

Scooting and shuffling across the floor, barely lifting her silver platform strappy sandals, Carey begins singing. "Mop-mop, mop-mop-mop, it's the mop song!" The band, led by Daniel Moore, seamlessly provides a beat and melody. The backup singers jump right in harmonizing. The crowd, which includes Jennifer Garner, Kris Jenner and Kim Kardashian, starts cheering. "Pleasssse, just don't know what to do, when it comes to me and you and the mop tonight."

"I better mop too," she sings, after identifying the spill on the floor as "hair grease". "In case someone says, ‘She was too good to mop.'" The crowd laughs, but Carey laughs louder. "It's really easy if you try!" she belts.

How Mariah Carey is winning Christmas again |
Buckle calls me later. He's been her makeup artist "since her Butterfly album" Apparently this is how he keeps time with her, respecting Carey's seeming allergy to the Gregorian calendar. "She understands that people see her a certain way," he says of her playful if diva-ish act onstage. He's speaking sotto voce upstairs on Carey's tour bus as they drive to Kansas City just before Thanksgiving. "She gets it. Like, the joke is always hers."

Buckle, who works with her for stage, shoots and events, compares her to an Old Hollywood star (one who'll cook collard greens for the crew on Thanksgiving Day, Buckle reports). "She always looks like Mariah. Her stage persona is not a character; this is who she is. But she wants to bring fans what they expect. She wants them to have the full experience if they're going to see her."

So that's big eyes - she has named the different looks, say "Bambi" or "Jasmine" - and a muted mouth, to keep the "focus on her words". And, to be clear Buckle confirms, she's always in heels.

"She doesn't own sneakers," he says with a laugh. "They give her a blister within two minutes. It's probably her aversion to artificial materials. This sounds so cliché, but she's very much like a Barbie. Like a human Barbie doll. Like even when she's not wearing shoes, her foot is shaped like a high heel. She's up on her toe, and she's in a full arch."

It's got her signature butterfly ring. There are painted nails. The hair is cascading, and her smile is wide and knowing. The Mariah Barbie is not as much holding a mic as much as it's affixed to her hand.

"As a little girl, I didn't have a lot of toys or things," Carey says, remembering her at-times tough childhood, growing up in a small house in Long Island with her mom, Patricia Carey, an opera singer. "The one thing I really wanted was Superstar Barbie." She eventually would get one of the feather boa-ed dolls - more than one, actually.

"When I first started working with the people at Barbie, they sent me a bunch of Superstar Barbies, and it was really sweet," she says. Still, Carey had some feedback for Mattel. "I had some notes, yeah," she starts. "The hair, other things. But when I saw my doll, I was like, 'Oh my gosh, this is so cute.' Because it's based on the Christmas dress that I wear in the second 'All I Want for Christmas Is You' video, which was directed by Joseph Kahn."

Carey did notice a little difference between the red dress in the video and the dress miniaturized in her hands, though. "They wouldn't let the 'V' in the dress be quite as low as it is in the video," she says with a small chuckle. "But I understand because it's a holiday and everything else." She dramatically sighs. "But I'm like, 'Oh, Barbie. Very demure.'"

With her own doll, she joins the ranks of other icons who have been Barbie-ized: Beyoncé, Tina Turner, Stevie Nicks and Cher. "Can we talk about the word 'diva' for a second?" I ask Carey. "Why not? Everybody else does," she says quickly, with a chuckle. Carey mostly embraces the word, she says. As do her fans. "I still define the word ‘'diva' the way it is in the dictionary." She asks me if I have a dictionary on hand - I do not - but she doesn't need to look it up.

"It's a successful singer, usually a soprano, typically in the opera field. And that's sort of a half-assed way of explaining it. But the second definition is like 'a difficult woman'." She's found that characterization silly, she says. "Especially when everybody started talking about 'diva this, diva that'. Whatever. It was like, well, are they trying to say it in a bad way or in a good way?"

Carey came to appreciate the term. "So many people that I know that are called 'divas' all the time, don't take offense to it. If someone's like, 'The diva, so-and-so.' Who cares? Why is it a big deal? Just take it and be on your merry way."

Carey endeavors to stay merry year-round, she says. She knows that, especially this time of year, folks come to her for joy. "I'm trying to bring it." Her fans admire her for being a diva. Her fans admire her for her perpetual holiday spirit. But they also admire her - and meme her - for being, well, unbothered. She seems to always rise above whatever fray might be placed in her path.

"I don't know if I'm the Queen of Being Unbothered," she says. "I guess maybe if they want to call me that, that's a good thing to be. I don't know that I'm always un-bothered. But I try to be bothered when I'm by myself. Not in front of the world." She certainly has her days. "I've been looking forward to this Christmas for, like, the whole year. Since last year - because last year wasn't the greatest. I'm thankful for them all, but it wasn't my most fun version of Christmas ever."

She has her way of dealing, she says. "I would say it's writing. It's prayer. It's like these little things that can take you from possibly being in a really bad mood to just being in a better place immediately. And just really being thankful for all scenarios, all the moments that come ourway. I don't read anything written about me. That's one of my coping mechanisms. It's taking a bath."

Carey's bath game is legendary. She got in the bath on her 2002 episode of MTV Cribs (albeit in a bodysuit). Jimmy Kimmel interviewed her while soaked together in a bathtub. I've interviewed her, via phone, twice while she was in the water. The woman knows how to soak.

"If someone is kind enough to say 'OK, I know you're probably going to want to get inside and go in the bath, so I'll run it for you.' Well..." Things can go wrong. "They put in too many bubbles. That gets a little bit out of control because then you can't just lay back without getting bubbles all over you." Therefore, she's not so much into bubbles. "I prefer the bath salts, and those can really be good, especially if you're a little sore or whatever, you can just soak in bath salts. My latest favorite are the orange ones. They're really good. Then there's the lavender ones that are really relaxing." She recommends a good amount of bath salts. "Not the whole jug. And then some bath oils."

Keep your phone close by, she advises. "Everybody gets mad at me when they talk to me and I'm in the bath," she says. "They're like, 'It's a little boomy where you are. What are you doing?' But I've been like that since I was little."

"I need to take milk baths again," she says, to herself it seems. She looks around to the crew still on-set. "Cleopatra bathed in milk, darling. If you're unaware, you should be aware of this."

At the end of the Hollywood Bowl concert, which ended before the 11 p.m. curfew, Carey stood on the stage with her children Roc (his cap ID'd him as such) and Roe. Mom was dressed as a very sparkly, if pantless, nutcracker. These moments are a gift, she says, where she can look out into the faces of her fans. She knows that the demo of her fans - Black, Brown and White, LGBTQ+ and straight, older, younger, parents, singles - are all equally moved by her songs. They are all equally lifted by her joy. She is, in the best way, a common denominator.

"It's like looking into a snow globe," she says of her curtain call each night. "There are so many races, creeds, colors, age groups out there in the audience, having fun, living their best lives and singing along with each other." It's clear that it's in these moments of connection where Carey receives her joy.

Says Buckle, who has watched her holiday shows for 20 years now: "Mariah believes in this as much as anyone. More, actually. There's something about everyone coming together for the simple reason of having a good time and experiencing joy that magically, feels like a collective prayer for peace. A bunch of people collectively pooling their energy for fun and goodness and hope."

As much as Carey jokes about (and Lambs celebrate her for) unthawing, breaking from ice, or returning from the sea for her "return" every November 1, the holiday spirit is really not a joke to her. She is the holiday. "Look," Carey says, as she stands up in the studio and prepares to get home to her kids, "come hell or high water, this year, this Christmas, we are going to have fun."


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

© The Mariah Carey Archives 1998 - 2024