Mariah Carey, March 18 2016, Manchester Arena
(Photograph by David La Chapelle)
Mariah is late. There is no support act – who is worthy of supporting Mariah? – and so we wait. So far, everything about the night reminds me of a hen do. Or, more accurately, a parody of a hen do on a stadium scale. Everywhere, WKD Blue and Smirnoff Ice, bottles of rosé wine with straws in them. Heels are high enough, dresses small and skin-tight enough that Mariah, the woman who took the bandana wardrobe gave her and wore it as a top, would approve. Uniformed men and women walk the aisles holding up cups of chocolate-covered strawberries – so Mariah – and bags of candyfloss. This is the Sweet Sweet Fantasy tour after all: appropriate that our teeth should ache.
I am cynical and sober, and possibly un-fun – at least, that’s how I felt the last time I was on a hen do – but even I have gotten on board: my dress is covered in gold butterflies, my cheeks and temples in glitter. I might as well admit it now: it’s Mariah’s first European tour in 13 years and my heart feels like it’s about to throw up.
At the end of every inexplicably reggae-flavoured song piped into the arena, the crowd begins to clap: Mariah as Tinkerbell. She is half an hour late; the crowd is half an hour drunker, thirty minutes more excited. Behind me, two women discuss which era of Mariah is their favourite. No one ever uses her second name. There’s no need to. Further along my row, a group of friends practises the Mariah hand gesture that often accompanies her trills. Forty minutes and the crowd is cheering non-stop, whistling and whooping. The stage is dark now as the band takes its place, her initials – silver, interconnected – projected onto the red curtains behind them. The reggae stops mid-track and in the few moments’ silence before a disco version of ‘Fantasy’ kicks in, everyone is on their feet and someone behind me shouts “Yasss queen!” over and over. This is seeing Mariah Carey live in 2016: 20-year-old tracks greeted with adoration and memes. It’s perfect.
Mariah is carried on stage on the shoulders of her dancers. Also perfect. In internet terms, everyone loses their shit. She is wearing a sparkly silver leotard, which isn’t important at all apart from to suggest there will be wardrobe changes. We all sing along: I’m in heaven / with my boyfriend / my laughing boyfriend. I’d forgotten I knew these lyrics.
‘Fantasy’ ends in an explosion, but not before the refrain It’s just a sweet / It’s just a sweet. She greets the crowd. The woman behind me shouts “Mariah, you’re on fire” so that it rhymes. A butterfly made of turquoise and purple light appears above the stage as Mariah does what she is famous for: vocal runs that seem impossible, and which, if you listened to the critics of her Las Vegas show, had become impossible.
Not so. Her voice is remarkable, something she demonstrates on ‘Emotion’, the lows of deeper than I’ve ever dreamed of are rich and layered, the incredible high of but I like the way I feel inside just that, incredible. Afterwards, she asks if she can sing us a dramatic ballad. Everyone cheers. That ballad is ‘My All’. I can’t help but laugh – delusionally, I had auditioned with it for high-school choir – before I sing along fiercely. It’s then that I realise how many Mariah moments, for a lack of a better term, I have, that everyone in this arena, probably everyone reading, will have, whether or not they’d like to admit it. (It’s now that I realise that writing about Mariah apparently makes me do the thing writers are told never to do: use adverbs.)
A dance break – the dancers almost continually shirtless throughout the show – later, and Mariah has changed into something else sparkly ready for Always Be My Baby. “Do you know this one?” she asks disingenuously just before the do-do-do-daw refrain kicks in. Footage of her and her children plays in the background, which sits a little oddly alongside lyrics like boy don’t you know you can’t escape me, but then she asks us to sing along and nothing needs to make sense any more.
In the break between songs, she notes that some of the crystal beads have fallen off her “first ensemble”. “Can I get a broom? I’ll sweep this up,” she says, crouching down to retrieve them. It’s dangerous to leave them there and they can be sewed back on. “See, I’m not a diva,” she says, laughing. She thanks us for our good energy, mentions the MTV Unplugged session she did in the nineties and invites Trey Lorenz down to sing ‘I’ll Be There’ with her. “Take it away, Michael,” she shouts towards the end of the song, gesturing towards the screens behind her, and a young Michael Jackson sings the last verse before she joins in with him. MC dueting with MJ: hearts-for-eyes territory.
Trey Lorenz covers ‘Rock With You’ – “older Michael” – while Mariah changes, and despite the silver-jacketed dancers (who, again, are not wearing shirts under those jackets), compared to Mariah Carey, it’s only mildly diverting. Unfair, perhaps, to compare anything to Mariah Carey; better to say that it highlights, for me, just how magnetic she is as a performer, despite the physicality of videos like ‘Heartbreaker’ being seemingly very much a thing of the past. In any case, while our attention is less than fully focussed on the stage, a man behind me pouts and twerk-flirts with a group of men sitting on the main floor. Apparently that, too, is only mildly diverting, and the men go back to instagramming selfies.
When Mariah rejoins us, she invites someone up onto the stage (all done through the medium of ballad, of course). Geoffrey is blindfolded and sat on a chair, while dancers in bike leathers move around him and Mariah sings ‘Touch My Body’. Geoffrey is game and you can hear the smile in her voice as she watches her dancers grind on him and him grind right back.
A medley of some of probably-not-widely-deemed-her-best-but-whatever-they’re-my-favourite songs follows, starting with the Busta Rhymes duet, ‘I Know What You Want’. I remember driving across Pretoria singing along to this with my mom and sister. It’s over too soon, becomes ‘Obsessed’, the dancers moving behind frames. ‘It’s Like That’ and ‘Shake It Off’ have everyone screaming and dancing, bouncing with her. Security has to stop barefoot women carrying banners from running to the front.
‘Loverboy’ transitions into the ‘Heartbreaker’ remix, which features one of the best Missy Elliott guest verses (I mean, not objectively best but my favourite), and suddenly I’m back at university, when I still used to blush at how rude the lyrics were. The music stops so we can watch the original song’s video: brunette, evil Mariah fighting blonde, good Mariah in a cinema bathroom. The unimpressed instagrammers jump up and down when Mariah does the trills at the end of the song. Everyone jumps up and down.
The third quarter of the show is (a little too) heavy on duets. First up is ‘Against All Odds’, which, since it featured Westlife, feels a little like pandering to the UK crowd. It’s the one instance of the audience singing more loudly than she does, maybe because it’s easier (and more boring). ‘One Sweet Day’, originally a duet with Boyz II Men, follows, with Trey Lorenz and the keyboardist, Daniel Moore, singing their part. The crowd sways as clouds that resemble an office-poster idea of heaven move on the screens. My one moment of cynicism of the night. I blame Westlife.
“We wanted to do a song that’s very special to me,” Mariah says, when the clouds have faded out. “I feel really blessed to have been able to do this duet. She was one of the greatest singers ever.” Whitney Houston’s face appears on the screens and it’s a strangely powerful experience, hearing her voice on the first verse of ‘When You Believe’, hearing the two women’s voices together.
‘Hero’ is inevitable (and makes me wish something from the latest album had made it onto the set list, though admittedly, I probably wouldn’t have recognised it if it had). Mariah dedicates it to the audience, for making her night. Behind me: “She can’t have any friends. She’s too amazing.” The much less worn-out ‘We Belong Together’ is next, followed by ‘Without You’. A nearby couple, owners of two bottles of rosé, one each, shout-sing the lyrics – I can’t live / if living is without you – into each other’s mouths before making out. It’s perfect.