[From Miami Herald]
Celebrity careers sink as lives play out on tabloid TV
There's Mariah, on Oprah (and Dateline, and MTV), explaining that last year's public meltdown was a misunderstanding promulgated by a vicious press. There's Whitney, on Primetime Live, explaining in a shaky voice that she's not a drug addict, even while admitting to having had a drug ``habit.''
Asked about their fathers -- Mariah's died recently, Whitney's is suing her for $100 million -- both divas desperately seeking a comeback dissolve into tears. That's the tube confessional's money shot: See, she's human, she cries; now can we forgive and forget?
Can we? Crazy behavior on the part of celebrities is as old as celebrity itself. Musicians and actors are artists; nervous dispositions, eccentricities, even borderline personality disorders are practically expected. If most people walked around wearing a glove on one hand, friends might stage an intervention. But when our idols do the same, the imaginativeness of their artistic expression frees us from our dull environs.
Still, the annals of stardom are littered with the names of people whose actions off stage destroyed their onstage careers: Fatty Arbuckle, Marlon Brando, Bob Crane, O.J. Simpson, Tommy Lee. As two of the biggest musical idols of the past two decades (Mariah Carey and Whitney Houston) try to sing, and talk-show, their way back into our graces, and as perhaps the biggest musical star of that time period (Michael Jackson) continues his freefall into freakishness, the questions arise: What is the American public willing to forgive? And when does an icon go too far?
Can our heroine perform an addled near strip-tease on a show for teens, then one year later sit down and discuss her problems like a mature, sane adult (cleavage still in full effect)? Can one sacrifice her career to drug abuse for years, then clear her sins with a TV confession? Can he endanger the welfare of a child, as long as he says he's really, really sorry?
Or does none of that matter, as long as musically, the artist still delivers the goods?
THE GOOD, SORT OF
Mariah Carey is the top-selling female artist in history, as her handlers will tell you again and again. Her self-titled 1990 debut showed off her multi-octave voice, won two Grammys, and promptly made her a superstar. She has had 15 No. 1 singles; she is the only artist to have a No. 1 record every year of the '90s.
The New Yorker's personal life has been entwined with her professional life from the outset. Her career was shaped by Sony Records executive Tommy Mottola, who quickly became her husband. It got a perhaps even bigger boost when they split up five years later, and a sexier, more street-oriented Carey got to show off her survival skills, puppet strings snipped.
But in the summer of 2001, after a month of strange public appearances and rambling postings by the singer on her own website, Carey collapsed at her mother's house and spent two weeks in a hospital. That fall, Carey's first film, the star vehicle Glitter, and its CD soundtrack bombed, thunderously. Shortly after, Carey's record label decided the singer was such a liability, they paid her $28 million not to record for them again.
It was a stunningly swift series of public humiliations for an artist considered an American sweetheart. And Carey is staging her comeback just as swiftly.
Other labels swooped to pick up EMI's castoff. Carey signed with Island/Def Jam, although the $20 million deal is worth considerably less than the $123 million EMI paid her a year earlier. On Tuesday, Island released its first Mariah Carey CD, Charmbracelet. That same day, Carey appeared on The Oprah Winfrey Show, an MTV hour special, and Dateline.
Relatively candid, poised, calm and healthy looking, she explained last year's collapse as exhaustion brought on by too much work and that it was sensationalized by the press.
Carey may need the help of the talk-show circuit. (On Wednesday, she appears on The Today Show.) Radio has reacted lukewarmly to the first single, Through the Rain, from Charmbracelet. And critics have savaged the album.
South Florida's Y100 (WHYI-FM 100.7) is one outlet that has gotten behind the single. Rob Roberts, the CHR (contemporary hits radio) station's program manager and regional vice president of programming for Clear Channel, says that requests have poured in for the single since they first started playing it. He criticizes ''the fickle nature of the self-appointed tastemakers'' at other stations.
''It's important for radio people not to decide what people do or do not want to hear,'' he says. ``We haven't seen any indication that any audience is over Mariah. The only thing Americans like more than watching a spectacular crash is watching a comeback. People get what she's going through.''
Craig Marks, editor of New York-based music magazine Blender -- which will feature Carey on its January cover -- also thinks her star has not dropped so far that it can't rise again. But he doesn't think she'll near the 10 million album sales of her career peak.
''Even if she hadn't had such an embarrassing year, I don't think she would be the same star she was seven years ago,'' he says. ``That's not the way things work in pop.''
Jerry Blair, president of Island, doesn't see things quite the same as Marks. ''I don't see why she can't have the same success as with Butterfly and Rainbow,'' he says.
Island has been savvy in its efforts to restore Carey's credibility. This fall the label trotted her out to show people in person she's not insane. ''We went out across the country in major markets and met programmers, retailers and fans,'' Blair explains. ``People got to see the honest and warm side of Mariah.''
''She still has the ability to talk with you and look you in the eyes,'' Roberts says. ``She hasn't lost touch with what's real, which is a common superstar failing.''
Island then used a variety of TV appearances to make Carey's lucidity clear on a mass scale.
Now, the proof lies in the music. A few songs on Charmbracelet are classic Carey hits: over-the-top ballads that show off her vocal range. Marks and Blair say the fact Carey writes or cowrites her own songs makes her a more serious artist than other pop divas. But only the track Clown shows any lyrical punch; it's reputedly an attack on Eminem, who has said the two had a relationship (Carey insists it was not physical). And Clown's verve is undermined by Carey's incessantly saccharine singing.
Carey has always been exaggeratedly girlish, naming her albums Butterfly, Music Box, Charmbracelet. But at age 32, especially after the harsh life lessons she has obviously learned, the fluffy sweet act comes across as coy and ridiculous. Marks says she needs to ''put out good, mature records'' to establish her career longevity. But on Charmbracelet, he admits she's still in ``arrested adolescence.''
Houston's handlers are also hoping TV can redeem one of pop's greatest singers from years of tabloid disgrace. Wednesday, six days before the release of Just Whitney, Houston's first album in four years, Diane Sawyer interviewed the controversial artist for an hour on Primetime Live. According to ABC, the show was the most watched TV newsmag telecast since Connie Chung talked with Gary Condit. Some 21.3 million viewers saw Houston's bid for broadcast absolution backfire badly.
Sawyer asked about Houston's drug use, her turbulent relationship with her husband, R&B singer Bobby Brown, her thinness, and cancellations of major concerts. The singer's answers were defensive and evasive at best, and screaming examples of denial at their worst. Houston said she doesn't like to think of herself as an addict, while appearing frail and strung out.
She said Brown had been but was no longer controlling -- then he came and sat in on the interview, apparently not able to let her have this moment of career resuscitation to herself.
Unlike Carey, Houston does not ''still have the ability to talk with you and look you in the eyes.'' She has clearly lost touch with reality.
That was apparent on Just Whitney's first single, Whatchulookinat, which blamed the media for Houston's woes. Paranoid and bitter, it barely got airplay. ''Whitney's first single made the mistake Mariah hasn't,'' Marks says. ``It blamed everyone else for her circumstances, and seemed petty.''
In her heyday, Houston paved the way for Carey's career. Beginning with her 1985 eponymous debut, she made vocal acrobatics and dramatic ballads the stuff of multi-million-selling hits. As every other American Idol contestant can attest, she was one of the biggest influences on a generation of young singers.
But that was then. Her life soon became a series of public disasters and diva-like bad behavior: arrests for drugs, canceled shows, a bizarre boating incident where her face was slashed, shows where she seemed out of it or scarily thin.
''Her fame is much further distant than is Mariah's,'' Marks says. 'I would still imagine that essentially what they need to do is not dissimilar to what Mariah needs to do: come up with a way for Whitney to age gracefully and not scare people. Whitney still scares. America likes a comeback, but America doesn't like a freak show. We like drama with a small `d.' ''
Roberts thinks that with the right music, the public could forgive Houston, but Just Whitney isn't it. ``Whitney brought a record that didn't appeal to anybody. We played it a little bit; the phone didn't ring, nobody cared.''
Houston and Carey epitomize a style of vocal pop that has had a long run, but for which there is increasingly little room in a market infatuated with hip-hop beats. American Idol's Kelly Clarkson did have the biggest-selling single of the year with a song that drew almost obsessively on those songbirds' rule book. But even Celine Dion has had to pick up her mawkish ballads and take them to Las Vegas, where they can thrive under neon.
Does anyone really want to hear Houston throw her vocal cords around the Debby Boone hit You Light Up My Life, as she does on Just Whitney? Especially when we fear she's singing to Brown, when we snicker that it should therefore be dubbed, in light of Brown's confession to Sawyer that he smokes marijuana, You Light Up My Spliff?
''What will be interesting to see is if someone with her vocal range, who has influenced so many other singers, whether that sort of talent is wanted anymore,'' Marks says.
He's talking about Carey, but his words apply equally to Houston. ``Have the Britneys squeezed out that kind of talent? Or do people always want that grand drama in their songs?''
The greater the talent, the farther the fall. Houston still outsings Carey, even if she lacks good material and emotional conviction. Jackson will still have his place in history as the King of Pop, even if he's now the American tragedy written large and surreal.
In the past month, Jackson has shown up for a trial in Los Angeles with his face deformed by plastic surgery, a visage matched only by his odd behavior. In Germany, he dangled his infant son off a balcony to show his fans the baby whose mother has not been identified and who is named Prince Michael. If the jury is still out on Carey and Houston, Jackson has clearly passed the point of no return.
''There's a line that Michael has crossed over,'' Roberts says. ``He is honestly scaring people right now. America loves to forgive but there isn't a point of reality that he can go back to.''
What's most amazing about Jackson is just how often the public has been willing to forgive him. Accusations of pedophilia, buying the Elephant Man, his ever-devolving physical appearance, buying The Beatles' catalog, bad record after bad record: Jackson has been in steady decline ever since Thriller. Still, just a year ago, Dick Clark and then Grammys head Mike Greene were feuding over whose awards show on which Michael would appear. Still, fans gather outside his hotel in Germany.
But for most people, finally, Jackson has gone ''beyond the pale of behavior we can accept,'' as Marks says.
Michael's a terrible joke. Whitney remains stuck in her downward spiral. Mariah's no pariah, but with her Betty Boop/Janet Jackson-like combination of little-girl voice and exaggerated bust, her bid to be taken seriously seems currently doomed.
America loves a comeback. But we don't take wooden nickels.
Evelyn McDonnell is The Herald's pop music critic.
NEWSFILE: 8 DECEMBER 2002
RETURN TO NEWSFILE REPORTS
|n a v i g a t e c l a s s i c w h i t n e y|
www.classicwhitney.com - Copyright Notice & Disclaimer