By Mark Guarino
Did you realize life is like a rollercoaster? Like, it has its ups and it has its downs — get it?
That clichéd gem came courtesy of Mariah Carey in the opening segment of her show at the United Center Monday. “Whatever kills you makes you stronger,” she added. She should know. The show was a survivor’s comeback, not the personal kind, but of commerce.
The 36-year-old singer was counted out earlier this decade when she suffered both an album and movie flop, a reported emotional breakdown that resulted in concert appearances best described as train wrecks. It’s not everyday when record conglomerates write checks to make their stars go away but that’s what happened in 2002 when Virgin Records handed Carey $28 million to break her contract.
Then arrived “The Emancipation of Mimi” (Island/Def Jam), an album that happened to be very good. It became the best-selling album of 2005.
Carey was in an up mood Monday and her confidence glowed. Unlike previous tours designed to fawn on her celebrity lifestyle, this was a stripped-down R&B affair. Backed by a four-piece band and three backup singers, Carey created an entertaining evening that focused on her essential talent: her voice. Over ballads and uptempo gospel revelry, Carey bounced between opposite extremes, from gruff, scratchy tones to bird chirping highs. Despite her legendary dexterity, she never worked the songs like a showoff; she dug into her best material — from the Jackson 5’s “I’ll Be There” to the recent dancefloor jam “It’s Like That” — with pacing that found pleasure in the songs and brought it forth with sumptuous depth.
The show was slim by most standards — 16 songs in 95 minutes — with plenty of time allowed for costume changes, four total. Yet this suited the singer who operates best in segments with little opportunity to go off track. The show emphasized her ballads and older, more carefree hits rather than the jittery, club thumping hip-hop of her current album. Chicago rapper Da Brat made two cameos but they were brief. Pulling back rather than setting off bombast is not typical diva behavior, but Carey demonstrated that a more subdued backdrop makes her vocal torch brighter.
Not to say Carey shrank into humility. Here was a singer with a roadie whose sole job was to bring her tissues. She played things big without the anxiety of her earlier days — what other singer can strut around in just her underwear and a cape and still have a childlike charm on songs like “Heartbreaker?”
Unlike most divas, Carey stands out due to her common touch. Although her flag-waving tribute to Sept. 11 seemed perfunctory at the end, she was more in element up to that point. During the disco of “Don’t Forget About Us,” Carey stood alone on a second stage positioned in the center of the stadium floor, a disco ball shining above her head. Even though it was an illusion, the wall between singer and audience briefly vanished and both were united in having a very good time.