On Saturday night, Mariah Carey took 2016 in for a crash landing.
Performing on Dick Clark’s New Year’s Rockin'’Eve With Ryan Seacrest just minutes before midnight, Carey moved from a brief, lovely version of “Auld Lang Syne” to an ugly conflagration of missed cues, frustration, botched lip-syncing, and, eventually, a walkout—a devolution from polish and hope to unspeakable train wreck than anybody with a Twitter account joked was a perfect metaphor and end to 2016, for which “what a terrible year it’s been” has become its own meme.
Was Mariah Carey’s career the last celebrity death of 2016?
Hold on, folks. Let’s not crucify the diva yet.
The medley performance was a toxic snowball of technical issues, building until Carey seemed to finally implode and walk off stage.
After “Auld Lang Syne” finished and Carey’s 1991 hit “Emotions” kicked in, Carey immediately made her cry for help: “We can’t hear!” The track played on anyway, as Carey stood still, a pop icon in a bedazzled body suit without the proper backing track. Hollywood’s version of Naked and Afraid.
She stood with her hand on her hip, looking at once mortified and really goddamn pissed off.
It was a kind of fight-or-flight moment for a singer not used to suffering such public embarrassment, and she responded by, well, not fighting or fleeing—at least not at first—but by kind of walking around, shaking her head, and spouting off campy running commentary that is actually a little bit delicious and perfect when you think of Carey's reputation.
“We didn’t have a [sound] check for this song so we’ll just say it went to No. 1 and that’s what it is.” That’s what it truly is, dahling. Likely racing through how to salvage things, she at one point sticks out her mic saying she’s decided to “let the audience sing.” Then: “I’m trying to be a good sport here” and “I want a holiday, too, can I not have one?”
Should they have restarted the performance? Should Carey have just sung her best anyway? The answer is likely yes to both questions.
In a tragic revelation about Carey’s current vocal range, the "Emotions" backing track didn't have any lead vocals save for those famous whistle notes, hinting that those glory notes we live for from her were going to be phoned in anyway.
Then "We Belong Together" kicked in to conclude the medley, which she told us right off the bat was "the album track," so "I'm just going to… sing along with it. Well not sing, but just have a moment."
She had a few moments during that version, forgetting the lyrics she was lip-syncing along to and at least twice looking like a person so upset she might set fire to the world at any moment, her long lashes blinking "HELP ME" in Morse code. "It just doesn't get any better," she said as she walked off the stage, the kind of defeatist sarcasm that could murder—which Carey was likely hellbent on doing once she wobbled off stage.
After the performance, Carey tweeted, with lots of emoji punctuation:
Carey's rep said, "There was a production issue and technical difficulties. There unfortunately was nothing she could do to continue the performance given the circumstances."
According to a "source" who spoke to Us Weekly, Carey "only had a quick run-through" before the performance, and the wrong "Emotions" backing track played once the singer went live. "She was so thrown off she couldn't go through with it. Without the right tracks, it messed her up and threw her off from even faking it."
Another source told Billboard that Carey's rehearsal schedule for the medley was tighter and more difficult than usual, and when the music kicked in she couldn't hear through her in-ear monitor. (That might also explain why she wasn't able to sing along anyway when "Emotions" played, even if it was the wrong track.)
The source continued, "She didn't have the kind of time that she usually gets for her 'Mariah-ness,'' which might the most loaded anonymous statement of 2016.
Other anonymous reports indicate that the day was destined to be plagued by stress for Carey, a woman who is known to operate on her own time, an ethos that doesn't exactly fly when there's a countdown happening.
According to the New York Post, Carey's team was so unfamiliar with the Times Square New Year's festivities that they even asked the Dick Clark producers what time, exactly, the ball drops.
Production even booked her an apartment at a Times Square hotel for hair and makeup because of fears that she wouldn't make it from her apartment on time (which, yes, is also in Manhattan). "There's a team of top producers tasked to get her there on time and shepherd her to the stage," a source told the Post.
Little did anyone know that timeliness would end up being the least of the issues.
How much damage will this actually do to Carey's career?
It's not the first time a big holiday booking has called her talent into question, as anyone still haunted by that isolated track of her "All I Want For Christmas Is You" vocals at the 2014 Rockefeller Tree Lighting remembers.
She managed to recover with a series of spectacular—if nerve-wracking—live performances over the next several years, from her live show in Vegas to a career-spanning medley at an awards show to her hit Christmas residency each year at New York's Beacon Theatre.
The holiday season is always more generous to her, considering that her song basically soundtracks the entire thing, and she capitalized on that this year with a reality show and ensuing press tour that sends up and celebrates everything Mariah Carey stands for—glamour, opulence, divadom—with a wink, self-awareness, and sense of humor that's proven extremely ingratiating and great for her career and public opinion.
In other words, heading into Saturday night's performance, Carey was at a great place in her career.
The truth is that we hate when we get a look behind the showbiz curtain, and the "magic" of it all, if you want to call it that, is ruined for us.
These outdoor performances are routinely lip-synced, as we learned when there was an uproar following the reveal that Beyoncé mouthed along to her "Star-Spangled Banner" at President Obama's second inauguration. No one has doubted since that Beyoncé is a good singer, and, while we were told that these gigs are often performed to pre-recorded tracks, we still refuse to believe it.
Had there not been a technical snafu that set Carey off Saturday night, she might have lip-synced along expertly and we'd have been none the wiser. Or maybe we would suspect it but, because it was not glaringly obvious, we wouldn't have cared. We're odd that way. We'll excuse the practice when it's done properly, but when it's not we'll chuck our beloved pop stars into this so-called dumpster fire I keep hearing about, ready to dance in their ashes.
Maybe we're simply Mariah Carey apologists—which, no apologies for that—or maybe we're being Pollyanna, but might we begin 2017 with some compassion?
Imagine this: You’re a renowned singer who has already committed to performing on one of the most-watched televised events of the year, even though you haven’t had enough rehearsal to make you feel comfortable. Then, as soon as the cameras start rolling and the entire nation’s eyes are you on, everything goes wrong, and you’re there, spiraling with no safety net, live on stage.
What a nightmare that must have been.
Did Mariah Carey handle the situation with grace, or doggedness, or fabulousness? Perhaps, or perhaps not, depending on how entertained you were by her little one-liners or how much empathy you felt for her seething rage as the entire thing collapsed on itself.
But Mariah Carey, a train wreck? No. I don't know her.