CHICAGO — Lest anyone had forgotten Mariah Carey had a physical and emotional collapse two years ago, the 33-year-old Long Islander was all ready to remind us that even divas have breaking points.
On Tuesday night at the United Center, two giant video screens projected photos of Carey as a wide-eyed schoolgirl, a diva prodigy and, later, a spent superstar. While Carey sang the gospel-tinged ballad “My Saving Grace” — one of five songs she performed from 2002′s Charmbracelet during the night — tabloid headlines touting “Mariah’s Breakdown” flashed before our eyes before eventually giving way to images of a beaming Carey. Onstage, her expression was much the same. After a career cul de sac — the breakdown and the disastrous releases of her film Glitter and the titular album — Carey had something to smile about.
With both her duet with Busta Rhymes, “I Know What You Want,” and her cover of Def Leppard’s “Bringin’ on the Heartbreak” burning up the charts, Carey is experiencing a renaissance of sorts. Still, even Carey is feeling the effects of a soggy summer touring market. After booking a tour of 15,000-seat arenas across the U.S., Carey’s reps said she would instead play smaller venues to guarantee more “intimate” performances.
In Chicago, one of the few cities that didn’t demand a venue change, the only thing that made the performance intimate was the low turnout. The entire upper tier was curtained off, nearly half the loge empty and scalpers were selling $75 tickets for the first 10 rows for well under face value.
None of this seemed to bother Carey. Knifing her way through outstretched arms and flanked by bodyguards, Carey entered the stage from the back of the venue while singing the bubbly “Heartbreaker,” from 1999′s Rainbow. Wearing a sexy pink and silver sequined cocktail dress — her first of eight outfits of the evening — Carey’s mocha-rich voice resonated above the shrieks of a predominantly female audience. The screams got louder when Carey punctuated a note with goose-pimply shrill, as she did on “Dream Lover” and “Bringin’ on the Heartbreak.”
For the fairly ornate stage show, Carey employs a heterogeneous ensemble to handle spine-defying dance moves, which becomes frequent fodder during Carey’s myriad set-interrupting attire alterations. She herself gets into the groove with an unsuitable-for-children-under-17 writhe during “I Know What You Want.”
For a while, Carey matched every costume change with a set change, as her art-deco set segued into “The Marionette Show” circus atmosphere. Both a play on her name and The Eminem Show — the performer of which was Carey’s purported paramour — this was Carey’s chance for payback. After Eminem dissed her on his track “Superman” (“What you tryin’ to be my new wife?/ What you, Mariah?”) and later in an issue of Rolling Stone (“I just don’t like her as a person.”), Carey recorded the Eminem-inspired “Clown” for Charmbracelet, although she has always been coy when asked if the song was about Mr. Mathers. There was no denying Slim Shady was the clown here for our amusement Tuesday night, though.
While Carey sat with legs crossed and sang, “You should’ve never intimated we were lovers/ When you know very well we never even touched each other,” two masked men wearing pin-striped suits and standing on stilts pulled a female dancer/human puppet sporting a shaggy blonde wig and Detroit Pistons jersey (get it?) to and fro with an array of large ribbons. When the song ended, a giant screen flashed “The Marionette Show” (with the same Eminem Show-style reversed lettering) again. Carey grinned and said, “It’s all in fun. We’re just having a good time with the show up here.”
Wisely, Carey neglected to play anything from her nadir, 2001′s Glitter, throughout the hour-and-45-minute set. Instead, she loaded up on the hits (“I’ll Be There,” “Fantasy,” “Make It Happen,” “Vision of Love” and “Hero”), and ingratiated herself to the Windy City, calling Chicago “the best audience I’ve had to date.” True, this was only the second show of her North American tour, but she did recently return from a tour of Japan. But here she’s sure everyone’s still speaking her language.
For more sights and stories from concerts around the country, check out MTV News Tour Reports.