If you're in the mood for technicolor romance, she super-sizes the bathos on power-ballads like "I'll Be There" and "Hero."

In the liner notes of Mariah Carey's new compilation CD, #1's,

the singer explains that this collection of her 13 chart-topping singles

and four bonus songs is not a greatest-hits album because it

doesn't necessarily represent her best work. After listening to the

songs, it's a confession I'm apt to believe. There's nothing especially

special about any of these 17 tracks: they're all uniformly competent,

with lavishly generic, mid-tempo R & B melodies that Carey's multioctave

soprano glides over and under with polished, uninvolving technique.

Sure, incidental, formal differences color Carey's repertoire. If you're

in the mood for technicolor romance, she super-sizes the bathos on

power-ballads like "I'll Be There" and "Hero." If you've got a craving

for funkier, sexier fare, she offers pop-hop garnished with extra sides

of Ol' Dirty Bastard and Jermaine Dupri. Ultimately, however, Carey is

the Taco Bell of the music industry, using the same basic five or six

ingredients (isn't-it-iambic lyrics ready-made for high-school yearbook

quotes; limber, glossy vocalizations that underpin her more

straightforward singing; tinkly keyboard fills; etc.) to manufacture a

transparently variegated menu of skillfully homogenized, pleasantly

palatable product.

More than anything, then, #1's is a tribute to the arbitrary

judgement of Carey's fans and the marketing prowess of Sony Music. Carey

probably has recorded better songs than some of these -- and songs of

equal merit -- but these are the ones that, for whatever reasons,

reached the top of the charts, and so here they are, neatly packaged in

a slick, unit-churning "thank you" to her fans. Placed back to back to

back to back, Carey's string of hits constitute a somewhat alarming

document: while it's one thing to sort of subconsciously acknowledge

that the schmaltzy mall-chanteuse has been the best-selling female

artist of the '90s, with album and singles sales of over 85 million,

it's another thing to actually confront, in this concentrated format,

the hour or so of music that inspired that staggering number of

purchases. Is it really possible that Carey trails only Elvis (17 No. 1

singles) and the Beatles (20 No. 1 singles) as the greatest hit-maker of

all-time? And that she's already surpassed contemporary divas Madonna,

Whitney Houston and Janet Jackson, and will, given her relative youth

(she's only 28) and probable staying power (how can you fall out of

fashion when you've never exactly been fashionable?), eventually top the

King and the Fab Four as well?

Compared to the work of the company she's keeping, even Carey's best

work seems inconsequential. Is there anything about "One Sweet Day," her

silky, departed-lover requiem with Boyz II Men, that captures the tenor

of 1995 in the same way that Madonna's "Material Girl" signifies 1984 or

the Beatles' "Help!" signifies 1965? The bulk of Carey's work is

timeless, but not in the transcendent way that "Hound Dog" or "Love Me

Tender" or a Frank Sinatra song is timeless. Instead, Carey's songs are

infused with a generic, disposable kind of immortality; they're aural

Hallmark cards designed to serve as soundtracks for wedding receptions

of suburban couples who'll be divorced in three or four years ...

Oh, one more thing: the cover of #1's features a black-and-white

photo of Cariah wearing a slinky T-shirt masquerading as a mini-dress.

Carey juts her pelvis and chin forward in an attitude of sexy assertion,

as if to exclaim, "Sure, my songs may not have legs, but I sure do!" No

argument here about that.