The music world has no shortage of great live rock albums, but great live pop albums are few and far between. Reliant on dancing and backing tracks, pop shows usually don’t carry well outside the performance space. It took a carefully constructed live session on MTV Unplugged – a series actually set up for acoustic rock shows – to produce what I think is a perfect live pop album.
Since the release of her self titled début album in 1990, and her sophomore release Emotions in 1991, Mariah Carey was under fire for her lack of live performances. She’d done TV shows, but never toured. Critics began to suggest that ‘the voice’ was a studio creation – reliant on mixing and auto tune to create the gravity defying notes. So, to quash the rumours, her management booked her an MTV Unplugged session. With just 7 songs and clocking in at a mere 28 minutes in length, it’s officially an EP and it’s largely been forgotten about, but it’s quite possibly her finest work.
Aside from the fact that the dress code was clearly ‘anything black’ (leather and sequins both feature heavily), the musical outfit is wonderful. Backed by ten gospel singers and a tight pop-blues band (including legendary Randy Jackson on bass), she kicks off in style with one of her best tracks, ‘Emotions’. It starts like a vocal warm up, but it’s not long before the famous whistle register is out in full force. This is a rare vocal ability, often unheard of outside of opera. It’s a hugely impressive gift, and Mariah handles it with great technical care. It has since become her trademark, but here she only uses it a handful of times, and to rapturous applause. A strong saxophone section makes for a special performance of ‘If It’s Over’, written by Carey and one of her heroes, Carole King. ‘Someday’ and ‘Make It Happen’ are both up-tempo soulful numbers with some great solos from the band. The use of the backing singers in an intimate environment give everything a gospel edge, like it’s some sort of pop Baptist church. You’ll have to resist the temptation to point your finger and shout ‘testify!’during ‘Make It Happen’. Her début single, ‘Vision Of Love’, is a well-received highlight, largely because this was a song specially crafted to show off her voice and all its tricks. It’s a pop masterpiece, with clever chord movements, a simple but catchy chorus, and a great call and response section, which Carey sang with herself in the original (you’ll have to settle for backing singer Trey Lorenz here). Her rendition of the Jackson 5′s ‘I’ll Be There’ is the album’s shining moment. A last minute addition to the set, it has become one of her signature songs, even performed by her at Michael Jackson’s memorial service.
Mariah once said that as a perfectionist, ‘I tend to nitpick everything I do’ and that MTV Unplugged taught her ‘the raw stuff is usually better.’ This format may be raw, but you’ll be hard pushed to find a single vocal imperfection. More than just a master class in female pop vocals, this record is a blueprint for the careers of women like Christina Aguilera and Jessie J. Yes, warbling may be frowned upon now as over done, but here Mariah is bringing it to the table for the first time in her own unique way, and gets it just right.
In 1996, Mariah divorced her restrictive husband and Sony boss, Tommy Mottola, (the emancipation of Mimi, if you will). At that point, Mariah the Diva was born. But before that, she was a girl who seemed young for her age, unsure of herself and her talents, modest, and wholly concerned with giving a great musical performance. The display of this long lost personality is one of the things that makes this record even more striking. She’s slightly embarrassed and giggly when accepting applause and agreeing to an encore – and when thanking the audience for coming she sounds genuinely grateful and humble. It’s a different Mariah, and for many people it’s one they’d much prefer: incredible vocals, with none of the outlandish behaviour. This is a pure Mariah Carey, not just unplugged in the musical sense, but stripped down to the basics that made her a star, and secured her voice as one of the greatest of all time. Sadly, time has taken its toll on her iconic voice, but here, in a charming show filmed in a small New York theatre in 1992, her unique talent was captured perfectly in all its glory. Take a half hour and give it the listen it deserves.
This piece originally appeared in So So Gay magazine.