SoundTreks | Glitter
And so we come to Glitter.
There is a lot to unpack with Glitter. Released on, of all days, September 11th, 2001, Mariah Carey’s epic vanity film-and-soundtrack project has come to be known in the ensuing years as one of the biggest pop music/movie disasters of all time. Film critics openly lambasted the film, and it became one of the most openly mocked and derided films of the decade.
Meanwhile, the soundtrack album – which can also serve as one of Carey’s proper studio albums – was met with warm critical acceptance, but was, at the time anyway, Carey’s least successful record. It didn’t help that Carey, at the time of the record’s release, was infamously suffering a rather public nervous breakdown; she was eventually hospitalized for “exhaustion.”
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Carey is a slippery pop personality. She’s difficult to pin down. Not because she’s chimerical or constantly redefining herself (like, say, Madonna), but because she’s inscrutable. She has a lovely smile, a huge amount of talent (she reportedly has one of the greatest vocal ranges of any known singer, second maybe to Yma Sumac), but I can’t get a handle on her actual character as a singer, or as a person; it’s hard to picture what it would be like to hang out and have a beer with Mariah Carey.
But SoundTreks will try to dissect her, using the sharpest tool she has provided for us: The soundtrack record to Glitter. Carey was given complete creative control of this one, so we’ll get a good portrait of her. We’ll also be forced to ask: Is this really one of the worst things ever?
Track 1. “Loverboy (Remix)” – Mariah Carey, feat. Da Brat, Ludacris, and Shawnna & Twenty II
Glitter takes place largely in 1983, so Carey’s ultimate intent was to create a record that was evocative of the era. A more expected approach would be to find the dance hits from that specific year, as well as some healthily obscure deep cuts, and then assemble them into a clever order. Such a project could have ostensibly made for an awesome record, and I fully intend to do that someday (“Oblivious” by Aztec Camera is making its way on there, and the Fun Boy Three rendition of “Our Lips Are Sealed”).
Carey, however, wanted to construct her 1983-sounding album/movie with entirely original material. “Loverboy” (the first of two different mixes on this album) is a party track wherein Carey is essentially relegated to background singing while a gaggle of guest artists take turns rapping some very non-1983 lyrics. The driving bass is evocative of 1983, but this is most certainly a 2001 track.
Track 2. “Lead the Way” – Mariah Carey
This is what I know Mariah Carey for. She’s not so much a dance chanteuse as a balladeer. She needs to belt gigantic torch songs, or whisper love lullabies. Her sound tends to be bland at times – as I mentioned above, Carey’s personality is difficult to pin down – but at least she knows when to unleash her powerful vocals. “Lead the Way” is breathy and intense. It’s the defining sound of 2000s adult contemporary. This is, admittedly, not my genre, but of the samples I have managed to absorb, Carey seems to be one of the more masterful singers.
Judging by a track like “Lead the Way,” Carey aims not to express her own lovelorn impulses, but to provide a voice for others. Is Carey a romantic martyr?
Track 3. “If We” – Mariah Carey, feat. Nate Dogg and Ja Rule
It’s fitting that Carey should be featured in the background of so many of these tracks, as the film Glitter is about how a background singer eventually becomes a headliner. A lot of critics at the time lambasted this record for featuring too little Mariah and too many guest artists. I think this approach, while perhaps making for a disappointing pop record for fans of the featured artist, still makes for a perfectly decent soundtrack album. Soundtracks, after all, gain more traction from variety.
That said, this track kinda sucks. Ja Rule is, in my eye, a sad also-ran in the hip-hop world, and I’ve never taken to him in any sort of notable way.
Track 4. “Didn’t Mean to Turn You On” – Mariah Carey
This track was originally recorded by an artist named Cherrelle in 1983 (so the year is at least appropriate) and was eventually made famous by Robert Palmer in 1986. This track is more reminiscent of the Palmer version, so it may be considered an anachronism. But only if you’re the type to split hairs. Which, of course, we all are.
This question arises: Why didn’t Carey make a record entirely of 1983 dance covers? Using modern mixing techniques, and her own versatile voice, she could have knocked some of them out of the park. Like she did with this one and the next one. This track is energetic, musically complex, and fun. I imagine a record of Carey singing 12 or 13 covers would have been a huge hit, despite the swirl of mental illness and national disasters.
Track 5. “Don’t Stop (Funkin’ for Jamaica)” – Mariah Carey, feat. Mystikal
“Don’t Stop” is named after, and heavily samples, “Funkin’ for Jamaica (NY)” by Tom Browne, and Mystikal – a pretty awesome dude – belts out some James Brown-evocative vocals. This may be my favorite or second favorite track on the record.
Carey herself is so often in the background, I wonder if Glitter was her ploy to move from the forefront of her records to a more production-heavy vocation. She may not have much of a personality in her music, but she certainly knows how to construct a pulsing and enjoyable track. She also has a clear and abiding love for the dance pop of the early ’80s (she was born in 1969 or 1970 – sources differ), so this was the central sound of her childhood/early teen years. If one squints, and applies some more business savvy, Carey could have been the next… Big Music Producer Lady.
Track 6. “All My Life” – Mariah Carey
I’d be interested to know how much time Carey spent listening to disco records as a teen. She clearly has an interest. Here’s an irony with this record: When Carey takes over as the lead vocalist, no matter how funky the intro or discoey the sound, Carey’s vocals often crush the track into bland background music. Many tracks on this record fade into something that can punctuate a conversation you’re having in a club. This may have been the intent, I think, but that doesn’t make for exciting listening. It makes for passive listening.
Maybe I’m odd, but I like to listen to music more actively.
Track 7. “Reflections (Care Enough)” – Mariah Carey
Sing it! Sing that boring ballad! Sing that clearly-played-during-the-low-moment-montage-in-the-movie song! This is perhaps the most earnest track on the record, and also the most insufferable. To be fair, as I said before, I’ve always had an aversion to adult contemporary of any era, so this one may not be for me.
Track 8. “Last Night a DJ Saved My Life” – Mariah Carey, feat. Busta Rhymes, Fabolous, and DJ Clue
This is a cover/reworking of a 1982 track by a group called Indeep. The bassline is awesome, but the vocals are kind of obnoxious. I actually found Carey’s backing vocals, and gentle choral crooning to be the spine of this track. She’s essentially the adult in the song making sure her hyperactive little boys are to calm down. I think the song would actually be better without the shrill screaming in the foreground. Is Carey trying to be the guiding pop force in a turbulent marketplace? How odd that I should start to think of the infamously unstable Carey as a stabilizing force in pop.
Track 9. “Want You” – Mariah Carey, feat. Eric Benét
It is a song. Like “All My Life,” “Want You” serves more as background music than something that can change your life. Ironic that Carey’s biggest talents are so often used for such dull means. At least on this record. Eric Benét, who appeared in the movie, doesn’t add much. His vocals are just as adult contemporary as Carey’s.
Track 10. “Never Too Far” – Mariah Carey
This is the film’s barn burner, and that may be something of a pity. Carey’s voice can knock over buses with its powerhouse clarity, and this was the soundtrack’s (and the movie’s) opportunity to show that off. And while Carey does whip out her pipes for all the world to see, “Never Too Far” is just not an interesting enough song to note even in the slightest.
What Glitter needed more than anything else (besides a much, much better screenplay) was a hit ballad for the ages. An “I Will Always Love You” or “Unchained Melody.” A thousand-watt broadcast of aching melodrama. “Never Too Far” occupies that space, but in comparison, it’s kinda lame. I think if “Never Too Far” were replaced with that unique musical fusillade, Glitter would perhaps not have the reputation it does. It would be remembered, at best, as “that Mariah Carey film that’s not that great, but at least gave us one great song.”
Track 11. “Twister” – Mariah Carey
“Twister” is a very short lullaby that is essentially all breathy vocals. I have nothing hard or soft to say about it, other than it is oddly located on the album. This should have preceded “Never Too Far.” But if I’m whinging about track order, then I’m just digging for criticism.
Track 12. “Loverboy” – Mariah Carey, feat. Cameo
There was some controversy surrounding this mix of “Loverboy.” Evidently, the original background sample was supposed to be from a 1978 pop song called “Firecracker” by the obscure Yellow Magic Orchestra. While Carey was working on the song, however, it surfaced that Jennifer Lopez was across town using the exact same sample on a track for her upcoming record J. Lo. Carey slammed Lopez in the press for stealing her idea, but, as it turns out, Lopez licensed the music first. Carey was required to drop the original sample, and replace it with a sample of “Candy” by Cameo (the “Word Up” guys).
This may have been frustrating for Carey, but the track doesn’t seem to suffer for the replacement. Indeed, if the idea was to evoke 1983, Cameo is a savvier choice than whoever Yellow Magic Orchestra are. Also, we get to listen to Cameo, which is never a bad thing.
Of the two “Loverboys,” I like this one better.
Which is Better? The Soundtrack or the Movie?
Although it may merely be repeating conventional pop consensus, the fact remains that Glitter sucks. It’s an awkward film with stilted drama, dull characters, no interesting story, and bad acting, especially from Carey herself. She does well when she sings, but her lack of pop persona is an overwhelming hindrance if you’re going to point a camera at her. Some pop stars can’t act, but have the benefit of their charisma to power them through any movies they may appear in (e.g. Joan Jett in Light of Day). Carey doesn’t have that. She’s not a warm, open, sympathetic presence. She is remote and, to use the word again, inscrutable.
The soundtrack record is, at the end of the day, also not that great. Too much of the album is occupied by nondescript background dance music to stand apart as something great or even really good. There are some good tracks along the way, but they aren’t so strong that they elevate the album. It’s a pretty average pop record from the early 2000s.
That said, the album displays a lot more of Carey’s difficult-to-see personality than the movie ever does. With the movie, I see a singer out of her element. On the record, I at least hear some modest ambitions and something of a theme. Ultimately, the movie is the most embarrassing footnote in the star’s career. Had Glitter been released as a regular album, however, it wouldn’t be hated. It wouldn’t be loved either, but it would be considered more strongly.
And sometimes we owe that to a record.