For a large portin of the rock audience, the only thing Mariah Carey and Jennifer Lopez share is their ability to elicit ridicule. In Carey’s case, the mood to mock was kindled as soon as her homonymous debut flittered up the charts, in 1990. All the same, over the years she turned out a string of blockbusters that made her the biggest-selling female artist in history, and the only artist, female or otherwise, to top the pop charts each year throughout the 1990s. But by the decade’s end, those who never could stand Carey’s five-octave pyrotechnics were joined by former fans who now detected deterioration in her art and/or moral fiber. One sympathetic young critic, Nicholas Raymond, put her Rainbow (Columbia) at the top of his 1999 "Worst Of" list in a Cleveland alternative weekly paper, the Free Times, noting, "I must admit a twinge of pity, having watched her blossom from a demure, talented young diva into a singing blow-up doll." Rainbow still sold a hefty three million copies, but Raymond’s disdain signaled the beginning of a free fall that has yet to abate.
On that same 1999 list, Raymond placed another three million seller two spots below Rainbow: Jennifer Lopez’s debut album, On the 6 (Epic). By any standard except maybe Carey’s, a triple platinum debut is a solid hit. But whereas the young Carey once reaped some artistic praise along with her commercial profit, Lopez only got flack from the critics. Audiophiles were appalled by her weak voice, and populist writers never rallied behind her musical nakedness, simplicity, and other such earthy qualities usually worshipped by rock critics. On top of the æsthetic irritation, Lopez’s vocal shortcomings underscored the undue executive privilege wielded by this medium-hopping movie star, a whiff of decadence made all the more pungent by her extravagant public life. Even an august source like the Times of London opined that "all the headlines have taken their toll. . . . She began life as a dancer, found her feet as a soulful, subtle actress . . . and seems to have traded it all in so that she can play at being a dinky little chanteuse and high-street brand name. . . . At 32, Lopez is in danger of looking as bizarre as Mariah Carey in her teenage miniskirt."
Which brings us back to what Carey and Lopez, who have recently released new studio albums, might share that makes them such natural targets of scornful writers from the tiny Cleveland Free Times to the mighty London Times. Although they were born just a couple months and a few dozen miles apart in greater Metropolitan New York, these two women are in most respects artistic opposites, with Carey’s superhuman skills and Lopez’s too-human shortcomings only the most obvious aspect of their polar differences. Yet they’ve played the same role: the bronze beauty who sets out to translate R&B for the masses. Despite the coming tectonic shift in America’s demographic make-up, the "masses" still means white suburbia. And as everyone from Vanilla Ice to Michael Jackson can attest, no pop act is more fraught with peril than the crossover move.
Whether Carey and Lopez know it or not, white suburbia also plays a passive role in the successes and failures of the singers’ diametrically opposed new albums. In fact, the tremendous difference between this pair’s æsthetic approaches (and their abilities to realize those approaches) reflects a major difference between American pop audiences in the early ’90s and the early ’00s. Taking the futile minority view, I’d suggest pronouncing those double zeros as the "aughts," because that’s exactly what this decade has wrought across the mass socio-political spectrum. In politics and pop alike, it’s been a decade of reaction and denial (like Carey and Lopez, those are really two sides of the same coin). And Carey and Lopez have either paid the price for this reaction and denial or benefitted from it largely according to their ability to conform.
As the daughter of an Irish-American opera singer and a half-African-American/half-Venezuelan engineer, Carey has never fit into America’s binary racial categories. And from the beginning she has used her heterogeneous heritage as a license to take the ongoing racial story of American pop one step beyond. As every schoolchild should learn, American pop has always moved white audiences by translating the yearning blues of black music, a yearning born at least in part from a concomitant history of racial exclusion. This is hardly a secret, but no one talks much about how that history has played out over the past couple decades as R&B — and by extension hip-hop — has moved toward becoming the new mass-market pop.
To some extent, that movement has succeeded by whitewashing the music, investing it with either clunky but hyperventilated zip or a lumbering wash of exalted emotion. Whitney Houston got there first, but her direct descendant, Mariah Carey, took it all the way home, not by completing the whitewash but simply by infantilizing her material. In her big pop bonbons of the early ’90s she substituted will for strife and drama for pain, rendering them safe for a Disneyfied America in which every individual believes he or she can make it by just trying hard enough. Her progeny sprung from, of course, Orlando, as white teen-popsters took her lesson to heart and forged their own distinctive subgenre.
In the world outside the teen-pop enclave, however, race kept pushing back. In the ’90s, this was felt in the crack epidemic, the explosion of gangsta rap, the O.J. trial, you name it. In time, Mariah got caught between true teen pop and the increasingly graphic world of R&B/hip-hop. The result was albums like Rainbow, a disc whose most egregious musical miscalculation is its attempt to lean a little harder in the R&B direction than her earlier work.
But Rainbow’s real shortcoming was the same one that plagues the new Charmbracelet (Monarc/Island) — the celebrated thrush has lost her ability to command a tune, and the emphasis on adult material only exacerbates her shortcomings. Rainbow partly masked that point by kicking off with "Heartbreaker," a playful Jay-Z duet that became Carey’s last #1 single. Charmbracelet leads with the self-explanatory glop of "Through the Rain," a ballad that performed so badly in advance tests, it wasn’t even released to broadcasters. The song was no more maudlin than any of her early smashes were, but the more "mature" setting makes it clear how shot her voice now sounds.
This obvious point is rarely noted in reviews, but it explains a lot. Carey has always had an oddly breathy midrange, but in the past her biggest hits pushed past that tone with an intensity that sounded effortless. More and more often, however, she has used a strained whisper when attempting to sing at a normal volume and range, a tone that regularly cracks open mid syllable and never settles into the melody’s groove. If her histrionics of days past were trite, her new attempts at personable warmth, as on the soft-focus come-on "Yours" and the sad sing-song ballad "My Saving Grace," are almost physically off-putting. It’s a shortfall that Carey and her various co-producers seem to recognize with their fussy overdubbing of background choruses and wailing counterpoint. The tunes on Charmbracelet may be as good as any Carey has recorded — certainly they’re as sophisticated — but this superhyped album is already dropping in the Billboard charts.
Meanwhile, Jennifer Lopez is holding steady in the lower reaches of the Top 10 with This Is Me . . . Then (Epic), an unassuming album that’s daring only insofar as it aims for nothing higher than what it’s already achieved. Unlike Charmbracelet, Lopez’s fourth album was released with no press fanfare and a modest if surefire single, "Jenny from the Block," a number that’s meant to reassure, not reconvince. Like Carey, Lopez plays off her very public personal life by dedicating the whole project to actor Ben Affleck, who will soon become Mr. Lopez #3. Awash in old soul grooves and simple, self-written tunes, the disc is meant to bear testimony to Affleck’s influence in refocusing Lopez’s attention on down-to-earth, honest pleasures, a sentiment that’s no more convincing than the vocal filters that help keep Jenny from the Block’s vocals on track.
Even so, the album is a small coup in that it diverts attention from the biggest story — Lopez’s complete abandonment of Latin rhythms. She’s a full-fledged New Yorican with a heritage every bit as heterogeneous as Carey’s, and she took her first pop shot during one of the Latin-music bubbles that regularly rise to the surface of our shifting cultural landscape. Yet unlike Ricky Martin or Marc Anthony, she was quick to abandon Latin music’s middling pop flavors for traditional R&B, so that she’d find safe harbor when that bubble inevitably burst. The result was her second album, J. Lo (Epic), a gutsy makeover that has proven her most enduring disc thanks in part to the way it backed the straight R&B with vivacious salsa to keep its second half afloat.
This Is Me . . . Then is something of a setback by comparison, with many of its most tuneful cuts just "interpolations" of old soul standards. "The One" reworks the Stylistics’ 1972 hit "You Are Everything" with no more subtlety than is usually expressed by J. Lo’s old flame, Puff Diddy. Still, it’s a little subtler than your average brazen mash-up, and almost as groovy, just like the rest of this pleasant interlude, an intermezzo before the next makeover that’s surely to come. In a time of such massive cultural retrenchment, at least we can bob along our heads in our respective black and white bunkers.