Screaming Mimi

April 14, 2008


If we're looking for one artist to blame as the model for the "American Idol" phenomenon -- where vocal bombast replaces affective singing and lowest-common-denominator popularity surpasses unique personality as the primary prerequisites for pop stardom -- we'd be hard-pressed to find a better candidate than Mariah Carey.

The career of the 38-year-old diva predates not only "American Idol" but the British show it was modeled on: "Pop Idol," now "The X Factor," which also features snide corporate talent scout Simon Cowell in a central role. But it often seems as if every contestant on all of these shows, male as well as female, dreams of becoming Mimi.

Case in point: Leona Lewis, the 23-year-old British singer who surfaced as the winner of "The X Factor" in 2006 and now is riding high with "Spirit," her long-awaited American debut, released on April 8. Hailed by Oprah, compared to Mariah and Whitney Houston and propelled by a mighty hype machine, Lewis just claimed the distinction of becoming the third British woman ever to claim a No. 1 single in the U.S., joining Petula Clark ("Downtown" in 1965) and Sheena Easton ("Morning Train [Nine To Five]" in 1981) with her own "Bleeding Love."

Mind you, Lewis still has a way to go to top Mariah, who recently scored her 18th chart-topper with "Touch My Body," the first single from "E=MC2," her 11th album, arriving in stores Tuesday. Carey made pop music history by dethroning the King -- Elvis Presley held the penultimate slot for the most No. 1's for 40 years -- and she may soon breeze by the Beatles, who for the moment are still the champions with 20.

No, you're not guilty of undue Baby Boomer bias if you ask what kind of a world we're living in where, at least numerically, Mariah may better the Beatles, and where Lewis' humble ditty ranks beside the classic "Downtown." Just remember that McDonald's passed the mark for 100 billion served a few years ago, and no one's ever said its burgers are gourmet treats, much less any good for you. Ubiquity and popularity ain't everything.

So what has Mariah given us this time around, following her comeback with the 5.8 million-selling "The Emancipation of Mimi" (2005), which itself followed a much-publicized breakdown and the colossal flops of "Glitter" and "Charmbracelet" (2002)? Well, "E=MC2" is exactly what you'd expect from this incredibly well-funded, corporately polished pop product, once again mixing slick modern R&B balladry with moderately energizing hip-hop groovers, heavy on the vocal gymnastics throughout.

There are rapper cameos, including Young Jeezy and T-Pain. There are more digs at her ex, record mogul and svengali Tommy Mottola. ("Said you were strong/Protecting me/Then I found out that you were weak/Keeping me there under your thumb," Mariah sings in "Side Effects.") And there are bizarre juxtapositions of samples: "I'll Be Lovin' U a Long Time" combines a hook from DeBarge with the theme song from TV's "Hill Street Blues."

There also is a lot of tea-kettle trilling, considerable bragging about her wonderfulness (from "For the Record": "Them other irregularities/They can't compete with M.C./The whole entire world can tell/That you love yourself some me") and even more boasting about what a hottie she still is (from "I'm That Chick": "I'm like the lottery/Hot Bentley with the keys/Take me for a ride"). Plus, of course, there's the tear-jerking tribute to her father, who died from cancer in 2002 ("Bye Bye").

It's done as well as this sort of thing ever can be, but we've nonetheless heard it all before, and for that reason alone, Lewis' "Spirit" is a little more enjoyable and a whole lot fresher -- and don't think she doesn't know it. When Oprah asked her how it feels to be compared to Carey (12 years her senior) and Whitney (21 years older), she chirped that it was "incredible" because "they've had such long, successful careers," emphasizing, as the New York Times noted, the word "long."

Methodically sculpted for stardom at the Sylvia Young Theatre School, the Italia Conti Academy and the Brit School even before she won the "X Factor" challenge, this young challenger to the throne certainly has the vocal chops to join Queen Carey, jumping octaves and whooh-ooh-whoohing over the swelling synthesized strings in familiar fashion throughout her disc's 13 tracks, as well as wholeheartedly imitating Mariah in dance-floor mode on the pulsating "Forgive Me."

All that training, however, hasn't given Lewis the confidence to veto tragic missteps like the presumably company-imposed cover songs. These range from the merely dismissible (her version of Paul McCartney's "Yesterday") to the downright disastrous ("The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face" invites a no-win comparison to Roberta Flack), though you have to smile at her romp through Avril Lavigne's "I Will Be." Talk about something for everyone!

Does any of this make "Spirit" great art? Heck no! But at the end of the day, as car-radio pop distractions go, I'll take Leona's "Bleeding Love" over Mariah's "Touch My Body" any day, and the rest of these divas' discs follow suit.