Mariah Magic and the Power of Divas

By Savannah Peykani

By now I’m sure you’ve heard of Mariah Carey’s fiasco of a performance on New Year’s Eve. Due to some mysterious technological issue, she claimed to not be able to hear her vocal track and gave up singing all-together, as the vocals played over the speaker and she strutted across the stage, exposing the plan for her to lip-sync.

Scandal arose as her manager blamed Dick Clark Productions for sabotage, for wanting to create an internet spectacle out of Carey’s blunder. Memes sprouted immediately, think-pieces were published on all platforms and Carey herself even tweeted a terse response. Overall, it exposed a level of unprofessionalism on her part and on Dick Clark Productions’ part.

Oh, who am I kidding? I love Mariah Carey and I loved every minute of her elegant, iconic gliding into the audience with the help of several barely-dressed beefcakes. Whether it was her own decision to stop singing, or some technical accident, or, if we are conspiratorially inclined, an act of network sabotage, the point is this is just another layer to Mariah’s diva status that will make her fans all the more impassioned and her haters all the more bitter.

The strong reactions on both sides, however, open up a more culturally conscious question of the diva as a figure. Why do they divide audiences so strongly? For every Lady Gaga or Beyonce zealot, there is one equally enthusiastic dissenter.

I’d argue that America’s day-one diva was Diana Ross. She displayed an elegant originality in performance, and an affinity for all things sparkly that now characterizes the diva. And she did so with class, grace and minimal scandal.

From Diana emerged the disco diva, Donna Summer. Along with Diana, she inspired a new desire to “do the most.” Originating in underground New York clubs, disco provided a space for minorities to find solace. Queer populations and communities of color filled these dance halls with their wild costumes and matching personalities. As documented in documentaries like “Paris is Burning” and “The Joy of Disco,” these minorities celebrated “most-ness;” since they knew white heteronormative culture wasn’t going to accept them, they might as well go over the top and love themselves in excess.

Disco led to 80s house and hip-hop most obviously, but it also influenced how pop music sounded as it infiltrated the mainstream. Michael Jackson, Whitney Houston, Madonna, Prince, to name a few, all borrowed from the rhythms and energy of disco. The diva transcended genre, and in some instances, race.
Mariah Carey released her self-titled debut album in 1990. Before the United States had a chance to ask themselves who the new divas of the decade would be, she gave listeners the answer. The album blew everyone away with her incredible vocal range, now often parodied.

Since her debut, Mariah has made a name for herself as one of the most over-the-top divas ever as exhibited in her reality shows, her television appearances and her music videos. If you search Mariah Carey on YouTube you will find clip after clip of her being magically ridiculous since the 90s. And now, she has mastered the diva paradox: doing the most by doing the least. On New Year’s Eve, she didn’t even sing. She didn’t dance. She just existed as herself, the truest diva of our time. And we can’t stop talking about it.
The diva sets the bar for what is considered too much in terms of self-expression (which means there is no such thing as too much). Divas can elevate culture, provide hope for the marginalized and predict the style for a generation. To deny the significance of the diva is to deny the significance of the highest culture-creator that exists.

If life is just a series of moments, then for the last 25 years, life has been a series of Mariah moments. Added up, we get an icon who defies expectation, denies embarrassment and will continue to dazzle audiences for decades. Her unbridled behavior inspires the marginalized, whose expression is still policed even in the twenty-first century. In 2017, we’re going to need more Mariah moments.