Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Why I'm on Team Mariah Carey (Sorry, Nicki Minaj!)

Yesterday, when I heard that Usher and Shakira will be replacing Christina Aguilera and Cee Lo Green as judges for the fourth cycle of The Voice, which will air next year, my first thought was this: Now that's how you pick two new judges for a singing competition!

They're both hot (physically and professionally -- along with Adam Levine and Blake Shelton, they will make up the comeliest quartet in prime time), experienced, and most importantly, talented. In fact, although The Voice has yet to produce a single singing star (other than a resurgent Maroon 5), I find myself thoroughly enjoying it -- the first season is currently airing on the Sony Channel in Bangkok -- more so than I have American Idol in years. I think a large part of it is watching four credible judges guide their teams with constructive criticism. It doesn't hurt that there also seems to be genuine affection mixed with a friendly competitive spirit among the judges.

But everybody loves a diva throwdown, and I might be underestimating the appeal of good old-fashioned on-set rancor, which is what is apparently percolating between new Idol judges Mariah Carey and Nicki Minaj during the 12th-season auditions. It's ironic that the two don't get along since the first time ever I saw Minaj's face was a few years ago when she ruined a rap remix of Carey's "Up Out My Face," the best song on her last CD, 2009's Memoirs of an Imperfect Angel.

The single flopped, and plans for the Memoirs remix album Angels Advocate were scrapped. Maybe Carey blamed the whole thing on Minaj, who has since gone on to considerable solo stardom. If the stuff I've been reading is true, the new judge line-up might make next season the best season of Idol since Paula Abdul was still around. The image of Carey talking over Minaj's critiques is almost as priceless as this one: Reportedly, when Carey got the call that Minaj had been hired, she promptly hung up the phone. Click!

I'm going to have to side with Carey on this one, and not because Minaj recently came out as a Mitt Romney supporter. It's just so hard for me to get into her. Yes, she's intermittently entertaining, but she's more cartoon than artist, the epitome of the stardom-obsessed generation that will do anything to be rich and famous. She has a way with words, and she can spit them out at a rapid clip, but I just don't understand how that qualifies her to crush young people's dreams. It's not like Auto-Tune didn't do all the work for her on her recent hits "Turn Me On" and "Starships."

Meanwhile, I'm looking forward to what Carey has to say. I interviewed her a decade ago for Us Weekly, and I was pleasantly surprised by how funny and insightful she was. She embraced her celebrity, but she also knew how ridiculous it was. When I asked her about the sideways glances, the hyper-sexy posturing and the referring to her fans as her "lambs," she called it as she saw it: pure schtick. In a sense, she taught Nicki Minaj everything she knows about creating a Barbie-doll pop persona, but at least Carey owns hers without being swallowed up whole by it.

Minaj, in comparison, is 100% pure artifice. I can't recall a single moment in her career when she's taken off her mask and given us a glimpse of Onika Tanya Miraj (her real name). She's so Lady Gaga that way, hiding behind a pile of pop pomp. Also like Gaga, she more middle of the road than her costumery might suggest. Minaj would have us think she was just slumming with Madonna and David Guetta (at least M.I.A. had the good sense to look bored in the "Give Me All Your Luvin'" video), that she's first and foremost a bad-ass bitch, a friend of Drake and Eminem (Carey's sworn enemy). She's going to have to come up with something a lot more hardcore than "Starships" then.

Maybe Minaj will surprise me on Idol, and she'll finally come across as an actual person, not just a black doll with a potty mouth, but it's going to take a lot more than silly wigs, outlandish facial expressions, and strange vocal tics to hold my attention for more than the 3:19 it took for me to fall for "Super Bass." It's Minaj's crowning achievement thus far, one of the top songs of the summer of 2011, but "We Belong Together" still blows it away. Come January, I suspect Carey will do the same to Minaj.
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