Editor’s Note: Over the past few months, Bill and Jay became friends and developed a bad habit of finding live performances on YouTube, e-mailing them to each other, then wasting valuable time overanalyzing them for no real purpose whatsoever. Recently, they decided to drag others into their time-wasting vortex by forcing Grantland editor Lane Brown to regularly publish these e-mails on the Hollywood Prospectus.
Here’s Volume 1: Mariah Carey’s Greatest Moment.
Bill: Hey Jay, come back to 1992 with me — back when MTV ran Beavis and Butt-Head episodes and had homophobic roommates on the Real World. I know, I know, it kinda sounds like 2011. But trust me, it was totally different. One of their best shows was MTV Unplugged, which usually featured the likes of Squeeze, Eric Clapton and Pearl Jam stripping their music down with acoustic performances. (Semi-related: Pearl Jam submitted the best Unplugged of all time. You’re not topping this or this for an Unplugged show. Sorry. The “Nothing else matters from the early-’90s but Nirvana” fans can blow me.) Since they rarely dipped out of the rock world for these shows (LL Cool J’s surprisingly competent 1991 Unplugged a rare exception), I remember thinking Mariah Carey was a strange choice for the series. Back then, she was just the semi-cheesy New Yorker with great pipes who (a) allegedly got into the business because she started banging Tommy Mottola, and (b) wasn’t as good as Whitney Houston.
Jay: I’ve always found it counterintuitive that two of the great singing talents of the past twenty years (Mariah and Celine Dion) both started off their careers as “the girl who got a recording contract by sleeping with a much older record industry guy.” Is this just a coincidence? Is there something about ultra-talented young divas that draws them toward father figure types who can shield them against some of the nastier parts of fame?
Bill: This is awkward — that’s how I got my ESPN.com gig in 2001, by sleeping with John Walsh.
Jay: Here’s my theory: Old nasty record industry guys sleep with all their protégés. And with Celine and Mariah, both guys were smart enough to realize that they had something special and lasting that they could ride into a happy and lucrative future. When you watch Mariah’s greatest Unplugged moment — her cover of the Jackson Five’s “I’ll Be There” — it’s pretty clear why Tommy Mottola, who, by the way, also had a big hand in developing Celine’s career, ended up being the record industry guy who defined so much of the ’90s sound. Everything here is perfect: the intimate nightclub lighting, the crowded yet somehow understated stage, Mariah’s hair, her simple, black outfit, the old bald guy playing the piano, the eight backup singers and the fact that Mariah, the Queen of the High Notes, was gracious enough to yield the vocal acrobatics to Trey Lorenz.
Bill, we’ve discussed this video for going on two months now. Any thoughts on why we can’t stop talking about it?
Bill: Other than that we both need a life? I have a couple of theories. First, I was attracted to Mariah Carey for years and years and years … basically, right up until the point when she decided to marry Nick Cannon. I liked her when she was skinny, off-the-streets, dating-the-old-guy-to-get-ahead Mariah. I liked her when she dated Derek Jeter, if only because I was rooting for her to give him VD. I really liked her when she became buxom/meaty/batshit-crazy Mariah (peaking with the watershed Cribs episode). I liked how anytime you called Mariah “hot,” any self-respecting female within earshot would lose her shit (only Jennifer Love Hewitt elicited an angrier reaction); and also, if you ever said “I don’t think Mariah got implants, I think those are real,” any self-respecting female within earshot would basically start punching a wall.
Jay: Really? That must be a generational thing. Anyone born in the ’80s identifies the young Mariah Carey as the hottest pop star of their childhood.
Bill: And anyone born in the late-’60s or ’70s identifies the young Mariah Carey as the pop star who sent every female their age into a vengeful, jealous, she’s-not-that-hot frenzy. When I was attending college (1988-1992), the girls in our school vehemently despised two female celebrities: Mariah Carey and Tori Spelling. If you brought either of them up, they went berzerk. I’d say this was a generational thing — you grew up with girls who missed the Heavy Sweater/Fear of AIDS era and blossomed in the late-’90s during the “Oops I Did It Again”/It’s OK To Be Promiscuous era. They weren’t threatened by Mariah; they were inspired by her and acted accordingly. By the way, I hate you.
Jay: Karma eventually had its way with me, Bill. I went to Bowdoin, where the Heavy Sweater Era is an ongoing way of life. Middle school and high school were much better, thanks, in no small part, to Mariah — when the video for “Dreamlover” came out, we were all stunned by the possibilities of jean shorts, which had been in remission since the demise of The Dukes of Hazzard. I grew up mostly in the South, so I knew of jean shorts as what the kids on my junior high school baseball team would wear on game day to go with their black button-up shirts and their black ties. (By the way, black-on-black-on-jean-shorts? Not a look that’s held up with time.) Then Mariah set off a series of jean-short-related videos, culminating in “Fantasy”, and jean shorts were forever changed in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. By the eighth grade, all the popular girls were wearing jean shorts year-round, even in the dead of winter. In particular, I remember the girl I had a crush on coming to school every day during an ice storm in jean shorts and a gigantic Carolina Starter jacket.
Bill: I hate you twice as much as I did two paragraphs ago.
Jay: Which is to say, I know that women like Eve and Gaga and Gwen Stefani get credit for being “fashion icons” by the people who supposedly are the arbiters of these sorts of things, but I’d argue that Mariah had a bigger effect from a day-to-day standpoint on what girls were actually wearing. It was Mariah’s big hair in those early videos that led to the big-hair Jen Aniston era. By the time 1993 rolled around, half the girls in my middle school were wearing black tanks, jean shorts, big socks and were buying timeshares in the local windtunnel to blow-dry their hair. I also think that Mariah single-handedly supercharged the Gap’s growth in the ’90s, because she made basic, stretchy, comfortable tops into a fashion statement. Look back at almost all the videos from that era — Mariah is always wearing something simple, tightly fitting and usually black. That’s what the Gap sells.
Bill: I genuinely, passionately, irrevocably hate you. The girls from my generation were inspired by Julia Roberts’ heavy sweaters in Mystic Pizza. Let’s stop talking about this before I start sobbing.
Another thing with Mariah: She was always in Whitney’s shadow. For those first few years, no matter what she did and no matter how great her voice sounded, she just wasn’t going to be as good as Whitney. Looking back, there’s no question that Mariah had a better career … but as it was happening, you never felt you were watching the most successful female singer of the past 50 years. Which she is. That’s why that Unplugged clip is so important. Whitney wasn’t as sexy as Mariah. Madonna and Beyoncé couldn’t sing like Mariah. Celine and Barbra … please. I think Young Mariah was the only one who could have pulled this specific five-minute moment off. And also, I love the fact that she gave Trey Lorenz the best parts of the song. To borrow a wrestling term, she put him over. You’re the world’s preeminent diva expert — name me another female star who would have sold Trey Lorenz as well as Mariah did.
Jay: There’s no one. I love Whitney Houston probably more than any man in the Western hemisphere, but she was always more of a songbird — in medieval times, she would have lived in a castle and sung for the king’s dinner. Mariah was more the perfect pop star. But I agree — when it comes to flat-out diva-ness, where part of your skill is blasting anyone else who dares to get up on your stage, Whitney is the clear winner. Let’s watch the video below.
I agree with everything whfan007, the creator of this video, has written so graciously across the screen. Whitney just blows off Mariah’s ass here. When your vocal signature is something of a gimmick (going way up in register and hitting six to 15 high notes), you’re leaving yourself open to someone just stomping on those same notes, belting them out in a normal register and screaming, “THIS IS NOT A GAME, MARIAH!” Which is exactly what Whitney did here.
Bill: That was fantastic. My favorite “THIS IS NOT A GAME, MARIAH!” moment remains Springsteen emerging from semi-seclusion to hijack Jakob Dylan’s best song AND demolish him at the 1997 MTV Video Awards …
… if only because I don’t think Dylan’s career was ever quite the same (scroll down to the bottom of this mailbag for details), and also, because Bruce spent the last minute of the song spitting 16 pounds of saliva all over him. But this Mariah/Whitney clip is definitely a close second. On the other hand, couldn’t you argue that Whitney won the battle but lost the war? It’s like arguing Dave Stewart and Dwight Gooden vs. Roger Clemens — Stewart totally owned Clemens, and Gooden’s ceiling was much higher than Clemens’ ceiling, but looking back, anyone would rather have had Clemens’ career, right? That’s Mariah Carey. She’s the Roger Clemens of pop stars. Right down to the rumors of her being “enhanced.”
Jay: She’s also had three or four twilights of her career and has managed to stay relevant. By the way, here’s the greatest moment of Diva upstaging done by the greatest Diva upstager of all times …
Aretha would have backhanded Trey Lorenz and sent him back to his day job — doing stunts for Urkel. And Whitney would have just sung over Trey and then made him a backup dancer for Bobby Brown. Only gracious Mariah, who shared the stage at the Unplugged show with like 46 people, would smile, introduce Trey Lorenz and then get completely out of the way.
Bill: Totally agree. Whitney would have became totally threatened, stopped the taping, fired Lorenz on the spot, replaced him with someone much shittier, made Trey leave his leather jacket behind, then burned it and sprinkled the jacket ashes on her cocaine that night. (Thinking.) You’re right, that was too mean. But she definitely NEVER would have put Lorenz over like that. Whitney was like Hulk Hogan — one of the all-time greats, but someone incapable of putting anyone over. You should add that to your Diva rankings, by the way: putoverability. If you rank high in that category, your Diva ranking should suffer. Mariah’s putoverability was 100 out of 100. She just wants to please. I think that’s why Jeter stayed with her so long.
Jay: I actually think that’s part of the magic of this particular video — everyone involved seems to genuinely like one another and everyone seems to be having fun. It’s a great, great song they’re singing and rather than trying to force their own “spin” on it, they just let Mariah sing it in kind of a nice, laid-back, nightclubby way. This, by the way, would never happen again. There would be some awful dance beat in the background, the song would be radically sped up and at some point, Drake would stumble up onstage and drop some awful verse. Then the “I’ll Be There Remix” would lead iTunes for a week.
Bill: Ladies and gentleman, the music industry in 2011!
Jay: But wasn’t that why the early Unplugged shows were so enjoyable? There was an intimacy there that VH1 endlessly tried to replicate. Never quite worked. Any theories on why? Or other great moments of this particular Mariah Carey video?
Bill: I blame the Internet. It’s more important for musical artists to connect virally than it is for them to connect with a crowd — they put too much thought into it and it always ends up being too contrived. They’re too afraid to make a great moment and let it speak for itself. Think about how this probably played out: Mariah liked that “I’ll Be There” song, she probably sang it in her dressing room or on her tour bus one day, Trey overhead and started singing the chorus parts with her, and everyone was like, “Fuck it, you guys should just do that on the Unplugged show, it will be cool.” If this same scenario happened in 2011, they’d tell Mariah, “You can’t have Trey Lorenz, he’s a nobody — you should get Bruno Mars to sing those parts, he’s a bigger name.”
That it happened so organically was the best thing about this clip — both when it happened and right now. I remember watching it in 1992 and thinking, “Who the hell is Trey Lorenz? Where did he come from? This kid is about to be a huge star!” We didn’t have Google or Twitter, so you couldn’t research him right then and there and watch 15 other clips of him or anything like that. He was that mystery dude with the killer voice from Mariah’s Unplugged show; for all I knew, he was a skinny, possibly straight Luther Vandross. He released an album a year later and I bought it on sight. It’s worth mentioning that this particular moment worked because it was 1992 — it just couldn’t happen now, for all the reasons we discussed — but had it happened from 2008 to 2011, Trey Lorenz would have immediately caused a riot on the Internet. He would have been the black Susan Boyle. He would have gotten a GIANT record deal within like 48 hours, been added to The Voice as a judge, been given a PR-arranged relationship with Jessie J … the world would have been his oyster.
Instead, Trey’s album came out a year after Mariah’s Unplugged. And bombed. Within a few years, he was a backup singer again. He’s either the Buster Douglas, Keith Smart or Francisco Cabrera of R&B, right?
Jay: I hope Trey Lorenz one day can do a concert with R. Kelly so that the announcer can scream, “Welcome to the stage, the Pied Piper of R&B! And put your hands together cause we have a special guest tonight … The Keith Smart of R&B!” Sadly, there’s no way R. would ever let that happen — his putoverability rating is a 2 out of 100. He couldn’t even share the stage with Jay-Z without freaking out, getting into a helicopter, and flying to a McDonald’s to work the Drive-Thru window.
As for Trey Lorenz’s career path, I think it was also derailed by where R&B was at in 1992, especially on the guys’ side. This past Friday, I went to a concert called “Urban Legends,” which featured K-Ci and JoJo, Ginuwine and Blackstreet. About halfway through, something became painfully clear — the songs from that era just weren’t all that good. Lorenz, like Fantasia Barrino, got funneled into the sound-of-the-times. It wasn’t a good fit — some singers just need to sing old songs and unless you stumble upon a hit like Norah Jones did, there’s just not much marketability there.
Luckily, we have YouTube, which allows us to pretend like Trey Lorenz’s career ended after this performance and that Mariah’s Butterfly era never happened.
Bill: And unluckily, we have YouTube, which won’t let us forget Mariah and Trey running back that same watershed performance 17 years later at Michael Jackson’s memorial service.
The best part is when Michael’s ghost cut off Trey’s microphone right as he was about to start singing. Even Michael couldn’t believe this was happening. I’m convinced. You know what? I’m going glass-half-full on this one, Jay — it was such a painful reunion that it made me appreciate the lightning-in-a-bottleness of that 1992 performance even more.
Bill Simmons is Grantland’s Editor in Chief, the host of the BS Report podcast, the author of the New York Times no. 1 best-seller The Book of Basketball and the co-creator of ESPN’s Peabody-award winning “30 For 30″ series. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook
Jay Caspian Kang is an editor at Grantland. His debut novel, The Dead Do Not Improve, will be published by Hogarth/Random House in Summer 2012. Follow him on Twitter at @jaycaspiankang.