The O2, London
The Nutcracker music plays. A lone ballerina bounces and pirouettes across the stage in front of a plush red curtain topped by a supersized Christmas garland with ‘MC’ emblazoned in its centre. The ballerina springs off the stage. The curtain drops. Mariah Carey is dressed as an angel.
For three years, Carey has hosted a hugely successful Coca-Cola-sponsored festive residency in New York entitled All I Want for Christmas is You, a Night of Joy and Festivity. This year, the show made it to Europe and our host – a woman so festive that someone made a supercut of times where she’s said the word festive – is happy it’s the season.
Given the critical response Mariah just received for her 15th studio LP, Caution, the old-timey, cabaret nature of this concert is somewhat at odds making it all the more hilarious. Caution has been hailed as a carefree return to form, welcoming collaborators like Dev Hynes into the fold and delivering an elegant, understated suite of contemporary R&B jams. But tonight is less Pitchfork and more panto. There’s a gospel choir, child actors exchange oversized gifts as the Charlie Brown Christmas music plays and Mariah’s IRL children come on stage at one point to tell London what they want for Christmas. They want iPads. Mariah asks the crowd if they’ve been good enough to get them. Everyone says yes.
But over the last decade or so, over-the-top superstar behaviour and showy theatrics have become a key part of the Mariah experience. When a minder sprints on stage to carefully remove her feathery angel wings, it feels like a vital part of the show. The same goes for her constant assertions of how “festive” she is and taking a moment to tell the crowd that Christmases at her house involve “live reindeer” – beautifully over-rehearsed and pointedly extravagant.
Thankfully, her famously elastic vocal range is fully on-point tonight. One superfan near us knows all the ad-libs by heart, perfectly mimicking the scales with his hands. Stans like this bring a nice energy to the show, Mariah’s “lambs” as she calls them are scattered across the venue basking in their hero’s love for Christmas. Mariah even points out a #JusticeForGlitter banner at the front, a nod to the recent fan-led campaign which got the soundtrack to her 2001 star vehicle to No.1 on iTunes 17 years after it dramatically flopped commercially.
And these loyal lambs get what they paid for when she briefly digs into her non-festive catalogue. The Distance from Caution sounds as silky as it does on record despite a heavier live arrangement, We Belong Together is positively irresistible and Hero soars. When she closes with All I Want For Christmas Is You, a track which just reached a new peak on the US Billboard Hot 100, the strange beauty of the evening is complete. She promises to come back soon to play a show of her own material. But a set of album cuts two weeks before the 25th? I don’t know her.