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LIGHTER THAN AIR

BUTTERFLY Mariah Carey Sony Records

By Nicholas K. Davis, CRIMSON STAFF WRITER

So who is this Mariah Carey anyway? After seven years, seven albums and 12 number one singles, she has yet to carve out any specific identity or consistent persona. Her detractors say she is always the same insipid thrush. Her fans proclaim the virtues of "her voice" or "her songs," but rarely champion her. Even her critical reception has veered wildly between casual enthusiasm (1995's multi-Grammy-nominated Daydream) to outright damnation (1991's Emotions is consistently named her worst effort).

Now Mariah's (there's no way we're calling her "Carey") new album Butterfly alights on record stores everywhere this week. As usual, Butterfly has its share of both jazzy scores and snoozy bores, but the overwhelming effect of the album is to portray an artist and a woman who has no idea where she stands or who she is: musically, personally, you name it. Mariah, don't you want to be somebody? You've tried on so many different hats:

1. Mariah as Donna Summer. Mariah is always at her best when she seems to be having the most fun. Like the Grande Dame of Disco, Mariah pens her own stuff but makes no great claims as an artist. The girl just wants to put on her mini and shimmy.

Case in point is "Honey," the opening track, which not only boasts a buoyant rhythm track, but also shows a charming lack of ego. Mariah's voice slides so smoothly into Puff Daddy's drum machines that she almost erases herself inside her own song. But the song boogies, and so do we. Who loses?

The word "bubblegum" has stuck to Mariah for much of her career. In particular, the last few months of Lilith worship have opened up bounteous opportunities for ridiculing her brand of breezy pop. Sure, she will never touch a Joan Osborne or a Cassandra Wilson for innovation or craftsmanship, but she is just as capable in her element as Jewel or Sarah "I-will-remember-you-will-you-remember-me?" McLachlan are in theirs. Back off, you coffee-shop snobs.

2. Mariah as Sharon Stone. Where Mariah falls down so dispiritingly is in so consistently forgetting that Less can be More. Forget for a moment that an artist this established should not need a bare midriff to keep moving units (so to speak). Her one-album-a-year regimen keeps her fans happy, but might quality control not improve through a little more discipline?

Several songs on Butterfly are carbon copies of earlier work. Daydream's "Looking In" (in which she admitted "It seems as though I've always been/Somebody outside looking in") is almost congruent to the new album's "Outside," proclaiming fellowship with loners who "will always be somewhere on the outside."

3. Mariah as Melissa Etheridge. Worse, many songs on Butterfly offer minimal accent on the same lamentable themes of self-objectification ("I wanna be your babydoll"), self-abdication ("You can have me when you want me") and self-sacrifice ("I'd risk my life to feel/Your body next to mine"). Few women in music mention themselves so frequently only to marginalize themselves so cruelly. Indeed, Butterfly starts to sound whiny at best, and a lot like masochistic masturbation at its worst. Stand up for yourself, Mariah. And put some clothes on.

4. Mariah as Drew Barrymore. A surprisingly lovely track on Butterfly is "Close My Eyes," a hushed, low-register meditation on (believe it!) her own immaturity and poor self-image. Scary how remembering a messy childhood can force spareness, honesty, even eloquence on an unlikely source. She describes the "woman-child" she feels "falling inside," and the chorus acknowledges, "Still I feel like a child when I look at the moon/Maybe I grew up a little too soon."

5. Mariah as Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Just kidding.

6. Mariah as Erykah Badu. The other track that stands out on Butterfly-and not just because so much of the album is monotonous tripe-is a jazzy novelty called "The Roof," essentially a narrative description of a late night rendezvous above a city sky-line. Like Badu, D'Angelo and other artists in the rising Black Bohemian movement, Mariah shows a willingness to glide through her whole vocal range, layer her melodies and isolate a specific moment of romantic rapture. The idiosyncratic rhymes and loose rhythm track help make the song as unique and attention-getting as most of the other songs are plastic and disposable.

7. The Artist Formerly Known as Mariah. Possibly the worst track on Butterfly is a song called "The Beautiful Ones," written by Mr. Paisley Park himself. Mariah croons opposite the shockingly uncharismatic Dru Hill, but neither one of them can make much out of Prince's laziest lyric in years...and that's saying something. At least a quarter of the song's first two minutes are sung repetitions of the line "Baby,baby,baby." Zzzzzzzz.

In short, Butterfly strikes out in few interesting directions, and even the departures from the norm are not always successful. In fact, the whole project marks a big step down for a singer with nearly a decade's experience under her dainty golden charm belt.

Which brings us to the most obvious (mis)identity, Mariah as Butterfly. Presumably, the title of the album was meant to connote a metamorphosis, an emergence of maturity from a long period of gestation and development. Sorry, dame. No dice. Mariah Carey needs to follow some of her funkier instincts and drop the damsel-in-distress pose; no one wants another Celine Dion. In the meantime, Mariah needs to slow down, grow up, branch out and create some sturdier, more lasting work. This one ought to be called Mayfly.Photo courtesy of Sony Records

2. Mariah as Sharon Stone. Where Mariah falls down so dispiritingly is in so consistently forgetting that Less can be More. Forget for a moment that an artist this established should not need a bare midriff to keep moving units (so to speak). Her one-album-a-year regimen keeps her fans happy, but might quality control not improve through a little more discipline?

Several songs on Butterfly are carbon copies of earlier work. Daydream's "Looking In" (in which she admitted "It seems as though I've always been/Somebody outside looking in") is almost congruent to the new album's "Outside," proclaiming fellowship with loners who "will always be somewhere on the outside."

3. Mariah as Melissa Etheridge. Worse, many songs on Butterfly offer minimal accent on the same lamentable themes of self-objectification ("I wanna be your babydoll"), self-abdication ("You can have me when you want me") and self-sacrifice ("I'd risk my life to feel/Your body next to mine"). Few women in music mention themselves so frequently only to marginalize themselves so cruelly. Indeed, Butterfly starts to sound whiny at best, and a lot like masochistic masturbation at its worst. Stand up for yourself, Mariah. And put some clothes on.

4. Mariah as Drew Barrymore. A surprisingly lovely track on Butterfly is "Close My Eyes," a hushed, low-register meditation on (believe it!) her own immaturity and poor self-image. Scary how remembering a messy childhood can force spareness, honesty, even eloquence on an unlikely source. She describes the "woman-child" she feels "falling inside," and the chorus acknowledges, "Still I feel like a child when I look at the moon/Maybe I grew up a little too soon."

5. Mariah as Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Just kidding.

6. Mariah as Erykah Badu. The other track that stands out on Butterfly-and not just because so much of the album is monotonous tripe-is a jazzy novelty called "The Roof," essentially a narrative description of a late night rendezvous above a city sky-line. Like Badu, D'Angelo and other artists in the rising Black Bohemian movement, Mariah shows a willingness to glide through her whole vocal range, layer her melodies and isolate a specific moment of romantic rapture. The idiosyncratic rhymes and loose rhythm track help make the song as unique and attention-getting as most of the other songs are plastic and disposable.

7. The Artist Formerly Known as Mariah. Possibly the worst track on Butterfly is a song called "The Beautiful Ones," written by Mr. Paisley Park himself. Mariah croons opposite the shockingly uncharismatic Dru Hill, but neither one of them can make much out of Prince's laziest lyric in years...and that's saying something. At least a quarter of the song's first two minutes are sung repetitions of the line "Baby,baby,baby." Zzzzzzzz.

In short, Butterfly strikes out in few interesting directions, and even the departures from the norm are not always successful. In fact, the whole project marks a big step down for a singer with nearly a decade's experience under her dainty golden charm belt.

Which brings us to the most obvious (mis)identity, Mariah as Butterfly. Presumably, the title of the album was meant to connote a metamorphosis, an emergence of maturity from a long period of gestation and development. Sorry, dame. No dice. Mariah Carey needs to follow some of her funkier instincts and drop the damsel-in-distress pose; no one wants another Celine Dion. In the meantime, Mariah needs to slow down, grow up, branch out and create some sturdier, more lasting work. This one ought to be called Mayfly.Photo courtesy of Sony Records

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