And sometimes, you flex. Mariah Carey’s fans, known collectively as the Lambily, recently sent “Glitter” to the top of the iTunes chart, the result of a viral #JusticeForGlitter campaign.
Carey, making the press rounds to promote her new album, “Caution,” seemed underwhelmed by the soundtrack’s “Pet Sematary”-like reemergence.
After all, “Glitter” — released on Sept. 11, 2001, and a companion piece to a famously panned film that also starred Carey — was supposed to kick off her second act. Before “Glitter” tanked, Carey was a glamorous, elastic-voiced star who introduced hip-hop features to pop music, sold tens of millions of albums and could do little wrong.
After “Glitter,” she struggled. Her albums followed the same formula they always had, mixing whispery bedroom tracks, catchy up-tempo hip-hop-meets-pop songs featuring guest turns from increasingly less dangerous rappers, and ballads that showcased her increasingly unreliable upper register. Sometimes (like 2005’s “The Emancipation of Mimi”), it was as if the disaster that was “Glitter” never happened. Other times (like 2014’s “Me. I Am Mariah . . . the Elusive Chanteuse”) only the Lambily stayed loyal.
In the 17 years post-“Glitter,” despite marrying, birthing twins and divorcing, Carey has publicly remained almost exactly, comfortingly the same. She is still a tottering presence in Lycra and platform heels. She still resists things normies have resigned themselves to, like fluorescent lighting (Mariah brings her own lighting team with her), and sitting upright. She still has the personal life of a plucky Lifetime TV movie heroine. She is right where you left her.
“Caution” is on track to be Carey’s biggest hit in years. It’s not an undeniable work of art (it’s pretty good, though), but it comes at just the right time: Everyone loves Mariah Carey in November, and Ariana Grande’s “Fantasy”-era cosplay only makes us appreciate Carey more. We’ve returned to her for the same reason people watch reruns of “The West Wing”: because we miss the people we imagined we were and the harmless things we used to like. We miss worrying about the Clinton impeachment, or the cast of “Friends,” or whether O.D.B. would straighten himself out eventually.
“Caution” acknowledges, and only slightly panders to, this hunger for ’90s nostalgia. It avoids things Carey may no longer be able to do (skyward-stretching, melismatic ballads), or want to do (bangers) but otherwise retraces recognizable patterns. There are collaborations with 18-months-behind-the-curve hitmakers (Hi, Skrillex), who revisit the ’90s with Mariah because she is not going to 2016 with them. The Skrillex track, “The Distance,” is an R&B ballad with an electro-pop coating and a Ty Dolla $ign feature that sounds new but old. The Blood Orange/Slick Rick collaboration “Giving Me Life” is like-minded, but clumsier, one of several songs that uses meme-speak to sound current but will sound dated in three months. The record opening “GTFO” (which means what you think it means) is Beyoncé’s “Irreplaceable” reimagined for 1 Percenters. Instead of leaving her boyfriend’s things at the curb, Carey offers to call his valet. This song may not be about her ex-fiancé, Australian billionaire James Packer, but she doesn’t mind if you think it is.
Packer may also be the snake in the grass in “A No No” (“Off with your head/Now slither out the door”), which wraps a standard “thank you, next” midtempo kiss-off in a sample of Lil Kim’s “Crush on You” remix, with a bonus appearance from the Notorious B.I.G.
Of course, “A No No” might also be about Stella Bulochnikov, Carey’s allegedly overbearing former manager, under whose influence she participated in a disturbingly off-brand reality show and who later sued Carey for sexual harassment. Bulochnikov is almost certainly immortalized in “Portrait,” the album’s closing piano ballad. “Portrait” has everything; arch wordplay, childhood nostalgia, pointed insults, tremulous bravery (“Somewhat desensitized/Still the same hopeful child/. . . Pushing past the parasites/Down but not demoralized”), and that’s just in one verse. For her Lambily, it’s a late-period Mimi highlight reel. For more casual fans, who begin to remember Carey’s existence when she pops up on their post-Thanksgiving holiday playlists, it’s a necessary reminder of what they’ve missed.