In 2001, ten days after the 9/11 attacks, Glitter premiered in theaters. In the film, Mariah Carey stars as Billie Frank, a gifted vocalist and club dancer who makes it big in early 1980s New York City, after she is discovered singing background vocals for a plastic diva. Billie and her manager, the downtown DJ who plucked her out of the club, a tortured artist and impresario named Dice (Max Beesley), gamble big on her talent. Predictably, they also fall in love. Owing to its thin plot, misplaced mood, production delays, and what Carey has characterized as extensive rewrites and meddling from producers and other bigwigs, including her ex-husband Tommy Mottola, who was then a powerful music executive, Glitter is considered one of the worst movies of all time. Indeed, it fails to capitalize on a tried-and-true Hollywood romantic formula. It’s A Star Is Born, dimmed, demoted, sent straight to video; Mahogany unvarnished; The Bodyguard’s badly coordinated body double; Sparkle sputtered, snuffed out.
To paraphrase a line from an old Dave Chappelle skit, what can you say about Glitter that hasn’t already been said about Cinderella’s glass slipper? It is a shiny piece whose condition of being lost in the shuffle and in the unfurling of mythos—in this case, the tragedies of the 9/11 attacks, and the national storytelling associated with it—is its central symbolic feature. What can you say about the movie that hasn’t already been observed about confetti splooged out of canons and trampled in Times Square? It’s a fucking mess that sometimes looks great. The camerawork zips, fast-forwards, zags, whiplashes from one dead-end plot point to the next, one enervating set piece to another. Its speed is just kinetic emptiness, like the ragged, nonstop motion of an activity induced by uppers. To employ one last, ridiculously belated description of its character, Glitter is an upturned sugar stick, its sparkly sediment shimmering in the sun, still sticky on your hands hours—in this case years—later.
Somehow, American pop culture is still stuck on Glitter. A few years ago, the soundtrack went to number one on the iTunes charts—apparently there was a fan-driven #JusticeForGlitter social media campaign that generated renewed interest in the project. The greatest irony of the movie is that it had all the makings of a fantastic pop song: it featured a phenomenal singer, and its narrative was the stuff of the great American songbook—yearning, ambition, and unrelenting love. But the soundtrack is sumptuous, and it was surprisingly successful, despite the pervading critical opinion that the album’s many rap features prevented it from achieving verisimilitude to ’80s dance music, and despite bearing the ignominious distinction of having been released on September 11. “Didn’t Mean to Turn You On” and “Don’t Stop” are both compressions of sonic “ecstasy,” a term that appears throughout the album. “Loverboy,” the best-selling single of 2001, which went to number two on the Billboard Hot 100, is a candy ring melting in the desert, plastic and syrup coagulating in shifting sand. Its lyrics and campy music video unintentionally jibe with the public perception of Carey’s nervous breakdown, one that involved her ill-fated promo appearance on TRL, in which she stripped to her skivvies and delivered ice cream to the audience. (“The problem is, if you don’t have ice cream in your life, sometimes you might just go a little bit crazy,” Carey told a stiff and unaccommodating Carson Daly, who, doing his worst David Letterman impression, replied, “That’s a metaphor for a lot more, I’m sure.”) In one line from “Loverboy,” Carey sings: “And when my sugar daddy / takes me for a ride / whatever way we go it’s / delirium time.” That last phrase, “delirium time,” captures the rapturous quality of being in love, and of being overwhelmed. It sums up a dizzying period that encapsulates Carey’s public mental health struggle, much of which was spurred by exhaustion and the media’s relentless bullying.
The emotional dichotomy of Glitter and its soundtrack parallels the binary that one might find in the gender stratifications of romance films like these, where the women are so often plucky, expressive prodigies, and the men are ruminative, somewhat inarticulate geniuses. In this way, the film and its soundtrack might be similarly sorted. A great film is supposed to be somewhat diffuse, an accretion of subtle scenes culminating in a “Big Artistic Expression,” a patriarchal mode of production. Meanwhile, a soundtrack is a film’s emotional concentrate: all its pathos distilled in three-minute increments. If, as an object, a film is a brooding male lead, a soundtrack is a manic-pixie-dream girl, to use another trope from romantic films. The modern soundtrack holds both the score and the heartrending drama. In the space of the soundtrack, all time is delirium time.
The Glitter project has some interesting elements apart from its music. At one point, Dice says that he noticed Billie “ghosting” for Sylk (Padma Lakshmi), the star who lip-syncs her vocals. It’s a surprising idea, ghost-singing for someone else, the demo artist as the musical first-draft writer, whose ego and credit die in the process of applying those things to others. Later in the film, Billie and Dice attend the “USA Music Awards,” which must be a dupe for the American Music Awards; the idea of a fictional spectacle ghosting for another is intriguing, in the same way Toronto often stands in for New York City (parts of Glitter were shot in Toronto). There’s also the big idea of the film, snuck into a throwaway scene: a stereotypical European music video director bellows, “The glitter can’t overpower the artist,” before walking over to Billie, who is posing uncomfortably in front of the camera, drowning in confetti. The Glitter period underlines that thought, as it applies to Carey’s career, at least. In the years since, Carey has been serious about putting both herself and her art forward. In her autobiography, Carey writes that “songs are like monologues,” and she’s incorporated more filmmaking ideas in her music.
Like the Glitter soundtrack, Carey’s 2009 song “It’s a Wrap” resurfaced earlier this year, going viral on TikTok. “If I ever misrepresented my self-image, then I’m sorry,” she croons, and you wonder if these lyrics about image-making are connected to her formative experience in movies. Later, she trills, “Boy, I’m checking the gate,” making cinema jargon—the saying for assessing a camera for impurities or blockages—sound like a domestic duty, like taking out the trash or reviewing Ring footage. By the time she instructs her troubled lover to “watch the credits roll” in the final seconds, “It’s a Wrap” has been recast as something far more fascinating than a mere breakup tune; instead, it’s something like a DVD commentary in song, which explores the notion of a romantic relationship as a cinematic encounter. One of Carey’s great skills as a songwriter is squeezing whole scenes into the tiniest of apertures, distilling the magnitude of experience into multisyllabic words like acquiescent and elevator and denominator. Carey, the comeback queen, consistently rescues herself from obscurity, making the celebrity acquaintance with exposure more legible. The Glitter debacle was the portent of the way women pop stars would be treated in the mainstream media, a specter of what was to come for Whitney Houston and Britney Spears. Do Carey’s cinematic metaphors demonstrate a latent directorial drive? What if they merely underline the fact of an auteur all along?