On Wednesday night, NBC’s unfortunately-timed tree-lighting special took place in Rockefeller Center and included an appearance by repeat guest Mariah Carey, who performed her perky and much-loved holiday hit, “All I Want for Christmas Is You.” By all accounts, the performance was woeful: recordings of the event show Carey struggling to hit her famed high notes and fudging her way through the classic chorus, at points even looking as though she was forcing back tears. Mariah has since apologized for her performance on Twitter, telling fans that she would never want to disappoint them, but that the situation was beyond her control. She had reportedly come fresh from a lawyers’ meeting regarding her divorce from Nick Cannon, and had been planning on performing over a pre-taped version of the track until NBC insisted she perform live.
Last night’s situation was beyond my control. I apologize to all that showed up, you know that I would never want to disappoint you.
— Mariah Carey #MC20 (@MariahCarey) December 3, 2014
Perhaps, given these no-doubt stressful circumstances, we could cut Carey some collective slack: the veteran star is almost always pitch-perfect, she’s in the midst of public divorce proceedings, and she expressed genuine remorse for her disappointing show. Media reports, however, have been dramatically scathing: the LA Times called her performance “shudder-inducing” and warned that it would “have you feeling emotions more awkward than you ever dreamed of“; the Daily News dubbed it “disastrous“; and for Mashable it was “worse than discovering the truth about Santa,” “horrifying” and “akin to watching someone light each of your Christmas presents and gingerbread houses on fire.” Social media and national newspapers alike are treating her performance as though it was a personal betrayal and responding with such hyperbole it’s worth a harder look as to why.
Carey’s performance was indisputably off-point. But it’s caused such disproportionate vitriol that one can’t help but feel as though there’s more at issue than this isolated incident; something about Carey herself — or perhaps the type of performer she is — that makes us criticize her relentlessly. Had Mariah Carey performed over a pre-taped version, as planned, it’s doubtful that she’d have received less criticism: lip-syncing pop stars are hardly pardoned for miming their tracks, a move that’s considered deceitful and indicative of a lack of talent. There’s a familiar pattern following pop stars’ performances: Selena Gomez has been picked apart from all quarters for lip-syncing, including from Kid Rock and Ed Sheeran, who made snide jabs about her level of talent, and lately Taylor Swift‘s live performances have been shredded, sparking a referendum on whether she can sing at all. Even Beyoncé’s (Beyoncé’s!) abilities were called into question after she performed the Star-Spangled Banner over a pre-recorded track at President Obama’s second inauguration, attracting such widespread outrage and pearl-clutching that the incident was dubbed “Beyoncé-gate” and her talent widely doubted and derided.
When you pay attention to the coverage of these incidents, it can seem like a can’t-win scenario for our female stars: we expect them to perform flawlessly, and will ridicule them if they don’t; but if they utilize technology to ensure a seamless performance then we drag them through the mud for that as well. Male performers such as R. Kelly, Eminem, Kanye West, Freddie Mercury and even Pavarotti have been known to lip-sync, and of course they have disappointing performances from time to time too, but it never seems to impact their reputations or cause the same outrage as it does for their female pop counterparts, who attract media debate for days after a botched or synced performance. That may be a more pressing problem than an off-key version of 1994′s most jubilant Christmas hit.