Madge vs. Mimi

Back in the mid-’90s, Madonna suggested to an interviewer that if she had to sing easy-listening ballads like Mariah Carey, she’d probably put a gun to her head.

The statement, while basically just a bit of off-the-cuff, competitive snarkiness, reveals much about the two most successful female pop singers of all time.

For one thing, it’s a rare example of Madonna even acknowledging Carey’s existence. For another, it points to Madonna’s fundamental — and instinctively correct — disdain for empty technical brilliance.

By now, the stories of mutual antipathy between these two divas are legendary. Early in her career, Carey implied that Madonna was both old and passé, when she declared, “I really haven’t paid attention to Madonna since like seventh or eighth grade, when she used to be popular.”

In 2005, word filtered out of the Live 8 festival that Madonna told her assistants to keep Carey out of her sight. The following year, Carey reportedly fumed when Madonna snagged the show-opening slot at the Grammy Awards.

Whether it’s pure coincidence or not, they’re now butting heads with closely coordinated new releases: Carey’s E=MC2 and Madonna’s Hard Candy. In both cases, the new albums are followups to crucial, career-saving comebacks, and are greeted with high expectations.

The new albums come at a time when their respective legacies are clearer than ever: Mariah changed the way pop stars sing, while Madonna changed the way they look, behave, manipulate their images, and conceptualize their careers. To get more specific, if not for Mariah, Christina Aguilera wouldn’t have tossed out all those extravagant, show-offy melismas on “Dirrty,” but if not for Madonna, she would have never romped her way through the song’s sewer-system-orgy video.

Notwithstanding her 27-octave bono vox, what’s most fascinating about Carey’s career is how utterly devoid of fascination it’s been. She’s the Rafael Palmiero of music, someone whose biggest achievements are all statistical. With her latest hit, the feathery light “Touch My Body,” she recorded her 18th number-one single, topping Elvis Presley’s record for solo artists, and putting her within striking range of The Beatles’ all-time record of 20. And I double-dog dare you to hum a verse from any one of those 18 songs. The early ballads blur together in a gauzy haze of tinkly pianos, Spanish guitars, and Mariah’s dog-whistle high notes. Beginning with 1997’s coyly smutty “Honey,” the rest of the hits blur together in a parade of mid-tempo electronic beats and seductive whispers.

Carey often boasts that she, unlike most of her competition, actually writes (or at least co-writes) her own material, but that’s a bit like bragging that you’re the creative mastermind behind Gigli. Even in an industry where you often find that stupidity + production polish = platinum, no one so utterly devoid of songwriting talent has ever put so many of their compositions on the radio.

Madonna sees Carey as a simple-minded prima donna with bad taste and nothing to say. Carey sees Madonna as an arrogant prima donna who’s used smoke and mirrors to compensate for her lack of vocal chops. In fairness, they both have a point.

Over the years, Madonna has been called many things: A savvy businesswoman, a crafty hitmaker, a style chameleon, and an intriguing icon, if we stick to the compliments. But no one has ever called her a musical genius.

There are many reasons for this, some having to do with chauvinism. Even after 25 years to get used to the idea, many critics don’t believe that musical brilliance can come in such an overtly sexual female package.

But there’s another, simpler reason for this attitude: Madonna is not a musical genius. It’s true that she’s co-written many of her better songs, and some of them (“Into the Groove,” “Like a Prayer,” “Cherish,” “Ray of Light,” and “Beautiful Stranger”) rank among the finest pop creations of the MTV era. She’s a co-writer, however, in the sense that Mike Love is the co-writer of “Good Vibrations” and countless other Beach Boys hits. Like Love, she needed someone else to come up with the initial inspiration for the song and shape the music so she could put a lyric on top of it. Finishing off someone else’s idea is not an insignificant skill, but it’s not the essence of true songwriting, either. That’s why people consider Brian Wilson a genius and Mike Love a calculating putz.

By relying on outside material (“Borderline,” “Holiday,” “Like a Virgin,” “Material Girl”) early in her career, Madonna put herself on the commercial map in a way that enabled her to hire the hottest production and co-writing talent around. She bought her music rather than composing it, and in doing so, she set the template for proteges such as Britney Spears, Jessica Simpson, Rihanna, and even longtime rival Janet Jackson. It’s to her credit, however, that even as she’s jumped from Nile Rodgers to Patrick Leonard to Lenny Kravitz to Babyface to Nellee Hooper to William Orbit, she’s always managed to sound like no one but Madonna. In that sense, she’s very much like David Bowie, the pop star she’s most often compared to.

That changed in 2005 with Confessions on a Dance Floor, widely hailed as a return to Madge’s disco roots, but notable primarily for the way its relentlessly thumping beats and vocoderized vocals scrubbed off any hint that it was a Madonna album. Truthfully, if you switched the names and cover images on Confessions and Britney Spears’ Blackout, not even their family members would know the difference.

You get the feeling that Madonna, burned by the public’s rejection of her ultra-sincere singer-songwriter move, 2003’s American Life, has now decided to cling to the dance floor like a life raft. Her latest single, the Timbaland/Justin Timberlake production “4 Minutes,” has the erotic cyborg vibe of Timberlake’s “SexyBack” and reduces Madonna to a cameo guest on her own record. The album’s other signature track, “Candy Shop” (featuring Pharrell Williams) finds her, in a fashion we’ve come to expect from Carey, offering her body up as a Willy Wonka-esque source of confectionary delights.

That’s why Madonna elicits such contradictory responses from even longtime fans these days. On the one hand, you look at Hard Candy’s cover, which depicts her as a wrestling dominatrix, and think, “Maybe now that she’s pushing 50 she should find a more dignified shtick.” On the other hand, you think, “Wow, she’s looking really good.”

Carey’s E=MC2 feels similarly fine-tuned for the airwaves, and the 463,000 copies it moved in its first week indicate that the plan worked. Where she once irritated with her excessive vocal flights, Carey now sounds thoroughly anonymous. The heavily processed “Migrate” sets the tone with dance-club come-ons to all the thugs who’d like to take her home, as long as they’ve got Lamborghinis in the parking lot. She also proves she’s still not over the Tommy Mottola years, with the self-pitying “Side Effects” describing her time “sleeping with the enemy.”

The one real winner of the bunch is “I’m That Chick,” a bouncy dance track that sounds so much like something from Michael Jackson’s Off the Wall that she actually starts singing the bridge to “Off the Wall.”

Like Madonna, Carey is grimly defending her turf, aware that she’s in danger of being supplanted by singers not yet in kindergarten when she first belted “Vision of Love.” Madge and Mimi have long been hit machines, but who knew they would end up sounding so machine-like?

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