Mariah Carey’s ‘Glitter’ at 20: How It Sparkled to Life After Nearly Two Decades

When Mariah Carey kicked off her Caution world tour in February 2019, the most rapturous response from The Lambily wasn’t reserved for any of the setlist’s Hot 100 chart-toppers. Or for the handful of tracks from her most acclaimed album in years. A No No, many Mimi fans saved their loudest cheers for a medley of deep cuts synonymous with a period that nearly destroyed their idol’s career.

Carey’s performance of “Never Too Far”/”Last Night a DJ Saved My Life”/”Loverboy”/”Didn’t Mean to Turn You On” was the acknowledgment many Lambs had been wanting ever since Glitter – both the film and accompanying soundtrack – had curtailed the star’s imperial phase in troubling fashion. In fact, it was a campaign driven by such fans that helped Carey to embrace her annus horribilis nearly two decades on.

You can’t blame Carey for wanting to put the events of 2001 firmly behind her. In the April of that year, she’d signed one of the record industry’s last blockbuster deals – a reported $100 million contract with Virgin intended to produce five albums. Within just nine months, the same label had severed all ties after just one.

The reason for such a dramatic turnabout is well-documented. That ice cream cart ‘gate-crashing’ of Total Request Live which saw host Carson Daly declare that his impromptu guest had “lost her mind.” A hospitalization, which Carey later explained resulted in her bipolar diagnosis. In a much less forgiving era, these mental health struggles were shamefully treated by the media with more derision than empathy. The singer would later argue that she was used as a punching bag to distract from the horrors of 9/11.

By the time Glitter finally made it into stores (on the darkest day in modern American history), Carey’s stock was at an all-time low. First-week sales of 116,000 and a No. 7 Billboard 200 peak (compared to the 323,000 first-week numbers and No. 2 debut Rainbow managed in 1999) was considered nothing short of a disaster. And although lead single “Loverboy” was only kept off the top spot by Destiny’s Child’s “Bootylicious” and became the year’s best-selling single, all three follow-ups failed to make the Hot 100, a once-inconceivable run for such a dominant chart force.

Of course, it didn’t help that the album was tied into the most notorious box office bomb since Showgirls. The movie, in which Carey takes center stage as a club dancer-turned-R&B diva named Billie Frank, saw its leading lady pick up a dreaded Razzie, clawed back less than a quarter of its $23 million budget and almost made love interest Max Beesley weep with shame on his first viewing.

Carey quickly distanced herself from the whole project, claiming just a year later that behind-the-scenes interference meant that a “concept with substance… ended up being geared to ten-year-olds.” During a 2013 appearance on Watch What Happens Live, she admitted to banning anyone in her camp from using the word “Glitter” lest it bring back painful memories. It’s one diva demand even her biggest detractors would accept is entirely understandable.

However, Carey’s attitude toward Glitters music has softened over the years. In 2005 she told Swiss newspaper SonntagsZeitung that the soundtrack’s wave of nostalgia was simply too ahead of its time, a point she also reiterated in her aforementioned interview with Andy Cohen. By 2016, she’d even reintroduced “Loverboy” into her setlists.

But it was in 2018, when a French fan named Kenny began sharing his chronological listening schedule on Twitter in the run-up to Caution’s launch, that the narrative surrounding the Glitter OST truly began to shift. Jumping on the bandwagon, the MariahTrends account then advised their fellow Lambs to buy the album (then unavailable to stream) digitally alongside the hashtag #JusticeforGlitter.

As many of the account’s 10,000 followers did just that, Glitter started to climb up the iTunes chart. After breaking into the top 10, Carey herself acknowledged the grassroots campaign. Within 24 hours of Mimi tweeting the hashtag, a 17-year-old album slated by AllMusic as “the pop equivalent of Chernobyl” had replaced Imagine Dragons’ brand-new LP Origins at the top spot. You had to go as far back as January 2002 for the last time it sold as many copies in one week. And it translated into Billboard success, too, re-entering the Soundtracks chart at No. 14 and taking pole position on the R&B/Hip-Hop Catalog Albums.

Proving once and for all that the G-word was now safe to utter in her presence, Carey tweeted her appreciation to all the fans who’d forked out $4.99 to give Glitter some belated justice. In a subsequent chat with Cohen, she thanked them again for having “lifted this huge burden of having to feel, like, ‘I can’t do stuff from Glitter ’cause nobody knows it, or whatever.'”

Carey subsequently delivered on her promise to incorporate a medley into her live shows. Yet that wasn’t the end of the matter for one of pop’s most organized fanbases. Having set up a Change.org petition to get the record onto streaming services, the Lambily were able to celebrate again in 2020 when Glitter finally hit the likes of Spotify; Carey even changed her Twitter handle to Billie Frank to mark the occasion.

No doubt several listening parties will be staged to honor the album’s 20th anniversary this month. So, does it hold up as something of a lost classic? Well, Carey’s assertion that Glitter’s retro sound was actually forward-thinking now rings truer than ever: Both The Weeknd and Dua Lipa have banked recent hits by embracing the sounds of the decade that came before they were born.

Then there’s the “Loverboy” sample of Candy’s “Cameo,” famously changed at the last minute after some rumored skullduggery from ex-husband Tommy Mottola involving Jennifer “I don’t know her” Lopez. Few artists have plundered the ’80s post-disco scene as effectively as Carey – just ask Beyoncé who interpolated the same track on her rendition of Maze’s “Before I Let Go” for 2019’s triumphant Homecoming.

Carey’s choice of old-school producers and references help to recapture the film’s 1983 setting, too. Jam and Lewis hark back to the Minneapolis sound they helped popularize on a playful cover of Cherelle’s “I Didn’t Mean to Turn You On,” while funk maestro Rick James lives up to his horndog reputation by giving Carey one of her most sexual bedroom jams, “All My Life.” And although Mystikal essentially just reprises his “Shake Ya Ass” shtick for his contribution, the Tom Browne-sampling “Don’t Stop (Funkin’ 4 Jamaica)” has that same joyous breezy quality as “Fantasy” and “Heartbreaker.”

Glitter was heavily criticized at the time for overloading its ten tracks with guest rappers. DJ Clue, Busta Rhymes and Fabolous essentially relegate Carey to supporting player on a perfunctory cover of Indeep’s club classic “Last Night A DJ Saved My Life,” while Nate Dogg and Ja Rule compete for attention on the anachronistic turn-of-the-century hip-pop of “If We.” Yet look at any given top 10 from the last decade and you could argue Carey was simply foreshadowing a time when every other hit has a featuring, vs or x credit.

If you prefer Carey in power balladeer mode, then Glitter doesn’t disappoint, either. Performed at Madison Square Garden during the movie’s climactic scene, “Never Too Far” is the kind of showboater she built her career on. And “Lead the Way,” which placed second on Billboard’s list of underappreciated Mariah tracks, boasts her longest sustained vocal run (21 notes and 18 seconds, to be exact).

Of course, the Glitter soundtrack will always be guilty by association. Unlike many box office turkeys, the film hasn’t been reappraised as a misunderstood gem, nor is it ever likely to be. But both Carey and her Lambs can now take pride from the fact they’ve at least given it a chance to sparkle.