Why Veteran Artists Should Stick to Three New Songs Per Concert: Critic's Take

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Mariah Carey performs during the Caution World Tour at the Miller High Life Theatre on March 15, 2019 in Milwaukee, Wis.

First things first: I adore Mariah Carey. I used to ritually play her Greatest Hits in my silver Sony Discman every time I took a flight because her music provided ideal light-hearted yay-for-butterflies! escape during the bumps. That’s why I was thrilled to see her in concert at Radio City Music Hall in March.

Mimi was in top form that night, strutting across the stage like a big-haired boss in stilettos and rifling through her smashes. “Always Be My Baby.” “Fantasy.” “Dreamlover.” Her fans -- she still calls them “lambs” -- were all-in from the get-go, shouting along to every lyric. We were feeling it, damn it. Then, during her freewheeling between-song banter, she tossed off a sentence that sent me spiraling.   

“This is from my new album…..”

OK, sure, it was inevitable. She released Caution in November to solid reviews. She’d be a fool to not promote her latest labor of love, and Mariah Carey is no fool. The songs, however, are a quiet and intimate listen and don’t exactly befit an exuberant crowd that mostly came of age during her chart-topping 1990s peak. And the momentum shift was palpable. The public sing-a-long was paused. The butts were back in the plush velvet seats. I saw just enough people stream up the aisles to raise concern that they may not return. What a relief when she switched gears (and sequined evening gowns) to perform a soaring rendition of “Vision of Love.” We were back.

The set list detour took me so much out of the moment that I sat in that plush velvet seat and concluded that certain artists should adhere to a strict rule: Three new songs per concert, maximum. It’s the magic number, and don’t @ me because I’m right. Got an album that just dropped? Cool. No brand-spanking-new cuts but still really proud of your last new album from a few years ago? Excellent. Three songs. Done and Done. The power of three allows the artist to introduce just enough fresh material to educate and entertain the audience, without losing the same audience’s good will and risking them go rogue and loitering by the bar. Seems fair enough, no?   

I’m calling it the Three Play Rule. And now that I’ve instituted the Three Play Rule, let me be clear about the criteria. Obviously this doesn’t apply to every act about to hit the road this summer. There’s a rush of wide-eyed singers currently experiencing their first (or second) taste of heavy airplay on the Z100s of the world. These artists are popular because of the new stuff, not despite it. Go out there and have fun, Billie Eilish, Luke Combs and Post Malone.

Singers in the sweet spot of their careers, who can debut a new album at No. 1 without breaking a sweat, needn’t worry about the Three Play Rule either. In fact, Ariana Grande fans likely prefer that she roll through “7 Rings” and “Thank U Next” instead of her somewhat dated early pop confections when she plays Coachella. Taylor Swift, Halsey, Drake, Jonas Brothers and Imagine Dragons can venture into the deeper cuts as well.

Over on the other end of the spectrum, some veterans know not to stray far from the material that made them legends. Take Elton John, Bob Seger, KISS and Cher, all currently on their extended farewell tours. Seger put out an album as recently as 2017. John’s Wonderful Crazy Night was released in 2016. But they’re legends in part because of their live fan service. People are clamoring to hear “Night Moves” and “Your Song,” respectively, and these artists deliver the goods. These legacy singers aren’t just avoiding tracks from the last albums, they’re rarely venturing out of the 20th century.

But “borderline” artists such as Carey, Green Day, Pearl Jam and Eminem? The ones who aren’t generations removed from their prime but whose singles no longer rise on the charts with a bullet? Stick to the Three Play Rule. Please, I’m begging you. When Madonna drops her new album this year and proceeds to go out on tour, I will say a prayer to hear four tracks off Like a Prayer. Same for Like a Virgin, Ray of Light and Music. I don’t drink alcohol during concerts. I don’t need the new-song bathroom break.  

Look, I get it. I really do. At this point in their storied careers, these artists must be tired of regurgitating the same material on cue. They don’t want to be relegated to Oldies Act terrority, and I respect that. I can only imagine what goes through John Mellencamp’s head every time he dusts off “Jack & Diane” and waxes about suckin’ on chili dogs outside the Tastee Freeze. Bryan Adams is set to release a new album called Shine a Light in the next month. I’m sure he’s stoked to play its tracks in concert -- as opposed to “Summer of ’69,” an anthem released back in the summer of 1985 and written somewhere in between those two years. Boy-banders such as New Kids on the Block and Backstreet Boys on the wrong end of 40 must feel like trapped-in-ice Encino Men as they continue to wail about unrequited hormonal teen love. These classic songs don’t necessarily age because new generations glom on to them... but the artists do.    

The likes of Carey, Adams and Madonna could easily coast on their iconic hits for another decade. To their credit, many still enjoy letting their creative juices flow in the form of a new album. For that, we applaud their efforts. We’re just not inclined to applaud the songs in concert. Is it just a case of craving the familiar? Perhaps. Part of the beauty of music is that certain songs instantly transport us to a happier, simpler place in our lives. We want to get in that time machine and relive those feelings. A concert from a longtime favorite artist isn’t like a sporting event in the sense that we drop serious coin to see the unexpected unfold in front of our very eyes. Free-roaming jam band set lists aside, we usually sorta want to know the score before entering the venue. For performers, that means indulging us and cuing up the hits we know and crave.

Don’t sleep on the FOMO factor either. The live hits also provoke a certain communal spirit that can’t be replicated at home or via a herky-jerky iPhone video. You were there when Springsteen launched into “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out” and “Dancing in the Dark.” No feeling can quite compare to the euphoria of hearing the opening notes of a favorite smash in concert, whether it’s Slash jamming on his guitar to “Sweet Child O Mine” or Chris Martin twirling his fingers on the piano to “Clocks.” When you stop the flow with a new cut, you stop the fun. You’re asking the audience to open their minds even though they’d prefer to deliriously lose them instead. That’s a mighty big ask.  

Trust me, it is possible to dig through a back catalog with gusto. Consider Billy Joel, who hasn’t released a new album since 1993. Yet he manages to turn his concerts into special events because he mixes it up. He’ll pull out deep cuts, do covers, welcome special guest stars for impromptu duets. He’ll ask the audience, “Do you want to hear ‘Innocent Man’ or ‘Vienna?’” Sometimes he’ll do all the above in a span of an hour. When U2 eschewed the usual go-tos to play The Joshua Tree from front to back on tour in 2017 honor of its 30th anniversary, it was an inspired way to recognize the nostalgic without coming off forced or pathetic. I suspect few fans were disappointed they didn’t hear any cuts from Songs of Innocence.

As for Mariah Carey? I have a vision of love for her and her peers: Stick to the Three Play Rule from here on out. We already know the words. You just have to play along.


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