Who Is the Greatest Diva of the Last 25 Years? We Offer Scientific Proof!
by Jay Caspian Kang
By way of eulogy to the dying animal that is the Diva, my crack team of consultants, statisticians and graphic designers have assembled DIVA-OFF 2010, a highly scientific (we used computers!) evaluation of the greatest divas of the past twenty-five years. A list of divas was evaluated on eleven levels of diva-ness, and, because each diva characteristic is not created equal, we scaled the values in the hopes of creating an aggregate diva number that will serve as a reference point for future generations.
Here is why we needed to do this. On April 14, 1998, at the Beacon Theater in New York City, VH1 put on a live show titled “Divas Live: An Honors Concert for VH1’s Save the Music.”
Despite the disastrous title, despite the VH1-ness, the organizers of the event managed to put together an impressive list of performers and presenters. When the last spangle had floated down off the last corseted dress, no less than the likes of Aretha, Gloria, Shania and Mariah had done their part to save the music. To close the show, the multi-culti dream collective of divas convened on stage and vocally gangbanged “Natural Woman.” It would have been the predictable, if thoroughly satisfying end, to a magical night and an appropriate closing night for a new franchise-but the Divas and VH1 were not interested in nice, easy endings. Just as the audience was getting ready to toss down their bouquets, Aretha took everyone to church, leading the ladies through a mindboggling ten-minute rendition of “Testimony.”
The pyrotechnics of “Divas Live” were impossible to follow, but VH1 still tried, gamely, for the next seven years. In 1999, they trotted out Brandy, Cher, Tina Turner, Chaka Khan, Faith Hill, LeAnn Rimes, Mary J and a fantastically manic, sweaty Whitney. (Much of Maya Rudolph’s SNL impersonation must be based on the footage from this concert.) Those girls had a nice moment, banding together to sing “Ain’t No Way,” but after that, the franchise fell apart and the word diva evolved to take on different connotations. By “Divas 2004,” the list had been distilled down to Sheila E, Ashanti and Jessica Simpson. Last year, the show attempted a comeback with this line-up: Adele, Miley Cyrus and Leona Lewis.
The decline of “Divas Live” is, in many ways, the mark of a network that never quite knows when its shows have run their course, but it is also indicative of a change in the landscape of popular music. While the word diva has found its way into common usage, the actuality of the diva-a puffed-up, preternaturally gifted and hopelessly drama-filled songbird-has been sold off in favor of an endless line of talentless smut merchants (Katy Perry, Ke$ha, Justin Bieber) and boring moaners (everyone else). Consider this potential Divas 2010 lineup: Beyonce, Rihanna, Lady Gaga, Miley Cyrus, Carrie Underwood and the Autotune 5000. Sure, that might be an interesting show, but when those six girls convened on center stage to sing an old Aretha song, what could it sound like? Would you hold your breath the way you did when you saw Whitney stumble up on stage next to Mary J Blige and her fucked-up hairdo? Could RoboDivas 2010 pound out a ten-minute anything?
Almost all of this is Beyonce’s fault. After dumping Kelly Rowland and Michelle T, the BORG of Beyonce has gone on to swallow up everything diva, going as far as to portray former divas like Etta James in really shitty movies, thereby scrapping together whatever excuse she needs to cover songs and convert them into her own specific brand of catchy, alluring, but ultimately plasticine pop music. This Godzilla stomping act has made Mariah’s late years irrelevant and has marginalized Mary J. to the point where the Soul of the Ghetto now covers U2 and Led Zeppelin songs. Celine remains in exile in Las Vegas. (For some reason, every time I think about Celine’s cage underneath the Bellagio, I picture her sitting cross-legged in a pile of hay. A little rat sits in her hand, and, in her butchered pygmy French, Celine tells the rat that everything will be alright….) The Dixie Chicks are in negotiations with NBC for a five-part reality TV show in which they train to fight all five members of En Vogue. Aretha is now just a hat. Babs is just another joke about Jews on “Glee.” Shania Twain has been reduced to a shade of Canadian tan that is impossible to describe. Gloria Estefan is a pickle sandwich. Whitney is a fat, bow-tied Taiwanese boy.
All these dying divas presented the following questions.
- In twenty years, when enough dirt has been kicked over Aretha’s grave for Beyonce to cover “Respect,” will we even be able to remember what life was like before Beyonce?
- What precipitated Beyonce? How did we all become so lame?
- Before the soft, interring dream of Beyonce becomes the new Tron, what can we do to show our children’s children that something real once existed?
From these questions came the following document.
AN EXPLANATION OF THE LIST OF DIVAS
After months of consultation, the crack team came up with the following list: Aretha, Barbra, Beyonce, Celine, Diana, Etta, Gladys, Mariah, Mary J, Whitney and Jordin Sparks. We included Jordin Sparks as a control, meaning, because Jordin Sparks sucks and sucks in a really boring way, she could provide a necessary context for how a really boring, shitty singer might rate out on the scale. We did not include Madonna because for a diva to really be a diva, the majority of her career must be built on the strength of her voice. Yes, it’s debatable whether or not everyone on our list fulfills this requirement, but none fail as disastrously as Madonna. Given the parameters we set up, there is simply no way to evaluate her without throwing off the entire system. Some others that would obviously have been included just a few years ago-Christina Aguilera, we’re looking at you!-have deemed themselves ineligible. (See also: outliers that seem like they are divas but are not, such as Grace Jones, Pink, etc.)
We present the following categories and rankings. The parenthetical numbers are the relative weight of the characteristic to the overall greatness of the diva. Bear with us, please. This will make sense by the time you get to the end.
TAKING THE LISTENER ON AN EMOTIONAL JOURNEY (300)
Were it up to only me, this would be weighted even more heavily, but the crack team of statisticians outvoted me 13–1. Here’s my argument: The diva’s role in society is to act as an emotional touchstone for her millions of listeners. To be a true diva, then, the singer must make us feel her pain. We have to care when she’s struggling, we have to believe the songs aren’t just bombed-out commercial jingles written by a team of 30 corporate songwriters. Many divas have attained their status without a great singing voice (Mary J), but only Beyonce has done it without the ability to take her listeners on an emotional journey. It is a sad reflection of what has happened to music, by the way, that the only diva left standing is also the one who can’t make anyone cry. (She came close with “Halo,” but I need to see a good live performance of that before I can count it.) Imagine if Jordin Sparks had sung “The Greatest Love of All” instead of Whitney. The history of music would be unalterably changed for the worse.
Here’s the crack team’s argument: An emotional journey cannot happen without a great singing voice. The two are intertwined. Weighting TTLOAEJ higher than pure singing voice makes it possible for Fantasia to rate out higher than Celine Dion. We can’t have those sorts of insane inaccuracies in the system or else we’re going to look really stupid.
My response: Exactly! Fantasia is exactly why the system works. Whatever the post-litigation, post-pills Fantasia puts out is going to be fucking huge. I mean, the girl already learned to read, raised a kid on her own and upstaged Oprah. She just needs to sing some good songs. If the system is good, it should also have some predictive power.
Crack team: Dude, unlike you, I have a job. I can’t answer these insane emails all day. Go watch Beaches or something.
Notes: Mary J. has built her career on this category-nobody emotes quite as well as she does. Mariah rates low here because she doesn’t quite emote as much as she just kinda arches her back and/or sticks her arm up in the air.
PURE VOICE (300)
Doesn’t need much explanation. Can you sing?
Notes: Beyonce is rated correctly here. If anything, she could be bumped down a bit. Why does the girl never show up in any live performances that aren’t her own? Why are all her shows lipsynched? Until she gets on stage with a real diva (again, the reason she can’t is because she ate all of them), we won’t really know. Even a battle with Kelly Clarkson might show us something. In her one diva-to-diva moment with Jennifer Hudson, she got smoked. And that’s Jennifer Hudson, not Etta James or Celine.
ICONIC SONG/MOMENT (200)
The weighting of this was extremely difficult, especially in differentiating it from overall commercial success. But every diva must have one, preferably two. If she’s wearing some inexplicable headpiece during that moment, all the better.
Notes: Barring some unforeseen war which will necessitate a greater performance, Whitney’s National Anthem at the Super Bowl will always be the greatest diva moment of all time. Consider the context: the country has entered the first Gulf War and the soldiers are watching the game, thinking of home. And here comes Whitney in a nylon tracksuit and a cleaning lady headband to belt out the most rousing, incredible rendition of the National Anthem ever. Aretha never had a moment like that, but has strung together enough semi-moments to be on a similar stage.
OVERALL COMMERCIAL SUCCESS (180)
Eh, this bores me, but it has to be counted. Mariah has the most #1s of all time. What the hell does that mean? Are you happy, crack team?
Notes: none. This category is necessary, but boring.
UPSTAGING PRESENCE (100)
Watch the first minute of the video above. That’s how it’s done. Poor Carole King. She really had no chance-even if this had been “Divas Live: An Honors Concert for VH1’s Save the Ku Klux Klan,” she wouldn’t have been able to get in a single bar over Aretha. These sorts of moments are why “Divas Live” was such a good idea. “Divas Live: Battle Royale” would have been even better. Simply put, if you are on the stage with another diva, how badly do you blow that other bitch away?
Notes: This category was determined by the following computer simulation. We took each diva, put them all on a stage and programmed them all to sing “The Weight.” Each time a diva was out-sung or out-volumed by another diva, she was disappeared. At the end, the stage was Aretha, Celine, Barbra, Etta James and Whitney. Any of these divas could have won, but because it was Aretha’s song, she ended up blowing out a game Whitney at the end to claim the crown. Celine’s promoter would like us to point out that if the song had been “I Drove All Night,” that Celine would have won. This is true.
HAND GESTURES (80)
Turn the sound off on this video and watch from 0:38 to 1:07
Of all the diva characteristics, Hand Gestures is the most open to personal preference. I certainly don’t like Celine’s slow-motion-deodorant-commercial hand gestures, but who am I to tell your mom that they aren’t cool? And while I always liked how Mariah would point out the notes in her runs, I can also see why your mother might find this to be a bit show-offy. One thing your mother and I can agree on, though: Carrie Underwood will never ascend to diva status because of her awful, awful work in this category.
Notes: The real divider here was Mariah. Some in the community seem to not enjoy her habit of pointing out the notes of her runs. Here’s my argument-it would be annoying if the notes in the run weren’t so impressively distinct. For example, if Maya was going on one of her mushy, pointless runs and pointing out notes that weren’t there, this would be annoying. But that’s not the case with Mariah-she is simply pointing out her greatness, which is the whole point of hand gestures anyway. Also, nobody ever did the block-your-earhole-with-your-finger-and-squeal move better than Mariah. Diana Ross rates so high here because she invented and perfected the float-around-and-wave-slowly maneuver that inspired Celine.
Maybe we should call it the “personal hair evolution of said diva.” To score highly in this category, there must be at least one, preferably two fucked-up periods. Ideally, the fucked-upness of the hair will reflect the fucked-upness of the diva’s personal life.
Notes: Some would argue that Etta doesn’t deserve the top spot here because her hair didn’t change much. But more than any of the other ladies, Etta understood the possibility of hair as a branding mechanism. Hair was simply more important to her than the others. Mary J is just entering her fucked-up hair stage and should rate even higher in a few years.
Mostly used in live performances, stank is how all the great divas differentiate themselves from the chaff-how much attitude can you throw out there for your adoring fans? How heh is your heh? For an example of stank, go to 0:32 and listen to how Gladys Knight pronounces the word “business.”
Notes: Whitney’s chronic inability to muster up much stank was her Achilles heel. She could always blow away the other diva, but was always vulnerable to the other diva just getting nasty and out-stanking her. Imagine her and Etta James-Whitney blows her away with a run, but Etta just smiles and pours out a bucket of stank on the stage. The crowd gravitates to the personality, not the technical expertise.
MAKING INSANE DEMANDS/GOING TO REHAB/OVERALL DRAMA (40)
Because we can only evaluate the diva within her own historical context, the approximate value of making insane demands/going to rehab/overall drama must be proportional to the average levels of those things during the diva’s time.
Notes: We almost put Liza on this list because of this.
WEIGHT FLUCTUATIONS (30)
The wilder the better. Kelly Clarkson, who, at this current trajectory, will approach diva status in 2016, certainly seems to understand the need to plump up every once in a while. Getting big, like getting fucked-up hair, creates a bond with the listening audience.
Notes: Another point of contention between myself and the crack-team: I said that Mariah should rate way higher here because her weight fluctuation, while not as dramatic as the Disco Aretha to Post-Disco Aretha swing, was certainly more shocking and concerning. The crack team pointed out that Mariah’s weight gain was too short-lived to compete with the four or five different versions of Aretha. This was our darkest hour in the process. I quit and broke a computer. The crack team shook their heads, sadly, and told me to grow up. Numbers are numbers.
AGING INTO A DRAG QUEEN/WEARING INSANE HATS (30)
It happens to every single one of them, so there must be some connection. Yes, some of the women on the list are a bit young to be anointed into the “Age into Drag Queen” Hall of Fame with Donna Summer and Celine Dion, so all values were generated in the crack team’s time machine. The insane hat phenomenon seems to trail closely behind the drag queen look. Aretha, of course, brought the hat issue to the national forefront at the inauguration, but really, that hat was the last chapter in a long, long story. As crack-team member Wally Johnson said, “That woman cannot resist the urge to find weird shit and put it on her head.”
Notes: Poor Celine. At least her underarms still look good.
Each Diva’s stats were compiled and graphed out in scaled circles. These circles were then clustered together to give a visual approximation of the diva’s overall greatness. Each circle’s color corresponds with the characteristic shown in the graph above.
Nostalgia is always the first casualty of hard science. While we would like to conclude that Aretha was the greatest diva of the past thirty years, the numbers showed a slight edge to Whitney Houston. Exploring deeper, the crack team discovered that the edge was mostly culled from the incalculable importance of Whitney’s Super Bowl performance. While Aretha pretty much broke every song she ever performed, leaving it smoking on the stage, never to be touched again, Whitney broke our goddamn National Anthem. On a slightly lesser scale, Whitney’s version of “And I Will Always Love You” slightly edged out any of Aretha’s recordings, not only because it spawned the entire really-famous-song-you-forgot-was-in-a-terrible-movie phenomenon, most recently evidenced by Michael Jackson’s “Free Willy” footage, but also because it created its own YouTube phenomenon. Again, it can be argued that Aretha cannot be blamed for missing out on the YouTube and music video stage, but a diva’s greatness is, in part, a result of her place in time.
Within her context, there was never a singing star who shone as brightly as Whitney Houston. The run was shorter than almost every one of her competitors, but diva greatness is not a marathon, but rather, a shining example of the possibility of the human being. There will probably never be another Aretha-certainly, the Beyonce BORG and the militias of teenybopper chart-toppers seem to indicate the end of her era-but it’s probable that the never-to-be-famous next Aretha is singing in some church, somewhere. She exists but she simply will never be. Whitney, on the other hand, stretches what we can reasonably comprehend-how could we ever expect to see another with those pipes, that face, that knack for the moment, that personal drama, that incandescent potential?
Jay Caspian Kang is a frequent contributor to Free Darko.