The five rules of the Diva Committee are written in lipstick on a napkin stashed deep up the ass of the Buck Hunter machine at an unnamed bar on 16th Street in San Francisco. The rules are immutable — San Francisco could be overrun by a horde of bigoted cyborg “entrepreneurs” who secret away copies of The Fountainhead on their tablets and tweet about clotted cream, ramen, and Murray Rothbard, but our Diva Rules would still be somewhere in the circuitry of that Buck Hunter, Urn Burial, amen.
Let me share the rules with you:
1. Whitney Houston is the Greatest Diva.
2. Etta James is the Best Diva. (Also acceptable: Nina Simone.)
3. Our vision of Divadom cannot bend to the times. For example, if the world has simply shrugged and said, “Hey, Miley didn’t sound so bad that time, ergo we are satisfied,” that world has nothing to do with us. We are not relativists, despite our shitty late-’90s/early-aughts liberal arts educations, which only taught us to vote for Obama and write thinkpieces.
4. Stank is not a vocal inflection or a growl. It is a way of life, like surfing or gambling problems.
5. Beyoncé is a force for evil.
For the past three years, Rule 5 has overwhelmed the rest, but please understand that we felt assaulted by the Internet and its unthinking, mechanized adoration for the 21st century’s dullest, prettiest automaton. So while we have listened to the new album and have our opinions, we will keep them out of this report because, well, Fuck the Queen and her acolytes, this is a celebration.
The Way We Were: The State of Divadom in 2013
Please watch the following two videos. The first has been the Diva Committee’s gold standard example of “EVERYTHING THAT IS GOOD, YOUNG, AND GLORIOUS/HOLY IN THIS WORLD.” The second is our example of “EVERYTHING THAT IS BROKE-DOWN, HIGH, SWEATY, AND GLORIOUS/HOLY IN THIS WORLD.”
Neither of these performances would be possible in the Diva landscape of today, where “dropping 12 videos” inspires 1,000 lazy debates about feminism and Jennifer Hudson only gets like 45 seconds at every awards show before some clown like Jessie J stomps onstage in some fake-ass hat and mucks up what should have been an iconic moment. Hey, producers, Jennifer Hudson is not that girl/bro at the karaoke bar who will sing only if her/his friend comes up and accompanies her on some yawningly ironic song like “Ice Ice Baby.”
When a real Diva takes the stage, she immediately senses the void in the audience. Her work is to fill that cosmic gap with sweat, stomping, grunts, and an emotional journey through her pain. This is a localized phenomenon that requires both time and patience, neither of which are available to today’s Divas, who are overwhelmingly 15-year-olds who have been bred their entire lives for that one moment of glory when they sing “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going” or “I Have Nothing” on the stage of a televised singing competition. Ironically enough, those same competitions, because they take up between four and six hours per week, and because they have an endless need for content that can be sponsored by Pepsi or Ford, create the closest thing we have anymore to a collective connection with a singer. If you watch a young Diva perform between 10 and 15 times and see her overcome the obstacles facing her, when you watch her tower over Ryan Seacrest week after week, a bond is formed and the songs she sings mean more.
Everyone else is Carly Rae Jepsen or Katy Perry or Lady Gaga or a Christmas tree that comes with vacuum tubes and a HEPA air filter for dog dander or whatever. Yes, we said these same things three years ago, but it’s worth pointing out that nothing has changed and that we are still living in the dark age of female singing. Why are we so complacent? Why do we accept Miley because someone else wrote her some very good songs and because she knows how to “set Twitter on fire”? (Read: do something racist-y, but defensible by racists who masquerade as “thought leaders on the Internet.”) It’s gotten so bad that if we were given the option to replace every current Diva wannabe with a 17th-century Italian opera castrato, I would probably say, “Sorry, feminism, but bring on the castratos, because anything is better than this.” (This is so weird: The only recording of a castrato sounds just like the saw lady in the New York City subway …)
I guess I’m just sad about the gaping lack of Divadom of all types and how Etta (R.I.P.) and Barbra now have to endure Beyoncé and Lea Michele “filling their shoes” by karaoke-ing up their songs. If this were a proper Internet article, the header would be: “THE FUTURE OF DIVADOM,” but the future does not exist, at least not in any way I can see. The VH1 Divas show had a tribute to Donna Summer by Kelly Rowland, Keri Hilson, and Adam Lambert. Every white girl in the Midwest mangles her vowels now and squeezes her larynx shut in an effort to sound more like Adele. God is dead, so let’s get to the point here and rank every Diva contender who has come along in the past three years.
As a reminder, all Divas are scored using the following rubric:
Taking the Listener on an Emotional Journey: 300 points
Pure Vocal Talent: 300 points
Iconic Performance: 200 points
Upstaging Ability: 100 points
Hand Gestures: 80 points
Hair: 40 points
Stank: 30 points
Drama: 40 points
Weight Fluctuations: 30 points
Aging Into a Drag Queen/Wearing Fucked-Up Hats: 30 points
THE ORIGINAL RESULTS
For some reason, we decided to show the original results via a bubble graph. I think back then we thought it would be funny to have the graphs kind of look like weird Miyazaki people. Anyway, to give a general idea of the scoring, Whitney scored a 1,280 out of 1,330, narrowly edging out Aretha.
To enter Divadom, a singer must clear the 1,000-point mark. To date, Whitney, Aretha, Barbra, Celine, Etta, Liza, Gladys, Nina, Anita, Tina, Dusty, Ma Rainey, Chaka, Roberta Flack, Patti, and Jennifer Holliday have made it in.
THE 2013 UPDATE: CONTENDERS
She’s already passed Mary J. Blige and Diana Ross and is about one more iconic performance and three great singles away from Gladys Knight territory. Those of us in the sportswriting world are familiar with the sort of circular, math-based argumentation that produces absurdities like, “Ryan Anderson is the fourth-best player in the NBA because win shares say so.” J-Hud is probably the stat-monster of the Diva Scale — we overvalue everything she does and generally ignore everything she doesn’t do, like, say, come out with one hit single of her own.
I’ll put it this way: At some point, Aretha Franklin is going to leave this earth and someone is going to have to sing at her funeral. Whom do they choose to sing “Respect”? Who sings “Baby I Love You”? Who sings “Dr. Feelgood”? Who sings “Do Right Woman”? Who sings motherfucking “Natural Woman”? (If you just said Carole King, go ahead and shut down your computer and go back to your lunch salad. Get the fuck out of here, Carole King …)
We can finally talk about her in the past tense now, right? I wish there were some way to get Lauryn Hill past the 1,000 mark, but as much as I’ve rigged the numbers, I can’t come up with a way to cover up the fact that she never put on an iconic live performance and never experienced that third stage of Divadom where the fading of natural gifts forced her into something new and glorious.
But what a voice! There’s not one Lauryn Hill song that’s not undeniably a Lauryn Hill song, and in this new era when every pop star just trades songs written by Scandanavian hit makers, Lauryn’s weird exit from the Diva scene hurts all that much more. In the next five or 10 or 15 years, each of us who grew up in the ’90s and has a soul will go through some moment when we walk into a coffee shop or a Walmart or wherever and hear a Fugees or Miseducation song and lose our shit.
Actually, fuck it, let’s create a new Diva category just for Lauryn Hill and assign it 100 points. We’ll call it “Aspirational Power.” Meaning, when you see her singing onstage, how badly do you wish she were your best friend? (As an aside, the one thing I will never understand about the Beyoncé love is just how aspirational it is. People want to be Beyoncé? Why? What about her seems relatable? What part of her connotes a human emotion and not a weirdly worded and oblique reference to a human emotion?)
How do you watch Lauryn Hill in the performance below and not think, In the best version of my life, where I got all the breaks and ended up 150 percent better than I am today, I would hang out with Lauryn Hill, smoke joints, and talk shit about people who use the term “Brooklyn dad” in reference to anyone who shops at Union Market in Cobble Hill?
I finally feel ready for Kelly Clarkson’s second stage! I had been pretty content to just hear reprisals of “Since U Been Gone” and not expect much more, but given the recent changes in her life, which include marriage and pregnancy, shouldn’t we now expect something a little different? Like she could move into a “You’re Still the One”–era Shania Twain phase, or she could go back to singing inspirational songs for the winners of American Idol. For what it’s worth, I felt the same way about Liz Phair 10 years ago, and what happened? (I’m sorry for the cheap shot, Liz — you’re still one of my favorites. One day, I’ll post a “Singers Who Made Me Wish I Were an Angry Woman” rankings and you’ll be no. 1. Hope Sandoval will be no. 2.)
Honestly, even with this second phase of her career, I can’t imagine Kelly will ever rise much higher than she currently sits on the Diva Scale. Maybe if she released a gospel album with Fantasia and went on a barnstorming tour that followed Sherman’s March or something …
She’s sold a ton of albums and as long as we’re keeping our expectations low, singing the theme song for a Bond movie showed that she can “branch out.” The committee rewarded her “Bigot Status” back in October 2012, meaning she could basically do anything between now and the release of 24 or 25, save real bad bigotry, and everyone would still line up to buy her shit. She’s the best we’ve got right now.
But she’s still a dull, relatively lifeless performer. And until she fixes that, I can’t see her really climbing in the Diva Rankings. Maybe if she did something like sing “Daniel” at Elton John’s funeral, but Elton John is never going to die.
I agree, she shouldn’t be on this list. But she’s been around long enough now and has put out enough hits and performed at enough awards shows and worn enough silly hats and compared herself enough times to Joni Mitchell (LOL) that she warrants a rundown. When you surf in Santa Cruz, seals will sometimes pop up out of the water and give you this confused, almost embarrassed look, like when you think you see an old friend on the street and scream some totally inappropriate inside joke before realizing you’re yelling at a 13-year-old boy in a peacoat. Sometimes these seals will give a short honk. Anyway, that’s what Katy Perry’s voice reminds me of — a confused, embarrassed, probably horny seal honk.
If every singer is accompanied by an emotion, what, exactly, is Katy Perry’s? Can you fill in this blank: “Mariah makes me Christmas-y, Etta makes me weepy, Katy Perry makes me _________”? Right now, it’s somewhere between “feel like I’m on low-grade kindergarten acid” and “slightly weirded out.”
Eh … pass. She’s another one the Internet needs to calm down over. “Royals” is a fundamentally stupid song. I don’t know what life is like in Auckland, but not everyone in America is like Cristal, Maybach, diamonds on your timepiece, and although I’m loath to ever politicize music, I do find myself more than slightly annoyed at the critical reception Lorde has received for being “real,” whatever that may mean. “Royals” is a goth poem, sure, but goth poetry (1) exists already, and (2) is always bad and angsty in a boring, suburban way. It’s like Le Tigre went back to middle school and got a little bit racist.
She can sing, though.
The low score does not reflect Janelle Monáe’s actual talent, which has nothing to do with her adequate singing, but more with her showmanship, which is top-notch, and her ability to look like an android, which is also top-notch. The committee loved Janelle Monáe’s SNL performance, and we like the idea of her as a performer. She’s one of these acts who lends herself to good thought and good criticism. We just wish she had better songs.
For Ariana Grande’s section, I consulted with Elena Bergeron, the world’s premier Mariah Carey–expert-who-also-blasts-the–No Limit–discography-during-every-Saints-game. As you might know, young Ariana has been garnering a lot of attention for “sounding like Mariah.”
Elena: First off, Jay, you know how I hate interruptions to Mariah Season, a.k.a. the Re-Emancipation of “All I Want for Christmas Is You.” This is the time of year when we should all be living our most Mimily. Sequins or pajamas? Champagne in a mug or a flute? And yet I have to deal with you packing the yellow snowball that is Ariana Grande and lobbing it my way. Dahhhling. Upon confirming that she is not a seasonal Starbucks menu item, I learned that Ms. Grande seems to have tried it — four octaves (one short, still), Pop&B with rapper cameos, and singing lots of “homage” covers of Whitney and Mimi. That’s cute. Cuter still is this move.
Side-eye on a trillion. So she read the manual, as all ingenues do. The part Lil’ Miss Theater Kid omitted is the triumphant-by-any-means rise from Long Island outcast with a dream to become one of the BEST-SELLING ARTISTS OF ALL TIME. It’s that scrappy climb to Diva that enables Ms. Carey to sing “Hero” with appropriate gravitas and also writhe on a desktop while Gucci Mane raps, “I guess shawty mad he ain’t gotcha no mo.” She’s earned it. Grande, while talented, is too shiny and prepackaged to convey emotional depth. Emotional depth is celebrating not having to sleep with Tommy Mottola anymore by sitting on Ma$e’s lap wearing a gold bodysuit ON A HELICOPTER. This whole conversation makes me feel like that scene in Lean On Me when Joe Clark walks in on a kid in the gym doing his best impersonation and Clark asks one of the students, “Francesca, can he do me? Does he have the juice?” The answer is, of course, “No, Mr. Clark.”
The next Jennifer Hudson and the second-best singing competition contestant of all time, although at this point, the committee might have to check back in on its unconditional love for the geyser of stank that was Fantasia Barrino. She’s got pro-level hand motions, next-level ballad-hip-swaying skills (basically the anti–Carrie Underwood), and a massive voice. She’s also likable in that Tracy Chapman sort of way, where you can almost smell the weird bean dish she’s got in the oven and predict the politics she’s going to talk over dinner. I don’t understand how that’s likable, but it kind of is, no? Also, nice to see the name “Chin” on network television without a joke about Chinese phone books.
I’m actually still a bit shocked that someone beat that little Jacqui Lee. Where did they find a girl who looks like Selena Gomez’s white cousin and sings like Merry Clayton? And was it just me, or did she wear a dress from Anthropologie in every episode?
If you had never heard of Christina Aguilera or Jacqui Lee and watched this video, wouldn’t you assume Jacqui was the star and Xtina was the karaoke legend trying to break through into real music? I’m actually a little surprised Xtina allowed this to happen. What happened in rehearsals? How could Xtina not see this coming? Didn’t she see she was going to share the stage with singing LeBron? I did appreciate how she kept doing the “plug your finger in your earpiece” move to open up the “my earpiece thingy wasn’t working” excuse, but even that old reliable move couldn’t make Xtina look like anything but Danny Ainge in drag. (Plus 10 points for “Aging Into a Drag Queen” category.)
Good-bye, Carole King
This will be my last column as a full-time Grantland staffer, and I wanted to leave you — the five Diva readers who have been following this series for the past three years — with a gift. As Elena said, it’s Mariah season, after all.
The greatest VH1 Divas–related YouTube clip just recently resurfaced after years of being shut down. For those who have never seen it, Aretha is onstage with Mariah, Celine, Gloria Estefan, and Shania Twain to sing “Natural Woman,” and she calls up Carole King to sing it with her. Then, as the music starts, Aretha sings, “Would you forgive me! I didn’t sing this song tonight! I don’t think so …” Carole King is supposed to sing the first verse with Aretha, but Aretha just runs her over at 0:51. Before it was unjustly taken off YouTube, I had watched this video approximately 1,500,000 times. It has everything: Celine fist-pumping in a pantsuit with k.d. lang’s 1991 haircut; Mariah going gigantic with her heels, hair, and hand gestures (the 3 Hs); Gloria looking like Jenny Slate; and Aretha getting fucking down before the song devolves into all five Divas trying to outscream one another. What, really, could be better than this?