When we started this project back in 2010, our goal was to bring clarity to the question: “Who was the greatest Diva of the past 25 years?” The Committee first met under the following conditions: In the spring of 2010, the head of the Committee published a lengthy Craigslist post about starting a cover band that would only perform songs that Randy Jackson had deemed “uncoverable.” The proposed set list included Whitney Houston’s “I Have Nothing,” the Temptations’ “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg,” Chaka Khan’s “Tell Me Something Good,” Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas Is You,” Sam Cooke’s “Bring It on Home to Me,” Mary J. Blige’s “No More Drama,” and Etta James’ “At Last.” A flood of interested Mission folk wrote back, and, in August of that year, the original 13 members of the Committee met at the Lone Palm bar on 22nd and Guerrero. We were scrubby content farmers/wannabe soul surfers back then. The original Diva Rankings were mostly a product of high-grade medicinal marijuana, a suntanned brain, and our collective inability to hit on girls in a coffee shop setting. But we were united by two common beliefs: Everyone in the Committee (a) loves Etta James and (b) hates Beyoncé. We crafted the original scale around those two pillars of faith.
After 18 months of tweaking the system and putting it through rigorous test runs, we are now ready to bring you wall-to-wall coverage of all Diva-related happenings, including live performances, record sales, televised singing contests, and tabloid scandals.
Our first offering is this year’s Top Ten Divas. Please enjoy accordingly.
The Diva Scale
Up until this year, the Diva Scale was scored along the following guidelines.
Taking the Listener on an Emotional Journey: 300 points
Vocal Talent: 300 points
Iconic Song/Moment: 200 points
Commercial Success: 180 points
Upstaging Presence: 100 points
Hand Gestures: 80 points
Hair: 40 points
Stank: 30 points
Making Insane Demands/Going to Rehab/Overall Drama: 40 points
Weight Fluctuations: 30 points
Aging Into a Drag Queen/Wearing Insane Hats: 30 points
The measure of Stank has always been a hot-button topic among the Committee’s membership. Originally, we agreed that Stank was the growl in a Diva’s voice as she ground out the low, angry notes. After we posted our first set of rankings in The Awl, several readers pointed out that Stank was more about the totality of vocal swagger; even the sweetest notes, the readers argued, could carry Stank. If that was true, then Stank should be worth somewhere around 150 points. As the head of the Committee, I argued that the effect the readers were describing had already been encapsulated in “Taking the Listener on an Emotional Journey.” Etta James put Stank into every note she sang, but we already gave her the full 300 points for singing like that. How could we differentiate the two? Mary J Blige, another paragon of Stank/Emotional Journey, also came up as test case. When she starts screaming at the end of “No More Drama,” is she Stanking it up or is she simply using Stank to take the listener on an Emotional Journey? Two existential crises later, we decided to just bump the Stank quotient up to 50 points.
THE REASON KATY PERRY WAS EXCLUDED
The Committee discussed this for hours before concluding thusly: Because the original Diva rankings excluded Madonna on the grounds that she was “never about the voice,” it would be hypocritical to let in the woman who put the scare quotes around “interesting wardrobe changes.” There are a couple of perfectly fine Katy Perry songs, and I’m okay with admitting that she’s smart and funny. But every note has that same yelpy, squeezed tone. That’s not singing. That’s melodic barking.
THE REASON BEYONCÉ DOES NOT APPEAR IN THE RANKINGS
She just had a baby and we don’t want to be mean to a new mother. That is all. Also, does Beyoncé even qualify as a singer anymore? She’s more of a corporation; think Jordan in ’98, but if he had Harold Miner’s skill set.
The 2012 Rankings
This is not an all-time list. Only Divas who could have an impact in the upcoming year were considered. Think of it more as a Preseason College Basketball Top 25 poll. But you know, for Divas. And with just ten slots.
It’s been a remarkable Diva run for Adele, who, at the age of 23, has already made her mark on the all-time rankings. If she can knock out a surprise-guest performance at the Grammys next month, she’ll climb past Kelly Clarkson and sit somewhere in the Christina Aguilera zone. After the VMAs, the Committee put Adele’s score at 815. (As a point of reference, Whitney Houston, the greatest Diva of the past 25 years, has accumulated 1,248 Diva Points. Jordin Sparks, who sucks — and sucks in a very boring way — hovers somewhere around 11.) Much of Adele’s high rating comes from her commercial success; 21 has topped the Billboard 200 for 15 weeks now and, if sales continue at their current pace, she has a chance of surpassing the Titanic soundtrack, The Bodyguard soundtrack, and Please Hammer Don’t Hurt ‘Em, which logged 16, 20, and 21 weeks, respectively, at the top of the charts. 21 was also the fastest-selling album of the past seven years, outpacing everything put out by Gaga, Beyoncé, and Rihanna during that period.
Still, true Divas are like novelists; moving units is all well and good, but the importance of your career will be measured by your obituaries. And in that long game, you either have to be a completely original artist (Etta James, Billie Holiday, Dolly Parton) or you have to somehow embody the spirit of a generation (Janis Joplin, Diana Ross). Adele is very young, but the Committee just can’t see her breaking her current mold; she’s a very good singer who sings very good songs, but she still hasn’t provided a Consumption Frenzy moment that has made everyone run to the computer to watch everything she’s ever done. These iconic performances can happen at any point in a Diva’s career; Aretha’s “Nessun Dorma” came at the age of 56; but the potential can usually be spotted pretty early on. Adele just doesn’t have it, at least not at this point in her career.
As much as the Committee loves “Someone Like You” (sources report that the Committee listens to the song somewhere between 3 and 12 times a day), there’s little chance it will ever breach the Iconic Song zone. Adele might have outsold Whitney’s The Bodyguard album, but in ten years, no fat Taiwanese kid is going to set the Internet on fire with his note-for-note cover of “Rolling in the Deep.”
Rihanna actually scores higher than Adele on the vocal talent scale, but the Committee couldn’t help but notice that her best song was “Umbrella,” which was released back in 2007. Since then, Rihanna has mostly treaded water; yes, she’s sold a ton of albums and released hit after hit, but she still hasn’t evolved into something other than the sexy voice behind all your favorite club songs. People perk up and smile when they hear a Rihanna song, but they never turn around in their cubicle, bury their heads in their arms, and think about their personal vision of ruin. Aretha could do this. So could Streisand. If Rihanna wants to leapfrog Adele and seize the lead in the rankings, she needs to take a page out of TLC’s playbook and release her version of “Waterfalls.”
Here’s my other problem with Rihanna: She’s a bit too cool. In 2012, with Chris Brown far in her rearview mirror, Rihanna has already retired to the good life; she smokes joints on boats, she appears on TV shows and smiles a lot, she does the occasional magazine shoot, but mostly she just sits back and radiates an untouchable style of cool. Artists can be impenetrable as public figures, yet thoroughly honest through their work. Rihanna, to date, gives you neither. Although her songbook hints at a sprouting sexuality, a la young Britney, Rihanna has somehow divorced herself from the character she plays in her songs.
She’s a great singer. She’s hotter than any other singer alive. Her songs are decent. But she doesn’t stay stuck in your head for days. And she certainly has never made anyone cry. These are all major demerits on the Diva scale and why we won’t even discuss Katy Perry.
3. KELLY CLARKSON
Weird year: bad commercial with Chris Berman and James Lipton, bad haircut on an unremarkable SNL performance, a second straight mediocre album, and a Twitter blow-up about Ron Paul.
Actually, it’s been a weird five years for Kelly Clarkson. “Since U Been Gone” came out in 2005, when today’s tweens were in kindergarten. And although that song officially broke the breakup anthem (nobody other than Kelly Clarkson really gives it a go anymore), it also typecast her in the wrong role.
This is what Kelly Clarkson should be doing:
I’m a member of two fan clubs: the Fantasia Appreciation and Promotion Society (FAPS) and the Fiona Apple Protection Society (FAPS), but there’s no question which Diva gets left in a chalk outline on the stage. Here we see Kelly at the height of her powers: Her curl’s working itself out, she looks great, she’s even got a believable head-snap going on. More important, Kelly forces Fantasia, the greatest Idol contestant of all time, to go weird. This might have been understandable if they were singing a song about staying strong after a nasty breakup, but this is a gospel song about the wonders of the Baby Jesus.
This video has approximately 650,000 views. I’ve contributed at least 15,000 of them. Whenever the Committee considers downgrading Kelly’s ranking, we host a viewing of this video, let out a collective sigh, and wish Kelly would hurry the fuck up and release a gospel/country album. She’s still got it in her; she just needs to stop trying to recapture the glory of “Since U Been Gone” and sing something that’s not a post-breakup anthem.
She starts the year off with a head of steam: a hit song, the year’s best Saturday Night Live performance, viral appeal, the Taram Killam tribute video, and the approval of the blogger borg mind. The platform, Mobb Deep-era Timberlands she wore on SNL were the Diva fashion statement of the year, blowing out every flailing attempt by Gaga/Katy Perry to stay relevant via weird clothing choices.
That being said, this feels like the 90th time we’ve been introduced to this great, quirky Swedish singer named Robyn who has cool hair, whom everyone in “Europe” just adores, who will open your eyes to the destitution of the American club music scene. Although it seems like this version of Robyn has some more staying power, the Committee can’t really get over this one fundamental truth: Robyn is just budget ABBA with lasers and a newfangled computer processor. And we really, really like Robyn. She’s just not anything new. So, please, everyone, stop telling me to listen to her.
5. JENNIFER HUDSON
It’s been five years since Jennifer Hudson broke the Diva standard “And I Am Telling You,” forcing thousands of poor young Apollo hopefuls to find something else to sing on Amateur Night. She received 50 bonus points for annihilating an iconic song and making it impossible for anyone to ever sing it again. Since then, what should have been a meteoric rise up the Diva ranks has been stalled out by unspeakable tragedy. The Committee values small dramas; messy divorces, stints in rehab, and nightclub altercations all help build out a persona and provide a reference point for songs about drama and uplift. But tragedy of such magnitude infringes on every song, every album, every live performance. Her latest album, released in March of last year, did not contain any direct references to the murder of her mother, brother, and nephew, but a heavy melancholy hangs over every song.
Hudson also holds a title belt for being the one Diva you never want to find yourself onstage with. She’s got pipes, sure, but she can also out-drama anyone this side of Mary J.
Jessie J violates the first rule of Diva Brawls: If you find yourself in a situation where you’re going to get blown away, DO NOT GO WEIRD. Stuttering, snarling, or screaming only makes you desperate. Jennifer Hudson blew away Beyoncé in the Queen Bee’s own movie, snatched away her Oscar, and made Eddie Murphy cry. It’s not Jessie J’s fault she found herself in this predicament, but she didn’t do herself any favors by trying to stamp herself as the “quirky one.”
6. MARY J. BLIGE
The decline of her Empire of Drama began when she sang “One” at the American Idol Finale,1 a performance that felt a bit too much like what it was: a deliberate attempt to rebrand herself twice into a crossover artist who could parlay a respected career into a handful of radio-friendly covers. A year later, when she walked out during the Idol finale and sang “Stairway to Heaven,” she stepped into an unfamiliar desperation; not the desperation of “My Life” or “No More Drama,” but, rather, the desperation of an aging Diva who had clearly forgotten how to connect to her audience.
In retrospect, “One” was the perfect song for Mary to sing. Read these lyrics: “Did I disappoint you, leave a bad taste in your mouth/You act like you never had love and you want me to go without /Well it’s too late, tonight, to drag the past out into the light.” How aren’t those already Mary J. Blige lyrics? Didn’t she put them on her second album?
Mariah doesn’t have this problem because she sings with no implied emotion. She can very happily represent everyone’s Christmas. Beyoncé can sing about babies, and those babies will always be beautiful and race-neutral. Mary J. Blige has never been neutral; in the Committee’s combined 63 years of watching Divas, we have never seen a singer who puts more of her honest self into every performance. She could be living in Saint-Tropez at the age of 65 in the company of a billionaire Greek shipping magnate and the songs she would write would still be fraught with a believable, refreshingly candid style of drama.
Her latest attempt at staying in the spotlight comes at the expense of Drake.
7. LADY GAGA
It’ll all be over soon. Get as naked as you want, Gaga, you’re on the way out.
8. JILL SCOTT
I first heard Jill Scott on The Roots Come Alive, when she reprised Erykah Badu’s hook on “You Know That You Got Me.” [Click above for audio.] In retrospect, it was crazy for Jill Scott, who, back then, was an unappreciated “neo-soul” singer who mostly shared a stage with spoken-word artists, to take on the great Baduizm. Back in ’99, Badu was at the height of her considerable powers; she was still riding the great wave of “Tyrone” and had inspired an entire generation of suburban white girls to experiment with head wraps and silver arm jewelry. When it turned out that Scott somehow had somehow out-Badu’d Badu, the UGHH.com and hiphopsite.com message boards lit up with applause for a great new siren who could lead hip-hop into its new conscious, live-music, Roots-based era.
Things didn’t quite work out that way. But last year, Scott’s fourth album, The Light of the Sun debuted at #1 on the Billboard charts. She put out a series of notable, chartable songs and even notched a spot on VH1’s Divas show. Given that Scott didn’t change up her style, still repped Philly a bit too hard and refused to deviate much from the expected artifacts of late ’90s neo-soul, her success in 2011 was a bit of a surprise.
Although the Committee is happy that someone of Scott’s vocal talents has found commercial success, we wish she had left all that spoken-word mess behind. Outside of a couple memorable Roots songs, a few interesting ways to cook vegetables without oils and/or pork, and some semi-interesting but ultimately inert statements about the human body, nothing much good came out of that era of Philly music. Neo-soul, Jill Scott, is dead. Nobody cares what Maxwell’s up to anymore. Nobody who isn’t india.arie’s sister can name one india.arie song. So if you’re going to be back up in the charts, let’s hear some slowed-down R&B jams that can show off your voice.
Here’s an example of what Jill Scott does.
What up, Peedi Crack! Where’s Dice Raw?
9. RACHEL CROW/MELANIE AMARO
One of these two will enter the Diva fray and still be around in five years. Yes, Melanie Amaro won the finale and the “$5 million recording contract,” but my money’s on Rachel Crow’s staying power. She can easily parlay the drama of being unfairly eliminated from the X Factor, her onstage meltdown, and the public’s hatred of Nicole Scherzinger into an album of pump-up jams for all the jilted tweens of America. Who wouldn’t download “Fuck Nicole” and wait with bated breath to see what, exactly, rhymes with Scherzinger? (Some advice from someone who dominated Internet rap battle message boards back in the late ’90s: Break it up into two words. Like so: “Nicole Scherzinger/ Fred Durst-ing real singers/ Your Bizkit’s Limp, b*tch/ Smell my fingers.” Then drop an LL-on-cannabis reference and go: “Vote me off? Remember this/ 99 percent of your fans don’t exist.”)
10. JAZMINE SULLIVAN
When Mary J. runs out of leather pantsuits, Jazmine Sullivan should be the one to take over the vacant throne of “Queen of Drama.” Who but the singer of “Hold You Down” and “Bust Your Windows” can inspire that same blend of compassion and terror? Who else could stomp around a stage with her wig falling off her head and make everyone feel her pain? Jazmine Sullivan can do club songs, she can do slow jams, she can stare into the camera and cringe with great meaning. If her new album, as rumored, drops in 2012, we might be waving good-bye to Mary J. Blige a bit sooner than anticipated.