It’s been a sad month for the Diva committee. Just over three weeks ago, our inspiration left us. Now, too, goes our champion. When we picked Whitney over Aretha as the “Greatest Diva of the Past 25 Years,” we were trying to show how a true Diva can always be abstracted up out of her context and evaluated solely on her individual merit. Whitney, more than any other singer in American history, proved the rule. Her songs weren’t great, at least not when compared to Michael Jackson, Aretha, James Brown, or even Mariah. Because her career happened almost entirely in the soft-rock era, Whitney never had the opportunity to match Aretha’s gospel intonations, Etta’s stank, or Lauryn’s smoked-out swagger. As such, the committee regards Whitney’s early catalog with an ironic appreciation and has always understood that the body of her work must be judged outside of her songs. “I believe the children are our future” is a nice sentiment, sure, but it’s not, “People get ready, there’s a train a’comin,” or, for chrissake, “I was born by the river in a little tent.” This is not Whitney’s fault.
When you listen to a Whitney Houston song, you don’t connect with the words or the theatrics or even with the performer. Inspiration, instead, comes from the possibilities embodied in Whitney’s voice. Whitney didn’t give hope by saying, “I believe the children are our future.” She gave hope by showing that there were no natural limits to what the children could accomplish.
I watched the Grammys with a friend in Manhattan. When the subject of Whitney came up, he said that he preferred the Dolly Parton version of “I Will Always Love You,” a.k.a. THE BIG SONG to Whitney’s turn in The Bodyguard. He argued what some others have been arguing over the past few days: Listening to Whitney sing was like watching a superathlete at the combine — the theatrics and the vocal stunts felt physically impressive, but not part of the song. Sure, Whitney scaled out to a 6-foot-11 power forward with a 7-foot-6 wingspan, a 60-inch vertical, and Durant range, but she never really could embed that talent into her lyrics. The committee admits that much of this is true. Dolly Parton could actually convince you, sweetly and softly, that she would be with you every step of the waaaay. Whitney could sing those same words and would promptly leave you freezing by the side of a lake like Kevin Costner in The Bodyguard.
But that doesn’t mean you don’t feel something when you hear her sing. Some singers die as people and we mourn them with a much more relatable empathy. Others, like Michael Jackson and James Brown, inspire an emotion close to anger, where we feel as if a gift has been taken away from us. Despite 10 years of problems that should have prepared us all for her death, Whitney Houston still feels like she was ripped away.
Just one last comment:
3:06 — That “eeeeeeeeeeeeyyyyyyyye yee eyyyyyyyyyyyyyye” might be the most important single note in the history of American music, narrowly edging out Sam Cooke’s “booooooooooooooooorn” in “A Change Is Gonna Come.” As the video evidence shows, the power of this one note turns night into day, indoors into outdoors, and summer into a snowy winter morning in the forest. The world has been shaken and nothing is what it seems. Whenever the committee screens any new diva or listens to new recordings from the old guard, every big note is compared to “eeeeeeeeeeeyyyyyyyye yee eyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyye.”1
Other candidates: the highest note Slash plays in the guitar solo for “November Rain,” the “Waaaaait” from “Now waaait a minute” for “Shout,” the first “YOU!” from “Natural Woman,” the first super-high “DREEEEAM” from Aerosmith’s “Dream On,” the “hoooooooooos” from “Man in the Mirror.”
Whitney not only holds the belt for “Greatest National Anthem of All Time,” she also owns the “Greatest Big Note of All Time.” Both those records now seem completely unbreakable. Can you even imagine what a singer would have to do to snatch either of those belts?
With teary eyes, let’s move on to the rest of this month’s Rankings.
Jennifer Hudson: +80
A top ten all-time Grammy performance that catapults her to the top of this year’s rankings. I don’t care how many albums Adele sold or how many Grammys she won or how many times I’ve listened to “Someone Like You,” Hudson accomplished the impossible on Sunday night. With a day to prepare, she stood up and knocked out half of THE BIG SONG in front of a grieving country and had the good sense to leave the GREATEST NOTE IN AMERICAN RECORDED HISTORY alone. Hudson’s rendition was respectful, nuanced, and paid deference to Whitney without feeling like a second-rate knockoff. It was the most memorable Grammy performance since Amy Winehouse in 2008, and it cements Hudson’s reputation as the no. 1 ranked upstager of 2012. Can you think of a single current singer, male or female, who wouldn’t get immediately blown away by the power of Hudson? Xtina? No. Adam Levine? No. Old Aretha? Maybe, but only because the crowd would be cheering her on. David Archuleta? No. Really, the only Diva with a shot is Celine Dion.
Hey, ABC, here’s an idea for a TV show. Every week, take two Divas and put them in the octagon to face off in a five-round singing battle to the death. Neither Diva will know which songs are coming, kind of like Iron Chef. When the music starts playing, both Divas switch off on verses, but both sing the chorus. Like so
Each bout would be judged by a panel consisting of me, Eddie Murphy, Nick Cannon, and Montell Jordan. I know The Voice tries to do something similar, but they just don’t have the star power. Tap into the wranglers who make Dancing With the Stars possible.
Kelly Clarkson: +20
Now that’s more like it! We’ve always wanted Kelly to return to her country/gospel roots and stay away from the pop charts. She’s just a bit too old now to be singing tween anthems, and we’ve all grown tired of her “Anger Stank.” Throwing up a solid B+ for the national anthem moves the needle in “Iconic Performances.” Kelly will have another opportunity when she does her requisite appearance on American Idol later this season. Hopefully, she knows enough to capitalize on the success of this performance and prod along what has been a bit of a snoozy donkey of a career.
Christina Aguilera: +15
Let’s assume the worst and say that the fluid was what it was and not a rogue rivulet of bronzer. Let’s also assume, given that Christina started the performance by awkwardly wiping at her leg, that she was aware that it was that time of the month. If we accept all that and then consider that Xtina knocked out a pretty credible version of “At Last” at Etta James’ funeral with Reverend Al in the building, then, shit that’s fucking GANGSTER. The vocal performance wasn’t iconic enough to boost her rating all that much, but she gets points for gutting out a nightmare scenario.
As for her chair-spinning skills on The Voice, the committee reserves its verdict till this season is over. But she’s not terrible?
That Woman Who Plays the Piano and Pretends to Be Really Into Some Meaningful Shit: +10
The committee has placed TWWPTPAPTBRISMS into the “keep her name out our mouths” territory, despite acknowledging that she can sometimes sing and that she is, without a doubt, the most beautiful Diva in the game today. There’s just too much effort in her meaningfulness, too much posturing in her stank. It was that way from the beginning, honestly. I never really believed that she kept falling anywhere, much less in love.
Like a lot of soul-handicapped Divas, TWWPTPAPTBRISMS tries to cover her blandness with lame props. She started out with braids and a piano but ditched the braids in favor of being really hot and talking like a car robot from the near future. The piano has stayed. Several members of the Diva committee were forced to take piano lessons as a child and therefore don’t really see anything particularly “soulful” or “Keyesian” about a singer who — GASP — can also tickle the ivories. But we also know that we might be alone in that belief. As our first argument for the lameness of piano-as-prop, we present BEN FOLDS!
This performance by TWWPTPAPTBRISMS wasn’t terrible, although it featured the full arsenal of her affectations. Please stop talking low and steamy into the microphone between bars, especially when we can’t hear what you’re saying! It doesn’t make the performance feel more intimate, it just makes you seem kind of desperate to be meaningful.
She gets 10 points for getting tugged along by the great Bonnie Raitt.
A lot of you wrote to the committee to argue that Rihanna’s singing voice, which we called “great,” was, in fact, “terrible.” Sunday night’s Grammy performance went squarely in your corner — Rihanna sounded reedy, out-of-shape, and generally uninspired.
Here’s our defense of our original statement: Singing is not just about range, pitch, and phrasing. Sometimes a diva can rate highly on the vocal talent portion of the scale by simply having a very cool voice and swagger. Dolly Parton, for example, didn’t have much range and sang the same five notes in every song, but there was a tone to her voice that worked perfectly for the songs she wrote. What seemed to anger readers most was when we compared Rihanna’s voice favorably to Adele’s. Truthfully, if we were given a rewind button on that proclamation, we would probably hit it. But the scores come out a lot closer than you might imagine, even with Rihanna’s blunder on Sunday night. Rihanna has a unique, immediately recognizable tone to her voice. When her songs come on the radio, there’s no doubt who is singing. This isn’t necessarily true for Adele, who, more than anything, is just a supercharged Duffy with better songs.
Here’s the other thing I can’t shake about Adele: She just doesn’t seem to be improving. At the MTV Music Awards, she knocked out a very straightforward version of “Someone Like You.” And last night, she did a slightly more joyous and sassy, but ultimately inert, version of “Rolling in the Deep.” Hey Adele, you’ve sold a bajillion records and you’ve got Teflon status as the commercial queen of pop. You buried Gaga along the way. Why not take a risk or two? Would it have been that sacrilegious to try a cover of “Rehab”?
Melanie Amaro: -20
No no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no. You do NOT cover “Respect” under any circumstances, especially when it’s your first single and it’s sponsored by Pepsi/Taco Bell/Pizza Hut. If she had any more points to lose, they’d be gone. You’re history, Melanie. We will never say your name in DivaRank again. Go stand next to that girl who plays the piano and pretends to be into some really meaningful shit. You’re now known as “The X-Factor Contestant Who Slayed ‘Listen’ But Then Absolutely Desecrated Respect.” (TXFCW’L’BTADR)
Honestly, this might be a necessary correction. Most of TXFCW’L’BTADR’s value came from her original audition for X Factor, where she absolutely murdered Beyonce’s “Listen.” The committee, in a massive oversight, gave her points for having the best live rendition of that song.
We had forgotten about this by Charice.
Lady Gaga: -20
Seriously, what is she doing these days?
It makes sense, right? He wears outrageous dresses, seems to live on another planet, is slowly aging into a drag queen, and still manages to put out hit after hit. Let’s quickly run him through the Diva Scale to see where he ranks.
Taking the Listener on an Emotional Journey: 120 out of 300
He’d rank higher here if Goodie Mob had released two, maybe three more good albums. We all like it when his new songs come on at parties, but they’re not really moving you.
Pure Voice: 210 out of 300
The man can saaaaang. He would rate higher, again, if he put himself through more challenging songs. Right now, he’s kind of like a super version of Nate Dogg — his voice is so distinctive and catchy that he can coast through performances without really pushing himself to the edge of his emotions.
Iconic Song/Moment: 35 out of 200
It sure as hell wasn’t standing next to Madonna at the Super Bowl. He got swallowed up by 50 dancers and some lasers and that angry young Sri Lankan lady. Prince would have never let that happen. Cee Lo, take a lesson. Put out your version of “Purple Rain” and stop doing duets with grandmothers.
Overall Commercial Success: 125 out of 180
Bleh, who cares. Let’s move on.
Upstaging Presence: 40 out of 100
You’d think Cee Lo would dominate this category, what with his gospel chops and his distinctive voice, but he might just be too nice to really stomp it out in Divaland. He even defers to Blake Shelton and Adam Levine on The Voice.
Hand Motions: 60 out of 80
This is where Cee Lo’s application gets a bit stronger. He’s got the limp-wristed fluttery hand move down (popularized by Aretha Franklin), he’s got the “Stomp and Point” (Whitney), and he’s got the “Spread Out Your Arms So the World Knows You Love It” move most recently popularized by Jacob Lusk. The only move he hasn’t brought out, at least to the committee’s knowledge, is the Mariah Carey “Plug Your Ear With Your Finger and Scream” move.
Hair: 0 out of 40
Grow some out, dude! Or wear some wigs?
Stank: 45 out of 60
Should be higher, honestly. But as he’s sort of fallen quickly into a parody of himself, he just borrows the stank from his past hits and blandly pastes them onto a very similar, ultimately recycled vehicle.
Making Insane Demands/Going to Rehab/Overall Drama: 10 out of 40
Really needs to work on this category. Like knock up Big Gipp’s baby momma or something, man! I want to see you in the news!
Weight Fluctuations: 10 out of 30
Has he ever been thin? He needs a Jonah Hill moment where everyone stops and says, “Holy crap, is that Cee Lo? He looks ________.” But the potential is there for a high score in this category.
Aging Into a Drag Queen/Wearing Insane Hats: 30 out of 30
And here we finally get to the core of Cee Lo’s candidacy for Diva Rank. No current Diva is (a) aging into a drag queen, or (b) wears insane hats quite like the dude from Goodie Mob. We do give special credence to performers who so completely dominate a single category that limiting their points seems almost unfair. For example, Whitney should probably have gotten a 350 on the “Pure Voice” category, but was limited to a 300. Anyway, for his dominance of this last category, we introduce Cee Lo into this year’s Diva Rank!
This Month’s Top Ten
10. Jazmine Sullivan
7. Cee Lo
6. Mary J.
3. Kelly Clarkson
1. Jennifer Hudson
For all Diva-related news and quick commentary, follow @divarank on Twitter.