Divas, Less Bogus
Divas, divas everywhere
The label ‘diva’ is bandied about these days with such imprudence and frivolity that it’s became yet another empty marketing term, an all-purpose throwaway word that seeks to include just about every new female singer, white or black, pop or r n’b, who arrives on the larger musical radar armed with a sassy music video filled with overt sexuality juxtaposed against overwrought faux feminist lyrics – no doubt written by some sort of Oz-like male Svengali – all designed to inspire impressionable young girls – and boys, in some cases – with vapid dreams of social empowerment and spiritual independence, all set to the bumped and ground rules of a rigid, misogynistic musical template.
Technically the term ‘diva’ is defined by philosophical eggheads as: a woman performer of outstanding talent, derived from the Italian noun diva, a female deity. The folks at Urban Dictionary take a more modern approach to the term, including:
“A diva is a female performer…who is extremely talented but very imperious and temperamental. But the distinguishing factor is that her talent permits (this) behaviour…She is very professional, with a low tolerance for incompetence. A diva is NOT (a) no-talent pop singer who thinks everyone should yield to her every whim…and who is unnecessarily rude, mean and bitchy, just because she “knows what she wants” and revels in being high maintenance. These women do not deserve the title of diva, because they have no redeeming talent or quality. They are just simply loud and obnoxious. True divas should be treated with respect for their enormous talent and strong will.”
So then, in a musical context, a diva should personify the perfect equation of inspired, innovative song writing and strong performances, with more than a measure of authentic, outspoken, feminist principles. No amount of media fluffing, meat dresses, strange baby names, gargantuan performance rider demands can replace and redefine this ideal of the diva, and, accordingly, there have only been a handful of real independent, rule-defying, mould-breaking, iconoclast divas – Aretha, Janis, Grace Slick, post-Motown/Rick James Teena Marie, Ruth Copeland; and latterly, Adele, Zola Jesus and Janelle Monáe.
(Okay, we can include a younger Madonna in this group as well, but the less said about Old Granny-Gollum-Arms’ more recent exploits on record and from the stage the better.)
One of the greatest, most understated and criminally overlooked musical divas in history was British-born Ruth Copeland, who, during the 1970s funk rock revolution (as led by George Clinton’s Parliament/Funkadelic collective –of whose early recordings she was very much an integral part) released a collection of self-penned folk/funk/rock songs, produced by Clinton and backed by his best P-Funk players.
A fusion of the best qualities of Janis, Joni and fellow female funk forerunner Betty Davis, Ruth faded into obscurity almost as soon as she arrived, constrained by the technological limitations and the male-dominated music hierarchy of the funk genre, yet her music made her very much ahead of her time. Elements of her work can still be felt, however slight, in later generations of singer-songwriters who wore their hearts on their sleeves and still had some funk in their trunk, including Kate Bush, Tori Amos and Janelle Monáe. It’s not too often you hear mandolins and Northumberland pipes on a funk record, equally matched with measured poetic storytelling, naked introspection and truckloads of authentic feistiness.
For the full strange story of how a white English Rose defined the sound of America’s funkiest rock collective, read this great Funk Or Die blog post from 2011:
Pop music divas: an unnecessarily
but good for context…
As striking as the Copeland example is, today’s current crop of pop singers, the Lady Gagas, Beyoncés and Rihannas – and all their reasonable fauxsimiles in-between – are as conspicuous in their attempts to bypass this combination of solid talent and artistic astuteness, and sadly, choose to build their brand rather than their skill and repertoire, ingratiating to an increasingly celebrity-obsessed media culture. Sure, the catchy songs are there, but with little substance that does nothing to ensure certain longevity. We will probably always remember Lady Gaga, whether she lives or dies, fails or succeeds, becomes President of the United States or becomes a butcher, but will we even remember her song Poker Face, will we even care about it in five years’ time? Most likely not. Compare that to Aretha’s Respect, Adele’s Someone Like You or any selection from the Carole King songbook.
Sure, it sounds a little brutal, but it’s true. Pop music has always had a manufactured element to it, from Elvis, The Monkees etc. to today’s TV talent show cannon fodder. It’s just that music, today’s popular music, has become a little more insincere about it all. Don’t sell me Rihanna as one of this generation’s most defining voices and talents when she doesn’t even write her own music, let alone lyrics, and is more interested in tweeting her turbulent relationship status than making music we can all listen to five years from now.
But now, thankfully, just when we all thought we would be stuck with these overpriced, over stylised media creations sold to us like bottles of mineral water or the newest iPhone, along comes Janelle Monáe to vie confidently for the label of game-changing diva, in the truest spirit of those who came before her.
To the general radio-dialling public, she’s best known as the voice of drifting coolness in the background of pop/rock group Fun’s otherwise uninspiring 2012 one-hit-wonder-in-the-making “We Are Young”. It would be one of pop music’s great travesties if she remains relegated to this single “and featuring…” footnote, based on the thrill of hearing her truly original and mind-blowing solo work, notably on the sci-fi soul of her ArchAndroid project.
Monáe’s 2010 concept album The ArchAndroid: Suite II and III is more than just an album, or even just a concept album, it is an event. An engulfing experience, music that stays with you for days, months, after the first listen.
The Monáe music philosophy follows probably closest to that of the progressive works of Me’Shell Ndegéocello’s weighty urban funk, but more than anything this album evokes the spirit of Stevie Wonder’s experimental synth-heavy era as a dense genre-hopping collection of good solid songs thoughtfully deliberated, performed and produced.
Aided and abetted by a competent unit of innovative musicians and a respectable guest list made up of some of hip-hop’s left-of-centre talents including Outkast’s Big Boi, spoken word artist Saul Williams and all overseen, but not meddled with, by Sean Puffy Combs as executive producer, Janelle drives ArchAndroid from the front, stamping her commanding personality on the album right from the opening seconds of the album.
Each chapter in the ArchAndroid concept is a new and different direction, flipping over the ballad-structure of “Cold War” with some distinctive and catchy electronica beats, turning syrupy and sweet around Wondaland’s future-funky robot fable – the album’s ultimate theme, inspired in part by Fritz Lang sci-fi and Bowiesque alienation, is dystopian “dance or die” – and punchy guitar-based funk-punk and inspiring manipulation and debunking of the usual r n’b clichés in between. The album is all or nothing affair, and while there are stand out tracks that can be consumed apart from the broader palette – including the criminally overlooked “Tightrope”, the album’s lead single – the album, like a good book, great movie or bottle of something special, should be enjoyed in one session to be fully appreciated.
Fistful of Divas: 10 bizarrojerri favourites.
(as always, by no means an exhaustive list here. There are great many artists and tastes out there, covering all genres of music. These are just some of my favourite artists and their stand-out tracks. You’re all strongly urged to seek further if unfamiliar with the female singer-songwriter genre.)
Janelle Monáe – Cold War
The song that Beyoncé, Rihanna and the rest wish they could write and sing as confidently as Janelle. Though upbeat and filled with some remarkable musical flourishes than defy modern r n’b cliché, lyrically the song is filled with jarring pathos and authentic severity. A notable highlight in a whole of album of highlights.
Zola Jesus (with M83) – Intro
Sublime and ethereal, Zola Jesus is an alternative universe’s Gaga. Blending, in her slowly emerging career, bedsit beats and lo-fi electronica with a deep emotional vocal style percolated through classic gothic influence, Zola is a thoroughly underrated talent. This opening track to M83’s 2011 verbose and hugely popular electronica opus brings Zola to wider audience, and rightly deserved. Slightly more accessible than Bjork, her music is deceptively cinematic and sweeping. Buy anything with her name on.
Adele – Cold Shoulder
After all the tears, the awards, the Bond theme and the gazillion copies of her sophomore “21” out there across the free world, continuing to bring families together (both my father-in-law and I own copies), it is interesting to look back to the very beginning of Adele Atkins’ burgeoning world domination, as a wide-eyed nineteen-year-old innocent plumped, so to speak, for undeniable success with a debut filled with trademark lovelorn balladry, childlike reverence for the simple things and confident music backing that goes beyond the standard overly programmed Brit-pop it was released into battle against. Highlights include Chasing Pavements, Hometown Glory and this proto-Rolling In The Deep that give us a fair idea of how Adele has matured and progressed in her short, but credible career.
Ruth Copeland – The Medal
Though not one of Ruth’s fierier funk records with P-Funk, this brooding anti-war love song builds into a rowdy band vs. singer jam that holds much promise for a much lauded but ultimately unfulfilled career. She now farms organically somewhere in Wales.
Stevie Nicks – Rhiannon (with Fleetwood Mac) / Edge of Seventeen (solo)
Personally, I’ve always been a Christine McVie kind of guy. What can I say, I like the nice girls. Nicks’ racy vixen counterpoint to McVie’s more dignified folksy balladeer was part of a dynamic that made The Mac one of most successful bands of the 1970s, even when the band drifted into the middle of the adult contemporary road. (Although anyone who’s heard McVie’s rousing take on I’d Rather Go Blind – originally performed by the godmother of divas Etta James – with her first group Chicken Shack will testify, she could confidently envelope the tortured soul of a blues diva.) However, Nicks made it part of her iconography beyond the realm of the group, inspiring everyone from Courtney Love, Beyoncé and Sarah McLachlan. The song Rhiannon, from the Mac’s legendary Rumours album, solidified her witchy persona with a concoction of shadowy medieval mythology and sensually delivered danger. Later, during a successful solo career in the 1980s, the popularity of her heavily symbolic rock hymn to youth and mortality, Edge of Seventeen, not only made her a household name, this inspirational and important feminist missive solidly declared her importance as a great diva icon. The song’s distinctive 16th note guitar riff went on to become the inspiration, years later, behind the Destiny’s Child ersatz empowerment record Bootylicious.
Bjork – Oh So Quiet
Not Bjork’s – Iceland’s answer to Eartha Kitt- most defining moment, musically – the track was from her first solo debut in 1996, and as many fans will argue, she has since evolved beyond these early songs with her unique brand of vocal electronica, avant garde sound experiments and overall general strangeness, most recently on Biophilia and its remix Bastards. Oh So Quiet, a rousing jazz-infused stomper that wouldn’t seem out of place in a production of Annie, was early evidence of her ability to subtly subvert her public image as an emerging ingénue and clarify her individualistic musical persona through a hit song. Armed with an innovative and entertaining video, the song was not quite compatible with the rest of the musical environment of the era – grunge/alt rock, acid house and over produced r n’b – but its distinctive quirkiness was enough to make Bjork memorable and secure her first number one hit. Today, in-between beating up journalists at airports and wearing ‘dead’ swans around her neck to movie premieres, Bjork’s enigmatic diva status has been further enhanced by a hands-on authoritarian and secretive approach to composing and recording her bizarre music outside convention, with a diversity of unknown global talents from different musical disciplines and genres.
Kate Bush – Running Up That Hill
Nobody makes listeners more cosily uncomfortable than Kate Bush. A prodigious but by no means a prolific talent, Kate does not merely write and perform music, she conceives, gestates and gives birth to songs. On Running…she plays volatile and vulnerable with equal measure, building an epic saga for her characteristic ruminating Romantic heroine around a delicate pulse, slowly eroded by rising synthesised atmospherics. Listening to Kate Bush can be an overwhelming experience, so it’s probably a good thing she only comes around with an album every five years, and hasn’t performed in public since 1982. True divas don’t do tours, it seems.
Millie Jackson – (If Loving You Is Wrong) I Don’t Want to Be Right
There aren’t enough divas in the history of music brassy enough to appear sitting on a toilet for an album cover, but Millie Jackson did it for her album “Back to the S**t!” and in the process got named one of more tasteless album covers of all time. Besides causing controversy with her album cover art, Millie managed to write and produce some of the finest, funkiest and most outspoken soul/disco records of the 1970s. While her duet albums with Isaac Hayes were her most popular, it’s her raw and unabashed solo albums that fully epitomise her rude and rowdy musical persona with a heartbeat of gold.
Teena Marie – Behind The Groove
Despite being moulded into a blue-eyed soulstress and disco queen, first in a volatile partnership with Rick James and then later with Motown’s Berry Gordy, by 1980, Teena Marie had finally found her independence with a distinctive vocal style and impressive song writing skills making her one of more prominent disco/soul singers of the 80s. Self-styled as the “Blackest White Woman Ever”, she wrote and played all her own music, with a soul music sensibility considered by many to be as authentic as any of her African-American contemporaries. The song Behind The Groove is one of the purest, funkiest fusions of the soul disco era. A close friend of Marvin Gaye, whose work, life and death would have a profound effect on her own music; she found re-emergence during the late 90s as a collaborator with another prominent music widow – Biggie Small’s Faith Evans –as well as playing matriarch to many of the neo-soul genre’s best emerging female singers, including Joss Stone. Her unexpected death in 2010 saw a well-deserved revival and re-evaluation of her music.
Freddie Mercury – Killer Queen
But of course, the title of world’s greatest diva would go to a man, but deservedly, that man is Freddie. Checking all the boxes for diva immortality, the Queen frontman not only played hard, out-Gagging Gaga herself in legendary diva behaviour, but also worked hard, writing and performing some of rock music’s greatest and most unforgettable songs. Singlehandedly changing the way rock music is played – multi-genre mini rock operas, innovative recording techniques – and consumed – embracing the importance of image and theatricality in music video and live performance, there was and still is only one Freddie Mercury, often imitated, but never replicated and never to be replaced. Killer Queen is an early example – from the 1974 album Sheer Heart Attack – of Queen’s multi-layered music performance and Freddie’s enigmatic, energetic lyrics. The group would go on to greater, more illustrious heights, but this is evidence that the true Freddie Mercury flash and style was always there, just waiting for the world to catch up.