The Diva Tree

The diva category has become a loose term these days. Back in the day it used to equate to singers like the opera legend that was Maria Callas. It then changed its meaning to describe someone who was highly strung or demanding. In this ‘form’ the title reduced the singer back to her gender and was nothing to be proud of. It restricted the singer in many ways. It reduced the singer to her personality and defined her in that way rather than her successes. This way she could be mocked or laughed at. It was just another example of assessing women in music and reducing their achievements. For me, to be a diva is not purely about the rider, personality or the fact that she doesn’t do stairs. For me, these are just tidbits. Instead I look at the music and completely reject the negative conotations the title of diva is occasionally associated. For me, being a diva is about the voice and the message they're able to convey. Nothing more & nothing less. Unfortunately, men can never be divas by this methodology. For sure, if your terminology refers to the type of diva entrenched in the way they act and behaviour then of course it doesn’t matter what gender they are. Conversely I’d argue then that there are probably far more male divas in the music industry than women but for society men are always allowed to get away with a lot more than women. But that’s another tangent & point for another day.

To me, divas are trailblazers. They define the genre through the music they sing. They become heads of industry. They threaten the norms in their own very special or unique way. Divas are not catty icons of tantrums, extensive riders and sequins. Diva's are, for me, much more than this.

For me, divas can be housed in groups.

Usually when people talk of divas they immediately refer to Aretha Franklin. She is the queen of the warbler group. These divas tend to have a huge range but refuse to keep to the script. They do they’re best to shrill and pull one word over 5 notes. They’re loud, brassy and fierce. When they sing they bulldoze the song and ram the sentiment down the listeners throat, ears and every orifice possible. When Aretha ordered her listeners to “think”, it was nothing but a military demand. It was a call to arms and declaration of song. And, rightfully so. Other divas in this group are Whitney Houston (I Learned From the Best), Mariah (Looking In), Christina (Soar), Beyonce (If I Were A Boy), the glorious Nina Simone (anything she’s ever released), Lisa Stansfield (All Around The World) and Leona Lewis (Bleeding Love). When these women sing they can make the high heavens shake but ask them to sing a note with subtlety and they’d cackle back at your stupidity. This group maybe able to magically extend one word over two or more octaves but alas they are unable to ever produce a fragile emotion in their sound. It’s just not in their D.N.A.

Similarly related to the warblers are the belters. These are the divas who generally don’t do those vocal gymnastics that their sisters on the warbler branch always whip out but instead keep to the note of the song and belt that out to heaven & beyond. Its clear, precise and pure. This lot rival the warblers. Barbra Streisand is perhaps leader of the pack in this group. They can do subtlety with ease but when its time to knock it out you’d better step back. They can often sing louder than the warblers. Indeed, the amazing belter that was Timi Yuro could easily send the likes of Aretha & Christina Aguilera all the way to Pluto with her amazing singing ability. Just check out Timi’s Tears On My Pillow or Hurt. Also in this category is of course the dame that is Shirley Bassey (Diamonds Are Forever), the Spanish icon that is Monica Naranjo (Europa), Judy Garland (Somewhere Over The Rainbow ), Bette Midler (The Rose), Tina Arena (Sorrento Moon), Bonnie Tyler (Simply The Best), the Italian pop queen Mina (He Walks Like A Man) and the up and coming showgirl that is Elouise (Another Day). These women have buttress of a belt and woe betide anyone who gets in their way.

A group that is somewhere in-between the warblers & the belters consists of Tina Turner (Simply The Best), Annie Lennox (Why) and Dana Glover (Almost Had It All). These diva’s have produced music that leans towards the belting side of things but they do something slightly different than the aforementioned group. They're the hybrids of the warblers and the belters in you wish. Best way to illustrate the difference is to point towards Bonnie Tyler’s original Simply The Best which was covered and made famous by Tina Turner. They’re completely different vocally. The two divas swapped songs when Bonnie Tyler then covered Tina Turner’s Don’t Turn Around which of course was later made famous by Aswad and Ace Of Base. Both covers (Simply the Best & Don’t Turn Around) show how two divas sound completely different when approaching the same song.

Of course you can’t talk about divas without mentioning the original diva herself; Maria Callas. Her bel canto technique defined the very category of the diva. To be compared to Callas is what every true opera singer still strives for as no one has yet replaced Maria C. When she trilled she did so in every vocal register, paced it all so perfectly & always with class. Her chromatic runs were always shockingly beautifully smooth and staccatos almost unfailingly accurate, even in the trickiest intervals. She could sound like the deepest contralto while whipping out a high E-flat before the show was out. See also Cecilia Bartoli who is indeed a mezzo but can still hit a E-b and also the legend that is Montserrat Caballe.

On the grand tree of the diva, are the those that belong to what I call the Blossom branch. I’ve named this lot after the sublime jazz singer Blossom Dearie who was a bit of trailblazer in her own very unique way. Those on the Blossom branch of divas convey a very intimate message when they sing whether they're in pop, jazz, dance or rock. They own a voice that has the ability to capture the very fragility of raw human emotion. This is something the warblers can rarely achieve and the belters, if they’re lucky, can do what comes naturally to the Blossom branch of singers. Blossom Dearie of course is the easiest example of this very unique capacity that so many singers lack. This is where Kylie Minogue belongs. If you hear her sing the Blossom Dearie standard Try Your Wings from her movie White Diamond you’ll understand what I mean. Beyond the cover though, you can hear this epic yet intimate texture to Kylie’s voice on tracks like If You Don’t Love Me, Fragile, Come Into My World, Bittersweet Goodbye, I Believe In You and & Light Years. Yes Mariah & Beyonce might roar but the Blossom branch of girls are the queens of subtlety.

They ensure the song has texture, depth and warmth. This is where the strength of their voice lies. When they take to the stage the world hushes up and the moment sound emerges the very purity of the musical note is transferred from those vocal nodules and soars into space. This sense of clarity is rare thing to find in music & few singers can claim to have the ability to sing in such a way. Take for example, Bette Midlers sassy cover of a Blossom Dearie song called I’m Hip and then refer back to the original. Naturally Bette “Midlerizes” it in her usual amazing way but she completely misses the magic of the Blossom Dearie original. Bette simply doesn’t have that sort of voice whereas Kylie could easily produce her version of I’m Hip and capture the exact wonderment of the song.

Others who feature on the Blossom branch include Petula Clark (Downtown) at her best, Goldie Hawn (Cloudy Summer Afternoon) when she produced excellent her solo album back in the 1970s, Diana Ross (Chain Reaction), Olivia Newton-John (Xanadu), Kim Wilde (You Came), Cyndi Lauper (At Last) and the amazing Genevieve Waite (Pink, Gin & Lime). Who is Genevieve Waite? If you like Blossom you’ll adore Genevieve Waite’s seminal album Romance is On the Rise (pictured above). It came out back in the 1970s and vanished without a trace. Then it was digitally restored with bonus tracks and you can download it pretty much anywhere. Her album is simply a must.

Then there are the divas that sometimes perch on the Blossom branch but have sprouted their very own amalgamated category of singing. These divas lack the unique vibrato of those on the Blossom branch but they own a particular voice that is like pure silk. The queen of this group is of course Dusty Springfield. She can knock out a pure high note like her sisters in the belters but she has an amazing capacity to convey a sense of tragedy in the trickiest of phrases. The belters can do this too but you can’t put Dusty and Shirley in the same bubble. Dusty and those in her bubble push the boundaries of music in their own very unique way. For sure, there are similarities between those in the Dusty camp, the Blossom Branch and the belters but that’s what makes these particular divas so damn entertaining and interesting. One might say this lot could be arranged as a hybrid super-subgroup of the belters & the Blossom branch girls. Also in this group are Jackie DeShannon (What the World Needs Now), Julie Driscoll (Wheels On Fire) and Carole King (You’ve Got A Friend).

A sub-subgroup of the Dusty camp & Blossom branch are the divas who hold a voice that is instantly spunky and modern. They can sound somewhat like the Blossom branch of divas at times but have a sharpness to their singing that makes their voice perfect for music that has an upbeat tempo. These girls can achieve softness but they’re better suited for material that keeps up the pace. This is where Dannii Minogue (I Begin To Wonder) can be found alongside Paula Abdul (Vibeology), Janet Jackson (Nasty) and the new singer Isabel Guzman (Lovesong). These divas hold a misty soul voice but its spiked with attitude which ensures it sits very well next to a dance rhythm and club tempo.

On a completely different branch of the diva tree are the rock divas. Marianne Faithful leads this pack despite the fact some of her earlier back catalog arguably sounds like another singer. The Marianne Faithful I am talking about here is of course the one who sung The Ballad Of Lucy Jordan and striking Why’d You Do It. The snarl & punch of the diction is essential here. Other women in this category are Pink (18 Wheeler) and Janis Joplin (Little Girl Blue).

Somewhat controversially, comes the divas who don’t have much of a voice at all. These are the ones who’ve depended on their exquisite name to carve out a career. These are ones who really make sure the personality of the diva emerged as the core aspect to their success. These women are all smokes and mirrors. They’ve written amazingly catchy music & produce stunning videos alongside revolutionary pop concerts which are of course distractions to the fact that they can’t sing for toffee. Perhaps I am being too harsh. I’ll change my critique: they have very restricted singing abilities. I am of course talking about the Madonna diva school. These women are limited in their range but they’ve done their homework & constructed a singing career despite not really being able to sing. Madonna’s greatest video hits is proof to that fact. Amazingly catchy songs backed with the type cinematography that does its best to distract the listener from the singers clunky voice. The reconstructed name of the singer is usually the giveaway. Stefani Germanotta becomes Lady GaGa for example. With a change of the name and a flick of the reverb button they’re shifting attention away from the reality of the fact that they have a feeble voice and provide society with an amazing construct. Herein the personality, or rather the cult, of the diva becomes these singers primary anchor. Not the voice. Also in this group is the mighty J:LO (Waiting For Tonight).

In conclusion, the point of this examination was to explore the many different aspects of the diva. They are not just women who don't do stairs. I reject and rule this behavioural aspect wholeheartedly. They are captains of industry and without them the music world would be an utterly boring place. In their own special unique ways they all create goosebumps. Even the ones that can't sing. Sadly, I was unable to go through each diva that is out there. Indeed the likes of Cher, Dolly and Robyn are in their own categories where they set the pace according to every track they've ever release. They don't even have surnames anymore. Three of them own voices that hold a unique sound like nothing else out there. Then there are the divas that I couldn't go through due to space that include Kristine W, Mary J Blige Britney Spears, Nancy Sinatra, Imogen Heap, Peggy Lee, Joni Mitchell, Cilla Black, Dionne Warrick, Charlotte Martin, and the newbie Paloma Faith. Perhaps for another day.....


Lance said...

Great article bobsta. But that paragraph about Madonna and Lady GaGa. Not sure whether I'd agree with you there. You must be the only blogger who doesn't like Lady GaGa.

FairyTaleBoy said...

"The blossom branch"

love it!

Paul said...

not the only one Lance...!!! :)

Great read bobs. Once i'd finished, I started all over again!

undisco_me said...

I *adore* Genevieve Waite - she actually has a few amazing youtube clips with her party circle, but sadly no performance clips. Not only that, Pink Gin & Lime is my favourite Gen song ('out of her mind from sniffin' dry cleaner')!

I actually bought Romance Is On The Rise soley because of the cover, but it's now in my top 10 albums of all time. It has good inlay notes as well.

Len W said...

Great read. I can tell by the occasional typo "Faithfull" "controversially" that you wrote this like a man possessed.

I would put Robyn into the Blossom Dearie branch, with her unique fragility and approach to interpreting the emotions of a song so precisely.

Mike said...

Lovely stuff. It's so refreshing to read something well written and beautifully put together.

However, I think you forgot about the La Toya branch of the diva tree that keeps rotting and falling off?!


Anonymous said...

Do you really think that Lady GaGa can't sing...? When she performed "Speechless" on "Ellen", that sure sounded like a good voice to me. /Kris

Anonymous said...

Great article, though, btw (Lady Gaga aside)/Kris again