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What Makes a Diva

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Before I saw the Aretha Franklin performance of “A Natural Woman” at the Kennedy Center Honors, I didn’t even think I was a particular fan of that song, but it was like her voice was a fist that reached into my chest and pulled the emotion out of me, whether I wanted it to or not. I was totally mystified by the effect until a friend pointed me to this classic explication of what makes a diva by Jay Caspian Kang and his crack team of diva scientists. It is definitely worth a read if you’ve never seen it before. Whitney Houston comes out on top.

I remembered an occasion I had to see a recital/critique run by a fairly fancy vocal coach, and his instruction to the singers to make the audience believe they were about to see something wonderful in the way the walked to the stage and placed their music on the stand. Analyzing the first few moments before Aretha starts to play: she’s wearing not only a gold brocade dress and a diamond necklace, but a full length fur coat. Indoors. That fur coat says so much. It says, my body is big and I am going to do something to make it even bigger. It says, I am rich and glamorous in a way that is outside of any judgment you could possibly make. She looks at the piano, almost like she’s inspecting it to see if it’s suitable, before she even acknowledges the audience. Then she blows these kisses. She has the barest of smiles, she’s extremely deliberate, and the message from the kiss is not, “I adore and need you, my public,” but much more, “These kisses are a prelude to the gift I am about to give you.” She telegraphs, “I am in control and I own your perceptions.” That sets her up to get what she wants from the audience before she sings.

Now that Aretha Franklin has made Obama cry, Jay Caspian Kang acknowledges that Diva Rank must be recalculated. I agree, but I’m feeling bad for Whitney Houston that she’s not around to defend her title. I guess to win the long game in the Diva Wars, you need some vice, but only just enough.

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