Archive | February 2016

Diva Madness: The 80’s Era, Round 1

You still have a couple of days to submit your own final four predictions for the Diva Madness Tournament!  Just print the brackets below, fill out the winners, and post a photo of the filled in brackets to twitter @djwhysoserious #DivaBrackets.  Or you can also fill in this handy google doc.  Any brackets shared before March 1st that correctly predict the final four will be entered to win some TBD diva-related prize!

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Continuing the theme of a classic ballad, I should warn you that since we’re looking at the 80’s era, you are in for a healthy dose of synthesizer and sax solos.  Truth be told, quite a few of these divas continued to make names for themselves in the 90’s, but for the sake of this round we’ll attempt to remain in and experience the decade that brought them into the spotlight.

Madonna (1) vs. Grace Jones (16)

Although Madonna has the top spot in her era, some would argue whether she deserves the diva title.  Though she began her career relying heavily on her dance ability and stage presence, her role in Evita caused her to take her vocals seriously.  Now, three whole decades later, she has proven herself neither fraud nor fad, and is often crowned the Queen of Pop.  Keep in mind that the video below  is taken from her 1987 tour, but something tells me you’ll have no problem considering more of her career.  Grace Jones may not have the same level of recognition as her competition, but has been equally influential over more recent artists.  Her concerts and music videos read as performance art, and though they didn’t always translate to commercial popularity, there is no question that her voice is powerful, and her artistry was ahead of her time.

Paula Abdul (9) vs. Chaka Khan (8)

It is a little odd posting ballads from both of these women who are known for their pop and funk dance tracks.  I suppose you’ll have to vote for whoever you’d like to see compete with more upbeat music in the next round.  Many now know Paula Abdul by her judge responsibilities on American Idol, X Factor and SYTYCD, but her qualifications for those gigs are based on her incredible performing career. Though Chaka Khan’s musical career began as the front-woman for the funk band Rufus, she went solo in the 80’s, showing off her powerful and sultry voice and stretching the bounds of what could be popular in music.  Did you know that her 1984 hit, “I Feel For You,” is the first ever pop song to feature a rapper?  Groundbreaker.

Stevie Nicks (5) vs. Kylie Minogue (12)

Stevie Nicks is yet another example of someone who began their musical career in the 70’s singing in a group, but was included in the 80’s category based on her solo career.  Her success with Fleetwood Mac set the tone for her reception, having been heralded by Rolling Stone Magazine as the “Reigning Queen of Rock and Roll.”  Her deep contralto vocals and her fondness of white flowing fabric have caused some to wonder if she is a witch of some kind.  If she is, she certainly has a spell on me.  Australian diva Kylie Minogue disappeared for a long time after making it big with her 1987 hit, “The Locomotion.”  Actually, that’s not really true – for over a decade she was releasing singles in Australia and the UK that never seemed to make it to North America in significant ways.  But in 2001, when radios started “Can’t Get You Out of My Head,” she suddenly flooded back into the American consciousness as a solid performer and diva.

Pat Benatar (13) vs. Gloria Estefan (4)

This may be the hardest decision for me in this bracket, because I love both of these women for such different reasons.  Pat Benatar still seems to me to be one of the most powerful woman in rock music history, for her sheer voice and persona.  Her songs continue to summon 80’s passion in a quintessential way, making her gritty yet classicly trained voice perfect for a retro film soundtrack.  Meanwhile, Gloria Estefan paved the way for Latin artists to cross over into American pop charts.  She became a staple at Superbowl and Olympic performances (before this year, she was the only woman to perform and multiple Superbowl halftime shows).  If Pat represents 80’s emotional rock, Gloria represents for me a joyful (and possibly naive) optimism.

Janet Jackson (3) vs. Sinead O’Connor (14)

I’m going to go ahead and be honest: I have no idea how to talk about the great Janet Jackson in a tiny paragraph such as this.  I will just point out that when it comes to dancing and singing at the same time, very few compare.  She is an absolute force to be reckoned with in this competition, and in pure reality.  Then again, so is Sinead.  Both of these 80’s superstars continue to make music today, and although they are not as popular, I get the feeling they are pleased with their art.  Sinead O’Connor is like Sia in the modern era bracket, more of an anti-diva, which makes her even cooler than your average diva.  She has risked and lost commercial success in order to stand up for her convictions, which in a backwards kind of way seems pretty freaking diva.  Not to mention that voice.

Annie Lennox (11) vs. Ann Wilson (6)

Annie Lennox made a name for herself as half of the synthpop duo Eurythmics, making her diva status known early on for having a rich, soulful alto voice, and pulling off amazing attitude with androgynous style.  Since moving on to a solo career, Annie has won the Brit award for Best female artist more than anyone else, and shows up in every list involving female vocalists I’ve ever seen.  Ann Wilson has also made a name for herself in a duo, as one half of the Wilson sisters in the huge 80’s band, Heart.  While Nancy played guitar and sang harmonies, it was Ann’s unique and dynamic lead vocals mixed with her phenomenal stage presence that thrust this Seattle band into massive commercial success.  And it doesn’t hurt that they continue to tour today with nearly as much energy as they had almost 40 years ago.

Cyndi Lauper (7) vs. Sade (10)

Cyndi Lauper started out as a mere pop star, but has grown to be so much more.  She is one Oscar away from having an EGOT, having received her Emmy from a guest appearance on the TV show, Mad About You, and a Tony for her score of the musical Kinky Boots.  She is known for her activism for the LGBT community, most recently with a focus on ending LGBT youth homelessness in the States.  When Sade first started releasing records, she’d print a clear pronunciation of her name on the cover, “Shar-day,” but that is hardly necessary now.  This London diva may only have a couple of Grammys, but along with her Brit award, she receives a ton of international acclaim, including a couple of Porin (Croatian music) awards.  Her breathy vocals are usually the sexiest thing on any playlist, and over the three decades of her career she’s been constantly touring, while regularly charting on UK and American billboards.

Debbie Gibson (15) vs. Whitney Houston (2)

It may have been a while since Debbie Gibson has had much of a spotlight, but in her day she dominated the charts and looked adorable doing it.  She paved the way for every young, cute pop star we’ve seen since, and you may think of that as a negative thing, but the truth is that Debbie could really sing – especially at age 16, when she got her first single, “Only In My Dreams,” a song she wrote herself.  Unfortunately however, she’s up against Whitney Houston, who in many ways embodies each and every possible definition of a diva.  The drama and addictions took her away from this world way too soon, and yet she still left us three solid decades of timeless music characterized by her powerful, clear, and effortless vocal quality.

Get yourselves prepared to vote on the 90’s bracket, although I can’t promise to have it up this weekend- check back early next week.  The Classic era is officially closed, but if you haven’t yet voted for the modern era divas, you still have a chance to make your opinions count.  May the best diva win!

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Diva Madness: Modern Era, Round 1

Before you get down to business voting your favourite modern divas into the second round, please take a minute to download or print the brackets below and share your predictions for the final four (on twitter or Google Form)  by March 1st, 2016 for a chance to win a prize!

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If you haven’t yet voted for the first round of Classic Era Divas, they are up and ready for you now.  And if you have no idea what I’m talking about, here’s an intro to the March Diva Madness tournament!  Now that those details are out of the way, let’s make some hard choices about the best and most beloved divas.  Since these are divas who’ve made their success during the first era of social media, we’ll try to keep the ballad examples as intimate as possible, showing off the vocals more than other performance elements.  Let’s get to it!

Beyoncé (1) vs. Amy Winehouse (16)

Those of you who know that I devoted this tournament entirely to Beyoncé two years ago may assume this seed is biased.  However, Bey is tied with Diana Ross and Mariah Carey for second most top-10 billboard singles of all time, though she has only been charting since 1998 (with Destiny’s Child).  With every single or album she releases (with some of the most brilliant marketing plans seen in music), she continues to prove her diva status with both her increasing vocal abilities and the way she attracts or drama and controversy.  Speaking of drama, her rival is the only deceased diva on this particular bracket.  For her all-too-short career, Amy Winehouse in concert was often like Whitney or Lauryn at their worst.  But when she was on, it was clear that Amy had not only a unique sound, but also a deep connection with the soul she grew up on.

Carrie Underwood (9) vs. Kelly Clarkson (8)

Herein lies the battle of the idols.  After Kelly Clarkson was the first ever winner of American Idol, it was quite sometime before anyone challenged her success.  Even after Carrie Underwood started making albums, Clarkson was considered to have sold more records worldwide than all the other Idol contestants combined.  However, since Underwood’s most recent album, Storyteller, the two divas’ sales are pretty competitive, estimated in the 60-70 million range.  When Ryan Seacrest (host of American Idol) was asked only last month whom he considered to be the most successful idol of all time, without hesitation his answer was Carrie, who has also broken nearly every possible record in her category of female country artist.  Meanwhile, Clarkson has continued to out-chart Underwood in the top 40 category, giving her a higher seed by a fraction of a score.

Katy Perry (5) vs. Nicki Minaj (12)

Katy Perry is a single-making machine.  Although she doesn’t have as many top 10’s as the top seeded divas in this bracket, she is tied with Beyoncé for 8 #1’s on Billboard’s 100.  She is known for her over-the-top live shows, including her 2015 Superbowl Halftime performance when she rode in on gigantic animatronic horse.  Nicki Minaj is known for her over-the-top performances too, but she tends to rely more on her massive Barbie-influenced persona than tricks and technology.  Although there are not many other rappers in this competition, I’ve found few disputes when it comes to Nicki’s inclusion.  Recently I asked an 11-year-old whom she thought was a prime example of a diva, and without thinking she answered “Nicki.”  Proof.

Florence Welch (13) vs. Lady Gaga (4)

The lead singer of Florence and the Machine is known for her unique and characteristic vibrato, and songs that allow her to build dynamically until she belts from her mid-range with all the power and soul of the greatest rock singers of the past.  While she may not receive royal status (yet), there does tend to be an other-worldliness about her stage presence.  Speaking of other-worldliness, Lady Gaga has been the standard by which we measure all pop gimmick.  However, don’t let Gaga’s antics distract you from the fact that Stephani Germanotta (aka Lady Gaga) can sing.  At 17, she was one of few select students to gain early admission to the renowned musical theater program CAP21, and more recently she has been showing off her ability to perform jazz standards with Tony Bennett.

Shakira (3) vs. Jennifer Hudson (14)

While Shakira hasn’t found nearly as much success on Billboard’s Hot 100 as many of the divas from her era, this Columbian belly dancer is especially known for her international acclaim.  She has broken nearly every record for a Latin recording artist to break on American charts, making her arguably the most successful Latin artist of all time.  In English she is mostly known for her hip-shaking dance tracks, so for a ballad example, it’s best to hear her in Spanish.  Jennifer Hudson made a name for herself as a vocalist to take seriously shortly after her run on American Idol, when she starred in Dream Girls as “the one who out-sang Beyoncé.”  She has been through the ringer but refuses to give up.  Although she has had limited success in pop radio, I am predicting this to be JHUD’s time to really shine.

Alicia Keys (11) vs. Adele (6)

I don’t know what Alicia Keys has been up to lately, but every diva has her own rhythm of popularity, and although her last album was not as successful, she’s charted most recently with The Hunger Games’ big theme, “Girl On Fire”.  Now that she’s a mom, it might just be the norm for her to take a few more years between each project, but that hardly takes away from her repeated appearance on pop, r&b, and hip hop charts.  Adele would have made this list before 25 and her huge ballad of 2015, “Hello,” pushed her over the 100 million sales mark, but she certainly would not have been seeded quite so high.  This year she embarks on her first tour since 2011 which will certainly continue to solidify her superstar diva status.

P!nk (7) vs. Miley Cyrus (10)

Although P!nk hasn’t had the same level of success on the pop charts, she not only has a powerful diva-worthy voice with an edge of attitude, but she’s a performer who has no physical boundaries with what she’s willing to do.  Whether she is swinging on fabric from the roofs of stadium venues, or whether she is mastering powerful and violent choreography to dance while singing at the top of her lungs, P!nk has made it look effortless.  I have no doubt that some will call into question Miley Cyrus’ presence on this list, but regardless of what you think of her personality or performance style, this girl was born and raised as a phenomenal power country vocalist.  She is the youngest person on this list for a reason, and whether they pay for her voice or to see what she’ll do next, she sells a heck of a lot of concert tickets.

Sia (15) vs. Rihanna (2)

In some ways, Sia is an anti-diva.  She has said that her wigs and other strategies of hiding her face are intended to keep some level of mystery and privacy for herself.  Though she has had success as a songwriter writing songs for many other artists (including the diva she is up against in this round), there are few singers who can perform her songs with the technical ability they require.  Meanwhile, Rihanna has the most #1 songs of any other woman from this era, and has been incredibly prolific in both recording and performing.  Her most recent album, ANTI, is a departure from her dance floor anthems, but seems to be a statement about making the music she wants to make right now, reminding me of Janet’s The Velvet Rope – no small comparison from this unabashedly massive Janet fan.

Don’t forget to vote for the Classic Era Divas, and watch out for more brackets at the end of the week!

Diva Madness: Classic Era Round 1

The time has come for voicing your opinions in another epic bracket tournament, this time between the beloved Divas of our pop music world.  For a longer description of how these particular 64 divas were chosen and seeded, check this out.  A link for the printable brackets is in the image below – make sure to download a copy and play along at home.  If you send me your final four selections (either filling out this nifty Google Form or by tweeting a pic of your brackets to me @djwhysoserious before March 1st), correct predictions will be entered to win a TBD gift-prize!

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Ok, now with those details aside, let’s get this tournament happening already!  It’s time to make our hard choices about which Classic Era Divas get to progress to the next round – and to help us decide, I’ll pick a ballad for each diva to show off their chops for us.

Barbra Streisand (1) vs. Gloria Gaynor (16)

First up we have our top seed of the classic era, Barbra Streisand (henceforth known as Babs) going up against disco sensation Gloria Gaynor.  In terms of Diva status, both of these ladies did their share in defining the term, one in the world of musical theatre, the other in the clubs.  Babs’ career has spanned 6 decades (!), and she is one of only 16 performers to have won an EGOT.  Gloria’s career may only span 4 decades, but she has arguably the most timeless breakup song ever, “I Will Survive”.  For comparison purposes, we’ll hear Babs sing the iconic “People,” (from Funny Girl), and Gloria on one of her few ballads, “I Never Knew” from 2004.

Of course your votes do not need to be restricted to these two performances, but instead should take in to account all that you know and love about these women, their music, and their diva-like attributes.  Who will survive?

Linda Ronstadt (9) vs. Dionne Warwick (8)

Although she was the most successful female artist of the 1970’s, Linda Ronstadt is rarely a name I come across anymore.  She is known for re-popularizing tunes with covers, breathing life and energy into songs that otherwise might have been forgotten, something that only a diva can truly get away with.  Dionne Warwick is another diva who rarely gets the recognition she deserves, even though she is the second (to Aretha Franklin) most charted women in billboard history.  Even into her seventies, she carries herself with an attitude and grace that proves her diva-worthiness over and over again.  She may be known for “That’s What Friends Are For,” and “Walk On By,” but I’ve chosen her original “I’ll Never Love This Way Again,” to show off her effortless vocal power.  For Linda, I’ve chosen “Long Long Time” to give some evidence of why Time Magazine described her as “Torch Rock”.

Remember, vote for the diva, not necessarily my song choice.  😉

Aretha Franklin (5) vs. Billie Holiday (12)

Yes, this tournament is going to get ugly right away.  I’ve already mentioned that Aretha is Billboard’s most charted female artist, which speaks to both her prolificacy and her longevity, having charted as early as 1961 and as recently as 2014 (with her cover of Adele’s “Rolling in the Deep”).  On top of numerous awards, Rolling Stone Magazine has called her the Greatest Singer of All Time.  Then again, what do they know if they make such a list without including Billie Holiday, a force of expression who broke and rewrote every rule for jazz vocalists and performers?  It’s hardly any doubt that the majority of singers that did make the list took their cues and inspiration from this lady right here.  Billie may easily be the original diva, with attitude and drama dripping from every performance and recording.  To show off these matriarchs of soul, I’ve chosen a couple of their earliest, career-creating songs.

Judy Garland (13) vs. Tina Turner (4)

This is the oddest match up of this bracket, and because of very different fanbases, I have no idea how this one will end.  The similarities are there: both women seem most comfortable on stage, and are classic examples of what they do best, whether it’s singing like a Hollywood angel in Judy’s case, or infusing a performance with as much personality and energy as we’ve all come to expect from Tina.  Each of these divas has had to repeatedly overcome personal drama in many forms, refusing to let it define their careers.

Cher (3) vs. Debbie Harry (14)

Cher just may be the original pop chameleon, reinventing her image and style for each decade she went on to dominate.  Though she began her career primarily as an entertainer, Cher worked hard to improve and strengthen her vocals, and released some solid ballads along with her dance tunes to prove she could play the diva game and stand out, with her contralto range and personality for days.  Debbie Harry is not only a punk icon, as one of the most successful women in rock music, but she also stands as a symbol of female beauty, talent and badassery.

Neither of these ladies are known for their ballads, but that’s what you’re going to get for this round.

Dolly Parton (11) vs. Ella Fitzgerald (6)

These may be the two least drama-driven women in this bracket.  Dolly Parton is one of very few child stars to make it through adolescence without addiction or major crisis.  She is still with the same man she married in 1966, and has for decades seemed to be the one solid rock in a host of emotionally extreme divas.  However, this rock is also a star performer with a personality to match her ample bosom and massive hairdo, and she is the most awarded woman in the history of country music.  Ella Fitzgerald didn’t start her life drama free, having regularly been homeless after running away from an abusive stepfather and multiple orphanages.  But it seemed the First Lady of Song found her home in singing jazz standards with an unmatched clear tone and an ear for improvising.  Though she was reportedly quite shy in person, her stage presence was another story.

Donna Summer (7) vs. Janis Joplin (10)

These two divas have been regularly crowned “Queen” of their genres, disco and psychedelic rock respectively.  Donna Summer began her career in musical theatre, but rose in popularity with her hit “Love to Love You Baby,” a song so popular in clubs that she recorded a 17-minute version so they wouldn’t need to play it on repeat.  A live version of the sexy song is below, since even her ballad songs eventually turn into a full-on disco dance party anyway.  Janis Joplin has plenty of solid blues tracks perfect for feeling and grieving, although she isn’t so much showing off her voice as she is her very soul.  Unfortunately for all of us, her potential for longevity was cut short by a heroin overdose, which ended her life before she reached 30.

Patti LaBelle (15) vs. Diana Ross (2)

Nothing like the Godmother of Soul and the Queen of Motown facing off.  I doubt I need to say much in terms of justifying either of these women’s diva-status.  While Patti LaBelle is known for her powerful voice (which allegedly spans 5 octaves), Diana Ross has often been accused of her fame being more reliant on her performance (which probably says more about her stage presence than it does about her voice).  Whatever you see as Diana’s strengths, they’re strong enough for Billboard to call her the “Female Entertainer of the Century,” and for her to be arguably the best charted woman worldwide.

March Diva Madness

Beyonce has stated that “A diva is a female version of a hustla”.  Though some of us would have slightly different definitions for and connotations with the word Diva, most of us imagine a female vocalist with some form of epic personality, and I thought these hustlas would make for an especially exciting competition for this year’s March Music Madness.

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Every March I pick a different music-related category to compete for your votes, inspired by the greatest sportsing tournament of every and any year, NCAA Basketball’s March Madness.  This year I’ve picked 64 divas, organized in quadrants that represent the eras in which they began their careers, contending for your votes to earn the coveted title of “Diva Champion.”

Before defining it for our purposes here, it’s important to acknowledge the way that the word “diva” has grown and morphed over the centuries and decades.  Originally, the term was reserved for distinguished female opera singers to denote a sort of deific or otherworldly quality about them.  More recently it’s been used colloquially to denote someone with particular pampered tastes – maybe they will only drink one particular brand of bottled water, or only stay at a hotel if certain specific flowers are present in the room.  When it comes to pop music divas, I would say we have collectively taken the original operatic idea of diva and added some additional expectations.  Here is a list of criteria to explain how I came up with this list of 64 pop divas.

Fmadonnadanceirst of all, the diva must be known for her vocal skills, though they may not be her first or even primary source of talent.  For example, though J.Lo, Paula and Madonna are examples of singers who were initially made popular because of their dance skills, they are considered divas because of the way they have continued to develop and emphasize their voices.  Plus, they reflect other qualities we’ve come to expect from divas.  This was the primary reason why someone like Taylor Swift was left out of this tournament – although she is touring and releasing some heavy-hitting singles, her voice is simply not strong (nor unique) enough to stand up against other divas here.

Secondly, though her vocal abilities are important, a diva is never just a singer.  She has become a kind of status symbol – a brand – which is often the case for those who are known easily by a single name (think Adele, Aaliyah, or Cher).  This may also be expressed by regularly being described in terms of royalty or otherworldliness (such as Beyoncé, Dolly Parton, Stevie Nicks, or Lady Gaga).  Often an indication of status symbol is the degree to which a drag queen is known to emulate your particular expression of femininity.

Whitney hairThirdly, there is often a level of drama in the life of a diva.  Some inner drama might show itself outwardly in weight and/or hair fluctuation (Janet, Tina, and Aretha demonstrate this), while others present an attitude that acts as both a defence mechanism, and a marketing technique (such as P!nk, Sia or Rihanna), and still others have even less success at hiding their life and relationship drama from the public (like Whitney, Britney, or Tina Turner).

Finally, the diva is all about her moments of shiny fame.  Certainly there is a longevity to some of our most celebrated divas (Diana Ross, Mariah, and Annie Lennox), who span multiple decades, often reinventing themselves to remain popular in new landscapes of pop culture.  However, divas tend to focus more on their next big moment – the next huge single, the next epic performance or tour – rather than focusing on crafting great albums (with some exceptions of course!).  Generally the diva shows her strength through the two pinnacles of her career: ballads that show off her vocal talent, and dance tracks to get the party started.

vh1DIVASOnce the singers were selected, there was the matter of seeding (ranking) them within the brackets.  A scoring system was established that awarded points based on record sales/streams, average of past tour sales, appearances on VH1 Diva Specials, lifetime achievement awards and public beefs or dramas.  High scores within each era were given high seeds that will compete first with lower scored divas, however it’s ultimately up to you to decide who will move on to the next round, and upsets are some of the most exciting and inevitable occurrences in every March Madness competition.

Without further ado, take a look at 2016’s March Music Madness brackets!  The image should open a printable/downloadable pdf as well.  Tweet a pic with your final four pics with the #DivaBrackets to enter to win a TBD prize!

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