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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!

21 – Adele, 2011

I’ve been attempting to finish a post on the magnificent Janet Jackson’s Rhythm Nation, 1814 for the past couple weeks, but can’t seem to.  I’m sure a large part of the delay is the fact that I’m awaiting a vinyl copy to come in the mail, and want to have listened to it once before finally publishing anything.  That’s what you have to look forward to.  In the mean time, I’ve been going through a bit of a music funk.  I’m tired of almost everything I’ve heard before, but can’t seem to find the energy to listen to anything new.

The one exception has been Adele’s second album, 21.  Yes, it’s titled from the age at which she wrote the material, and yes, that throws me off every time considering the emotional depth and maturity that echoes through most of the tracks.  I have to admit, this album is growing on me with every listen.  As a follow up to 19 I immediately found it disappointing.  Don’t get me wrong, I fell in love with “Rolling in the Deep” like everyone else, and was playing and re-posting her performance at the Brit Awards of “Someone Like You” along with the half of facebook.  But after my first listen, I felt that the rest of the album couldn’t live up to these two power songs.

I still think they are the strongest on the album along with “Rumour Has It”.  Yet at some point I gave the rest of 21 another chance, and this time I imagined that it was a backwards sandwich – the goods at either end with mostly boring essentials in the middle.  Eventually it morphed into a Lasagna, where the cheese is still on top, and most of the good juices drip to the bottom, but really, it’s all good.  Something tells me I’m hungry…

As I mentioned, 21 begins with a bang.  The album is an exploration of a particular breakup, but instead of opening with melancholy, Adele comes out swinging.  There is indeed a fire in her heart, and it’s contagious.  I guess the first two songs represent the anger stage of the grief cycle.  That’s my favorite.

“Turning Tables” jumps back in time to the moment she realizes a breakup is necessary, and although it’s a good song, it has an annoying tendency to get Rihanna’s “Unfaithful” in my head.  I’m no Rihanna-hater, but this is really one of her worst.  Still, I shouldn’t take out my feelings on Adele; it’s not her fault that Rihanna wrote a catchy tune that talks about being a murderer.

The one song I haven’t changed my mind on is the next: “Don’t You Remember”.  Adele, you are so much better than a shmultzy country song.  I know every breakup album needs a depression-infused-regret song, but this can not be it.  I honestly think I would have enjoyed this album much earlier if this wasn’t included.

And now that we’re past it, I can relax.  It gets better from here; it’s a steady increase of good tuneage.  “Set Fire to the Rain” is quickly becoming the spicy meat in my Adele sandwich… or lasagna.  It’s the ideal Adele instrumentation that starts with piano at the foundation and builds through the verses to create a climax at the chorus with strings and an epic feeling chord progression.

I love the punctuated piano shots of “He Won’t Go”, and I do tend to sing along, so perhaps it’ll still grow on me, but right now I’m mostly excited for the ballads to start.  “Take It All” feeds that craving.  Pure, soulful Adele-voice, with the tiniest dab of gospel choir.  I kind of wish she saved this one until later, because it’s hard to go back to the poppy “I’ll Be Waiting”.

Something about “One and Only” sounds like it should be in Dream Girls (Am I alone in this?).  Maybe that’s why I feel like it doesn’t hit as hard as it might be trying to.  I do LOVE the bridge, where she gives him a little understanding:  “I know it ain’t easy, giving up your heart.”  Almost wish it was a song in itself.  Then Adele does something I never would have expected.  She covers the Cure’s “Lovesong”.  I really like this a lot by itself, but I’m still not sure how it goes with everything else.  Are we meant to hear that she’s ready to love again, is it denial, or does she actually feel like she’ll love the D-bag forever?  I’m a little confused.

I forgive and forget everything that came before as soon as the arpeggios of “Someone Like You” begin.  This son makes me melt all over, no matter where I am; I become that dork on the bus with the iPod who closes her eyes super dramatically, and worries everyone around that she might burst into tears, and no one will know what to do.  But hey, you try to listen to this tragic tune without controlling your emotional reactions.

Here’s that post I love to share.  I have to go cry now, and no, I don’t have time to talk about whatever the bonus track is that came with my iTunes download.