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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!

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Lungs – Florence + The Machine, 2009

I have begun to write this particular blog so many times that finally an incentive occured to me.  Last night I went out and bought F+tM’s new record, Ceremonials, and I am allowing myself to listen to it only once I’ve finally published this.  So you can be guaranteed what I’ll be up to for the hour following this post.  I’m pretty stoked.

I think my problem has been that I have attempted to listen to Lungs (with the intention of blogging) on several trips, and by the time I arrive at my destination I have no time to actually do something with my thoughts.  This has happened on 4 separate occasions, and I am left to at least notice that this is a great album to travel with.  It sounds especially great when you are alone and the volume is up, so that you can sing along loudly whether or not you know the lyrics; it just makes us want to yell.

Dog Days Are Over is one of those songs that has been impossible to avoid, not that I’ve bothered to try.  The hopeful anthem is rather perfect for drama of all kinds, being pushed forward by action, excitement, and fantasy.  The first track wisely asks us to let go and set our sights on the good that’s coming, and sets the tone for the rest of the album both instrumentally – with plucked harp and heavy drums – and atmospherically.

“Rabbit Heart (Raise It Up)” continues with a similar sense of freedom.  It’s hard to picture anything other than some beautiful Stevie Nick-ian woman running through an enchanted forest.  Spiritual-mythological themes are introduced, causing many to describe Lungs as Goth-pop as she uses fantasy lit imagery to invite us into her world and question it with her.   In turn, we are also invited to question the things we know of our own world.

“I’m Not Calling You a Liar” is so stunning and always makes me think of the Ani lyrics that compare liars with alcoholics, asking, “Has he changed?…  Or is he just a liar with nothing to lie about?”  By the time “Howl” hits the course, I am seriously wondering how one woman can carry the energy of so far 4 phenomenal tracks in a row on one album.  I know recording isn’t that simple, but I am almost exhausted just from pretending to Florence; what must it be like to have such ideas and passion that exudes itself all over this record?

Now for something a little different.  “Kiss With a Fist” was my first Florence song, so I have a soft spot for it.   Even though this song feels more similar to contemporaries like Lily Allen or Kate Nash in its playfulness and violence, Florence hits this genre harder, and shows off her ability to just plain rock out.  And right before slowing down and giving us the bluesy, and morbid ballad, “Girl With One Eye”; one of the many tracks that reminds me of Annie Lennox in her uniquely powerful, story-telling voice.

“Drumming Song” “Between Two Lungs, “Cosmic Love” come as a triplet, acting as not only the middle section of the album, but the mysterious center of the setting we’ve been drawn into.  The first and last are two of my favorite songs to blast in the car and drum along to, and all three give a context for the album title as they explore the physical and visceral of life and death, love and purpose.  Life and death continue to be contemplated even more explicitly in “My Boy Builds Coffins”. 

“Hurricane Drunk”, though still thematically dark has a lighter tone and sounds the most like a pop song so far.  I get a little annoyed when this song fades out, but when “Blinding” sets in I forgive and forget, as the softer song builds.  I really can’t believe that this album is able to sound so cohesive and consistent in tone and setting, and yet I still can’t say I’ve had enough.  I am still stoked to rip open the new album and listen to more of the same!  But before I need to do that, Florence presents me with one of my all time favorite covers of “You’ve Got the Love”.  The album finishes, but my time with Florence does not.  If you loved the last track as well, it was remixed by the genius Jamie from The XX.  Listen to it here.