A Plague of Divas
That's what I wanted to call this review: a plague of divas. I just don't get tired of saying it: a plague of divas. Unfortunately, you cannot have a plague of one. And one diva was all we got this year on VH-1's Divas Live, The One & Only Aretha Franklin. One measly diva. Well, no measly diva but one singular diva, which is my first bone to pick with Divas (Plural) Live 2001. Having divas rally around a tribute show is a good idea (see Divas of Doom, 2000), but unless you're about to rename your show 'Diva Live', show me some divasssss. Alright?
Who cares that the whole franchise of Divas does, in fact, amount to a plaque of divas? I've been bemoaning "the end is near" for years and now it's official. God has forsaken us. However, I'm not quite convinced that these VH-1 to-dos are actually legitimate Diva shows in the first place and I'll tell you why.
Is it live or is it Memorex? Apparently Memorex. I'm having real doubts these days about the "live" aspect of the show. First Cher tries to sneak in pre-recorded tracks for her 1999 performance of the hit "Believe," a song that just oozes trendiness, a trait beneath your run-of-the mill diva. VH-1 claims we will never know whether Cher sang live or not. But hey, if you've heard that song 60 zillion times on the radio and notice that the live version didn't vary one iota: the odds are you've hit a lip synch in the road. In 2000, Diana Ross decides to tape her whole tribute show. I don't know that "LIVE" is a necessary habitat for a diva but you can't have your live show and tape it too.
Special Guests? Clearly these Diva shows seem to be more about recent-charting pop-star music that about any real sense of Diva history and spectacle. I imagine Judy Garland herself would probably think the shows suck, diva-wise. Remember Judy Garland, VH-1? She would actually run around the stage and work her ass off to get that out-of-breath performance working. Today's divas just walk back and forth twice and they sound winded. Nelly Furtado, for instance, gave such a winded karaoke performance. Just stand still if you have to! The singing is the point, you see. That's the main thing. The back up singers were singing better than she was. And the band was overpowering her voice! Encroyable! Divas voices should be un-over-empower-able!
And The Backstreet Boys! Talk about a non sequitur. The three who showed up (why bother with three, I ask you?) played the role of Aretha's back up, like pips apparently, on a rendition of "Chain of Fools". Problem one: they're sucky pips. Problem two: they tried to turn a backup situation into a legitimate duet: stepping up, making eye-contact with the diva, out-emoting the diva. Step back, street boys. You're not worthy.
Then Janet Jackson, billed as a Special Guest, which I was thinking meant she was going to sing a little number for us, (is it me?), instead reads badly from a teleprompter. NOT GOOD ENOUGH! Crawling out of a hole does not a special guest appearance make. Mary J. Blige was a special guest however, very special. She did two of the best r&b performances on the whole show. Her voice was in great shape. She became Aretha-sized and I loved it. Her performance of "Daydreaming" was flawless, far and away the best guest performance of all the guest stars. The beginning of her "Do Right Woman" duet with Aretha gave me chills. A true Divas Live moment was happening. Until the song's end: sloppy and seemingly unrehearsed, two women sang over each other. An r&b duet can be like synchronized swimming or a relay race -- neat and clean or ebb and flow, powerful if it's done right. The ending of this number, however, was more like a water polo game: chaotic and all over the place and you get the sense something dirty is going on underwater.
But Mary J. Blige looked stunning in her gold ensemble. The show's best singer, best dresser = DIVA. Is it me?
I did appreciate the refreshing diversity Aretha chose to weave through her show: Marc Anthony and Celia Cruz sashaying with a row of Latin horns (Latin horns: you can't beat 'em!) and Kid Rock on "Rock Steady" who lumbered through the lobby for his entrance (hey kid, it's been done). He was the only one who managed to out-sing Aretha, mainly by out-screaming her but hey, it worked. His reference to Motown was off-putting, however, since Aretha wasn't a Motown artist or working in any sense of the Motown genre but a instead a solo giant who was able to effortlessly challenge Motown's entire roster. Big difference.
Wardrobe selection: At first when I saw the lineup of the show I thought - too many men in here! Way more men then women! And then I surmised that these men were probably there to "balance out Aretha," if you know what I mean. Did anybody try to talk Aretha out of wearing something that would make her look like a huge white orb? It was an ensemble eye catching in all the wrong ways. Sleeveless straps (looking more like hoists) and a short-legged jumpsuit maybe appropriate for a diva picnic, I'm not sure. She wore that wall of mall hair everybody was hoping died a quiet, late-80s death. Luckily we didn't have to witness fur. Never a given with Aretha, but yes, there would be feathers from some apparently huge bird. Aretha resists PC gear. But then Divas can be so spiteful. Some take drugs; some drink booze; some torture their assistants. Aretha wears funny clothes. And she's so in-your-face about it. Her second dress was more befitting a diva: pink and black and floor length, and containing a diva's essential staple: sequins.
The Stage: Turn the lights down, dammit. Is it me? These days we're forced to look at every nook and cranny of a celebrity, including the diamonds reflecting against the folds of their double chins. These diva shows are over lit. We don't need to see every crevice of diva armpit. Come on! Forced over-lit happiness, I hate it. And where was Aretha's diva crew when she walked onstage with lipstick on her front teeth. Heads should roll!
And another thing: there are too many people onstage to make a proper Diva show. Get the band off! Divas don't share stages with the little people; they share stages with ambiance! And what is with the way the sub-divas started introducing the next numbers before a) Aretha took her proper bows and made her dramatic exits and b) before the audience was done cheering for her. These transitions had all the hurried crudeness of an Oscar ceremony.
Finally, the repertoire of Aretha: Aretha, sadly, seemed bored with her soul hits. She sang them with a blank, expressionless face. No showstopper moments here. The second half of the show was a major step up. For the jazz number, someone actually took the time and creativity to produce the atmosphere of a jazz club, complete with a small space, low light and bored models in couches on the side. Aretha sat in a chair (finally, a diva in a chair) and starts playing with her gang (trumpeter Clark Terry, drummer Roy Haynes, bassist Ron Carter, pianist Herbie Hancock, saxophonist James Carter, and guitarist Russell Malone). The first truly inspired moment of the show. And not coincidentally, the first time Aretha allowed herself to be upstaged. The amount of R.E.S.P.E.C.T. Aretha herself showed to these players rose to the occasion. This is music she likes. And where Aretha's kudos go, so goes the show. Ditto with her Opera number (as opposed to the annoying Oprah moments). The lights go down...finally. Roses on the stairs, pink lamps in the background: this befits a diva! Aretha shows off her range. Her gospel number was GREAT! GREAT! GREAT! The show should have ended with gospel. Aretha's beginning and ending. Instead, Stevie Wonder inexplicably appears during the freeway of dull closing number, "Freeway of Love". After gospel and opera, what chance did a repetitive little pop song from the 80s have? A diva should know how to close the house down.
Main lesson I carried from the show: The last two divas' specials were loving tributes to rotund divas. So, it's official, divas, you can eat.
My favorite Aretha Songs
Aretha songs I can live without ever hearing again
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