"Probably, intending to be campy is always harmful."
- Susan Sontag, "Notes on Camp"
"Chain Reaction," the video, appears to be an attempt to summarize Miss Ross's own version of, if not her career, then at least her persona, from start to finish. At every turn, though, something goes awry. It's not really a surprise that in her own imagination she ponied her way through a glossy version of the '60s very much alone - but why is she doing it in a space-age Louise Brooks wig? Why are the Bee Gees represented by actors who seem to be portraying the Pips (off-putting, not least because the Gibbs sound more like Florence and Mary)?
More surprising is how not-right Miss Ross and the team got her contemporary incarnation. It doesn't help that she's introduced in a gown that appears to be a line-for-line copy of the one immortalized by Divine at the climax of Pink Flamingoes (in the eighties, could anyone take a fishtail dress seriously?). It's made worse when she appears to inspire a prison riot by appearing dressed as late-period Dietrich. It's made fatal when she sprawls on an underlit dancefloor and writhes in what looks very much like Michael Jackson's idea of a sexy lady move.
It doesn't help that the song itself - which on many levels I adore, I'm not ashamed to admit - is so very incoherent. Until I read the lyric yesterday, I don't think I'd ever understood more than about three-quarters of the words. The best diva songs tell a story, either directly (Piaf actually does regret nothing) or implicitly (Midler is as a brassy as a boogie-woogie bugle boy, but also as sentimental as a Rose). This one is all over the place - first she's on a pedestal wanting a mystery, and then suddenly she's on a journey for the inspiration, and it's all linked only by talking about love, love, love, and somehow it's a chain reaction. You can get away with that if you're the B-52s, but not if you're trying to be, well, Diana Ross.
As she has since found out.
The problem with Diana Ross, today and in most of the years since "Chain Reaction," is that she's incoherent, inconsistent, diva-wise. From the time she first started shouldering aside her Supremes, it had seemed that her control over and understanding of her own image was iron-clad, as steely as the broad smile that took her through her middling Hollywood period and saw her emerge as "The Boss." It's easy to forget what a Very Big Star she was in those years. She seemed to be on a permanent trajectory that even Mahogany and The Wiz hadn't been able to dent.
But then the narrative falls apart. "Chain Reaction" makes it clear that she doesn't really understand her own past, while the recriminations of her former colleagues mean that she can only ever glancingly connect with it (to sing too many Supremes songs only makes her audience think of Florence). And in the years since "Chain Reaction," it's become clear that she can't think of any way to self-present that wasn't set in stone by 1985; it's all still there - the vast hair, the fishtail gowns, the rictus grins - but in a way that now seems more like impersonation than performance.
Thinking about all this, I watched videos of her participation, last December, in the Washington Christmas concert - a very gala event, the Obamas present and all very festive. When she chooses to be, Ross is still in excellent voice (for a contrast, try out some audience-made concert footage of the last few years - horrifying). Her voice - never large, but at its best enormously effective - is smaller, but under her command as it is for few singers heading into their 70s. How odd that the technique of singing, which she learned at church and by singing with two friends, has stayed with her, while the technique of celebrity, in some way, despite being forged in the Mines of Motown and refined through a decade of superstardom, has not...