Saturday, February 23, 2013

Shameless Saturday Camp Explosion: Does "Diva" Have a Past Tense?

"Probably, intending to be campy is always harmful."
- Susan Sontag, "Notes on Camp"

It may not look like it, but what this video - a perennial favorite from 1985 (can it really be that long?) - represents is a diva in crisis.  It is, among other things, the last thing approaching a hit in the long career of Miss Diana Ross, and while at the time it all seemed very poppy and fun, what it really is, we now can see, is a dead end.

"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...


  1. remember when she announced the
    reunion tour with the supremes
    who were not the supremes?

    her ranking on my billboard chart
    dropped below every heavy metal group.
    and you know my opinion of that shit, right?

    1. It actually wasn't, my darling Norma, billed as a "reunion" of the Supremes, which even the mercurial Miss Ross knew would be a sham. It was intended to be a reunion, except that Mary Wilson decided that $4 million for a fairly quick summer tour was too paltry for her to consider -- she wanted the same amount Diana was contracted for, estimated at about $15 million -- but out of which Diana would have to pay for arrangements, costumes, dancers, promoters, etc., and also based entirely on the gross of the tour, nothing guaranteed. Mary's $4 million was a guaranteed flat rate, nothing deducted. When Mary declined this offer, Diana decided to continue with the tour, along with two bona fide, Motown-contracted, 1970's Supremes instead of Mary and Cindy Birdsong. That, ultimately, proved to be misguided, but it was never, ever, billed or promoted as an actual reunion.

    2. darling tjb, it may not have been billed as a "reunion," but when you have a singer who was once in a trio and left said trio and then advertises that the trio will tour, reunion is certainly implied. mary may have made a foolish decision, i have no idea, but obviously much of the world felt similarly to me and turned their noses up to miss thing with lynda & scherrie.

      so, did we get a law degree while we were on hiatus? xx

    3. Oh, it was a bad idea to continue with the tour once Mary and Cindy were on board, no doubt. But the implication that anyone was being "duped" I take exception to. OK, I'm taking my Phylicia Rashaad wig and pumps off now! xx

  2. Past tense of "diva"? Divested... Jx

    PS I agree with every word you say about Miss Ross

  3. Never saw this video before today. It looks like an episode of RuPaul's Drag Race.

    My past tense of Diva?


  4. It's funny, for years now Cher has been doing this same 'impersonation of self' that you talk of - but making us love it. (well most of us).

    I thinks the difference is that unlike Cher, Ross doesn't have a sense of humor, and never has had.


  5. I think Felix has hit on an important part of the problem - however hard she worked on the "Reach Out and Touch..." warmth, Ross never did seem to manage to project a scintilla of humor or even any real indication of self-awareness.

    Cher - and they really do make an interesting compare-and-contrast, don't they? - of course made a success of her film career, which adds dimension, but she also sends herself up even as some aspects of what she's projecting (especially the agelessness) she seems to mean seriously. It will be interesting to see how much longer she can keep doing so, and if she has a Plan B if not.

  6. That silver dog of a dress at the end looks like the sort of bulky outfit that is dramatically ripped off to reveal something more form fitting and fabulous beneath. No such luck.

  7. such excellent commenting all around....i
    really like felix's regarding the lack of humor.

    didn't terry sweeney do a diana, singing
    reach out and touch while saying,
    "don't touch me" under his breath?

  8. Long ago, Miss Ross came to see herself as a Diva. She has forgotten that divas are canny, hard working performers. Divas who neglect being canny performers are just pains in the ass. Ross's artistry is gone. All that's left is the icon. And it is only the icon that interests Miss Ross. She left herself with nothing to do, no calling card, nothing. She's turned into Billy Wilder's Norma Desmond, sitting in that director's chair and preening. The artistry is gone. She is a fool.

  9. Considering how opinionated we all are about Miss Ross, she must be gratified that she can still get a bunch of queens in a tizzy, even if it isn't exactly hearts and flowers! For an alternate point of view, hardy souls can visit here.

    Incidentally, artistry (and diva-dom?) is hugely subjective, and I admit to being biased in favor of Miss Ross (like that other humorless diva, J.C.) -- but I wonder how many who gripe about her, or any other performer they're not especially fond of, having "lost it," have actually seen said performers, perform in person to make the call? I've caught myself griping that [insert Cher, Bette Midler, Madonna here] have stayed too long at the fair, and then realized that I have no point of reference, because the last time I saw any of them was a decade ago -- and even if I had, there's always the chance that I wouldn't be swayed by their charms now if I wasn't in their "prime."