Sunday, January 31, 2010

Viva La Diva!

You may or may not know this, but it is a fairly standard practice for white gay men of the United States to attach them- (our-) selves as fans to black women divas. This phenomenon is one that I will be exploring further in my academic work, but it is a recognized state of affairs in many white gay communities in this country, particularly those with an awareness of music and of history. Popular choices include Tina, Beyoncé, Mariah, Lena, Kathleen, Tyra, Whitney, Jessye, Jennifer, and Jennifer. This list is not exhaustive, of course. The politics of the whole phenomenon, as well as the politics of calling these women by their first names only, can be complicated. It's a subject I like to discuss with people when they're interested, but I don't feel like doing so right now. Instead, I want to share with you my own diva choices, one a standard and two rather un-.

FIrst, and most likely, is the immortal Ella. One of my first musical collections, obtained under somewhat shady circumstances, was the complete set of her Songbook recordings, and they remain a source of endless joy for me. Joy is the key word when describing Ella's music; she takes more pleasure in the act of singing than any other vocalist I know. Just listen to her sing anything on her Harold Arlen Songbook recording and you'll hear the sheer, unbridled joy that singing brings her, even when the song's subject is a sad one. As a singer, I aspire eternally, vainly, to approach her attitude and her peerless ability to convey real emotion.

Next, and less likely, is a woman known to most people my age (if she is known at all) simply as The Chief. Outside of ACME Crimenet, she was known as Lynne Thigpen, but my affectionate-first-name-basis name for her will remain, always, The Chief. Not Lynne. The Chief starred in some amazing musical failures on Broadway, from the now-a-regional-theater-standard Working (24 performances) to the thankfully-still-unknown But Never Jam Today (8 performances) before winning a featured actress Tony for a "straight" play at the age of 49. Five years later, she would be dead of a cerebral hemorrhage. The Chief's tragic demise, coupled with her struggles on stage and eventual triumphs on the small screen, make her a prime candidate for diva canonization. I could wax poetic about her for many, many paragraphs, but I will spare you the rhapsodies. For now. Just bear in mind that you don't know from divas until you've heard her valiantly, brilliantly try to rescue the all-gospel Alice in Wonderland that was But Never Jam Today from its well-deserved obscurity.

Third, final, and most bizarre, is Patricia J. Williams. She's not a singer. She's not a performer at all, in the most common sense of the word. Williams—she is too formidable for a first-name address—is a professor of law at Columbia University and a columnist for The Nation. Yes, the period at the end of that sentence is part of the magazine's name, and thus belongs in the link. I have read many Nation columnists over the last 10 years or so, and never have I found one who is so consistently (a) right about everything, (b) dizzyingly intelligent, (c) eloquent about getting her point across, and (d) interested in topics that I find fascinating. "Diary of a Mad Law Professor" is the best single page I read every month, and I read books for a living. Is this description hyperbolic? Yes. Is that part of the point of being a diva fan? Obviously. The whole reason I am writing this post is because I just found out this afternoon that she's coming to speak here next month, and I am so excited! I will blow off pretty much anything to find out if she's as compelling in person as she is on paper.

That just about does it for tonight's diva round up. The title of this post, for those who are sadly unaware, refers to this song by Israeli transgender pop singer Dana International. Now you are aware.

No comments: