Who is Diana Ross?
After 50 years in the spotlight, we should be able to neatly summarize who she is, and where she fits into the pantheon of divas. And yet, her mystique and persona are so hard to pin down; she can't be easily categorized. Aretha Franklin is the Queen of Soul; Donna Summer was the Queen of Disco; Dinah Washington was the Queen of the Blues; Tammy Wynette was the Queen of Country. But what is Diana Ross, who, arguably, became a greater superstar than any of these queenly ladies? Queen of Motown? Certainly, but that seems even more limiting than the single-minded monikers bestowed upon the other crowned heads of music royalty. "Queen of Pop," at first, sounds too generic (and, besides, Madonna fans would be up in arms); and, yet, it ultimately seems to fit: because Diana Ross has been criticized and lauded as being the epitome of pop. She was "too pop" for "real" soul music, critics charged; "too pop" to authentically portray Billie Holiday. A seemingly synthetic, sequined creation, all lashes, fingernails, hair and ambition; and yet, she embodied "a soft, silky pop queen...her notes slim and elegant...a perfect summa-cum-laude Supreme,"as journalist Richard Goldstein breathlessly reported in 1967.
"Fred and Ginger Medley" from The Hollywood Palace with Sammy Davis Jr. (originally aired October 18, 1969)
"Leading Lady Medley" from G.I.T. On Broadway (originally aired November 12, 1969)
"Corner of the Sky" from Pippin; World tour, 1973-74
Ronnie Bennett and the Ronettes extended their eyeliner, ratted their beehives, hiked up their skirts, and seemed to let every man in the first three rows know that the party could be continued backstage, in the back seat, in the back alley. The Bluebelles looked like demure, shy schoolgirls, in their Peter Pan collars and sailor suits; then Patti LaBelle would let out a wail like a bat out of hell, and every wig would fly into the balcony of The Apollo. The Ikettes dripped bacon grease and hot wax all over the stage as they shook, strutted and shimmied, while Tina growled and sneered and jerked off the microphone stand. Dionne coolly stared into nothingness, over your eyes and head, as porcelain and pristine and aloof as the Bacharach-David mini-masterpieces she was spinning into the ether; Gladys, despite her remarkable voice, seemed the warm, comforting den mother, someone who would invite you in for Sunday supper with the folks; and Aretha was the testifying church mistress, demanding, and getting, R-E-S-P-E-C-T.
And Diana? Diana seemed to come from another planet. Early in their careers, she and the Supremes were often compared, not to the women mentioned above, but to the Andrews Sisters or the McGuire Sisters: wholesomely glamorous, safe, as appealing to the white suburbanites tuning in to The Ed Sullivan Show or The Hollywood Palace as they were to the kids plunking down a dollar for the "Love is Like an Itching in My Heart" 45.
In her earliest televised performances as a Supreme, Diana demands your attention, in contrast to Dionne's icy detachment, but with an ultra-coquettish femininity that would be unthinkable for Aretha, Gladys or Patti, and a flutteringly seductive quality completely foreign to the baser instincts of Ronnie and Tina. Instead, Diana pops her eyes like Lena Horne in her 1940's MGM movies, and mews and purrs like Eartha Kitt, and her lineage to the glamour of old Hollywood, to the polite elegance of swanky nightclubs, rather than the grimy record racket or the sweaty Chitlin Circuit, suddenly becomes crystal clear.
"Mother Dear" from The Dean Martin Show (taped August 1965, originally aired March 24, 1966)
"C'est Si Bon" by Eartha Kitt, European TV, circa 1969/70
"Reflections" and "The Lady is a Tramp" from The Hollywood Palace (originally aired September 26, 1967)
"The Lady is a Tramp" by Lena Horne, from Words and Music (1948, MGM)
The question, posed as early as 1966, steadily became, "But is it soul?" Diana Ross probably never had time to worry with semantics, and, besides, she likely had absolutely no intention of "keeping it real," because the fantasy world of beautiful gowns, bright lights and the adoration of a huge audience -- the pop audience -- was undoubtedly much more appealing. "All I ever wanted," she insisted, without an apparent trace of ingenuousness, "was to sing and wear pretty clothes." And if no one could quite agree what she was singing, that didn't seem to matter much, either. "There is truly no popular singer in America who can touch her stylistic range," declared critic and historian Robert Palmer in 1977, "or her ability to put across a song's emotional charge without wallowing in melancholy or bombast."
Less is more: Aretha, Dionne and Patti tackle the Diana Ross songbook
Of course, Diana Ross has been perplexing her critics from the very beginning. She has been hailed for "her mastery of [the] quasi-operatic approach" to ballad singing; praised for her "near-weightless delicacy and tenderness"; and railed against for her "plastic simulations."She confounded the 1960's black stereotype of beauty by embracing her rail-thin physique at a time when the opposite was the norm, seeming to hold the bony British model Twiggy in esteem as her role model, rather than the curvaceous African American ideal. She confounded the stereotype of what a black singer was "supposed" to sound like, eschewing melismata and gospel-style runs for a more subtle, simple approach. She confounded sentimental fans by leaving -- seemingly dry-eyed and determined -- the group which had turned her into a household name. And she confounded her mentor, Berry Gordy, Jr., of Motown Records, by leaving the independent company she had called home for twenty years, for a $20 million offer (then the largest contract ever awarded to a recording artist) to jump ship, join a larger label, and call all the shots herself.
One rock critic dubbed Diana Ross "the Queen of Plastic Pop," and undoubtedly meant it as a derogatory title; but we think she should reclaim it, refashion it, as "the Queen of Elastic Pop," because no one has so effortlessly changed personas from song to song, with such flexibility and apparent ease, while still remaining "Diana Ross." The girl who sang "Baby Love" is different from the girl who sang "Love Child"; the woman who sang "Touch Me in the Morning" is different from the woman who sang "I'm Coming Out." The connective tissue is, of course, Diana Ross herself, and that indescribable, indefinable something that she brings to her songs. Like Madonna, she is an icon with more than one iconic pose; the wide-eyed, slightly naive skinny Supreme in the middle is as much "classic Diana" as is the broadly smiling, sequined mannequin surrounded by 70's Vegas tinsel, or the glittering, diamond-hard 80's power goddess staring down the elements in Central Park.
|Ross by Warhol, 1982|
March 26, 1944