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In search of the perfect diva

CRITIC'S NOTEBOOK

A powerhouse voice, a cover-girl face, a centerfold body, a clever and alluring personality -- can a singer ever hope to be the 'total package' for a pop-culture world that seems to demand it?

November 22, 2009|By ANN POWERS | Pop Music Critic
  • PRETENDERS OR CONTENDERS?: Taylor Swift, left, has a voice that polarizes listeners; Leona Lewis has the pipes, but some say her chilly persona is off-putting.
PRETENDERS OR CONTENDERS?: Taylor Swift, left, has a voice that polarizes… (Swift: Rick Diamond / Getty…)

Everyone knows that Taylor Swift can't sing. The teen star might hold the zeitgeist in her pink satin clutch, but she's regularly criticized for her live vocal performances, which tend toward wild notes and shortness of breath. Her turns onstage at the recent Country Music Assn. Awards, where she became the youngest-ever Entertainer of the Year, had critics pulling out descriptions like "shaky," "a train wreck" and (memorably, from Entertainment Weekly's Ken Tucker) "wobbly as a newborn colt."


FOR THE RECORD:
Perfect diva: An article in Sunday's Arts & Books about the search for the perfect diva said that Rihanna's "Rated R," due this week, was her third album. It is her fourth. —

Such negatives aren't new: A year earlier, the website Country Standard Time ran an editorial declaring Swift's voice "her biggest liability."

It's nothing new for a young female singer to take slaps for her lack of chops. Remember Madonna's early days or, really, most of Janet Jackson's career? What's different about Swift is that her vocal problems actually play into her strengths.

Ridiculously precocious as a writer, accessibly adorable when it comes to image, Swift benefits from having a flaw. Pretty but gangly, she's like a Disney heroine before the kiss makes her a real princess; her pitch problems enhance the sense that she's a work in progress. Swift's little voice drives adults crazy -- especially country-music lovers, who decry her as inauthentic -- but for the daughters and mothers who are her target audience, it shows she's as real as they are, with room to grow.

Swift's case contrasts informatively with that of another young, huge-selling female musician. Leona Lewis, whose second album, "Echo," was released last week, had the most popular single of 2008 with "Bleeding Love," a long drink of heartache built around her sumptuously somber vocal lines. An unusually gorgeous 23-year-old Londoner groomed to perfection by Idolmaker Simon Cowell, Lewis has a voice like the young Whitney Houston's -- massive and sleek, athletic yet ethereal, with a tone that bespeaks the sublime.

But Lewis has a problem too. Her critics perceive her as hollow, inexpressive -- all voice and no personality. Unlike Houston and Mariah Carey, whose marital, chemical and/or psychiatric crises lent them the aura of the real, Lewis seems determined to remain sane and a little bit distant in her devotion to her craft.

Lewis is a lousy tabloid diva, and as a singer, she doesn't wobble. While her seriousness lends her a certain marketable elegance, it can make her seem more like a product than a person. "Echo" modernizes her sound by taking it to the dance floor, but its center remains still. While the legions who buy it will admire its "dignity" and "class" (words often used by Lewis' fans), its impact remains elusive.

Between these two poles of Perfect Personality and Perfect Voice lies reality for most female pop stars. The dichotomy also plays out in the life of the average woman, though "body" or "face" substitutes for voice when it comes to what we worry about and try to change.

The female stars who have come to dominate pop in the last decade all express some aspect of this tension -- neatly summed up by Swift in her megahit "You Belong With Me" as "she's cheer captain and I'm on the bleachers," impervious beauty versus touchable, vulnerable charm.

Tension makes a tangle

Two developments in the first part of this century have made this split feminine ideal particularly fraught. On the one hand, it's become easier for any woman to enhance her body via Botox, liposuction or even reproductive technology -- think of Octomom, apparently self-made inside and out. The kind of "womanly" form that once required great genes or intense discipline now seems, to some, to be a basic right in our consumer's democracy -- just as, for singers, perfect pitch is something guaranteed through Auto-Tune.

At the same time, the idea of "post-feminism," which assumes that gender equality has been generally attained and only needs to be individually enacted and reinforced, presents another dream to ordinary women. It's assumed that they can comfortably sit on the bleachers with the boys -- or run on the playing field, rule in the boardroom and co-parent at home. The ultimate fantasy is to be both a great beauty and a good pal: Angelina Jolie on her motor bike next to Brad Pitt.

The need to reconcile the cheer captain and the bleacher-sitter within is further complicated by what technology has done to the way women relate, both to each other and to men. On the Internet, we can create different versions of ourselves, but we're also more exposed. The old-fashioned primness that made a comeback in the 1990s through books like "The Rules" has given way to text-message hookups and chat-room threesomes. As women reinvent both romance and themselves online, they explore new dimensions of what it means to be beautiful.

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