There she was, flicking her famously big curly hair, surrounded by almost-naked gogo boys, having the time of her life at West Hollywood gay bar The Abbey.
Beaming, dancing, slayingDiana Ross isn’t your average 73-year-old. Recent amazing footage showed her out partying with her son, Evan.
A gayer scene you could not invent: Ms. Ross danced to her own song, the recently released remixed version of “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” (which reached #2 on Billboard dance charts) then danced to a thumping remix ofMadonna’s “Vogue” before jumping up on the podium surrounded by almost naked gogo boys.
“My mother was having a ball and my brother was begging her not to crowd surf,” Ross’s daughter said.
They don’t make ’em like this anymore. And though it pains me to say, my prediction is that the gay icon of the diva, epitomized by Ms. Ross lapping up gay male adoration, will die out within a generation. The golden age of divas outshines the current crop of female musicians by a million miles, few of whom have classic gay icon potential.
The new generation of female artists simply don’t have the staying power to endure long enough to receive their “gay icon” card. In case you’re unfamiliar, it’s a card which each diva automatically receives when she turns 60, if she hasn’t already earned it. We even gave one to the (allegedly) homophobic Donna Summer; we’re a forgiving bunch.
Why, after a certain age, do women get bestowed “camp”? As Stephen Sondheim wrote in “I’m Still Here”: “First you’re another sloe-eyed vamp / Then someone’s mother, then you’re camp.”
The answer is personified by Cher and Dolly Parton. They no longer take themselves seriously. Completely owning their plastic surgery, wigs, and quick-wit, they long ago gave up looking sexy to the straight male gaze and realized how much more fun they’d have if they played to gay male unconditional love. It leads to one-liners that envy Oscar Wilde (Parton’s famous “It costs a lot of money to look this cheap”), owning (rather than glossing over) their life stories, and total relaxation about being compared to drag queens. The fun, as Ms. Ross showed, rubs off on us.
Rhianna and Rita Ora will never be divas or gay icons. They don’t have the range, the repartee, the self-deprecation or the personality and they probably won’t have the staying power.
That last reason isn’t entirely their fault; the golden age of divas rose to fame before social media, a time when elusiveness could create a brand and mystique could create a myth. When we know how many sugars bad girl Rhi Rhi has in her cup of tea, we’re not as convinced by that moniker. Our imaginations aren’t teased into wanting more in the same way they were in the age of print journalism, actual countdowns to record/cassette/CD releases and a time before Spotify spread our love too thinly to court the same “gay icon” obsession. Without the foreplay, it’s just sex; not passion.
A million gay Australian sphincters tightened when Cher confirmed, via a tweet of characteristic emojis and gloriously semi-coherent words, that she’d be performing at the 40th anniversary of Sydney Mardi Gras. As a Sydney-sider myself, I can tell you that this septuagenarian caused waves of excitement that looked like a tsunami next to Taylor Swift’s puddle splash when she toured here.
The diva population is aging and is book-ended by Madonna, who this year turns 60. The club includes, but isn’t limited to, Tina Turner, Cher, Diana Ross, Dame Shirley Bassey, Gloria Estefan, Dolly Parton, Whitney Houston, Mariah Carey. Their diva stripes are earned through dance routines, sequins, big hair, or wigs, uniquely recognizable (rather than necessarily genuinely good) singing voices and the uncanny ability to work with producers who know what loved-up gays most want at 4am under a laser light show rebounding off a disco ball. To be both gay icon and diva, there needs to be a little drag queen drama or genuine tragedy in there and definitely the ability to demand to be treated as equal to any male performing artist.
They have more pizzazz, more je ne sais quoi, more special star quality and more talent than current singers. Arguably, they had to work harder, too: at marketing themselves when there were fewer channels to do so, at making a career in a notoriously patriarchal, chauvinist industry and at attempts to make their eleventh comeback as new technology and the internet threatened to distract their fanbase.
Admittedly, I’m biased here. Aged nine, my mum allowed me enough money to buy two pirated cassettes and while my sister chose up-to-date artists, something somewhere deep inside me gravitated me towards women of a former era: Gloria Estefan’s Greatest Hits: Volume One and Diana Ross’s One Woman. A lifelong love of gay icons was born (weirdly, before I’d even realized I was gay). I was word-perfect on the crescendo of a Dame Shirley Bassey number before I knew it was boys who’d make my loins shudder.
There are, I accept, contenders to the crown. But even strong-contender Adele is found lacking. She doesn’t take herself seriously but her songs do. They don’t have the wink-nudge campiness of Diana Ross’s “I Want Muscles” or “I’m Coming Out,” the fierceness of Madonna’s Vogue, the dance routines of Tina Turner’s “Proud Mary” or “Nutbush City Limits” or the dramatic storytelling of Cher’s “Dark Lady” or “Gypsies, Tramps and Thieves.”
There is, I propose, one exception to this rule. Step forward, Queen Beya woman whose triple-threat talent will always endure and whose story will always tantalize. For all others, as Cher said in her twelfth incarnation of The Farewell Tour: “Follow this, you bitches.”
There’s another important reason behind the death of the diva. Sometime in the future, a woman who is clear about what she wants and demands to be treated on equal terms will no longer be described as a “diva.” She’ll be described, simply, as a woman.
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