These days, anyone can be a diva

Trends

October 17, 1999|By Tamara Ikenberg | Tamara Ikenberg,SUN STAFF

Perhaps you're a Gen-X pop icon. You may dance to the beat of a psycho-techno-maven. Or maybe you believe in the surreal cyber-Zeitgeist of our times.

If so, you've succumbed to the lexicon of chic speak, stringing together vacuous terms that may have originated anywhere from Douglas Coupland to Wayne Campbell to the Taco Bell chihuahua.

If "diva" is your derivative term of choice, you learned not from an "E! True Life Story," but Bellini.

Bellini is not pasta. He was a composer. Circa 1831, Vincenzo Bellini wrote the aria "Casta Diva" (chaste goddess) for the opera "Norma," the tale of a high priestess druid diva who sets herself on fire after her Roman lover sleeps with another chick.

Bellini, thank heavens, did not live to see Lil' Kim called a diva. (A diminutive diva?)

Diva originally and classically applies to a regal, opera-belting vixen with attitude to spare and, ideally, a penchant for unsuitable men and too much medication.

Thus, the quintessential diva is Maria Callas, not Mariah Carey. But in recent days, such grand dames have given way to latter-day divas: Beverly Sills to Barbra Streisand and Britney Spears, Joan Sutherland to Joan Rivers.

These days, divas are live, as in "VH1 Divas Live", which has christened Shania, Mariah, Gloria and Aretha -- not to mention Elton -- with the title. They're loca, as in Jennifer Lopez, "La Diva Loca." They're on ice, as in Katarina Witt and the Divas on Ice.

What they're not is rare.

Has the once exclusive term become a bloodless casualty of disposable discourse, or has it simply evolved? "It's so diluted now. It doesn't have the power," says diva-by-association Liz Rosenberg, publicist for capital-D divas Madonna, Cher and Bette Midler. "People should earn the title. It's very overused."

About 15 years ago, Rosenberg recalls, Madonna considered getting "DIVA" tattooed on the back of her neck.

But that was before a diva became as easy to find as a used John Tesh CD. (John Tesh: not a diva).

She never got the tattoo. But to be called a diva, Madonna says through Rosenberg, is "an honor," despite the word's plummeting value.

So what, then, is a diva to Madonna? "If I have to explain what a diva is, then I'm not doing my job," she says.

A contemporary diva need not raise her expertly arched eyebrows over the intended meaning. If true divatude initially meant the whole package: voice, vice, attitude and estrogen, these days it can mean A, B, C, D, or any subset of the four.

Today, a woman could be "well known, name in lights, but for a totally different set of reasons," and still attain divadom, says Naomi Baron, a linguistics professor at American University.

Specialized words often become more general after catching on. Baron uses the always dependable "cool" as an example. When "cool" entered the slang vernacular in the 1950s, it meant slick, even dangerous, she says. But over the years it became such a speech staple that it's now used to describe anything from a pop star to a pot holder. "As more and more people use it, it's going to acquire different meanings," says Jim Lowe, senior editor at Merriam Webster, the dictionary maker. "It's not a process you can control." An icon, for example, once meant an image of Christ or the Virgin Mary. Now it's "South Park's" Cartman on a computer screen.

Extending a word's meaning by getting creative with it advances language, Lowe says. Still, dictionary writers hang back a few years before adding auxiliary meanings. It could just be a trend.

But a word has to have some particular aural or intellectual appeal to hit that verbal nerve in the first place.

Perhaps diva is simply a sexy word, emitting phonetic pheromones. "Maybe it has something to do with the way it sounds," says Rebecca Vinyard, author of "Diva," a historical adventure romance about a fictional Vienna opera star. "Diva ... sounds like a queen."

Any word devoted to the glorification of a woman's power, control and style, in Vinyard's opinion, should be given free reign. "If they want to call themselves the `Web site diva,' then fine," she says. "It doesn't bother me at all."

Others think you have to draw the line somewhere to maintain whatever integrity "diva" has left.

Michael Harrison, general director of the Baltimore Opera, is in favor of any word that makes the common conversationalist's thoughts divagate (that is, stray) from WWF "Smackdown" to opera.

But, he says, "the word should apply to people who are singers." And add to that requisite "star quality ... the ability to move an audience."

So Celine Dion fits, Harrison says. So do Aretha Franklin and Diana Ross. But Martha Stewart (Domestic Diva)? "That's a little far-fetched," Harrison says.

For Rosenberg, though, lush pipes are optional as as long as the presence and power requirements are met. "You have to have the attitude," she says. "But you have to be entitled to have the attitude." Shania Twain, in Rosenberg's opinion, is not a diva. Tina Turner, though, is the ultimate.

Even a diva will admit she's got to work for it before she can make it work for her. In Cosmopolitan, eating-disorder diva Fiona Apple confessed: "I allowed myself to be a diva before I had any right to be. The true divas have been divas all their lives."

A diva, then, is timeless. It's the word that's tired.

Whether or not "diva" declines or begins to apply to particularly sassy bathroom fixtures, one thing is certain, it's not the last word from which society will slowly suck all meaning, impact and relevance.

What will be the next vocabulary victim? "The word `chutzpah,' " suggests Rosenberg, "which I can't stand."

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