Famous, but are these singers divas?

April 10, 2001|By Letta Tayler | Letta Tayler,NEWSDAY

Two months ago, neo-soul singer Jill Scott was a nominee for best new artist at the Grammy Awards. This week, she's a diva.

Scott is one of a half-dozen singers scheduled to perform with Aretha Franklin on "VH1 Divas Live," to be broadcast tonight from Radio City Music Hall.

This year's "Divas" is subtitled "The One and Only Aretha Franklin" and will be a tribute to the Queen of Soul, who is unquestionably a diva. And the lineup is, unquestionably, exciting.

But no matter what VH1 calls this show, the channel's fourth annual "Divas Live" telecast, it's about two divas, not several. Diva is, after all, Latin for goddess, and there aren't too many of those floating around the pop music world. The only other singer on the "Divas" bill who fits this description is Celia Cruz, who is to salsa what Franklin is to soul.

Scott is a young soul singer, beat poet and hip-hop artist who more than deserved to be named best new artist at the Grammys (she wasn't). She could well be a diva someday. As of now, though, she's a diva-in-waiting.

Nelly Furtado, a Canadian crooner, is an agreeable neophyte who delivers pop with a Portuguese lilt. Call her a divette.

Mary J. Blige is a soul sister who can belt real pain (another diva attribute). Survivor? Yes. Diva? No.

Janet Jackson's mythical stature almost elevates her to divadom, but there's the matter of her voice. Wisely, VH1 is using Jackson as a presenter rather than a performer, saving her wispy soprano from being engulfed in Aretha's vocal hurricane.

Then there are the show's male "divas" - boisterous rap-rocker Kid Rock and suave salsa star Marc Anthony. It's a colossal marketing stretch to call either one of them a diva - or a divus, the male counterpart in Latin (probably dismissed by VH1 because it rhymes too easily with Beavis).

Lauren Zalaznick, VH1's senior vice president for original programming, said the cable channel defines a diva as simply "a person who can sing the living daylights out of a rock `n' roll song."

Yes, Scott and Franklin will likely blow the roof off with their combination of grace and force. Kid Rock, who, like Aretha, hails from Detroit, will almost certainly prompt the Queen to strut and cluck around his staccato rhymes. Cruz and Anthony will bring out Franklin's Latin flair.

Still, by bringing in greener talent, VH1 can't help but cheapen the diva concept. Brandy and Shania Twain were clearly out of their element at past shows. And who could forget that moment during the first "Divas Live" when Mariah Carey tried to outsing Franklin, only to get vocally swatted away like a pesky gnat?

Of course, such moments are part of the fun. But far more rewarding are the performances of the few true prima donnas who've graced - or, as divas are wont to do, disgraced - "Divas Live."

Diana Ross skulked and wreaked havoc but still managed to charm during her "Divas Live" taping last year. Tina Turner shimmied and rasped through her segments with inimitable verve in 1999. Whitney Houston, another VH1 diva from '99, won listeners with her brilliant, gospel-inflected vocals and will remain a Diva Hall of Famer for her subsequent concert no-shows and marijuana bust.

VH1 could make amends for diva dilution by next year putting all the real prima donnas on the same bill - Franklin, Ross, Turner, Cher, Houston, plus opera giantesses Renee Fleming, Jane Eaglen, Deborah Voigt, Jessye Norman, Kathleen Battle and Angela Gheorghiu.

VH1 could still use pop and rock as the meat and potatoes of the show - many opera greats routinely go low-brow on TV specials. Then it could throw in a few operatic standards for frills: Remember Franklin's killer version of "Nessun Dorma," when she stood in for Pavarotti at the 1998 Grammys?

Imagine the potential for glittery costumes, vocal competition and, above all, ego clashes. "Divas Live" would live up to its name.

`Divas Live'

When Tonight at 9

Where VH1

In brief Exciting moments, but where's the R-E-S-P-E-C-T?

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