Last week, Aretha Franklin announced the release of her latest album, Aretha Franklin Sings the Great Diva Classics and the enthusiastic reception reinforced the world’s continued admiration for the singer. Within 48 hours, her cover of Adele’s “Rolling in the Deep” had earned more than 2 million views and a ranking of 58 among Amazon’s top digital downloads.
The album title intrigued me. America seems to have a fickle relationship with its divas—especially given the great deal of gossip going around about “diva” behavior lately (criticism even the great Ms. Franklin cannot avoid). In particular, newcomer Ariana Grande has been the target of much judgment—most notably, for her preference to be photographed from her left side (showcasing her dimple). But she’s certainly not the first to be pinned with a scarlet “D”. Jennifer Lopez, Mariah Carey, Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera, and Madonna have all been accused of placing demands (i.e. asking for specific food and drink items) on staff members working backstage at their concerts (i.e. work). The implication: that they aren’t deserving of extravagance.
I beg to differ.
For the sake of argument, I don’t gauge the value of a singer by her talent alone: the divas I’ve listed above are formidable talents, regardless of whether they can hold a tune. Diva, then, can be defined as a female singer-slash-entertainer who earns an enormously substantial paycheck for her time, talents, and (in most cases) marketing prowess. Further, allow me to acknowledge that narcissistic or self-centered behavior (as defined by tabloids) is unbecoming, if true. But a more honest approach would involve taking a mirror to our own behavior.
The first problem with chastising divas for “diva-like” behavior is one of hypocrisy. We elevate singers to diva status on the basis of their extravagance and willingness to be bold. We reward them by purchasing their music and racking up video views, at which point we expect them to tone it down and act modest? That’s like relegating a poodle to lapdog status after training it to compete for Best in Show.
I don’t think anyone is suggesting that these singers are like domesticated animals, but animal instincts are telling. In certain experiments, it’s been reported that if a bird flaps its wings at the precise moment that a researcher releases a piece of food into the cage, the bird will associate wing flapping with food recovery. It will continue to flap its wings to earn its dinner. Feedback, whether it’s valid or not, changes behavior. In the case of divas, it’s basic psychology at play. Divas who are rewarded for their extravagance will engage in more extravagance, simply put.
The second problem is one of entitlement. It is ridiculous to suggest that an entertainer earning millions of dollars a year should not be a bother to her staff. It’s possible that some divas’ alleged demands fall in the category of extreme, but who cares? If there’s one thing these entertainers demand, it’s a paycheck. Begrudging a highly successful singer a private chef or imported water for their valuable time is like splitting hairs. (Beyoncé’s $115 million earnings last year amounts to $219 per minute—every minute).
Not to mention, who are we to judge? Few people have ever experienced the amount of pressure placed on celebrities and entertainers today. It’s probable that the much-ballyhooed “demands” are reactions to pressure. Most of us can admit to placing greater demands on our associates and loved ones when we’re under pressure.
The greatest value these entertainers provide is their willingness to share emotion: they feel the songs they sing, and they gift their emotions to us. For these gifts, they are compensated deservedly. And they are entitled to use their money (and influence) as they please. Likewise, anyone working for them is entitled to work for someone else if they feel such demands are over the top.
In the famous words of Ms. Franklin: What you want…(divas) got. It’s time to give our divas the respect they deserve for “getting” it in the first place.