Black Diva White Pop

The Black Diva White Pop project ranges from the post-civil rights era of Diana Ross (1970s-early 1980s) to the allegedly post-racial era of Beyoncé (2000s-present). I suggest that there is a continuity in the way Ross and Beyoncé, but also Donna Summer, (the 1980s) Tina Turner, Whitney Houston, Janet Jackson, and Mariah Carey, are expected to reconcile their commodification (functioning as brands selling a star image, not just music and films) with notions of "authenticity." As commodified superstars in the realm of pop music, their "authenticity" has been double questioned, in relation to both the predominantly white rock aesthetic as well as music genres such as soul, R&B, and hip-hop that are connoted as "black." Methodologically building on the work of Richard Dyer (star image) and Andrew Goodwin (metanarrative of stardom), I analyse these superstars as "texts," both on the production side (performances on record, film, music video, promotional materials, interviews) and on the reception side (critical review, tabloid stories). I argue that the star-texts of these superstars can be linked to each other, thereby revealing a longer history of African American female superstardom, and in particular the way questions of "authenticity" have been raised in racial terms.

Whitney's True Voice

"I know what you're feeling, though we're far apart / I hear you in my heart," Whitney Houston sings in a 1994 television commercial for AT&T, promoting the telecom company's TrueVoice service. Here commodification and "authenticity" explicitly come together. Similar to the way her music videos visualize her voice, the one-minute commercial shows Houston, dressed in an elegant white evening gown, singing in an undefined dark and isolated space, with spotlights beaming from below. The emphasis is on her voice, travelling through space, and as such embodying the AT&T new long-distance telephone technology. Houston is literally commodified, because she is presented as a valuable product that symbolizes the technology's quality, as is made clear by the onscreen text: " 5 Grammy Awards ... 4 Multi-Platinum Albums ... 10 Number One Singles ... Yet AT&T found a way to improve Whitney Houston's voice." However, through Houston's voice, the technology is translated into an "authentic" experience. "Just let me hear, loud and clear / The real you, coming through / Your true voice," Houston sings, thereby establishing a direct personal connection to the viewer/listener and potential consumer. In this way, Houston can be experienced as "real" rather than just a commercial product.

(from my essay "The True Voice of Whitney Houston: Commodification, Authenticity, and African American Superstardom," in Celebrity Studies, 2014)

Diana's Afro Wig

The complexity of the Diana Ross star image is perhaps best captured by a Motown publicity photo of 1971. The picture, taken by Harry Langdon as part of a photo shoot for the Diana Ross solo album Surrender, shows Ross's almost angelic face framed by a huge Afro. The result is an extraordinary combination of fashion and Black Power imagery. On the one hand, Ross is presented as a traditional 1950s Hollywood diva: her bare shoulder emphasizes the sensuality of the picture, while her heavily made-up eyes look into the sky. On the other hand, Ross is presented as a fashionable version of Angela Davis, the Black Power activist, wearing big earrings and sporting a "natural" Afro. Like her star image, Ross's Afro is larger than life and "superficial" - after all, her Afro is a wig. However, the power of the image, and in extension the Diana Ross star image, lies in its embodiment of the contradiction between fashion and politics, and its refusal to accept that those two cannot go together.
(from my essay "Ain't No Mountain High Enough: Diana Ross as American Pop-Cultural Icon of the 1960s," in Impossible to Hold: Women and Culture in the 1960s, edited by Avital H. Bloch and Lauri Umansky, NYU Press, 2005, pp. 152-173)