[From New York Newsday]

Diva Drama

Dark days may be ahead for mega-superstars, as cash-strapped record companies look to turn a profit with a younger, more profitable crop of female singers

By Glenn Gamboa

December 15, 2002

Whitney Houston is running late.

She was supposed to begin a rare public appearance on the plaza at Lincoln Center at 3p.m. last week. At 3:20 p.m., a spokesman takes the stage to some boos and catcalls when he says Houston is stuck in traffic. In the music business, launching anything within an hour of the scheduled time, especially when you throw in a diva of Houston's stature and a TV production, is usually seen as a success. However, Houston's fans aren't having it.

"She's crazy, but we will always love her," fans shout, huddling together to beat back the chill from a December afternoon. Some start yelling, "Is she coming or not?" Others start taking odds on whether she will show at all. In between, there are jokes about whether she stopped to smoke a joint first.

For those of you keeping score at home, Whitney "I Am the Devil" Houston is now way ahead in the Troubled Diva Sweepstakes, with Mariah "I Just Needed Sleep" Carey slipping into third place behind Lauryn "The Lecturer" Hill.

In the last few weeks, Houston and Carey, who have each topped 50 million in U.S. sales and another 100 million apiece around the world, released high-profile "comeback" albums to middling success. Their singles are getting far less attention than their splashy tell-all chats about their private lives.

Yes, Houston has copped to using cocaine, marijuana and pills, but what about her new single? Carey's tales of exhaustion and feeling like an outsider are less explosive, as is the rare flop of her recent "Through the Rain" single.

These are dark days for The Divas - that class of big-voice, big-personality female singers so famous they're known by one name.

Sure, they have those personal issues, documented quite extensively these days, as Houston and Carey descend from Mount Diva to mix among the commoners to sell some albums. However, bigger storms are brewing, as parched-for- profits record companies bring increasing pressure on their rainmakers to produce a torrential downpour of hits.

"Record companies are willing to put up with a lot from artists - paying for the entourages, the stylists, the makeup people - as long as they sell records," says one major-label exec who has built a career working with divas and diva-ettes. "Once those sales stop, look out."

Part of that shake-up already has started. When EMI opted to negotiate Carey's exit from her contract last year, it was, in part, due to the large overhead that comes with keeping a diva-centric corporation like Mariah Inc. in working order.

"Record companies don't see any value in having marquee artists on their roster anymore," says Chrissie Hynde, a rocker diva in her own right who led the legendary Pretenders to the independent label Artemis Records this year after two decades with Warner Bros. Records. "The money people don't care about prestige."

The reason for that is the music industry's unique method of operation: Call it the "Lotto Theory of Economics." Nine out of 10 albums released in a given year lose money, so the record companies count on that one hit to generate enough profits to cover the losses from the other nine. That strategy, however, is now faltering, since the profits from the money-maker albums are now being drained by the competition from pirated copies, Internet file-swapping and a general decline in interest in buying mega-hits.

Industry insiders say record companies are increasingly relying on building newcomers into stars because their generally lopsided contracts (hello, Kelly Clarkson!) favor the record companies' bottom lines substantially more than the average star's does. While The Divas continue to sell records and make money, their hefty signing bonuses and built-in demands, such as having videos made and guaranteed promotional spending, don't allow for the same profit margin that a newcomer like Avril Lavigne does.

"Sometimes the drama just isn't worth it," says another exec who has handled campaigns for several of the industry's younger divas. This belief has helped foster the current trend of the "anti-divas" such as Lavigne, Vanessa Carlton and Michelle Branch, newcomers whose debuts sold well but didn't cost much to produce. It sets up a new, odd hierarchy at some labels, where building newcomers becomes a higher priority than maintaining superstar sales, even if those superstars may be stronger in the long run because of their catalog sales.

If one of The Divas, say Celine Dion or Faith Hill, sells 4 million copies of a new album, it is seen as a nice addition to her catalog but little cause for celebration. If a newcomer sells 4 million copies of a debut, as Ashanti and Lavigne have done this year, it touches off a frenzy to find more newcomers to fill that niche. For one of The Divas to get some label love these days, she has to pull out an all-out smash like Shania Twain seems to have with "Up!" which sold nearly 900,000 copies in its first week.

Piling expectations on the spaghetti-strapped shoulders of The Divas is nothing new. Aretha Franklin and Diana Ross have survived decades of Divadom relatively unscathed.

The load does continue to grow, however. Jennifer Lopez has revealed that the demands of divadom drove her to the brink of physical collapse, while Carey has acknowledged that she had to be hospitalized for her exhaustion.

Carey seems to have recovered physically from her problems last year, yet they still seem to dog her career. Despite loads of high-profile appearances and a goodwill tour of radio stations and TV shows, Carey's song "Through the Rain," the lead-off single from her new "Charmbracelet" album, has become the first lead single in her career not to reach No. 1. Not only that, it vanished from the Top 100 within two months of its release, without even breaking the Top 40.

Houston is facing similar problems with her new "Just Whitney" album, which hit stores last week. The first single, "Whatchulookinat," failed to crack the Top 75 and disappeared so quickly that her record company had to push back the album's release and find a second single to help build interest.

The second single, "One of Those Days," also is struggling. When she spouted nonsense like, "Let's get one thing straight. Crack is cheap ... I make too much money to ever smoke crack" in her recent television interview with Diane Sawyer, it didn't help her with her core audience of urban adults or the crossover audience in the Heartland that made her a movie star in "The Bodyguard."

The thing about The Divas is you can never count them out. Few artists can match their ability to cross boundaries and pull together an across-the- board smash - whether it is Franklin's "Respect" or Ross' "Endless Love" or Houston's own "I Will Always Love You." When Houston delivered "The Star-Spangled Banner" at the Super Bowl in 1991, shortly after the start of the Persian Gulf War, it was as if she was leading the troops into battle herself, as if her booming voice could take down Saddam Hussein.

Houston didn't muster anywhere near that fervor when she finally took the stage, 50 minutes late at Lincoln Plaza last week.

Yet, the moment she appeared, all her fans' apprehensions seemed forgotten. Houston arrived - in true diva fashion - with a burst of energy, blowing kisses at the crowd. No apologies for being late, only thanks for staying.

"I don't usually sing in the cold," she said, decked out in a full-length camel coat and jeans, wearing sunglasses though the sun was setting. "This is for you, Diane," she said without a hint of sarcasm as her band broke into "One of Those Days." "This is for you, ABC."

Everyone there, except maybe Houston, knew this wasn't true. She wasn't there for Sawyer or a network, She was there to promote "Just Whitney," which she plugged throughout the performance. She was there because she needs help.

After years of being able to take fan support for granted - limiting personal appearances and tours, building a reputation as a possible no-show - Houston needs to work to generate sales. If "Just Whitney" doesn't catch on, though, she may want to follow Carey's lead. Carey has been pushing "Charmbracelet" for weeks with a stunningly non-diva tour of radio stations and fan-club listening parties. Last week, she performed at the Mall of America in Minneapolis. All that promotion resulted in a strong opening sales week for "Charmbracelet," though Carey's single is still struggling.

Maybe the troubled divas need to consult with fellow divas such as Twain and Hill, who manage to look as if they are still having fun when they do their promotional appearances, who still manage to project a love of music despite all the pressures of the industry.

If they don't, their odds of being ushered from the Troubled Diva Sweepstakes will only get worse.

Divas are known for their spectacular behavior as well as their spectacular voices. Over the years, people have gotten used to Aretha Franklin's refusal to sing in air-conditioned theaters and Diana Ross' delays. Some diva meltdowns, though, have become legendary.

TOP 5 Diva Meltdowns

1. LISA "LEFT EYE" LOPES: Burning down the house (1996).

Meltdown: After a fight with then-boyfriend Andre Rison, Lopes sets his new sneakers on fire. The fire quickly grows out of control and Lopes flees the scene.

Career Impact: Minimal. She was, after all, the "crazy" part of "crazysexycool" trio TLC.

Recovery: Full. Lopes was in the process of taking her career to the next level when she was killed in a car accident in Honduras.

2. WHITNEY HOUSTON: Hawaiian Pot Bust (2000).

Meltdown: A search at a Hawaii airport turns up marijuana in a purse that allegedly belonged to Houston. She was charged with marijuana possession, though charges were ultimately dropped.

Career Impact: Moderate, mainly because it was seen in conjunction with several high-profile cancellations.

Recovery: Still recovering.

3. SINEAD O'CONNOR: "Saturday Night Live" (1992).

Meltdown: At the end of her performance of the a capella song "War," about child abuse and racism, O'Connor ripped up a picture of Pope John Paul II and said, "Fight the real enemy."

Career Impact: Devastating. Went from pop darling to pariah.

Recovery: Still recovering.

4. MARIAH CAREY: Physical and emotional breakdown (2001).

Meltdown: Within two weeks, Carey had babbled at an appearance at Roosevelt Field Mall, done a suggestive striptease in front of a teenage audience at MTV and left rambling messages on her Web site about needing a break.

Career Impact: Moderate. Compounded by the failure of her movie debut "Glitter" and its soundtrack.

Recovery: Still recovering.

5. FIONA APPLE: Midconcert
tantrum (2000).

Meltdown: After complaints about the sound system at Roseland, Apple launches into a string of expletives and threatens to kill reviewers who critique her performance. She performs a few more songs, begins to cry and leaves the stage for "a break," but never returns.

Career Impact: Moderate.

Recovery: Still recovering.

-Glenn Gamboa
Copyright 2002, Newsday, Inc.



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