In search of the perfect diva

Pop Music Critic

Everyone knows that Taylor Swift can’t sing. The teen star might hold the zeitgeist in her pink satin clutch, but she’s regularly criticized for her live vocal performances, which tend toward wild notes and shortness of breath. Her turns onstage at the recent Country Music Assn. Awards, where she became the youngest-ever Entertainer of the Year, had critics pulling out descriptions like “shaky,” “a train wreck” and (memorably, from Entertainment Weekly’s Ken Tucker) “wobbly as a newborn colt.”

Perfect diva: An article in Sunday’s Arts & Books about the search for the perfect diva said that Rihanna’s “Rated R,” due this week, was her third album. It is her fourth. —

Such negatives aren’t new: A year earlier, the website Country Standard Time ran an editorial declaring Swift’s voice “her biggest liability.”

It’s nothing new for a young female singer to take slaps for her lack of chops. Remember Madonna’s early days or, really, most of Janet Jackson’s career? What’s different about Swift is that her vocal problems actually play into her strengths.

Ridiculously precocious as a writer, accessibly adorable when it comes to image, Swift benefits from having a flaw. Pretty but gangly, she’s like a Disney heroine before the kiss makes her a real princess; her pitch problems enhance the sense that she’s a work in progress. Swift’s little voice drives adults crazy -- especially country-music lovers, who decry her as inauthentic -- but for the daughters and mothers who are her target audience, it shows she’s as real as they are, with room to grow.

Swift’s case contrasts informatively with that of another young, huge-selling female musician. Leona Lewis, whose second album, “Echo,” was released last week, had the most popular single of 2008 with “Bleeding Love,” a long drink of heartache built around her sumptuously somber vocal lines. An unusually gorgeous 23-year-old Londoner groomed to perfection by Idolmaker Simon Cowell, Lewis has a voice like the young Whitney Houston’s -- massive and sleek, athletic yet ethereal, with a tone that bespeaks the sublime.

But Lewis has a problem too. Her critics perceive her as hollow, inexpressive -- all voice and no personality. Unlike Houston and Mariah Carey, whose marital, chemical and/or psychiatric crises lent them the aura of the real, Lewis seems determined to remain sane and a little bit distant in her devotion to her craft.

Lewis is a lousy tabloid diva, and as a singer, she doesn’t wobble. While her seriousness lends her a certain marketable elegance, it can make her seem more like a product than a person. “Echo” modernizes her sound by taking it to the dance floor, but its center remains still. While the legions who buy it will admire its “dignity” and “class” (words often used by Lewis’ fans), its impact remains elusive.

Between these two poles of Perfect Personality and Perfect Voice lies reality for most female pop stars. The dichotomy also plays out in the life of the average woman, though “body” or “face” substitutes for voice when it comes to what we worry about and try to change.

The female stars who have come to dominate pop in the last decade all express some aspect of this tension -- neatly summed up by Swift in her megahit “You Belong With Me” as “she’s cheer captain and I’m on the bleachers,” impervious beauty versus touchable, vulnerable charm.

Tension makes a tangle

Two developments in the first part of this century have made this split feminine ideal particularly fraught. On the one hand, it’s become easier for any woman to enhance her body via Botox, liposuction or even reproductive technology -- think of Octomom, apparently self-made inside and out. The kind of “womanly” form that once required great genes or intense discipline now seems, to some, to be a basic right in our consumer’s democracy -- just as, for singers, perfect pitch is something guaranteed through Auto-Tune.

At the same time, the idea of “post-feminism,” which assumes that gender equality has been generally attained and only needs to be individually enacted and reinforced, presents another dream to ordinary women. It’s assumed that they can comfortably sit on the bleachers with the boys -- or run on the playing field, rule in the boardroom and co-parent at home. The ultimate fantasy is to be both a great beauty and a good pal: Angelina Jolie on her motor bike next to Brad Pitt.

The need to reconcile the cheer captain and the bleacher-sitter within is further complicated by what technology has done to the way women relate, both to each other and to men. On the Internet, we can create different versions of ourselves, but we’re also more exposed. The old-fashioned primness that made a comeback in the 1990s through books like “The Rules” has given way to text-message hookups and chat-room threesomes. As women reinvent both romance and themselves online, they explore new dimensions of what it means to be beautiful.

As these changes took place, American popular music reconnected with its feminine side. The male-oriented rock and hard-core hip-hop scenes of the 1990s still had their heroes; Lil Wayne rose, Nickelback made its stand and Eminem managed a comeback. But mainstream’s flavor came from dance music, revitalized R&B, amateur hours like “American Idol,” teen pop and other female-friendly forms. The tension between natural beauty and cultivated charm, big voices and small but smart ones, became a central subject of pop.

We can go back to the end of the last decade to understand how this particular story has played out in this one. The year 1999 saw the debuts of both Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera, and the release of “The Writing’s on the Wall,” the breakthrough album for Beyoncé, then the primary member of the group Destiny’s Child.

Physically, all three of these women worked variations on the classic bombshell persona, foregrounding their sexuality in ways that played into fantasies that men have long enjoyed and women, however reluctantly, have adopted. Spears and Aguilera were hot ingénues and Beyoncé was a Glamazon in training. But their singing told a different story.

It’s hard to remember now, given all her personal ups and downs and her transformation, on recent albums, into a sonic android, but Spears started out in the role Taylor Swift now occupies. Her voice was cute, flawed and highly individual. (Even today, that Louisiana hiccup is impossible to miss, no matter how processed.)

Aguilera had the Perfect Voice, giant in her tiny body. And Beyoncé was a Personality with a Voice in training. An often inaccurate singer in Destiny’s Child, she developed her chops along with her image, both growing more formidable with each recording and tour.

Beyond Beyoncé

The mainstream stars who’ve come along since these ladies set the standard have mostly played variations on the themes they’ve laid out.

Some upend expectations. Susan Boyle, the singing-contest Cinderella whose debut album will be released this week, is the prime example. The stout, double-chinned, middle-age singer is the kind of woman who should have only personality going for her. When she opened up her mouth on “Britain’s Got Talent” to reveal a voice brimming with a golden glow, people’s bewilderment soon gave way to delight, not because she seemed to have worked hard to become so good, but because she didn’t: Boyle was a natural beauty in disguise.

Others seek to defy their designated paths. Norah Jones found record-breaking success with a sound that felt like the easiest form of grace; she possesses a Perfect Voice of an earlier vintage, best represented by the hugely influential but nearly forgotten 1980s star Sade. Jones’ gently phrased but irresistibly seductive 2002 debut, “Come Away With Me,” became the 10th biggest-selling album of the decade.

She’s tinkered heavily with her formula on “The Fall,” a breakup album (Jones parted ways with her longtime boyfriend and producer, Lee Alexander, last year) that greets freedom with a clatter of drums and electric guitars. “The Fall” is more first step than giant leap, and Jones can’t turn off the loveliness of her tone -- but sometimes even reverse makeovers take time, and she’s made a start.

Then there’s Rihanna, who releases her third album, “Rated R,” this week. The 21-year-old Barbadian might be at the first apex of her career, but she doesn’t have the luxury of time. Given her start by the rapping record man Jay-Z, she immediately registered as a younger Beyoncé, acting out the same struggle to find a voice that would suit her tough, perfect, fashion-forward image. She was often (unfairly, I think) accused of being little more than a gold-plated coat hanger upon which her male producers hung their own dreams.

Then, in February of this year, her boyfriend at that time, Chris Brown, assaulted her. Nothing reads as more intimate, or makes a woman seem more vulnerable, than a mug shot of her bruised face splashed across the gossip sites. Until recently, Rihanna’s response to the violation of her privacy was silence; she continued to appear in public, dressed in her armor of couture, but granted few interviews.

“Rated R” is Rihanna’s artistic statement on the incident, and it shows her working to strike a balance between the openness of a “real” voice and the self-protection offered by a perfect one. (A full review of the album will appear in Calendar this week.) “Russian Roulette,” its first single, shocked many listeners; its depiction of love as a deadly game played by peers seemed, to some, to be a case of the victim defiantly blaming herself.

But the song also can be interpreted in light of that shifting and always complicated feminine ideal. If it’s a confession, it’s a very sneaky one, one that also implicates the listener. For all its melodrama, “Russian Roulette” reminds us that actual women -- even pop stars -- are never perfect. They make mistakes, take dangerous risks and learn hard lessons, sometimes not as soon as they’d like. Trying to find herself within everyone else’s version of perfect, Rihanna is giving us a picture of imperfection that’s worth considering.