Mariah Carey tried. Carole King bravely, futilely engaged. Shania Twain and Gloria Estefan appeared to be crawling into themselves, wishing they could disappear. Celine Dion came close. (Really, she did.) But no one could compete with the queen, the crowned deity of divas, Aretha Franklin.
Appearing alongside the five legends, it was Franklin who commanded the stage during VH1’s inaugural Divas Live telecast in 1998. As she turned New York’s Beacon Theatre into her own church, we were her compelled parishioners. To this day, we’re all still devout followers of the gospel she delivered that night: Thou shalt have no divas before me.
That night, Franklin delivered one of the greatest pop-culture moments we’ve had, a display of vocal domination that was the stuff of history when it happened, and the stuff of memes still, 20 years later. Performing “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” amid that historic assembly of divas, she out-sang every contemporary on stage, with the confidence and attitude of a woman who knew this was the time to announce herself the one true diva: past, present, or future.
Franklin died Thursday morning at her home in Detroit from pancreatic cancer. She was 76.
There are many reasons that Aretha Franklin is the legend of legends, a groundbreaking singer with the fortitude to transcend race and genre, using that tremulous voice as the bulldozer to break down every barrier set up in her way. But sometimes it requires a moment as mainstream and as big as that Divas Live performance to cement it. That was the moment she ensured that she would then and forever be the Greatest Diva of All Time.
There’s a proud regality with which she even walks out for that finale, the queen arriving to address her kingdom, as if her ensuing decree would have global repercussions. (Queen Franklin rules over anyone with ears.) She starts out by singing a vamped introduction: “Would you forgive me, if I didn’t sing this song tonight? I don’t think so.” The presumption. The correctness.
Everyone on stage with her is respectively singing their faces off. They are working hard, and they sound like it in the best, most exhilarating way—a vocal fireworks show the likes of which had never been produced. But then it’s time to riff. King tries to engage her in a duel of runs. Franklin literally turns away. At one point, it’s clearly Dion’s turn to sing, and Franklin just sings over her.
There’s a moment when Franklin growls and sort of shimmies down to the floor while snarling. Fuck me.
When everyone is supposed to be closing out the show in unison, she takes control of the proceedings and instead introduces her backup singers, completely co-opting it as the Aretha Show. She starts scatting, darting across the stage and forcing the five other women to retreat to the back of the stage, where they, semi-startled, start shimmy-dancing and performatively bowing down to the Queen of Soul.
When she brings things to a take-me-to-church finale, only Carey is equipped with enough gospel training to trade her on riffs of “Jesus!” Dion goofily tries to join in, while the other three women retreat farther and farther to the back of the stage. Gloria Estefan straight-up puts down her mic.
The stories of Franklin snubbing or feuding with fellow divas are notorious and widespread. But they don’t hold a candle to watching her share the stage with five of her most talented contemporaries, and decimating them all systematically in successive vocal-technical knockouts.
She sauntered onto that stage that night like a prizefighter entering the ring, and the performance she pulled off was as thrillingly athletic as watching Ali or Frazier in their prime. That, when it comes to Aretha’s longevity, it’s hard to argue at which era of her career she was at her true prime, let alone on that night, makes the triumph all the more impressive.
The New York Times even headlined Jon Pareles’ review of the special in 1998, “There Are Divas, and There Are Divas,” the paper of record putting on record Franklin’s place in the music pantheon after that night.
Carole King spoke about that night in a televised interview years later, and it’s hilarious to see how she navigates discussing Franklin’s takeover of the number as the right of the ultimate diva, while still acknowledging its rudeness.
“That’s Aretha’s song, and Aretha rightly was the star of that song,” King says. “But here we are on a stage full of divas, and Aretha, as she will tend to do, God bless her, is sort of taking over. And the part where Celine was supposed to sing, here’s Aretha still singing…”
Dion never backs down when Franklin steps on her part of the song. In fact, in response she delivers one of the most impressive vocal runs I’ve heard in a live performance, reasserting herself into the number. Franklin interrupts her and goes even higher.
“I love Celine’s attitude, because she’s got spunk,” King says. “She’s got fight. She just got up there, and when Aretha sang the lick that Celine was supposed to do, Celine just got right up under there and answered her. I just respect her so much for the classy way she handled that situation.”
Aretha Franklin, the only vocalist whose runs are alpine enough to be labeled a “situation.”
HuffPost reporter Matthew Jacobs compiled a fascinating oral history of the Divas Live franchise this year, complete with the kind of juicy gossip you crave—and, sadly, expect—from an event labeled Divas Live and with a bill of personalities as fabulously outsize as the ones in this lineup. Producers Jacobs spoke to kept teasing, “I assume you’ve heard the Aretha story.” There’s a reason the term “diva” encompasses talent and reputation.
Apparently, Franklin had warned producers to turn off the air conditioning when she performs, for the health of her vocals. When she arrived at the venue, she demanded silence, held her hand to a vent, realized the AC was running, and walked offstage, refusing to rehearse and threatening to pull out of the concert. As Franklin would later allude to onstage, introducing their duet of “Chain of Fools,” it was actually Mariah Carey who talked her down and convinced her that the show must go on.
And that show was going to be all hers.
This is a show that had Celine Dion going full Tina Turner, replete with manic dancing and vocal acrobatics, for “River Deep, Mountain High,” before gesticulating her way through a rendition of “My Heart Will Go On,” as if she herself was swimming for shore.
This is a show that had Mariah Carey sporting a lion’s mane of crimped hair, roaring an excessively melismatic “My All” into a disco-gospel dance-club remix, as entirely extra as it sounds.
This is a show that had Shania Twain in a tube top strutting to “Man!... I Feel Like a Woman” and Gloria Estefan doing the goddamned “Conga.”
Each of these moments is iconic in its own right, but none can match the religious experience of Franklin’s vocals in the last two finale numbers. Salvation by divadom. Thanks to Aretha Franklin, we’ve all been saved.