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Wednesday, Jan. 1, 2003

In with the new

Diva dilemma

The three big names in Top 40 R & B released albums this past month, but Whitney Houston's "Just Whitney . . . ," Mariah Carey's "Charmbracelet" and Toni Braxton's "More Than a Woman" are musically mediocre and generally embarrassing.

A diva is defined not just by the bigness of her voice but by the impact of her image, and for the past two years both Whitney and Mariah have struggled with bad PR. Their new albums come equipped with publicity campaigns that take into account their personal problems, presumably so that when you listen to Whitney's put-down of the media, "Whatchulookinat," or Mariah's cry of pain, "Through the Rain," you empathize with them. The more natural response is derision. Big voices at the service of self-pity translates as bloated egoism.

And Toni? The ditsy sex-U-up makeover she underwent a few years ago has screwed up her musical judgment, which was always much better than the other two's. All those demi-divas -- I'm talking to you, Brandy, Monica and Ashanti -- beware. This is what happens when you believe the hype.

Diva antidote

Big voices don't have to mask small hearts. Two of the best albums of the year were by women who sing as forcefully as the aforementioned blowhards. Pink's "Missundaztood" was a rock-chick masterpiece full of identifiably real feelings, phat arrangements, cool melodies and a personality that's bigger than life, not because of some publicity machine but because the woman who owns it knows herself, even if she doesn't always like herself.

Even better was Neko Case's alt country stunner "Blacklisted." The Virginia native, who sings country songs in a big, brassy voice totally devoid of twang or corn, may be the most purely musical singer in pop right now. It helps, of course, that her songs are good, but she could probably sing the proverbial phone book and still make you swoon. That's, like, a diva test, right?

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