Review #394: Diana, Diana Ross
Diana & the Supremes appeared on the Temptations’ Anthology. This album was released ten years after she left the girl group, and her career was already a major success — her debut had the hit “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough.” Plus, she was a film star, playing Billie Holiday in Lady Sings The Blues and Dorothy in The Wiz. This is her tenth album (and weirdly, her third eponymous one).
So she was already a legend when she approached Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards of Chic to help her create a disco album. Her timing was weird, because the genre that ruled the Seventies was facing some backlash. There were t-shirts reading Disco Sucks, not to mention the Chicago White Sox’ Disco Demolition Night. Devo’s lead singer called disco “a beautiful woman with a great body and no brains.” “Wahhh, I hate it so it must be bad.” See, this is why I stopped dating musicians.
The Rodgers/Edwards/Ross union was not exactly a peaceful one. Ross didn’t like how the Chic duo produced some of her songs, and took them to someone else to mix them further. Which royally pissed Rodgers & Edwards off. In fact, they threatened to remove their names from the album entirely. Even after they were convinced to leave their credits alone, Motown didn’t quite believe in it, and the record was released without a lead single. But Diana was a success, and became the bestselling studio album of Ross’ entire career. She was a disco queen, with beauty and brains, Devo be damned.
This record is so upbeat and positive, even when she’s singing about some not-so-positive things. Opener “Upside Down” is about a cheating boyfriend, but she twists it around; there’s no accusation in her voice when she sings Respectfully I say to thee/ I’m aware that you’re cheating/ But no one makes me feel like you do. “Now That You’re Gone” does something similar — though it’s a song about hiding her pain, the offbeat chorus and general tone lets you know that she’s gonna be just fine. She revels in the simple joy of music in “My Old Piano,” and laughs in the face of disco deniers, asking them to leave their stuffiness behind in “Have Fun (Again).”
This record’s biggest hit, maybe predictably, only came to fruition after an argument between Diana and Rodgers. Rodgers wrote the song after seeing several drag queens dressed as Diana, and shrewdly realized that her massive gay following could use an anthem. Diana loved “I’m Coming Out,” until she played it for NYC radio DJ Frankie Crocker, who told her the phrase’s meaning and warned her that people would think she herself was coming out as gay, ruining her career. Ross almost backed out of releasing the song after that, but with some convincing from Rodgers and Edwards, she was placated. And with that, one of the greatest queer anthems was born and embraced by the drag community.
It’s funny how often tumultuous relationships create the greatest kind of art. The Chic dudes really were a gift to Diana, particularly Rodgers, who played guitar for her. He never overshadows her, not even when he’s ripping the guitar apart (“Give Up”). And his solo on the record’s slowest track, “Friend To Friend,” is conversational, almost like he’s the friend she’s talking to.
Sometimes the songs strike you as being particularly dated. See “Tenderness,” which declares that Tenderness is the best. And things like that kind of make me understand why disco’s backlash was so stark. It was so earnest, so sparkly and unabashedly joyful. Too toothless for the hair metal Eighties, and far too happy for the grungy, cynical Nineties. But, hey, you’re gonna dance to it, aren’t you?