Q Magazine

Independent Women: Pop Music's 19 Greatest Divas

As Beyoncé brings 'Cowboy Carter' into the world, we celebrate history's fiercest, smartest and straight-up greatest female singers.

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Debbie Harry

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Not only the coolest woman to ever stand behind a microphone, Debbie Harry is possibly the coolest human to ever to stand behind a microphone. After forming Blondie in 1974, she not only fronted one of the era’s most important bands, but managed to maintain her credibility as a serious artist while also being heralded as a sex symbol. That she did all that while in her mid-30s (born in 1945, Harry was 33 when Parallel Lines propelled Blondie to greatness) is nothing short of extraordinary. Now 78, she’s still slaying it, as anyone who saw last summer’s Glastonbury performance can attest. – Dominic Utton

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Donna Summer

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Disco ruled the 1970s, and Donna Summer ruled disco. After dropping out of high school to sing in a rock band, Summer ended up moving to Germany, where she met producers Giorgio Moroder and Pete Bellotte. Their collaboration spawned all-time classic hits like "Love to Love You Baby,” “Hot Stuff,” and “Bad Girls,” defined the sound of an era, and transcended disco to pave the way for pretty much all of the dance and electronic music that's come since. When Brian Eno heard "I Feel Love" in the late ‘70s, he famously "came running in" to tell David Bowie that he had heard "the sound of the future." He was right. – Peter Helman

Mariah Carey

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With apologies to all the eminently worthy women on this list, if we had to pick just one artist to represent the modern model of divadom, it would probably be Carey. For proof, you could cite her sales records (she has more Billboard No. 1 singles than any other solo artist). You could laud her ability to embrace so many different genres over the decades while remaining fundamentally herself. You could even point to her public persona, which encompasses all the excesses and eccentricities of pop stardom while retaining just enough self-awareness to stave off self-parody. But really, it’s as simple as turning on any televised singing competition. Everyone who’s ever stepped up to the microphone with equal measures of demureness and superhuman confidence, closed their eyes, put a finger to one ear, and released a glass-shattering glory note that’s several notches higher, louder, longer and more melismatic than the song seemed to require is, on some level, doing a Mariah Carey impression. – Andrew Barker

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Diana Ross

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A woman who practically defined the word "diva," Ross was a woman who stood out from the very beginning. With the Supremes, she is forever vaulted as a member of the best-charting female group in history, with twelve No. 1 singles, including “Where Did Our Love Go,” “Baby Love” and “You Can’t Hurry Love.” Her success from then to now has included solo hits (“Upside Down”), Academy Award nominations (1972’s Lady Sings The Blues) and sometimes a delightful hint of diva-ness (witness her take charge attitude at the Motown 25 special). – Amy Hughes

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We can take it for granted now, but Beyoncé was never predestined to become the culture-shaping force she’s been for the last decade-plus. Destiny’s Child were huge, but so were several of their contemporaries. “Crazy in Love” and “Baby Boy” were big hits, but they weren’t exactly miles removed from what Usher and Alicia Keys were doing at around the same time. But somewhere along the line — was it the adventurous genre-hopping of 4? The arresting multimedia intimacy of Beyoncé? The scorched-earth three-act epic Lemonade? — she transcended simple pop megastardom and became the kind of figure who will have multiple index entries in any thorough history of the early 21st century. You have to go back to four adorable Liverpudlian teen-pop stars who somehow became the most influential musicians of the 20th century to find a similarly remarkable artistic trajectory. – A.B.

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Dolly Parton

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One hundred million records sold, 44 top 10 country albums, 25 country No. 1 singles, 50 Grammy nominations (and 11 wins)… and a film career that includes 9 to 5 and The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas. I mean, come on. Shall we continue? Ok, Dolly also wrote “Jolene” and “I Will Always Love You” on the same day (one in the morning, one in the afternoon), has given out over 100 million free books to disadvantaged children, played a part in the development of the Covid vaccine, and in May will celebrate her 58th wedding anniversary. Oh – and she once said: “I’m not offended by all the ‘dumb blonde’ jokes because I know I’m not dumb… and I also know that I’m not blonde.” Peerless. – D.U.

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She's called the Queen of Pop for a reason. Madonna's got more hits than an MMA match and more eras than Taylor Swift, and since bursting onto the New York scene in the 1980s, she's become one of pop music's most iconic and most adaptable figures, continually anticipating trends and evolving with the times. Although her work has gotten spottier in recent years (and some of her controversy-generating provocations more tiring), her inherent inability to stop experimenting and demanding the world's attention is also what makes her so special. "Who's That Girl?” Madonna asked in 1987. "B---- I'm Madonna," she answered in 2015. – P.H.

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Tina Turner

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If there’s any artist on this list who can be said to have truly earned her stardom, it’s Turner, who first found fame alongside her husband, Ike Turner, only to endure years of abuse even as they climbed to the upper reaches of the charts with songs like “River Deep, Mountain High” (a #3 hit in the UK) and “Proud Mary,” their cover of the Creedence Clearwater Revival classic that hit #4 on the Billboard Hot 100. Thankfully, Tina finally found her way out of her marriage with Ike, and that’s when she can truly be said to have ascended to proper diva status, courtesy of such hits as “What’s Love Got to Do With It,” “Better Be Good to Me,” and the title track of her 1984 comeback album, Private Dancer. When she died last year at the age of 83, millions around the world mourned, as well they should have. We may not need another hero, but we could stand another Tina Turner. Sadly, however, we won’t soon see her like again. - Will Harris

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Lady Gaga

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Lady Gaga may be best known for unforgettable singles like “Bad Romance,” “Telephone” and “Alejandro.” But she’s so much more than just a pop diva. She’s also a gay icon who helped make LGBTQ+ culture mainstream in the early 2010s. Her tireless advocacy preceded the 2015 legalization of same-sex marriages in the U.S. Lady Gaga is also a talented actress, as demonstrated by her role in the 2018 movie A Star Is Born alongside Bradley Cooper. – Noah Zucker

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Aretha Franklin

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Aretha Franklin had one of the greatest voices of the 20th Century, and perhaps of any century (Rolling Stone certainly thought so, twice naming her the Greatest Singer of all Time). The one-time gospel singer would score no fewer than 112 singles on the Billboard charts, including 73 Hot 100 entries and 20 R&B No. 1s. By turns stridently powerful and impossibly tender, rousing or heartbreaking, songs like “Respect” (in which she effectively took Otis Redding back to school) and “You Make Me Feel Like a Natural Woman” still resonate as strongly now as they did when she first performed them over half a century ago. The Queen of Soul? Just the Queen. – D.U.

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Whitney Houston

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Houston’s ‘90s era ubiquity was so overwhelming (and the circumstances of her 2012 death were so lurid and tragic), that it was all too easy to lose track of what made her such a force in the first place. In recent years, however, an excellent biography (Gerrick Kennedy’s Didn’t We Almost Have It All) and a much-better-than-feared biopic (Kasi Lemmons’ I Wanna Dance With Somebody) have restored a vital sense of humanity to the New Jersey belter, who was much more than just “the Voice,” and much more complex than either her fans or her detractors were often willing to acknowledge. – A.B.

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It’s hard to think of an early 2010s pop star who was more fun than Kesha. Tracks like “Tik Tok,” “Your Love is My Drug” and “Blah Blah Blah” are timeless party anthems, but they’re also sturdy, well-considered compositions. Kesha learned how to write songs from her country singer mother Pebe Sebert. The pop star’s career got sidetracked by her dispute with producer Dr. Luke. It’s hard not to wonder what could have happened if Kesha had been able to stay focused on the music. – N.Z.

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Janet Jackson

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Janet Jackson is obviously a huge star. But between growing up in the shadow of a world-dominating pop juggernaut older brother and the whole "Nipplegate" fiasco that unfairly derailed her career in 2004, she's also become sort of weirdly underappreciated despite all of her success. The youngest member of the Jackson family, Janet – Miss Jackson if you're nasty – catapulted to fame after extricating herself from her father’s control and teaming up with songwriting/production duo Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis for her 1986 album Control. She ushered in the new jack swing era by fusing dance-pop, hip-hop, R&B, and industrial music into a sleek new sound all her own, and she conquered the charts for years until a CBS executive with a grudge forced her out of the limelight. She deserved better. – P.H.

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Barbra Streisand

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You probably wouldn’t want to refer to her as such in her presence, mind you, but Barbra Streisand is arguably the grand dame of divas in America, using nightclub shows, television appearances, and theater roles to become a massive recording star in the ‘60s before transforming herself into one of the queens of Hollywood, first as an actor, then as a director. Even then, though, “Babs” continued to record new material, unafraid to dip into unexpected musical waters – five words: David Bowie’s “Life on Mars?” - while still delivering more traditional chart-toppers like “The Way We Were” and “Evergreen.” Heck, she even dipped into disco by ‘79, hitting #1 with her duet with Donna Summer, “No More Tears (Enough is Enough),” and worked with members of the Bee Gees on songs like “Woman in Love,” “Guilty,” and “What Kind of Fool.” And if you want proof that Streisand’s following is still as strong as ever, in 2018 she returned to the top 10 of the dance charts with “Walls.” - W.H.

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Patti LaBelle

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The proclaimed “Godmother of Soul” didn’t earn that title by staying in the background. Beginning her music career as the leader of Patti LaBelle and the Bluebells, she had a minor hit in 1963 with “Down The Aisle,” then gained overseas notice from Vicki Wickham, producer of Ready Steady Go! With Nona Hendryx and Sara Dash, her trio topped the US charts with “Lady Marmalade” in 1974, with the suggestive line in French, “Voulez-vous coucher avec moi ce soir?" As a solo artist, LaBelle was an ‘80s mainstay and her stunning, one-of-a-kind diva performance at Live Aid is kind of hard to top. Except if you have a winning recipe for sweet potato pie! – A.H.

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Celine Dion

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Call her the Queen of Quebec if you wish, but Celine Dion is a diva, plain and simple. After all, if she wasn’t, would she have been invited to participate in VH-1's inaugural concert to celebrate the network’s most popular / most played divas? Dion first became a sensation in her native Quebec during the ‘80s, scoring a staggering 14 top-10 hits before ever crossing over into English-language success. Finally, as the ‘90s began, so did Dion’s rise to international superstardom, starting with 1990’s “Where Does My Heart Beat Now,” which was then followed with the Disney-powered success of her Peabo Bryson duet, “Beauty & The Beast.” By just past the midway point of the decade, she’d collaborated with Jim Steinman ("It's All Coming Back to Me Now"), duetted with Barbra Streisand (“Tell Him"), and sung the theme for the biggest motion picture of all time (Titanic’s “My Heart Will Go On,” of course). By that point, Dion’s diva-dom was cemented forever. - W.H.

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Plucked from obscurity by Sonny Bono and endorsed by Phil Spector, Cher (real name Cherilyn Sarkisian) became “The Goddess of Pop” at a time when strong female personas were often in short supply. As one half of the iconic duo of Sonny & Cher, her 1965 No. 1 “I Got You Babe” came out the starting gate strong, which laid the groundwork for a hugely successful solo career with songs like “Gypsies, Tramps & Thieves” and “Half Breed.” After what felt an eon (with a sidetrack into acting and an Academy Award), she returned stronger than ever with the No. 1 song of 1999, “Believe," and a legion of fans who applaud her philanthropic work within the LGBTQ+ community. – A.H.

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Madison Beer

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Madison Beer doesn’t get talked about as much as chart mainstays like Lana Del Rey or Dua Lipa, but many of the most serious pop heads love this Long Islander. She could very well be your favorite pop star’s favorite pop star. Although she’s just 25, Beer’s career has already spanned more than a decade. She was discovered by Justin Bieber at age 13 after she posted videos of herself singing to YouTube. The star’s latest album Silence Between Songs is a genre-bending pop masterpiece that incorporated elements of soul and psychedelic into her radio-friendly sound. – N.Z.

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Dame Shirley Bassey

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We already mentioned that Barbra Streisand was a grand dame amongst divas in America, but there's only one woman on this list who's an actual dame, and that's this British icon. She started her career when she was still a teenager, and by 1959 she'd already officially become a record-setter as the first Welsh person ever to top the UK singles chart (with "As I Love You"). Bassey has never been anywhere near as big in the States as she has been - and remains - in the UK, but she did score a top-10 hit with "Goldfinger," the first of her three Bond themes (the other two being "Diamonds Are Forever" and the oft-forgotten "Moonraker"). That said, she returned to the upper reaches of the US dance charts in 2007, hitting #3 with her inimitable rendition of P!nk's "Get the Party Started." Other notable moments in her career include her 1997 collaboration with Propellerheads ("History Repeating") and her 2022 appearance at the Sound of 007 concert at Royal Albert Hall, where - at age 85 - she blew the roof off the joint with her performances of "Goldfinger" and "Diamonds Are Forever." Diva to the end, that's our Dame Shirley. - W.H.


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