Where Are the British Rock Divas?

There aren't any - and part of it is Shakespeare's fault.

By , Contributor

Dame Shirley Bassey

If we hear the term “British Invasion,” the name of the cosmically important groups come to mind…the Beatles…the Rolling Stones…the Who…Led Zeppelin. But once you think about it, you realize that those are all-male groups. They were phenomenally talented men, but still...all men.

That matters because there’s a fundamental difference between British music in the '60s and '70s, and American music in the same period. If there were only a few women in England, such as Julie Driscoll, who sang with Brian Auger and Trinity, a succession of great divas appeared that continues to this very day.

In the '60s women like Joan Baez, Barbra Streisand, Dolly Parton, and Aretha Franklin became huge stars. They were four very different women singing in four very different musical traditions, but each one had lasting success and continues to be active to this day. As the '70s dawned, the women singer-songwriters appeared, like Joni Mitchell, Carly Simon, and Carole King. In fact the story of both black and white women in American popular music has so many great names, and is so complicated, that it has yet to be written.

The point is that virtually nothing comparable happened in England. The only British woman comparable to Barbra Streisand is Julie Andrews, who for all her greatness was very much a traditional movie star in the vein of Doris Day.

How come there aren’t any British rock divas—great stars with careers that have lasted over decades?

I can think of a couple of reasons. One is that England doesn’t have the talent pool of great black divas that we Americans have. That talent pool produced great singers from Bessie Smith to Beyonce and at the moment seems inexhaustible.

And then there’s Shakespeare — or, more generally, the power of the dramatic tradition in England. Live theater mattered in England in the '60s more than it did in America, and it attracted a group of prodigiously talented British actresses, such as Vanessa Redgrave, Julie Christie, Judie Dench, and (a little later) Helen Mirren. These women have had, and continue to have, extraordinary careers in movies as well as theater. Their careers are comparable to those of the American divas who became stars at about the same time. Moreover, the trend in which British actresses become huge stars continues with Emma Watson, who was recently ranked the top star in the world.

So what it comes to is that both America and England have lots of talented performers. But the long reach of Shakespeare produces a situation in which British women are more likely to become actresses than singers. We Americans don’t have this fixation on Shakespeare, so our talented women are more likely to become singers than actresses.

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