After nearly a decade at RCA, Diana Ross’ return to Motown was hyped as a queen returning to her castle. Though she started with a huge bang with the platinum-selling Why Do Fools Fall in Love, her tenure at RCA was marked an ever-increasing dwindle in her album sales. The independence she seemingly sought from the label turned out to work against her as the quality of her work became erratic. Unfortunately, her return-to-Motown album, Workin’ Overtime, did not return Ross to her former glory. Produced by Nile Rodgers, the album sought to bring Ross into the late 1980s. Despite his success with her on 1980’s classic diana, Workin’ Overtime failed to update Ross’ sound – she sounded somewhat lost and uncomfortable singing over the clanging New Jack Swing production.
So in the autumn of 1991, Ross tried to course-correct with her 19th studio effort, The Force Behind the Power, a multi-format pop record that eyed returning Ross to the pop charts. By 1991, Diana Ross had graduated from a hitmaker to a divine, legendary diva. Her incredible history made her an icon. Recording for 30 years, she saw the pop landscape change significantly when she attempted her second Motown comeback. In 1991, pop divas Madonna, Whitney Houston, Janet Jackson, and Paula Abdul dominated the charts. Her fellow veterans like Patti LaBelle, Aretha Franklin, and Gladys Knight were making contemporary, trendy pop to keep up, and Ross was doggedly working on jumping on fashionable pop in hopes of scoring a comeback hit.
The Force Behind the Power is a canny collection of songs aimed at different pop radio formats: soul, lite jazz-pop, dance-pop, and the adult contemporary pop that would dominate the album’s production. She was looking to encroach on Madonna and Janet Jackson’s dance-pop territory and muscle Whitney Houston out of the way with the Broadway-style pop ballads. The album was a massive hit in the UK, going platinum and spinning off a string of hit singles (she released a whopping nine singles off the album, a remarkable strategy on an album that clocked in at 11 tracks).
Though Ross is a fabulous and wonderful recording artist, much of her appeal not only lies in her singing but the songs themselves. Unlike Patti LaBelle or Aretha Franklin, Ross doesn’t have the overwhelming wall of a voice – instead, she charmed audiences with a beautiful, clear croon – a delicate, sometimes-girlish trill capable of conveying unbridled joy or heartbreaking loss. But the songwriting and production are as crucial to her appeal as is her performance, so it’s vital that when Ross is making music, attention is paid to the quality of the songs. That’s something that was a problem with her later RCA years.
From the 1970s, Ross looked at current pop trends to continue her chart reign. When disco became a dominant force in soul-pop in the 1970s, she started to record disco music and became one of the genre’s leading artists. With Workin’ Overtime, it became glaring that the muscular, thick, crowded sound of late 1980s dance-pop – the kind that Madonna and Janet Jackson excelled at – swallowed and dazed her gorgeous but precious voice. Not satisfied to remain a nostalgia act, she remained determined to return to the top of the charts.
A glance at Ross’ biggest hits – including with the Supremes – highlight the recurring theme of love. Diana Ross is a romantic pop artist, being most comfortable singing love songs. Ballads are her strong point, as she can indulge in the sweet, swoony melodies that were the most sympathetic vehicles for her voice. With that in mind, it’s not surprising that The Force Behind the Power is primarily an A/C pop album. The songs are awash with breezy synths, stirring strings, glassy keyboards, and muted beats. Ross has access to some prime top 40 songwriters, including Graham Lyle, Terry Britten, Albert Hammond, John Betties, Nick Lowe, Diane Warren, James Horner, Barry Mann, and Will Jennings. Fellow Motown legend Stevie Wonder contributed to the funky title tune (more on that in a minute). This summit of soft-rock pros is a very tasteful, elegant record that had the potential of being a big hit.
As a taster, Ross released a single, “If We Hold on Together” from the 1988 animated film, Land Before Time, three years before the album’s release. It’s a grand, cinematic ballad penned by James Horner and Will Jennings (who would write the gargantuan “My Heart Will Go On” from Titanic), with tear-jerking lyrics and an austere performance by Ross. She was approaching Whitney or Barbra territory with this song, and it benefited from her angelic voice, cutting through some of the gloss and saccharine with a delicate performance. Though the haunting single came out three years before The Force Behind the Power (and a year before the ill-fitting Workin’ Overtime makeover), it fits perfectly with the rest of the LP. The song was a big hit in Japan (number one) and the UK (just missing the top ten, peaking at number 11), and it gave Ross a top 40 A/C hit in the US. It has also become a standard for her live shows.
The album’s first contemporary single was “When You Tell Me That You Love Me”, released a month before the album. Written by pop radio stalwarts Albert Hammond and John Bettis, the song hewed very closely to the sound of “If We Hold on Together”. However, its arrangement and production had elements of the power ballad (including a guitar solo by prolific session player Michael Landau) and a crescendo in which Ross gets to uncharacteristically belt. As was wont for her work at the time, the single stalled on the American pop charts, finding its way into the top 40 on the R&B and A/C charts, but in the UK, it shot up to number two, becoming one of her biggest hits there (fourteen years later, Ross found herself at number two on the UK charts again with the song, this time as a duet with the Irish boyband, Westlife)
As heard on the climax of “When You Tell Me That You Love Me”, Ross was capable of soul wailing but rarely did on her records (she was far showier vocally in her 1970s live shows). Instead, she adopted a very mannered, controlled way of singing. Because her voice is pretty and high with limited lung power and range, Ross relied far more on tone, timbre, and emotion than vocal pyrotechnics. Still, in the setting of the soft rock-style ballads on The Force Behind the Power, she looked to singers like Houston, Streisand, and Celine Dion, who all perfected the money note – that big, extravagant note designed to wow listeners.
Ross rarely belted on her songs, but her makeover as an A/C balladeer meant that she followed the conventions, too. That was never more impressively so than in the somewhat plodding “One Shining Moment”, which featured a whooping howl from Ross right at the song’s building up and height. The track is a solid, MOR tune that Ross outclassed with her singing — something she was very good at. Few singers have her magic touch of imbuing class and warmth event to pedestrian filter.
Although the bulk of The Force Behind the Power is devoted to ballads, Ross didn’t give up her dance work completely. Since she was so successful in the 1970s with her disco work and the Chic-produced post-disco album diana is a classic, Ross always maintained a presence in dance music (the failure of the dance-heavy Workin’ Overtime notwithstanding), and The Force Behind the Power had more uptempo moments. The title track was a rubbery, funky number written by Stevie Wonder. In an interview with Arsenio Hall, Ross went over the song’s genesis. Mentioning that she had pined to sing a Wonder song for some time and citing his busy schedule, she convinced the label to hold of on releasing the album until she could collaborate with him on the music. When she was recording the album, Wonder was working on the hit soundtrack to the Spike Lee film Jungle Fever.
Stevie Wonder is a virtuoso. Though he wrote love songs and some of his biggest, most enduring hits were his romantic tunes, Wonder was also a socially conscious artist. He was working with Spike Lee on the drama Jungle Fever, which examined race relations, particularly when it came to interracial romance. During this moment in history, Nelson Mandela was freed from prison after 27 years, and Apartheid legislation in South Africa would be repealed in 1991, leading to reforms throughout the early 1990s in that country. Wonder folded events like these into his work, and in that time, he wrote the title track for Ross’ album.
The song is a highlight on the album. Backed by the Andrae Crouch Singers with instrumentation by Wonder, the track is reminiscent of “Reach Out and Touch (Somebody’s Hand)”, though instead of a swinging waltz, Ross sings the lyrics of a bouncing synthetic bass. The song sounds a lot like what Wonder was doing for the Spike Lee film, but he didn’t crowd the music with too much studio trickery, letting her voice shine (she always sounded fabulous against a gospel choir)
Despite her troubles with New Jack Swing, Ross returns to the Teddy Riley-forged form of dance music with the single “You’re Gonna Love It”. Produced by James Anthony Carmichael, known for his work with Lionel Richie, the song is a smoother version of the tunes on Workin’ Overtime. The herky-jerky rhythms, muted samples, and synths are busy, but Ross acquits herself well. The song was released with a batch of remixes and climbed into the top 40 of the dance charts but was largely ignored – a shame because it corrected some of the errors of Workin’ Overtime and showed how to remodel Ross as a New Jack Swing singer.
The other faster song on The Force Behind the Power will remind some listeners of Ross’ past music, most notably her Motown work as well as her big UK hit “Chain Reaction”. Nick Lowe’s “Battlefield” is covered here, with Ross doing a fantastic job, offering gutsy vocal work. The song could be less sleek and glossy – the production has a similar sheen to the whole album. But producer Peter Asher (who worked on Linda Ronstadt’s work in the ’80s and ’90s) does an excellent job of appropriating and approximating the steady, bouncing beat of Ross’ ’60s songs with the Supremes. A perfunctory harmonica solo by Warren Ham is okay. Still, given that Stevie Wonder was already writing and producing a song, it’s a shame that he didn’t contribute to this song as well, offering his idiosyncratic, soulful blowing. Still, it’s a great bit of nostalgia.
Looking at the cast list of the album and listening to the careful attention paid to the production and song selection, it’s a bit of a shame that it didn’t do well in the States. When released on Motown in 1991, it peaked at number 101 on the Billboard album charts, failing to be certified (though in the UK, it reached number 11 on the album charts, going platinum, becoming one of her best-selling studio LPs in that country). The accompanying tour, “Here and Now”, was a predictable success, lasting two years (even if her records weren’t selling, she was a major concert draw)
It was clear that the album was constructed to sell well and that Ross’ spotty work in the second half of the 1980s did some lasting damage to her commercial prospects in the US. The label filmed a series of music videos and commissioned remixes, and she was popping up on R&B, dance, and A/C charts, but mainstream radio ignored The Force Behind the Power, despite the considerable promo work that was poured into the project (including Ross doing the talk show circuit, singing cuts off the album)
Ross would record two more studio albums for Motown in the 1990s: 1995’s Take Me Higher and 1999’s Every Day Is a New Day. Both albums failed in the States, though the title track of Take Me Higher did go to number one on the Billboard dance charts. It was clear that by the 1990s, Diana Ross’ time as a hitmaker was behind her, and she gracefully took on the mantel of a pop-cultural icon. She started to collect lifetime achievement awards during this time, as well. After 1999’s Every Day Is a New Day, she also left Motown, essentially devoting her career to touring and seeing her legendary back catalogue compiled and repackaged repeatedly as her recording career became increasingly sporadic. After 1999, the only studio LP she released was 2006’s I Love You, her last until the upcoming Thank You, slated to be released late this year.
What The Force Behind the Power did, more than any other album, is re-establish Diana Ross as a major global recording star. Though the US ignored the album, she was the toast of the town in the UK and Japan, finding herself enjoying greater successes in those markets than in her salad days during the 1970s with Motown. It’s a wonderful – if underrated – entry in Ross’ prolific discography and one that deserves more attention.