I never met a diva, and I wasn’t expecting to when I went to see Tiffany’s free concert in the plaza of my university. I don’t know what I was looking for, maybe a fleeting moment of pop perfection, or maybe a chance to see some history before she got sick of the whole thing and decided to get a real job. The crowd was freshmen and sophomores, folks who were barely six years old when “I Think We’re Alone Now” broke. I don’t know what they wanted either.

When Tiffany appeared on stage, she wasn’t the Tiffany of ten years ago — black DNKY tank top, leather pants, backing band straight out of a want ad at The Viper Room. Hair like everyone had it back in ’98, straight midlength, and very very blatantly dyed red. I wasn’t gonna buy this midnight makeover trend hopping shit. The band confirmed all my worst fears, launching into flood-production-knockoff alt-sludge, all two guitars one bassist, drummer, and keyboardist. This was not synth pop, this was Vertical Horizon, prefab synth-rock. I start sizing up my critical chops — a would be Shirley Manson meets Shania Twain. The marketing plan hits college campuses rather than mall tours, reaching for a slightly older version of the same middle american demographic.

And then Tiffany started to sing. And then she smiled. And… god she seemed so happy.

Through a few songs of this Tiffany gets more adventurous, reaching down to the crowd below and grabbing hands, hugging, and giving occasional asides between verses “hey,” “how’re you,” “alright” et cet. But some pricks are already yelling out for you-know-what song, and there’s a certain edge to the crowd. Tiffany must sense this, because next thing you know she sez “Sing along” and so everyone gets hushed and waits for “I Think We’re Alone Now” but instead, we get “Could Have Been” and a sort of wave of disappointment washes over the crowd. We’re disappointed in ourselves, for not knowing the words, for not reciprocating Tiffany’s magnanimous gesture in giving us her other number one single. But of course the appropriateness is clear — a mournful ballad about a relationship never consummated — like Tiffany herself on stage, waiting for the audience to sing along to words it doesn’t know.

Right then, I’m won over hard. Because being a popstar is a contract.

— Save us, cries the audience — I’ll save you, sez the popstar.

And then all else is forgotten, the audience lets go of everything but their promise of salvation. The popstar transforms into an incarnation of collective need, and we’re all transfigured into a crowd. Not because of the music itself, or the lyrics themselves. Not because of the band or the beat, but because we need to be, and we need an act of unselfish love to free us from our egos. That song was an act of love for me, but from there she launched into you-know-what, and that was the act of love for everyone else.

“Children behave, that’s what they say when we’re together” Tiffany says, and the crowd responds, and we’re pogoing because, ohmygod this is a pop-punk/ska take on the tune, but nobody seems to really notice as the band kicks in and we’re “running just as fast as we can, holding onto one another’s hand” and the chorus comes again and again and again, and the audience is breathless and Tiffany waves the mike at the crowd and we sing to her, and all of us are alone now, together, and none of us are around because we’re all the same. We’ve willed ourself into a fan massive, and we will never go back.

We don’t go back. The rest of the concert is magnificent. I’m screaming with the crowd. It must be showing, because people tell me to go on upfront and touch her. I’m too afraid. We’re there for Tiffany and then the concert finishes. Tiffany sticks around signing autographs for a good two hours. While I’m sticking around I get interviewed by a reporter from a skeezy artsy campus magazine, but I have nothing to say.

He moves on to an older man, who, as it transpires, knows an astonishing amount of Tiffany lore. The older man keeps talking, and it becomes clear that he isn’t quite right in the head. Now the reporter goes in for the kill. The man keeps going, the reporter egging him on. I’ve noticed that he’s stopped filling the notepad. Now this is a personal kick on his part, pushing the fan into greater acts of unknowing self-abasement. A hipster nearby tells his girlfriend “somebody should shut that guy up. I want to punch him.” The fan is describing webpages. The fan is describing a concert from ten years ago. Describing the world peace organization Tiffany founded. “What does Tiffany think of neoliberal politics?” asks the reporter. He’s smirking, the sonofabitch. I want to intervene, but can’t. The fan continues. He describes how Tiffany has threatened to fire managers because of their rudeness to him. How he called her a month ago, and she told him she would always be his guardian. At that moment, he doesn’t seem demented at all, but perfectly sane and honest. It hits me. I couldn’t find the strength of will to step in and save him, but Tiffany could.

I’m struck dumb with this revelation, and nearing the front of the line I see that Tiffany’s makeup hides some significant facial blemishes. A fan is chatting on a cellular phone and Tiffany takes it from him. “Hi? Who’s this? Erica? Hi, Erica, this is Tiffany.” At the front, I give her my two 7″ singles to sign. She’s almost hurt, that she’s moved on but we won’t let her. “Would you like something… newer?” Sure, I get a postcard signed as well. This whole afternoon I’ve been letting her down, but she’s never stopped giving.

Just like that fan, I realize that we all need a Tiffany. That people can construct meaning and approximate the truth with whatever broken materials we’re given, and that perhaps this is as close as I can come to understanding what it means to be human. To find a Tiffany, and to create one if we can’t. And that the truly astonishing magic of humanity is how we find what we need in places where others don’t always think we should.

Now, listening to the new album, “The Color of Silence” I’m hearing stories from a woman who’s learned the same thing. There’s something solid and vital in her voice, something roughly tempered and just slightly worn.

I never met a diva, and I guess I still haven’t. But I have met Tiffany, and right now I think that’s even better.

Sterling Clover