"Is she great, or merely very good?"
Whatever you are you're going to be. Whatever you are is all right with me.
We take it for granted that in four minutes, using lyrics and music and her own unique vocal, temperamental, and interpretive gifts, a singer can convey character, situation, emotion, idea, analysis, morality and time, as well as melody and rhythm, but this is still a wonderful and useful accomplishment. Barbra Streisand has been one of the most distinguished singers of the last four decades.
Is she great, or merely very good?
The release of The Essential Barbra Streisand, a two-compact-disk career retrospective from Columbia Records, is probably the best Streisand anthology ever produced; and it comes after an extraordinary career in music and film, with detours made in the worlds of architecture, art, business, and politics. Streisand has designed homes, collected art and furnishings, successfully invested in stocks (for which she's been interviewed with respect by business journalists), and she has raised and donated funds for political candidates and for public causes such as the environment. Streisand's films include Funny Girl, The Owl and the Pussycat, What's Up Doc?, Up the Sandbox, The Way We Were, Yentl, Nuts, The Prince of Tides, and The Mirror Has Two Faces, but she may be best loved and remembered for her music. (Upon viewing Streisand's film debut in the musical Funny Girl, the film critic Pauline Kael said that the meaning of the film — and of Streisand's success — is that talent is beauty.) Listening to The Essential Barbra Streisand, one hears no decline in Streisand's vocal abilities or in her musical selections. At the beginning of her career, Streisand arrived with an agile vocal instrument that could sound light and pure or solidly, almost frighteningly, full — or any of the nuances and shades in between; and she also brought intelligence, passion, and an almost subversive honesty to the songs she sang, which often drew from the American popular song catalog and Broadway theatre tradition. In her honesty one heard the courage of an artist and the brash self-expression of a young woman. Later her voice attained a golden, sometimes melancholy perfection; and in her subsequent return to the kind of theatre songs with which she began her career, she seems to have renewed her commitment to a subversive honesty now rooted in adult awareness and articulation mirrored in mature artistic intention and execution.
I suspect that Streisand's a genius, but as with most artistic geniuses, this recognition is no more than prologue. How is the genius expressed: is it allowed the freedom of wildness, as in Picasso, Bertolucci, Ishmael Reed, and Aretha Franklin — or is it domesticated, made to seep through traditional forms and manners as in Rembrandt, Eric Rohmer, and Henry James? Every artist is challenged to confront his or her own time, and the fundamental facts of human life, such as birth and death, nature and time, work, politics, love and sex, family, and pleasure and sadness. How has Streisand faced this challenge?
The forty songs on the anthology include: "A Sleepin' Bee," a romantic Harold Arlen/Truman Capote song that begins the anthology and is immediately followed by "Cry Me A River," a scathing response to an ex-lover's apology (a response that reveals how much the narrator was hurt), both recorded in the early 1960s. "Lover, Come Back to Me" is comic, realistic, intense, with vocal tones of amusement and desire followed by frustration; "He Touched Me" conveys the shock and thrill of physical affection; and "Don't Rain on My Parade," from the 1968 Funny Girl film soundtrack, gets a spirited treatment. In "Since I Fell for You," first released in 1971, a hurt personal quality seems to enter Streisand's voice, and will remain there for much of the 1970s. "Lazy Afternoon," a poetic nature song recorded in the mid-1970s, is a song in which Streisand gives her voice totally over to the lyrics; she seems almost a spirit, a light and sensuous spirit, moving through the song, which precedes "Evergreen." That is followed by "My Heart Belongs to Me," which asks, "Can we believe in fairy tales? Can love survive when all else fails?" Streisand's singing on this last song is sensitive but restrained and that adds to the drama of the somber but critical questions and conclusions. I got the feeling the feeling's gone. My heart belongs to me.
In the songs in which she seems to have entered the most deeply — "What Are You Doing the Rest of Your Life?" and "All in Love is Fair," both from the early 1970s The Way We Were/All In Love is Fair album, which I think may be her best studio album of all, and also "Memory," a song from Andrew Lloyd Webber's Cats that she recorded in the early 1980s — her voice has a special mystique, an antique beauty. Haunting is "Send In the Clowns," from 1985's The Broadway Album, a Stephen Sondheim song full of irony, bitter reflection, feeling, with a potent circus metaphor (love as farce, farce as circuslike), to which Streisand brings an especially light tone to inflect the most biting words, an enrichment, and otherwise gives a dramatic reading that is not at all false. "I've Dreamed Of You," a love song from her recent A Love Like Ours album, is sung with a sad tenderness.
In some of the anthology's songs, such as "People," "Putting It Together," "Not While I'm Around," "Somewhere," and "Children Will Listen," there are social messages articulated with pain, wit, hope, and intelligence: love relieves loneliness; art requires effort and is produced in a contentious context of commerce, divergent tastes, and misunderstanding; parents must be responsible for and to their children, offering not merely protection but able to model appropriate behavior as parents leave emotional and moral legacies; and there is always hope for a better world.
The Essential Barbra Streisand includes popular radio singles which topped sales charts, such as "Stoney End" from 1970, "The Way We Were," "No More Tears (Enough is Enough)," the late 70s disco duet with Donna Summer, "Woman in Love," "Guilty," the duet with Barry Gibb, "I Finally Found Someone," the duet with Bryan Adams, and "Tell Him," the duet with Celine Dion, with the last two from the last decade.
While "wild" artists are so forceful their energies transform received structures, producing a new form that in turn delivers to their audiences new experiences, the more mannered artists seem to begin in thought and seem to harbor and reflect upon emotion, and what they deliver to their audience is illumination. How is song useful? For this illumination, this insight: despite one's awful loneliness, one's humanity is a shared thing, for here is a witness, and through this witness we better understand what it is we feel.
At the beginning of the twentieth century, Bessie Smith sang and recorded blues songs, and was sometimes referred to as a blues shouter and screamer; and her blasting voice may have echoed urban neighborhoods and been what was needed to cut through the noise in nightclubs and saloons. Ethel Waters recorded around the same time blues, jazz, and pop songs, but in a more conversational, intimate style, a style that would easily fit the time to come when microphones would become a regular part of a singer's tools on stage and for recordings. The style of Waters may have been the predecessor of that of Billie Holiday, Frank Sinatra — and Barbra Streisand. Not all of us shout but most of us talk and a conversational style might be considered a truly "universal" style. (Even geniuses have influences, and those influences aren't always the ones we expect. Sinatra claimed Holiday as an influence and the young Billie Holiday said that she herself tried to graft aspects of Louis Armstrong and Bessie Smith — I think she said that she wanted Armstrong's sound and Smith's feeling. Streisand has been quoted on her youthful admiration of Johnny Mathis and Joni James, and I always thought I heard Lena Horne in Streisand's voice — and Horne was an icon for Mathis. Lena Horne said that Waters was an influence on Horne and many other singers but didn't always get that credit as Waters could be competitive and feisty off stage and sometimes hurt the feelings or pride of other performers.) However, a 1960s television clip of Streisand performing with the "belters" Ethel Merman and Judy Garland connects Streisand as well with a more raucous tradition, as does her early performances of "torch" songs, some of which were blues songs that Smith herself might have favored. Of such complexities and possibilities are traditions made.
The last century has been an age of neurosis, a neurotic age, and some of our greatest artists have been neurotics and exposed their nerves as much as their talent in their work, but Streisand's singing has a core sanity and thoughtfulness. Her work is mature — and maturity can be dull to the shallow but it is a resource and a pleasure for the deep. Whatever you are is all right with me. These are the words within my father's song. "My Father's Song," from Streisand's Lazy Afternoon album, is not on The Essential Barbra Streisand — but that is the nature of an anthology: it selects, it excludes.
For me, Streisand's most distinctive and satisfying albums are The Second Barbra Streisand Album, The Way We Were/All in Love is Fair, Classical Barbra, The Broadway Album, Back to Broadway, and Barbra: The Concert, which documented her return to live performing in the 1990s, an album of beautifully performed songs interspersed with sometimes comic, sometimes dramatic interludes that featured comments about film, family, and also scenes with therapists. I have a fondness for many of the songs on Stoney End ("I Don't Know Where I Stand," "No Easy Way Down," and "I'll Be Home"), and Lazy Afternoon (the mellow "I Never Had It So Good" and the theatrical "Widescreen" in which the narrator wonders whether expectations born in film-viewing have troubled her relationships, and concludes, "All we have is life and mind and love we find with a friend, so let the movie end." I was always struck by the photos of Streisand on the inside jacket of Lazy Afternoon — in some she looked relaxed, in others cold, and both looks made a mystery of some of the mournful wailing on songs within such as Stevie Wonder's "You and I."). I like Streisand Superman (with Billy Joel's "New York State of Mind" and the rock songs "Cabin Fever" and "Don't Believe What You Read" and the ballads "Love Come From the Most Unexpected Places" and the tart "Lullaby for Myself."). I find notable the album Till I Loved You, which chronicled a love affair from beginning to end, and Higher Ground, a collection of spirituals dedicated to President Clinton's deceased mother, a friend of hers. Streisand also explored a form of "soul" music when she recorded the gospel song "(It's Gonna Be A) Great Day" on her Funny Lady soundtrack (the sequel to Funny Girl), and "Jubilation" and Bill Withers' "Grandma's Hands" for her ButterFly album. Her Just for the Record, a sometimes thrilling and certainly impressive multi-disk anthology released in the early 1990s, contains a bluesy version of Billie Holiday's "God Bless the Child," duets with Burt Bacharach and Judy Garland, and live selections, alternative interpretations of known songs, and other rare selections.
The evidence shows that she could sing whatever form of music she wanted, that she could be thoroughly civilized or wild, and chose to sing what she did, and in that — and in The Essential Barbra Streisand — we have a portrait of an artist: elegant, thoughtful, melancholy (admittedly, some of my favorite adjectives); an American, a Jewish girl who became rich and powerful beyond precedent or prediction through the pursuit of her singing talent and its rewards, a talent that has stayed true to what is human. Whatever you are is all right with me. You're gonna be what you want anyway. She is an artist who never forgot that language, mind, and memory are also fundamental human facts.
Is she great, or merely very good? Of course posterity will decide, but I think she's great.