"Is she great, or merely very good?"
Whatever you are you're going to be. Whatever you are is all right
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
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
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.