A review of The Essential Barbra Streisand and Guilty Pleasures

Reviewed by Daniel Garrett

Barbra Streisand, The Essential Barbra Streisand
Executive producers: Barbra Streisand, Jay Landers
Columbia/Sony, 2002

Barbra Streisand, Guilty Pleasures
Producers: Barry Gibb, John Merchant
Executive producers: Barbra Streisand, Jay Landers
Columbia/Sony, 2005

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 or more.

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 theater 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 theater 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, 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 do 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 Comes 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 Streisand great, or merely very good? Of course posterity will decide, but I think she’s great.

II.

Barbra Streisand is one of the major popular artists and public figures of her time: a singer, an actor, a music and film producer, a film director, and more, successful in multiple fields for several decades, she may be incomparable. No one becomes or remains a major artist with only the interest or support of a minority population: importance is defined by one’s ability to transcend not only one’s own origins and location, but also all preceding boundaries. In the cases in which an artist is using very particular cultural or regional references and resources, often it is the most universal aspects of those that communicate—Aretha Franklin may shout like no classical singer (and very much like an African-American gospel singer), but Franklin’s expressions are rooted in recognizable human feelings: excitement, outrage, pain, worry. However, what often happens as an artist develops is that he or she becomes identified with one group or another, even if his or her popularity remains broad. That is a result of both practicality and prejudice: how else to describe the artist and her audience without some attempt at precision? To say that an artist appeals to people in every social configuration can seem to be saying nothing: although, it is saying everything. Streisand’s appeal is, first, her voice: it is a beautiful, forceful, supple instrument; and, second, because of Streisand’s sensibility—discriminating, intelligent, passionate—what that voice does is unique. Streisand’s vocal talent is an embodiment of a rare and grand beauty. That is something that anyone with ears and even a small amount of taste can hear.

What Streisand’s talent is taken to mean is sometimes something else. Is she feminine and sentimental in predictable ways? Is the focus on sensitive feeling in her work an indulgence of individuality, a kind of narcissism, or a commitment to honest emotion, to a complexity a conformist and money-driven world usually prefers to ignore? Is she singing out of a tradition that is marginal rather than mainstream in the advent of rock and rap? Has age—or, more particularly, the American disinclination to see women of a certain age as vital, as sensual, as important—something that renders her and her work irrelevant? Has the ongoing publicized appreciation of her work by particular groups—say, women, Jews, and men who never looked upon her as a sex object—something that negatively or positively inflects understanding of her value? Has either her reticent public presence or outspoken politics made it difficult to assess from where—from what kind of person—the work comes? (She hardly ever gives interviews, and is infrequently photographed; and she funds various candidates and causes, and has an internet site that regularly criticizes the current Republican administration.) Does anything—any particular, any prejudice—matter but the work?

I have admired and observed much of Streisand’s career for years, sometimes paying much less attention than at other times. I have not rushed to say anything about Streisand’s recording Guilty Pleasures (2005), a work done in collaboration with Barry Gibb, who twenty-five years before had written (with help from his brothers) and produced her Guilty (1980) album with Alby Galuten and Karl Richardson. I thought that the album Guilty Pleasures, and especially Streisand’s voice, sounded good but I did not really like most of the lyrics and, with one or two exceptions, maybe three exceptions, the songs did not really capture my imagination. How to think about this recording, after such a career? Well, one has to listen to it—and take it song by song.

The first song on Guilty Pleasures is “Come Tomorrow,” a 1950s-style doo-wop ballad, a duet with Barry Gibb, with nice saxophone support. The song was written by Barry Gibb with Ashley and Stephen Gibb (I have read that they are Barry’s sons). The song’s production is crisp, clear, and Streisand’s voice sounds great, but some of the lyrics are non-sequiturs (“I got to turn away my face/ ‘Cause you blind me with your light/ Can you catch up to me?/ You know I love you in the black of night/ This sacred ritual/ This journey has begun/ And we try…we try to carry on/ And you innocents/ You get to find the things in life/ That get you through”). Next: “Stranger in a Strange Land,” a song for someone fighting overseas, a well-intentioned piece of sentimental rhetoric, especially with America’s forays in the Middle East, but the song does not escape a touch of bombast. (It is hard not to escape imagining Streisand saying, “I don’t approve of the war, but I do care about American soldiers.”) The song “Hideaway” is dreamy, with a light rhythm—it sounds like Latin jazz—and it’s a romantic song and sound, but Streisand seems more intelligent, sensual interpreter than expressive woman: sometimes her voice sounds like that of an objective narrator, and sometimes there is a more surprising vulnerable tone. It is an interesting switch of shading, an interesting perspective that her performance suggests: participant, and observer. “It’s Up to You,” with what seems a guitar introduction, is softly sultry, and somehow the song makes romantic capitulation sound charming (“I’m ready to go anywhere you choose,” she sings: and she somehow makes it not sound like an abdication of intelligence or will). Some of the sung lines are long (or the short lines are strung together so that they sound long). The guitar has a strong presence in the song but it does not bear any relation to Streisand’s voice—nor does her voice bear any relation to it. At some point, the guitar takes on a prominent rhythm but it seems mainly there to add a contemporary touch, to suggest another (a blues-rock) genre; and something about the song’s rhythm also reminds me of country music—and I’m amused, once more, to think of sonic connections between the blues and country music. The uptempo “Night of My Life” is reminiscent of a discothèque; and Streisand’s voice on “Night of My Life” is here sweet and there tough as it drives through the song; and one can imagine the song being danced to now or three decades ago. The first five songs on “Guilty Pleasures” provide a movement through musical styles, from past to present.

“Above the Law,” a duet between Streisand and Barry Gibb (Streisand is a co-writer), has very good vocals: in my notebook, I wrote “terrific.” The ballad “Without Your Love” is in a classic Streisand mold but that may be the thorn on the rose: that it self-consciously fulfills an expectation (and proves that Gibb, not Streisand, could do exactly that—similar to Gibb’s giving Diana Ross the Supremes-like “Chain Reaction” for her Eaten Alive album). I had to double-check that Gibb (with Ashley) had actually written it; it seemed too little like his style and so much like hers.

“They tell us lies/ They try to tell us who we are,” begins “All the Children,” written by Barry Gibb, with Ashley and Stephen, as many of the songs are. The middle-eastern rhythms of “All the Children,” with lyrics offering an unspecified “outsider” perspective, form my favorite song on the whole album. “What do you see?/ Knowing what the power of your future could be/ To fall and then to rise/ It’s knowing how it was and how that sets you free/ All the children will send out/ Love to everyone” are some of the lines. Although the lyric may be no more sincere (or meaningful) than any other on the album, this seems so much a song of our time: international, concerned with youth and affirmation despite the given social order, and having the suggestion of both history and mysticism. “Stand up/ Freedom is for everyone to know/ Tell them what your truth is when you play/ Stand up,” she sings.

Streisand sings beautifully, but what now—as an artist—does she have to say? I have little idea what her real feelings (or thoughts) are, but what’s worse, this album is not enough to give me the illusion that I’m hearing much of them. “Golden Dawn,” the ninth song, in which Streisand’s voice sounds perfect, compels that thought.

“(Our Love) Don’t Throw It All Away” is a downbeat take on an old song once sung by Andy Gibb, Barry’s brother (it was written by Barry with Blue Weaver), and it is one of the most easily singable songs in this collection, a nice, though sentimental, touch.

The last song, “Letting Go,” is mostly voice and piano, and it is a song that Gibb, with George Bitzer, apparently wrote for Streisand many years ago. Her inflections are probably more intimate, more lifelike, and more suggestive, than on any other song here. I do not know if that is because it may be the best written song of this anthology or because she has lived with it the longest, but the song does not merely take up space—aural space, or space as measured by time; rather, what her performance of the song does is to expand space—to fill one’s imagination so that only it exists and then the listeners begin to see the world reflected in it. That is the fulfilled promise not merely of music but of all art.

Barbra Streisand has been a controversial figure, but she should not be: her presence and positions assert the importance of consciousness, deep feeling, independence, and liberal politics in a society of deep conformity and superficial commitments. Controversy may be part of the expected wage for any serious artist: and the difficulties of an artist—whether deprivation, indifference, malice, misunderstanding, neglect, poverty—are like rites of initiation and purification, painful and clarifying: creating and destroying meaning. Certainly, Streisand has been well rewarded for her trouble—and she has the freedom to explore her ideas and emotions. How many people have the luxury of extravagant feelings? That seems, for some, the province of late night restaurant dinners and bedroom melodrama at best, and at worse something read about in romance novels or seen in television soap operas. When not practical, and even practicality has its deceptions, many people think in clichés, and even feel in clichés, and at their most rigorous they simply use one cliché to interrogate another, but in every generation, in every age, there are a few original people—and Streisand is original; and she often, if not always, has been fearless in art and politics. Serious social commitments can seem like meddling or worse to people who never think beyond their own small practical concerns. However, deep feeling is the very energy of human life, and what is beneath much of both art and history. Streisand is a figure of passion, as well as intellect—now, as ever. Her Guilty Pleasures is better than most of what I hear on the radio or celebrated in popular music reviews, but it is not up to her best work, and that is a criticism that contains a compliment. I imagine, too, that Streisand’s voice sounds so rich on Guilty Pleasures because she doesn’t have to worry about the typical production duties that often concern her and, thus, she is more relaxed. It’s possible that Guilty Pleasures is a transitional recording, a tribute to the past and a preparation for the future, something that predicts Streisand will cease the exploration of songs that are established standards and return to contemporary compositions.

About the reviewer: Daniel Garrett is a writer whose work has appeared in or on AllAboutJazz.com, American Book Review, Cinetext.Philo, The Compulsive Reader, IdentityTheory.com, Offscreen.com, PopMatters.com, Review of Contemporary Fiction, WaxPoetics.com, and World Literature Today. Garrett, who also likes jazz and world music, has published reviews of rock music by The Afghan Whigs for Hyphen and Matthew Sweet for Option; and he reviewed Tupac Shakur for IdentityTheory.com. Garrett’s commentary here on Streisand’s “Guilty Pleasures” was previously unpublished, but his review of “The Essential Barbra Streisand” appeared previously, but is no longer available, on the site of IdentityTheory.com.

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