Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Barbra Streisand

I have a love-hate relationship with Barbra Streisand – as a performer. I’ve never met the woman. She’s never invited me to shop at the mall she had built in her house. But there are moments I think she’s the greatest singer of all-time and others when I want to put my fist through the speaker – all within the same song.

Lately, Babs has been making the rounds, hawking her new duets album. TANGENT RANT: Does every singer have to do a duet album now? Usually they’re old established crooners who now struggle to hit notes they once sang with ease. And Stevie Wonder. It’s as if a publicist said to these icons, “You gotta appeal to the kids. Let’s see if that Gaga person is available.” There have been enough of these albums now that the duet partners should all pair off and make their own albums. That way we could hear “It Had To Be You” by every combination of artists who ever made the Billboard charts in the last fifty years.

In Barbra’s case, the album is called PARTNERS. It should be called UPSTAGING. In most tracks she just wipes the floor with whomever she’s singing with. John Mayer had no shot. Only Josh Groban and Andrea Bocelli had a fighting chance. And of course, Stevie Wonder.

Last week she was on THE TONIGHT SHOW… as the only guest. A lot of the things I give her credit for are also the things that piss me off. She’s very effectively positioned herself as a larger-than-life personality. For her to appear anywhere is a major event. That’s great career management. When she was on THE TONIGHT SHOW she was the only guest. When she performs in Vegas tickets are more than your house is worth. But a part of me resents that. I want to say, “Hey, who the fuck are you? So you sing well and are talented?”

Whenever she’s a guest she portrays herself as just a folksy down-to-earth Jewish girl from Brooklyn. But you KNOW that’s not who she really is. What Jewish girl from Brooklyn builds a shopping arcade in her home? At one time Barbra gave free concerts in Central Park. Now she charges the national debt of Canada to see one of her rare Vegas shows. So only the super rich and super famous can attend. Way to reward your loyal fans.

I hear she’s very difficult to work with, but I don’t know that first hand. I’ve heard that about Kristin Chenoweth, yet I directed three episodes of her sitcom and found her to be an absolute delight. She was kind to everybody, an uber hard-worker, and a total pro. So I give Barbra a pass on that one.

My real issue comes from her singing, and this was exacerbated by listening to that dedicated Streisand channel on satellite radio. When she wants to be, she is, in my humble non-professional estimation, the greatest living singer on the planet. Sorry Miley. When she chooses to, she can elevate a song to unimagined heights. It’s like she swallowed at Stradivarius.

But way too often she over sings the shit out of songs. She launches into vocal gymnastics that obliterates the meaning of many of her tunes. It’s like she doesn’t trust the material. A gorgeous melody and heartfelt lyrics aren’t enough. She has to put her stamp on everything. And often, it’s more like a “stomp.”

For me, this is infuriating because I love her voice so much. I often feel cheated. You may disagree. You may love everything she sings. The louder the note; the longer the note – the better. And that’s great. But for this simpleton, less is more.

You don’t have to work that hard, Barbra. You don’t. LeBron James doesn’t have to take every shot from half court. Tom Brady doesn’t have to throw a Hail Mary pass every play. Just sing the songs. Nice. Easy. Follow the melody. And I need new shoes. Any chance I could swing by your mall and see what you’ve got? I’ll just be there a half hour. I swear. Oh…and do you take all major credit cards?

Okay, so after all that Barbra bashing, here's an example of why I keep tuning back to the Streisand channel.   God, is she unbelievable when she wants to be.   Wow.

51 comments:

emily said...

I asked my hairdresser if he could make me look like Barbra Streisand, so he took his hairbrush and broke my nose.

David G. Whitham said...

Barbra as a whole infuriates me for every reason you listed. But then I go and watch "What's Up Doc".

Pat Reeder said...

Sounds like me, from the complaints about oversinging to the annoying duets albums that older artists are forced to record with young flashes-in-the-pan (although I hear the new Tony Bennett-Lady Gaga album is actually really good, but then, she's a rarity among modern singers in that she's actually capable of singing). I'm also hot and cold on Barbra. Sometimes she sounds great, but on certain tracks ("Woman in Love" is a particular pet peeve), she sounds like she's got the song pinned to the floor, banging its head on the floorboards to force it into submission. Oddly enough, some fans seem to think those bulldozer moments are her peaks of greatness. She also had a tendency, particularly on her early records, to shriek instead of hitting high notes. Thankfully, that's been reeled in with the passing decades.

Dan Ball said...

Streisand's never really evoked much from me. I don't know of a single song she's done by any composers I like or from any movies I liked. As a matter of fact, I think the only movie of hers that I've seen all the way through was GUILT TRIP (but parts of THE WAY WE WERE--oh, and MEET THE FOCKERS).

I dunno...this is probably just a textbook case of everybody else likes her, so I feel like I gotta like something more obscure to keep things fresh for myself and those around me. (Not that I've generated much awareness for the great works of Jerry Goldsmith among my family or friends.)

Scooter Schechtman said...

That poor little meeskite from Brooklyn sounds like buttah! when she sings. Now I'm all verklempt, talk among yourselves...

Rob said...

I'll take Alison Krauss, Anne Murray or Karen Carpenter over Babs anyday.

ScottyB said...

Thanks for saying what the whole world has been thinking, Ken. Barbara Streisand even ruined rodeo for me because I've equated nearly every event with the way she beats a song into submission. 'Stoney End' is pretty much where she ends with me.

normadesmond said...

her early stuff thru the broadway album, no one comes near. she was the soundtrack of my youth.

i've disliked her voice now for many years, but am somewhat impressed with how she sounds on this latest CD. not sure how she pulled it off.

she recently said she hates to smile.

years ago, when rosie o'donnell kvelled over her on her show, barbra dismissed it, claiming she didn't understand that kind of worship.

i would imagine she's not a nice person.

MikeK.Pa. said...

I have a duet for the ages - Streisand and Christina Aguilera. Let's see who pops a vocal cord polyp first. Both have the occasion to over-sing their songs as if to say "look at me; this is hard." I'd prefer an artist like Tony Bennett, who ironically is coming out with his own duet album with Lady Gaga, or the late Karen Carpenter, who sing as if to say "hey, this isn't so hard; try it." That said, the Streisand Christmas Album is one of the best ever (along with Bennett's and The Carpenters) and sadly rarely played during the holidays.

Charles H. Bryan said...

@ScottyB Please allow me to express my appreciation for the line "Barbra Streisand even ruined rodeo for me".

John said...

The Just-A-Girl-From-Brooklyn thing seems to be Barbara trying to carry forward her original public image from 53 years ago, when she was doing duets on TV with Mike Wallace.

Stoney said...

Over the weekend I heard a Casey Kasem AT40 show from 1979 in which he told how Streisand, with all her accomplishments, still has a lot of insecurity in performing. That may account for any tendency to try too hard sometimes. The pseudo-title of "greatest living entertainer" kinda fell on her when Frank Sinatra died and she may not be comfortable with that.

A few years ago Billboard noted that she's the first artist to have #1 records in five different decades.

First time I remember The Tonight Show having a singular guest was in 1984 when Paul McCartney sat between Johnny and Ed.

Anonymous said...

I don't understand why people like Ken go on about someone who's been treated like royalty most of her life, acting like royalty. Celine Dion acts like royalty, it's just more polished than the poor former brooklynite.

Why not complain about how the Queen of England behaves day to day? By our middlebrow standards, the woman is batshit crazy. But not by our societies standards. By our class standards, the Queen is awesome. So why give Barbara grief after she's achieved royalty status the alleged American Way? By merit. We're not talking about Justin Beiber here.

America's class issues precede celebrities acting crazy because of said issues. If you don't like it, don't start smooching ass with celebrities you worship when you meet them... KEN!!

PS Robin Williams wasn't as quick or funny at 61 as he was at 28. Are you gonna talk shit about him because he had his own personal lake that he could row out on with his rowboat, on his property? Did that make him less funny? Did that make him "weird"?

This double-talk when it comes to criticizing celebrities is neurotic.

They're "wacky" because collectively, we pressure them to be "wacky."

Stoney said...

Ken, I'd be interested in your take on Streisand's acting. "What's Up Doc" is one of my favorite comedies!

Max Shenk said...

But then, this is my problem with a lot of pop singers....
>>> way too often she oversings the shit out of songs. She launches into vocal gymnastics that obliterates the meaning of many of her tunes. It’s like she doesn’t trust the material. A gorgeous melody and heartfelt lyrics aren’t enough. She has to put her stamp on everything. And often, it’s more like a “stomp.”

It's what I refer to as the "thank you, I'm wonderful" phenomenon. A song is a communication (to quote or paraphrase, maybe, Frank Sinatra). You're trying to convey an emotion, a feeling, an experience to your listener. When a singer "oversings" a song, what they end up conveying mostly is a sense of their own skill and importance as an Artist.

And who wants to hear THAT?

Terry said...

And who wants to hear THAT?

Apparently everybody who watches TV's parade of "So You Want to Be a Star" talent competitions. Oversinging is the standard on those.

Kirk said...

"Happy Days Are Here Again" still my favorite song of hers.

And she's a helluva good comic actress. She OK at drama, too, but really excels at comedy. Just watched The Owl and the Pussycat again last night, and she's hilarious.

Dixon Steele said...

I too have been conflicted about Barbra in the past. A fan, yes, but not a fanatic like others.

But I saw her a couple of years ago at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn and she absolutely knocked me out.

And as far as your kvetching about her not giving back, I also recall seeing her recent return to the Village Vanguard not too long ago on PBS. Not exactly a big money gig (although the CD probably did well).

Yeah, as the funny off-Broadway play BUYER & CELLAR reiterated, Babs and her basement mall is a bit much.

But for an artist in her 70s to still be performing at this high level is pretty damn impressive.

And if people (who need people) want to buy into her legendary status...come to think of it, I'm one of them.


Chris said...

Get out of my head, Ken! That's exactly how I feel.

I had a friend who worked on the "Rosie" show, and when Streisand came on, she insisted that she be shot primarily from her left side. This was a problem, since, as in most talk shows, Rosie's desk was in that position. A week before Babs appeared, Rosie had a "laid back" on-air chat with her bandleader about how she was tired of the set and wanted to switch things around. The next day (or shortly thereafter), her desk was on screen left, and her guests were sitting screen right with their left sides featured. Babs appears, Rosie fawns (and go back and notice how ungracious Babs is when Rosie offers her champagne and Babs says how much better it would be if there were peaches in it--the woman can't help herself, she has to one-up everyone) and Babs is shot from her left. So when she was going to appear on Fallon's show, I was curious as to how they would handle it. I wasn't disappointed. Babs comes out, and Fallon thinks she should take the power position. Fabulous, fabulous television as Babs demurs and tells Jimmy he can take it back whenever he wants. I'd have loved to see THAT moment. Then comes Jimmy's amazing passive/aggressive comment about how he thought she would be difficult. Watch Babs' micro-expressions. For a second, I thought she was going to reach over and claw him with her nails. TV doesn't get any better than that.

For real insight into Babs, read what Arthur Laurents had to say about her in his autobiography. He gave her her first job on Broadway, and, of course, wrote "The Way We Were." Also Pauline Kael's review of one of the TV specials--the one with Stevie Wonder back in the 70's where she calls Babs on stealing scenes from a blind man (it's all about her fingernails, one of her obsessions). Hilarious.

When all is said and done, though, Ken, you are right on. For my money, her work in "Funny Girl" is tops. A true star. In every sense of the word. But I wouldn't want to spend 10 minutes with her in person.

Dana King said...

Ken, your comment about her singing--for better and worse--is spot on. For years I have thought of her as the vocal counterpart to trumpeter Maynard Ferguson. Both could do things no one else could, but that didn't mean they should, at least not as often.

Wendy M. Grossman said...

A friend of mine knows Streisand's (possibly former, by now) vocal coach and credits that coach with a lot of Streisand's best qualities - although for myself, my reaction to her singing is exactly like Ken's except without the "sometimes I think she's the greatest singer in the world" part. Among female singers, I'll take Emmylou Harris any minute, or any of a number of folksingers too obscure to mention.

Most pop music sounds to me horribly oversung and under-enunciated. The best singers are the ones where you're so occupied with what the song is communicating that you don't think about the singing, just as the best actors are those who never make you conscious of their performance. Good or bad, there is never a moment like that with Streisand.

wg

Gordon said...

There's Dont Rain on My Parade which is spectacular and deserves every bit of her gold medal voice and then there's Somewhere which she absolutely ruins....

But all in all she is magnificent.

MikeN said...

You left out that she was involved in keeping the public off of her beach, which is supposed to be open to the public in California.

Anonymous said...

Why do you say Sorry Miley. I don't think she would even try to claim that.

Gene P. said...

Barbra Streisand - a tremendous singer. Clearly one of the best ever (despite her over reaching). But in my book - still not as good as Ella Fitzgerald. I can listen to Ella anytime, anywhere (even doing scat) and be absolutely in awe.

Gary West said...

She knocked, "Alfie" out of the ballpark. That's the Streisand I'll take any day, any time.

Jimmie said...

Oh boy! We're having "Let's Trash a Celebrity" day! Ken hardly ever does that!

Anonymous said...

I totally agree with you on the oversinging part. That is why I usually only listen to older cuts of songs. Before all of the vocal gymnastics. Its the same with Mariah Carey. Beautiful, 'one of a kind' voice, but those vocal runs she does could take up the whole song because no one can tell her no.

Pam St. Louis

Max Clarke said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Max Clarke said...


You’re basically right, Ken.

She can be like the great actor who can’t resist “acting” during his scenes. The director has to make him do less and less. Finally, just saying the lines is exactly right for the scene.

My only complaint about Streisand has been her musical selections. First time I heard her was in college in the 1970s. She recorded the albums Stoney End and Barbra Joan Streisand. The songs were selected to appeal to people my age, and they worked. She covered Joni Mitchell and Harry Nilsson and Randy Newman. Laura Nyro, too. Great stuff. Her later album, Butterfly, took chances too, and mostly worked.

Aside from her first Broadway album in 1985, I haven’t bought anything she’s done. That’ll be 30 years pretty soon. A shame, she can still sing circles around most performers.


Andrew Krigel said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Andrew Krigel said...

I love her voice but not always her songs. She is severely over-talented. But I think the best thing she ever did was What's Up Doc. And Yentl. But Babs, the secret is to always leave them wanting more. Go back to your mall and find Ken some shoes.

tb said...

On the Tonight Show, was she asked about James Brolin at all?

H Johnson said...

Geez, you all sound like the ugly girls talking about the prom queen. I don't know any yiddish but I'll throw out a little pidgen. You Babooses.



Aloha

Anonymous said...

After Cilla Black and even Cher singing the legendary "Alfie," it's great to see Babs kill it. Wow, this sure sets up a person's day after seeing PERFECTION.

Toronto Blue Jay said...

Ken, you're a writer. You're a director. A few acting lessons and you're a perfect trifecta like Woody Allen or George Clooney. Any plans? We know you've been studying improv for years.

gottacook said...

Streisand helped contribute to the duets genre with three big hit records in the late 1970s and early '80s - I'm no radio pro but can easily think of "You Don't Bring Me Flowers," "No More Tears (Enough Is Enough)," and "Guilty" - and so perhaps she bears a little responsibility for the eventual rise of the duet album.

Dana King: Maynard Ferguson became well-known as a bandleader, too, and he was great at it for decades, with a well-deserved reputation for nurturing new talent. His big bands on his LPs certainly help to balance out his occasional trumpet pyrotechnics. I especially enjoy M.F. Horn | 3 from 1973.

Ben Kubelsky said...

@ScottyB Stoney End was so good because it was written by Laura Nyro and produced by Richard Perry!

@Stoney Actually, even McCartney did not get to be the only guest. He was joined by SNL's Mary Gross (who said she wanted to make a good impression on Paul, so she bathed), plus a magician. And now that I think about it, Frank Sinatra didn't even get to be the only guest on Carson -- his appearance in 1976 also featured Don Rickles (a welcome surprise), Olivia Newton-John and a clearly drunk David Janssen

@Gene P. right on about Ella! I was waiting for someone to mention her

@gottacook Those MF Horn albums rocked!

Rosariorose9 said...

Her duet of "You Don't Bring Me Flowers" with Neil Diamond always seemed like someone running down the street, with another person running circles around them as they ran. Too much filigree...

McAlvie said...

I think I agree with most of what you've said, Ken. She is an incredible talent, no question. I'm not sure who could touch her. I'm sure there must be that kind of talent out there, but it's not enough to have the pipes if you don't know what to do with them. And you are right that Babs often plays fast and loose with songs. IMO, a voice that pure has nothing to prove. But I admit that if I'd made a career out of mostly the same kind of music, I might like to change it up sometimes, too.

However, I disagree with you about duets in general. There are some great voices that are being way underutilitized hawking pop tripe. Say what you will about the over the hill crooners, but most of them could really SING. Even if they aren't quite hitting the old notes, they can still wipe the floor compared to a lot of what I hear on the radio. So the duets give both sides a new audience. The old timers are rediscovered, and the new kids earn a little respect.

Jeannie said...

What's wrong with Barbra preferring her left side? Don't we all prefer to post flattering shots on Facebook? I think her talent speaks for itself. I don't have to like her or want to hang out with her, and she doesn't owe a fun personality to anyone. This isn't middle school, is it?

D. McEwan said...

I'm an anomaly almost considered a freak by some of my friends; I'm a gay man who can not stand Barbra. I would turn down Stiesand tickets. (Well, no. I wouldn't turn them down; I'd resell them. But you'd have to pay me the national debt of Canada to get me to sit through a concert of hers.)

Give me Barbara Cook, whom I'e joyously attended concerts of.

Dave said...

Barry Manilow has a duets album coming out, too, though Barry will, at least in part, be dueting with the dead. Barry sings with Judy Garland! Barry sings with Ella Fitzgerald! Barry sings with Louis Armstrong!

Markus said...

All things said, the internet will always be grateful to her for creating (or let's say causing) the Streisand Effect.

(And @MikeN: on a related tangent, that's precisely the point with her and all the other Malibu rich folks - the beach is public there, all of it, anywhere. It's not "her" beach at all, it's the public beach that's adjacent to her property. No matter how hard they try and (illegally) try to trick people into staying away from it and denying them access.)

RCP said...

At her best, Streisand is an extraordinary talent and she has to know it - which makes her bashful 'You guys really think I can sing?' schtick all the more ridiculous. But for all the pleasure she's brought to people for 50 years, a healthy ego and self-indulgence can be forgiven. Hell - even Elvis came back from the grave to sing with her!

She's an underrated comedic actress, who held her own against Madeleine Kahn (who stole the film) in "What's Up, Doc?" And the scenes of Streisand battling her overbearing mother in "Up the Sandbox" - are truly hilarious. I wish she had done more good comedies.

mmryan314 said...

@D.McLean- My husband must have been an anamoly as well. He was not gay but loved Barbra. I`ll admit, we teased him and told him he was gay but he took it well- even defended his right to love her.

Jabroniville said...

The comment about Barbra powering through every song reminds me of one of Ken's criticism of Idina Menzel. She does much the same these days, though it's a pretty recent development- she belted a lot in "Wicked", but there are PLENTY of regular old songs that use her dusky, sultrier voice on that album. She even has several albums out that involve just regular ol' singing- but none did too well, and "Frozen" did, so now she's a belter through-and-through.

It's a bit jarring on something like "Chess- The Musical" because she's playing a lot of duets with others, and you can see her physically holding back to avoid powering over all of her cast members.

And Ken- you met Kristin Chenoweth? Color me jealous- I'm a huge fan. I've heard rumors that she & Menzel didn't get along on "Wicked" (both girls basically play it off as having a few disagreements and that's it, because they respond differently to pressure- Menzel is admittedly "Kind of a mess", while Cheno was a consummate professional, always at 100%), and others that say Cheno is perfectly fine to work with, so long as you afford her the proper respect.

But as a whole, it's hard to truly judge celebrities JUST by the rumors.

David Russell said...

Her duet with Celine Dion, our Canadian contribution to the queen of screech schmaltz genre, is absolutely unbearable. I had to madly reach for the dial in the car and couldn't figure out what I had done to warrant these two people screaming at me.

It's like a SNL sketch in which we see two competitors in a fight to the death battle to attempt the highest note until one of their heads explodes.

Chet said...

Her new album of duets made its Billboard debut at #1, making Streisand the first artist in history to have a #1 album in each of the last six decades.

For all the grousing and criticizing here, somebody's buying her albums.

Anonymous said...

Streisand- great in the 1960's.
Very good in the 1970's
since then- meh.

The definitive take on working with her was by Frank Pierson when he worked with her in A Star is Born.

Unless she is at her best she is not close to Ella or Billie or Judy. I'd actually rate a couple others above her overall- Jo Stafford, Patsy Cline, Julie Andrews, and ironically the woman who wanted to sing like her, Mama Cass. Before she died, she was getting better, Babs worse.

MikeN said...

Not a very tolerant person. As a joke, Dustin Hoffman outfitted the crew with Bush Cheney stickers and she left the studio. Had to get DeNiro to bring her back.