I have an intense, emotionally rocky relationship with Barbra Streisand. It’s complicated, because we’ve never met. But I can think of few artists who have delighted me — or pissed me off — more.
Since I’m currently hung up on her, I’m going to behave as though we’re in couples counseling, and start with what I love about Barbra.
A friend recently commented on the sheer joy of singing, and yes, that’s just it — even on recordings, in Barbra’s first few albums, you get the feeling that she can’t wait to share her talent with you. And of course, there’s a lot to share — the ease and power of her upper-register in particular is simply mind-blowing.
In those early years, the same combination of pleasure and fearlessness characterized her interpretive choices, which are bold, defiantly unconventional, and at least occasionally brilliant. I can think of many examples, including one of her signature numbers, “My Man,” which she reinvented on her own terms to a degree that it’s now startling to hear Fanny Brice’s original performance — it’s almost unrecognizable as the same song.
But my favorite Barbra number is “He Touched Me,” a sweet ballad from a flop musical called Drat! The Cat! that the diva turns into a miniature three-act play.
She starts by treating the intro (Act I) almost as a recitative, barely acknowledging the song’s rhythm as she takes on a conversational tone in her signature Brooklyn persona. In the middle section (Act II) it’s more sung out, though she still holds something in reserve, keeping the voice pretty much mezzo-forte… because Barbra’s saving it for Act III, naturally . The coda is a thrilling, soaring expression of fulfillment.
Elliott Gould, Barbra’s then-husband, performed the song originally in Drat! The Cat!, making something quite charming of it. But Barbra made it unforgettable.
That Barbra — the Barbra I loved — disappeared only a few years later. I tend to think of Stoney End (1971), her first hard-core excursion into contemporary pop, as the end for me, too — but frankly, I didn’t much like either The Christmas Album or What About Today?, which preceded it. These showed a more processed, studio-bound Barbra Streisand — one who, as she never used to do, played it safe.
What did remain were her faults. Her taste, never reliable, only got worse; her lack of self-awareness and a certain humorlessness became even more glaring. This could be unintentially hilarious. Barbra’s meticulously curated Just for the Record CD collection is case study of narcissism — analyzing it could keep a therapist in business for years. High on my list of iconic moments of unconscious camp are the dinner party scene in Prince of Tides, and nearly all of Yentl.
Decades have now gone by. My only live Barbra exposure (in 1994, part of what was her first concert tour in almost 30 years, and marketed as though it would be her last) confirmed my feelings that the voice was still in fine shape, but the daring that I loved was gone. I felt similarly about the later recordings.
And now there’s another album, about to come out — Encores, a series of duets (and one trio) that pair Barbra with unlikely collaborators, including Alec Baldwin and Melissa McCarthy.
A couple of tracks have been released early, and they’re not promising. For one thing, Encores appears to continue the unwelcome innovation that started, I think, with The Broadway Album — embedding songs within tiny scene-lets, giving Barbra the opportunity to play a character in each.
This gimmick mercilessly underscores the self-awareness problem. “At the Ballet”? Really?? With all the vamping material in place, we’re left to ponder that moment, two decades ago, when Barbra was a promising 55-year-old ballerina whose daddy crushed her dreams.
It’s also inevitable that the now 74-year-old voice is diminished, but honestly I don’t think that’s the problem. It’s still a formidable instrument — huskier than in the old days — but still attractive, responsive, and (most of the time) distinctly Barbra. It’s more an issue of how and what she sings.
Nonetheless, I’ve already pre-ordered Encore, and on some level I live in hope. Maybe something in it will be wonderful? Like many participants in problem relationships, I keep hoping, irrationally, to relive the glorious moments.