In 1993, I worked at a terrible chain record store in the mall called Musicland, where we were only allowed to play in-store CDs pre-approved by corporate management. They filled a small box, and consisted almost entirely of bad post-New Jack Swing R&B (Shai, All-4-One) or horrendous copycat grunge acts (Dog's Eye View, Dag). When a new Barbra Streisand album called Back to Broadway entered the box of approved CDs, I didn't know much about her, except for sitting through Yentl at a drama club party in junior year. But it had to be better, I figured, than Mother Love Bone.
Back to Broadway sounded schmaltzy to me at first, but then I played it over and over at Musicland, feeling defiant and rebellious in the everyone-must-love-grunge era, and I really, truly grew to love it. It was all about Streisand's dynamics: she'd reach these soaring heights in full-throated crecendoes that would peak with a full fortissimo orchestra, and then contract to a whisper at the end of the line. "Move On," "As If We Never Said Goodbye," "With One Look" -- in all their drama and mournful bombast, these became defining songs of my late teens.
But teenagers are fickle. Until recently, I hadn't really thought a lot about Barbra Streisand since.
That changed a few weeks ago, when Streisand's people asked if I'd want to review her concert in San Jose. As I was emphatically told by my editor, when Streisand's people ask, you pretty much say yes.
Here is my review of the concert, if I were stuck on a short elevator ride with someone who asked about the show: Barbra Streisand was good, she talked a lot, her voice was a little grainy at times but come on, she's 74, and she didn't do "As If We Never Said Goodbye" but she did do "People," of course, and "You Don't Bring Me Flowers," and -- oh! This is your floor, a-ha, well, see you at the Christmas karaoke party.
But does anyone in an elevator really want to hear about Barbra Streisand? Forget the older crowd who'll always buy her albums, like her new one out at the end of this month. Based on a loose poll of friends, when my generation -- the internet generation -- thinks of Streisand, they think of how she tried to stop a Google Earth-esque project from uploading photos of her house, how she charges exorbitantly high prices for her tickets, and that the South Park guys really hate her.
Streisand is a woman of a certain age, and the world is vicious to women of a certain age, but that's not it. Mostly, what I've found adds up to the basic idea that Barbra Streisand is really, really uncool. Streisand isn’t a star of memes, like Dolly Parton, 70. She has no royal position in Weird Twitter, like Cher, also 70. She has never been the subject of an online petition of support, like Betty White, age 94.
But after finally seeing Streisand in concert, I don't understand. Why isn't she elevated in the same way as other seasoned, talented, outspoken, confident, slightly eccentric but on-the-right-side-of-history stars?
It's more than the numbers: 145 million albums sold, 10 Grammy Awards, five Emmys, nine Golden Globes, a net worth of $370 million. It's the utterly bazonkers cultural impact of BARBRA STREISAND, siren daughter of Zeus incarnate, who receives a thundering welcome extended by almost exclusively boomer-and-older crowd applauding her mere presence, regal evening gown and all. The woman enters a stage with context.
And yet Streisand's two hours on stage in San Jose feel less like a concert and more like a living-room visit with an old friend, chatty and conversational while drawing from her deep well of emotional expression each time she sings. From opener “The Way We Were” to the encore of “I Didn’t Know What Time it Was,” fans get two Streisands for the price of one; the one-of-a-kind interpreter of song and the staunch Democrat who takes repeated swipes at Donald Trump.
“People say I’m a control freak,” Streisand quips early in the set, “but actually, Donald Trump is an out-of-control freak!”
Or, in describing her Vegas-style magician Lior Suchard, who filled time earlier with a mind-reading act: “He can read anyone’s mind except for Donald Trump’s... because he doesn’t have one.”
Streisand keeps eviscerating the presidential candidate, wealthy older crowd be damned. She shouts out Hillary, Daisy Ridley, and the gays. She talks about the sexist challenges in Hollywood related to casting, to wardrobe, and to women sitting in the directors' chair -- challenges she overcame only by refusing to take no for an answer.
And then there are her album covers from her six-decade career, displayed on the screen behind her. She explains how she had to fight for certain images -- like People’s back-turned pensive beach shot, when Columbia Records wanted a bright, cheery portrait. (Streisand prevailed, and People won a Grammy Award for Best Album Cover.) In a side-by-side comparison, she talks about the original photo taken for The Way We Were versus the doctored result that adorned the album, which had clearly edited her famous nose. ("They removed my bump!" Streisand says. "I made a career from that bump, and they took it out!")
These are all things you'd think would endear Streisand to a younger generation. The website Jezebel has become famous for these very same side-by-side comparisons of magazine covers versus original photos in a series called Photoshop of Horrors, celebrated on the internet for peeling back a veil of misrepresentation. You know what else is on Jezebel? Posts making fun of Barbra Streisand for having a "crazy face," for owning a fluffy dog that once bit a flight attendant, and for having something resembling a shopping mall in her basement.
I don't wanna be morbid, but this is 2016, after all. When Barbra Streisand dies, something tells me Jezebel and other sites will fall over themselves celebrating her accomplishments. Why don't we just do that now?
And I get it. Streisand is a diva. With her diva-ness comes all manner of diva-esque behavior. But that hasn’t stopped us from celebrating the very same behavior in Mariah Carey, Christina Aguilera or Ariana Grande. “Savage,” “ferocious,” “boss bitch” -- no one uses these terms of endearment toward Streisand when she advocates for herself, which, don't forget, she’s had to do over and over in a cutthroat male-dominated industry for over 50 years.
I mean, here’s a singer who was marketed to 1960s parents as a wholesome and appealing alternative to the Beatles; a nice girl from Brooklyn who loved the Great American Songbook and Broadway. But Streisand fought against that spin; she kept opening her mouth to agitate in the way her character Katie Morosky from The Way We Were agitates. In the film, Katie's outspokenness causes her to lose her husband, and it's saaaaaaaaaaad, because women should be allowed to have a strong point of view! But in real life, Streisand's outspokenness isn't an asset; it's just another reason for people to demonize her.
So. How can Barbra Streisand turn this around? What can Barbra Streisand do to be cool?
I polled my coworkers to find out.
One coworker says:
Ha. See? People already have preconceived notions about Barbra Streisand. Another:
Having never followed Barbara Streisand, I can't say if she's doing these things already, but my favorite kind of stately broad is secure in her fame and fortune and just says whatever the goddamn hell she wants, screw controversy or politics or acceptable gender mores.
Aaggghhh! She is doing that very thing, and has for years! She is the living embodiment of it! All the more reason she needs to up her visibility game.
Her voice is amazing, her body of work astounding, but... she seems to take herself a little too seriously. She is the archetypal Hollywood liberal/superstar, the earnestness of which, to me, screams out for self-parody, which would be my advice to Babs. Do some wacky make-fun-of-myself bits with Fallon, or comedy shorts for YouTube. I know she performs with Jamie Foxx; they could work up some good satirical stuff. She's actually got excellent comedic skills. Put that to use being a little less precious.
I think we're on the right track. Another echoes the idea:
She should do a series of BuzzFeed-style videos of her doing all the fun, weird, internet-fueled video challenges: the cinnamon challenge, the ghost pepper challenge, the blindfolded makeup challenge; she should eat random foods from a far-off country. Kids today aren't familiar with Streisand and her humor -- they most likely haven't seen her in 'What's Up Doc' and on 'Saturday Night Live.' YouTube challenges are our modern-day slapstick -- she should show her chops!
Putting aside my disbelief that Streisand would ever torture herself eating a hot pepper for attention, the idea of being wacky and "a little less precious" is her best bet. Hell, she's already doing it. In San Jose, between soaring songs like "Evergreen" and "I Didn't Know What Time it Was," she threw a frisbee into the audience, accidentally knocked the microphone off its stand, momentarily lost her shoe, declared fame to be “fan-fucking-tastic” and joked about Pokémon Go. She just didn't do it online.
Until that day, I suppose, Barbra Streisand will only be cool to a select few.
Like the fifth coworker says:
My poll response is: The lady doesn't need to change a damn thing.