What says “Chanukah Brunch” more than Barbra Streisand on PBS? Maybe homemade latkes. Maybe. And so there I was in a condo in Pleasant Hill and on the television set, a Brooklyn arena was stuffed with the ladies and the guys clinging to every exquisite pearl drop of a note, being swept off in a tsunami of naches torrential enough to batter around Streisand’s former co-star Robert Redford in All Is Lost (what a sequel that would’ve been to The Way We Were: these two alone on a sinking boat. “Hubbell! What are you doing!?! My hair!! I told you to book a cruise!”). But isolation is not for Barbra (nor, I’d guess, is rudimentary raft repair). She comes to Brooklyn — “back home” to Brooklyn — so everyone can sigh and swoon and marvel. “How good she looks,” you can almost hear them comment as one voice, all those Brooklynites who might be fretting right this moment about how time has caught up with Redford, who does not have Streisand’s unearthly cosmetic preservation. What’s more, the ads for this new concert document tell us, the CD and DVD versions have nine songs not previously done live by Ms. Streisand. Nine!! Entirely new-to-the-stage songs! Is there no end to this woman’s talent for reading lyrics off prompters? A goddess in our very midst.
Once I believed, foolishly, that when Streisand decides to retire, that’s the end of that particular road. That there was no one to carry on. Show-biz history stops right there. Because, let us face reality, it is a very particular thing she does, this larger-than-life pop diva creation. She can’t convincingly sing jazz, or blues, or R&B (have you heard her take on Holland-Dozier-Holland’s “Shake Me Wake Me”?), or rock (ditto her Bowie cover), or modern pop. I suppose she could pull a Cher move and get into some doing-it-for-the-boys dance pop, but Barbra don’t need no stinking auto-tune, and you do not want to see her bust some moves on stage unless you have fond memories of Aunt Gussie on the floor at your Bar Mitzvah. She is a performah in not only the pre-rock sense, but even in the pre-WWII sense. Like Jolson times. Every utterance slingshotted to the second balcony, no gesture too grand, no lyric sufficiently underscored. It’s her and Liza, then pffft.
Her importance culturally was the idea of something new and all-inclusive, brazen ethnicity, chutzpah for miles. And she was kind of a loony bird, which was fun to watch. Signed to Columbia in the same era, she and Dylan were these two wacky Jews flipping Broadway/Cabaret and Folk to their idiosyncratic liking, preconceptions be damned. Listen to her demos for RCA, from before she inked with Columbia, just her and piano, and you might get chills even if you aren’t a fan: it was all there, the studied pathos (“Have I Stayed Too Long At The Fair”), the vocal pyrotechnics (“A Sleeping Bee”), the playfulness (“At The Codfish Ball”). “A Taste of Honey” might be the only place where The Beatles and Barbra intersected in the early ‘60s, for those who care about such things.
Where did she lead, stylistically? To Celine Dion, obviously. But watching the show, I realized that the Streisand nail-marks are all over the culture of pop music. This is the Me-est Generation of pop ever, centered exclusively on the self: whatever you do, don’t even think of raining on my parade because I’m the greatest star, you can’t break me, I’m stronger and all I need is me and you’re gonna hear me roh-arrr! I dreamed a dream, and I am the embodiment of that dream. It’s all about self-invention and self-celebration. Robin Thicke’s Advertisement for his Penis, Katy Perry’s world-class cleavage, Miley’s hyperactive bottom, Kanye’s out-of-control ego, Gaga’s whole Gaganess. Look at me! They are the descendants of Barbra, and so are the Kellys and Carries and the scores of other sing-out-Louise belters who may be directly the offspring of Whitney (“I found the greatest love of all inside of me”) and Mariah but whose lineage goes back to Barbra Joan. All the Glee-monsters scurrying around for our approval, all the singing machines begging Simon or J-Lo or Blake for the spotlight: it’s a collective Papa Can You HEAR Me? Neediness turned into assertiveness.
(Can you imagine what the rumored Streisand duets album might sound like? Instead of Track 1, Track 2, etc., it should be Round 1, Round 2. Take that, Bruno! Out of my way, Gaga! Swing on this, Buble! Bang. Bang. I can’t wait for this. The ultimate Barbra vs. Aretha match to the death! Hear Barbra crush poor Lea Michele!)
What Streisand does goes beyond calculation; her audience doesn’t care one iota how scripted it is, how every triumphant click of the shoulder is precisely timed, because it’s a show, after all, and what matters is the notion of connection. It’s moving if you want to be moved, if a song as trivial as “People” can provoke emotion. Having conquered the world isn’t as dramatic as burning to conquer it, and that’s why I go back to the RCA demos and the very earliest Columbia albums, where the gifts and the ambition were pure, You may not believe it, and it isn’t true for me, but for some people seeing Barbra on TV in the early ‘60s, on shows like Jack Paar’s, was like seeing The Beatles: you could do that? Like this? On the Brooklyn show, she ended with “Some Other Time” from the Broadway musical On The Town, a tender and resigned song, and for one moment I thought I heard the voice of the girl who wanted to take over everything and did.