Revolutions in the head: Barbra Streisand at 78

What can you say about Babs? She has has an unparalleled career with 36 studio albums and countless accolades in music and film. A revolutionary persona, few can touch her in terms of cultural clout, career autonomy and sheer vocal ability. This is a story of the enduring power of Barbra Streisand.

With a few octaves to her name, her wondrously dynamic vocals can float on the air one moment and climb operatic heights another, simultaneously emoting and enunciating so you can understand every word. Deliciously smooth yet tightly controlled and distinctly outer-borough, her heavyweight vocal chops has always been Streisand’s ace in the hole, no matter what slings critics aim at her.

A native New Yorker, Barbra Streisand turns 78 today. Which may make her a grande dame to the generation in which she came of age and quite possibly a relic to a generation of millennials who may scarcely know her, except possibly as their grandparents’ Adele. That is not an unfair comparison. You could say that Adele is the Streisand of our time, a chav performer who has the same stratospheric vocal talent Streisand has and draws on many of the same emotional wellsprings as a Babs… or Bassey. Come on Shirl, get in the picture.

But one of the most notable things about Streisand is that there never was anyone like Streisand before Streisand. She arrived sui generis and rapidly proceeded to change everything about entertainment as few performers ever have. This is why many observers regard Barbra Streisand as the most influential singer of the second half of the twentieth century.

That isn’t to say that there haven’t been plenty of musical performers who exhibited genius. It is to say that only a handful of even the best redefine their profession; look at these rock and rollers, for instance: Elvis Presley for fusing black rhythm and blues with white rock. Bob Dylan for popularising the singer-songwriter, and inventing country-rock and the modern rock star in the process. The Beatles for reshaping rock in a British pop idiom and then taking it to new and more sophisticated places that compelled other musicians such as David Bowie to follow.

Though hardly a rocker, Streisand certainly belongs in that company. In purely performance terms, she was, almost from the inception of her career, not only an exceptional singer but a different kind of singer. She acted her songs, so that it seemed as if she were speaking the lyric, dredging it from her innermost self, and creating an intimacy that few singers ever had. She sang meaning, not melodic lines.

And she fitted each song to herself, through inflection, elongation, pronunciation. She is, unquestionably, the most influential female vocalist. Listen to Mariah Carey, Celine Dion, Whitney Houston, Christina Aguilera and the aforementioned Adele, to name just a few, and you are going to hear strains of Streisand.

But her singing, as important as it is, may actually have been the least of what made Streisand arguably the most revolutionary of performers. The most important may have been that she changed the very prerequisites for stardom. Before Streisand, , female entertainers were first and foremost functions of their looks and, in the movies, cognates to the men against whom they played. But not Streisand.

For one thing, she was not conventionally beautiful enough to be considered ornamental. When she started out, the constant refrain she heard was that she was too ugly to be a star and that for starters she would have to get a nose job. To her everlasting credit, Streisand batted away the insults and refused the nose job. Instead, what other female stars were compelled to do with beauty, Streisand did with personality and talent, and in so doing she blazed a trail for other women who also didn’t conform to the typical male-defined aesthetics.

And this veritable revolution started in a head that popped out in Brooklyn, midway during World War Two on 24 April 1942.

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Barbra Streisand is the only artist ever to receive Oscar, Tony, Emmy, Grammy, Directors Guild of America, Golden Globe, National Medal of Arts and Peabody Awards and France’s Légion d’honneur as well as the American Film Institute’s Lifetime Achievement Award. She’s the only performer to have number one albums in five consecutive decades AND her 51 gold albums, 30 platinum and 18 multi-platinum exceed all other female singers.

Impressive much?

Streisand’s status as one of the most successful singers of our time was remarkable not only because her popularity was achieved in the face of a dominant musical trend – rock & roll – which she didn’t follow (preferring to assume the mantle left behind by Judy Garland), but also because she used her vocal skills as a mere stepping stone to other careers, as a stage and film actress and as a film director. 

Her career was launched in 1960 after her boyfriend encouraged her to enroll in a singing competition at a gay bar in Manhattan. After she performed a few songs, the audience was completely silent and awe-struck, then began to applaud. She was pronounced the winner and her career as a musician began.

Despite three successful albums by 1964, Streisand turned her back on potentially lucrative concert bookings in favour of a long-term starring role in the Broadway show Funny Girl. People from that show became her first Top Ten single, and the album of the same name her first chart-topping LP. The musical was later adapted into a Hollywood film for which she would win an Academy Award.

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Even at a young age, Streisand would give her notes on notes and yet the final performances always appeared effortless. Despite never being one for vocal training, her perfectionism is legendary and applies to all aspects of her career, both as a singer, actress, producer and director, but Barbra’s harshest critic was always herself. After forgetting a lyric in front of a crowd of 150,000 during her famous 1967 Central Park concert (was it the reefer she supposedly smoked on stage?), she was so horrified by her flub that she didn’t perform on commercial concert stages for the next 27 years.

In the ’70s, Streisand successfully married her musical and film acting interests. First in The Way We Were, a hit film with a theme song that became her first number one single, and then with A remake of the Judy Garland musical, A Star Is Born, which featured her second number one single, Evergreen, an effervescent perennial she co-wrote.

From that point on, every album she released sold at least a million copies. In the late ’70s, she found recording success in collaboration: her duet with Neil Diamond, You Don’t Bring Me Flowers, hit number one, as did 1979’s No More Tears (Enough Is Enough), an epic disco stomper sung with the then-white hot Donna Summer.

Streisand’s burgeoning histrionic vocal style isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but here’s she’s helped along by the much missed Queen of Disco, and the latter’s writing and production team, helmed by electronic maestro, Giorgio Moroder. The lyrics are ostensibly feminist ‘throw-the-bum-out’ in nature, but taken as a whole, it mainly sounds like a song recorded specifically for drag queens to lip-synch to.

Taking Diana Ross’ two part slow-quick Love Hangover as its original inspiration, the two emote all over the pretty piano prelude that finds both singers blending their voices in a warm, mellifluent fashion that is intriguing – and to Streisand’s metier before gravitating to the the thumping Summer-style dance section.

The vocalists, instrumentation and production all try their hardest to out-disco each other, and on the twelve-inch version, they keep it going for almost 12 (twelve!) minutes, which turns the man-hating chanting of “enough is enough” from hook to ironic statement to near beg-for-mercy.

Nevertheless, it’s fun and it’s most definitely camp, and due to the dual star power of both singers, the song effortlessly went to the top in the autumn of 1979, giving Donna her fourth US No.1 record of the year.

The following year Streisand had her biggest-selling album with Guilty, which was written and produced by Barry Gibb of the Bee Gees and contained the stirring, yearning number one hit Woman In Love. It’s a corker, and probably her signature song for anyone 50 or under.

In 1983, Streisand’s first directorial effort, Yentl, became a successful film with a Top Ten soundtrack album. In 1996, she directed her third film, The Mirror Has Two Faces, only I hope she didn’t look at either of them. That would have been 14 years bad luck.

Streisand may be the only artist in history to have No.1 records in six separate decades, but like many female artists, she had to stay relevant to the times by continuously evolving her image, long before the tacky material girl Madonna burst on the scene. Gifted with those glistening vocal chords, Streisand could take many a stylistic risk, from covering The Beatles on her contemporary pop record What About Today (1969), to using ’70s singer-songwriters as her muse on the covers-heavy 1971 album Barbra Joan Streisand and that same year’s Stoney End (named after the Laura Nyro song).

Streisand was determined to connect with the considerable AOR audience, covering everyone from Joe Cocker (Space Captain), John Lennon’s emotionally purging Mother, and even Major Tom himself, David Bowie, on a version of Life On Mars? which its switch-hitting author condemned with an uncharitable one-liner, “Sorry Barb, but it was atrocious.” The dear old Dame!

After a long interruptus, in the mid Nineties Babs even returned to the singles charts, though usually in collaboration with young Canadians. First, a team up with little rocker Bryan Adams on the ballad I Finally Found Someone, then the battle of the belters: Tell Him was a somewhat histrionic shouting match with Celine Dion, though when I interviewed British synth-pop duo the Pet Shop Boys some time later they had nothing but praise for its hilariously high camp qualities.

“Oh, the video of that was fantastic – they were trying to outdo each other. They were
seconds from ripping each other’s wigs off, it was hilarious,” enthused keyboardist Chris Lowe.

“Very French & Saunders that,” added Neil Tennant. “Where are French & Saunders when we need them?”

Following a limited series of shows in 1994 which included her first ever dates in Europe (which Tennant couldn’t conceal his delight at attending), Streisand returned to the concert stage in 2006, a move that was documented in the 2007 Sony release Live in Concert.

The ticket prices she was charging for a floor seat at the then recently opened London’s o2 Arena were upwards of £550, and that didn’t even mean front block. Thank god I wasn’t paying! But she was entertaining, I’ll give her that, despite the auto-cued between-song ‘banter’ and her refusal to do Woman In Love. Is Streisand over-rated?

Let’s be honest, at that price anyone is over-rated. Great pair of lungs on her though.

Happy birthday Babs.

Steve Pafford

An earlier version of this article was published in 2018 here

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