Saturday, February 7, 2009

NOT-SO-GUILTY PLEASURE

Today I was listening to my iPod, and Barbra Streisand's version of "(Our Love) Don't Throw It All Away" (from Guilty Pleasures, her 2005 collaboration with Barry Gibb) came on. Sometime during its third spin, I realized something that I've always known, but it had never before practically knocked me off my feet the way it did at that very moment: Damn, that bird can sing. And it's not just that she made me love a song I've spent most of my lifetime despising (thanks to Andy Gibb's 1978 hit version). And I realized something else: Barbra has won the Oscar, the Grammy, the Tony, the Emmy, but why has she never won the R-E-S-P-E-C-T that her contemporaries like Aretha Franklin, Dusty Springfield and Dionne Warwick (pre-Psychic Friends Network) always easily commanded.

Obviously, Barbra has her fans, and they are probably more zealous and passionate than any Aretha or Dusty disciple. But what about her peers? Celine Dion aside, has any major younger singer ever declared herself to have been significantly influenced by Barbra. And where is her spot in the Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame. Say what you will about her music not being rock & roll, but if "Son of A Preacher Man" qualifies as rock & roll, then John Lennon and Elvis Presley aren't really dead.

I think I understand why Babs has never gotten her just desserts. Broadway-style singers have never enjoyed the mass appeal or the critical props of their pop, rock & soul sisters. Also, Barbra's biggest hits, aside from maybe "The Way Were Were," have never been as genre-transcendent or held in as high regard as, say, Aretha's "Respect" and "Chain Of Fools" or Dusty's "Son Of A Preacher Man." And her scattered attempts to be in step with the times, like the 1979 disco experiments "No More Tears (Enough Is Enough)" and "The Main Event (Fight),¨ are complete kitsch.

I think Barbra knows this, too: It's hard to imagine Aretha or Dusty before she died poking fun of their legends as Barbra did when she named an album Guilty Pleasures. In fact, even in the media, Barbra disciples are always portrayed as being either flamboyantly gay or kooky (see The Nanny).

How unfair to Barbra, because when she was good, she was just as great, if not better, than the best of her contemporaries. Her voice had, and continues to have (listen to Guilty Pleasures for proof), an almost angelic purity. Simply put, it's like a sound that comes directly from heaven. To tell the truth, my Barbra fandom has always been casual at best. I find her acting style a bit too mannered and self-conscious, and her voice is usually far superior to her material. There are, however, to paraphrase that great '80s musical poet Billy Ocean, sad songs to make you cry -- some of them Barbra's: "The Love Inside," an album cut from Guilty, her first collaboration with Barry Gibb, from 1980; and its sequel's "Above The Law" come immediately to mind.

But then, my taste is rarely in sync with popular or critical opinion. Both "Respect" and "Chain Of Fools" make me want to hurl. Give me liberty (to press "skip") or give me "Daydreaming," "Bridge Over Troubled Water" or "Say A Little Prayer" (yes, Aretha's versions) any day of the week. And while your at, spin that Guilty Pleasures track one more time.
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