By Liron Cohen
Just around the same time as the US was ready for a cultural revolution that found expression in the music of The Beatles, Bob Dylan and The Rolling Stones, there was another explosion waiting to happen: Barbra Streisand, who grew up in Brooklyn with a withholding mother who never told her she was pretty, and a stepfather who wished she would be quiet like her half-sister, was bursting to show the world what she’s got. And in 1962 she did.
What exactly was it that she had to show? Well, if you ask her, it was her superb acting skills. But, coming into American consciousness through a role in the musical I Can Get It For Your Wholesale, it was her voice that captured their hearts. And after she tried resisting the title of “singer” for a while, she finally came to terms with her new position as an American musical sensation defining herself as “the actress who sings” and constructing every song as a three act play with a beginning, middle, and end.
When she first appeared on American television, audiences didn’t really know what to make of her. She sounded like no one else before her (though many would try to sound like her thereafter). She was kooky, quirky, and weird, and she made musical choices that seemed beyond her conscious mind. But it was her voice that mesmerized audiences around the globe: its tone, its range, its power and subtlety. It was familiar and mysterious at the same time; warm and aloof, truthful and elusive. It was a voice unlike any other. It was a spontaneous combustion of a girl yearning to be seen, longing to be heard, and a unique personality that just couldn’t be anything but who she authentically was.
The music industry, as it tends to do, tried to commodify Barbra and make her more palatable to the mainstream audience by trying to convince her to fix her nose, cap her teeth, even change her name (Streisand kept getting mispronounced by television hosts). In response, she dropped a “a” from Barbara, and by becoming the only Barbra in the world, she further cemented her intent on being one of a kind, an intent that would continue to guide her, though not without struggle, throughout her career.
Word of the new sensation quickly spread, garnering Streisand spots on popular talk shows like the Johnny Carson show, the Gary Moore Show, and a special appearance on the Judy Garland Show, where the established legend and the rising star sang a duet. Garland, whose star was already fading, admitted that she was daunted by the new exquisite talent.
In the midst of American turmoil and a continued musical evolution that represented those currents toward liberation, sexualization, and rebellion, Barbra’s affinity was always for the old fashion classics and standards, those songs that told stories she could act out as her mini self-contained plays. Being the unique individual that she is, she infused these old standards with new interpretations. This way, this poverty medley from her TV special My Name is Barbra (1965) was shot in the upper class Bergdorf Goodman department store in New York. With her tongue in her cheek, Barbra ransacked through necklaces and furs singing “I’m just a second hand rose” and “the best things in life are free.”
Her star was rising so quickly, that even though she had practically no experience, Barbra was immediately cast as Fanny Brice, another oddball Jewish American comedienne, in the Broadway musical Funny Girl. Barbra was a sensation on the American stage and she later reprised her role on London’s West End and in the 1968 movie version of the musical, for which she won an Oscar.
Throughout the 60s Barbra continued in her untraditional singing of traditional songs by the great composers of early 20th century, such as Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, and Harold Arlen. But when the 70s rolled around, and perhaps pressured by the business to make herself current, she took a new direction with a new rock-influenced album Stoney End.
Further experimenting with musical genres, her next TV special in 1975 featured both synthesizer music and a soul/R&B duet with Ray Charles:
As well a medley of Sweet Inspirations/Where You Lead:
In 1976, after being dreadfully miscast in the movie version of the musical Hello, Dolly! (1969) and making the unnecessary Funny Girl sequel, Funny Lady (1975), she formed her own production company First Artists and set out to remake the Judy Garland classic A Star is Born, this time featuring rock music and highlighting women’s liberation messages. Streisand, sporting a new JewFro, starred and sang in the movie:
And it was for this movie that she wrote the song that would win her an Oscar:
Still unsure of what style she could rest on, Streisand released a more personal message in her new somewhat angry-sounding album Streisand Superman. Commenting on the media’s obsession with her private life and her artistic choices, she wrote her own song “Don’t Believe What You Read” in 1977.
Rock may not have been Streisand’s comfortable Lazyboy, but it seemed to have fit her mood. Always a vocal activist, she combined her own personal unrest, having risen to stardom overnight and fighting the national sense that she belonged to the people rather than to herself, with the political chaos of the post civil rights era, women’s liberation, and the anti Vietnam war movement, to create more forceful music that spoke to the people.
If rock couldn’t break her, then soon rolled in the 80s with pop, synthesizer music and Madonna, and it was clear that Barbra’s “keeping with the times” could not last. The first attempt, coupling her with Barry Gibb of the falsetto-obsessed group the Bee Gees, produced an album full of catchy tunes with nonsensical lyrics. Although the album produced huge hits such as “Guilty” and “Woman in Love,” the endeavor left Barbra feeling empty.
When her next album Emotion came out, her metamorphosis into a Cyndi Lauper impersonator was complete, as can be seen in the video of her song “Left in the Dark” (1984):
Having just completed work on her pride and joy, the film musical Yentl, which took fifteen years to bring to fruition, where she sang the heartfelt score of Michel Legrand and the intelligent lyrics of Alan and Marilyn Bergman, Barbra knew she couldn’t go back. In the course of these fifteen years, Barbra learned to assert herself. She became the first woman to direct, produce, co-write, and star in a movie, for which she won the Golden Globe for directing.
And she started asking herself: where is it written that I have to be what they want me to be, a product of my time, a popular sensation, rather than an artist? And in a bold move, she recorded The Broadway Album (1985), an album fully devoted to her love of show tunes. With permission from Mr. Stephen Sondheim himself, she changed the lyrics of his song Putting it Together to reflect more of her rocky artistic road on the musical career path:
The album was a huge success, and from then on, the road was clear for Barbra to go back to her roots and never have to do a single thing she did not want to do. Her position as a singular artist in American and global musical history, a singer-performer in her own league, was established. She is a role model, a fashion icon, a trendsetter, and a musical inspiration to so many who have come after her.
Barbra Streisand continues to break barriers for women in the music and film industry, marching to her own drum beat and thus inspiring others to break free from the boxes society has put them in. She has put out over sixty albums over the years, and has gone on several international tours, selling out virtually every show within minutes. In this bit from her 2000 Timeless concert tour, she performed with a “mini me,” taking a walk down memory lane, and leaving everyone to aspire to the truth, the authenticity, and the avant-garde courage that is the essence of Barbra Streisand: