Of all the reasons there are to love Barbra Streisand – and if you find that proposition contentious, I encourage you to stop reading and do something
Of all the reasons there are to love Barbra Streisand – and if you find that proposition contentious, I encourage you to stop reading and do something else – the quickest and easiest can be found in the answer she gives to the first question I ask her.
Streisand, speaking on the phone from her home in LA, is about to release Walls, her first album of primarily original songs since 2005 and for which she has written the bulk of material.
The lyrics are sharp and political, the arrangements are strong, but it is the vocals that are the most surprising: crisp, forceful, with none of the mellowing one might expect of a 76-year-old artist who on recent albums has seemed muted.
I mention this to her – how great she sounds – and she bursts out laughing and says: “I know! I swear to God, I don’t know where my voice came from. I would come out of the studio and [the technicians] would go, ‘How the hell?’ And I don’t know, I don’t know! It just came out of me!”
One doesn’t look to Streisand for modesty, of course, but there is something deeply gratifying, in this moment of heightened alertness to female social conditioning, about the fact that she has never once been known to demur.
Streisand does not do little-me-ism.
She is – in the language most people now recognise as coded to undermine women – strident, abrasive, political in a way that frequently upsets or prompts the rolling of eyes. In her art as in life, she can be very, very loud.
And of course it has garnered much ridicule. If Streisand was outlandish in the 1960s, dressed in a misshapen fur coat with three-inch fingernails and insane eye makeup, that image has only consolidated over the course of five decades, two Oscars, 68m album sales and eight Grammys, so that in large areas of the popular imagination she continues to be an absurd creature, indecorously out of line with how women should be.
(This is also the source of the wild devotion she inspires; as a 20-year-old exploding out of the nightclub scene in New York, she seemed to many women, my mother included, to expand the range of how they might successfully be.)
A week before the interview, I am at a dinner in New York when Streisand’s name comes up and a male guest snorts and makes a derogatory remark, whereupon the eyes of every woman in the room swivel coldly in his direction. “The Way We Were is one of the greatest movies ever made,” I say stiffly; back we swivel, as one. With everything else going on, this is not the moment to tangle with us on Babs.
And it’s true about The Way We Were. There are a lot of turkeys in Streisand’s filmography – The Main Event, Nuts, All Night Long (you can argue the toss on Yentl; personally, I’m in favour) – but along with Funny Girl and Hello, Dolly!, The Way We Were stands iconic in US film history.
Streisand should have won the Oscar for it in 1974 – instead it went to Glenda Jackson for A Touch of Class – and it is assumed that she lost, in part, because of the film’s confused final edit, in which its lefty politics were toned down by the studio.
More than 40 years on, though, she has complete creative control and can be as political as she likes. And so here it is: an album that is a well manicured middle finger to the 45th president of the United States.
Nowhere in the album is Trump mentioned by name. “You have to write lyrics that can be more than just a protest,” she says. “They have to appeal to a universal audience. Even when I wrote Don’t Lie to Me, at first I thought, well, I could make you think it’s like a love affair, a marriage breaking up. It’s a universal thought: don’t lie to me.”
She is not, however, talking about a love affair. As the video for the song makes clear (“I couldn’t help it!”), she is talking about Donald Trump, who flashes up on screen and about whom, over the course of our conversation, Streisand is by turns calmly analytical – issuing measured statements rustled up by background assistants from her blogs and tweets – and intemperate. “I can’t bear the man!” she says at one point, her voice rising up to the roof. “He’s a man with no manners! He doesn’t see his own flaws; he doesn’t know what he doesn’t know. You know? He has no humility.” He is, she concedes, “good at marketing. He knows how to sell; he’s a conman. That’s what he’s good at. But he doesn’t think he needs anyone’s help, he thinks he can go it alone.” She adds, drily: “The big guy.”
Walls is not a concept album, but it is the first album in which Streisand has linked the songs with a broad theme – the danger Trump poses to the country she loves. “This is what’s on my mind,” she says. “This is a dangerous time in this nation, this republic: a man who is corrupt and indecent and is assaulting our institutions. It’s really, really frightening. And I just pray that people who are compassionate and respect the truth will come out and vote.” Actually, she says: “I’m saying more than just vote. Vote for Democrats! Vote for what they want their country to look like and feel like and be like. And treat each other with kindness and respect – I have friends who are Republicans and we have dinner and agree to disagree.”
But surely they are not Trump supporters? “They don’t like Trump. They like other aspects of being a Republican. About two weeks ago, I had a call from Senator Bob Dole and he wanted to tell me how much he enjoyed my music and it was just so sweet of him, he’s 95 years old. And we talked about Trump! I don’t want to put words into his mouth, but we talked about when people are fair and open-minded, they can walk across the aisle. That’s what life should be about, where people communicate and agree to disagree with kindness and respect. And we’re losing all of that. I wish we had a gracious president who had compassion, someone who doesn’t have to insult his opponents or make fun of people with disabilities, or can take criticism without lashing out.”
It is highly risky to flood an album with politics, not just because you may alienate 50% of your audience, but because it can give the whole thing a pinched air of agitprop. This hasn’t happened with Walls. Apart from the Broadway covers, I don’t listen to anything Streisand has made more recently than Guilty (1980) – it took me a long time to recover from her collaboration with Céline Dion – but this album will change that.
Don’t Lie to Me has a feel of William Orbit-era Madonna about it; the few covers – including a blend of Imagine and What a Wonderful World – are largely successful. And the politics, rather than cramping her style, seem to have unleashed something of the old Babs, the holy terror who would insert wild outbursts into her songs and who, over the years, has tended to be buried beneath rose petals and whimsy.