In the pantheon of queer models of femininity, Barbra Streisand looms large — just below the holy trinity of Judy and Liza and Liz, perhaps. For many gay men of a certain age, La Barbra is something akin to a goddess. I’ve never understood the appeal, myself; but with the 3-DVD set Barbra Streisand: The Concerts sitting on my desk and awaiting review, it’s high time I figure it out. Because let’s face it — we are all products of gay culture now.
If that sounds like paranoid heteroseparatist conspiracy theory — fear the day when our gay overlords (David Geffen and Tim Gunn, most likely) force us all into re-education camps, to be released only when we’ve each written a 3,000-word essay on the greatness of the Pet Shop Boys! — the reality is both more mundane and more complex. The fact is that many of us, both gay and straight, could write our Pet Shop Boys essays already; that’s because traditionally-gay perspectives have been thoroughly co-opted by, and absorbed into, the cultural mainstream.
That influence goes beyond the what of popular culture — beyond the eminence of any individual gay artistic figure, beyond the cultural prominence of any gay-identified genre or artform (disco, say, or musical theater), beyond the dominance by gay people of any particular industry or cultural segment (e.g., fashion), even beyond the traditional role of gay people as cultural tastemakers and gatekeepers — and right to the question of how we interact with that culture. Our default modes of engagement with our entertainments derive fundamentally from gay sensibilities. The ironic distance; the half-sincere appreciation; the insider/outsider divide; the knowing wink; the concepts of camp and kitsch and “so bad it’s good”; all trace back to the gay experience, to the profound division of living simultaneously in two worlds, gay and straight.
The demise of the closet, as a changing cultural climate gives more gay and lesbian citizens the means and the courage to be open about their sexuality, has led some observers to proclaim “the end of gay culture.” What’s happened, though, is not extinction but assimilation. Those modes of understanding — by now thoroughly embedded in the larger culture — of art as a puzzle to be decoded, of the death of the author, of multiple meanings and subtext itself; these, I would argue, are the truest legacy of gay culture. Though they began as medieval tools for the interpretation of Scripture, they were brought to their ultimate potential by the need to communicate and share an identity that did not dare to openly announce itself — just as pasta, invented by the Chinese, was perfected by the Italians.
And so we come to our present cultural moment, and its delight in artifice. Inauthenticity, once a survival strategy for homosexuals in a straight world, is co-opted as an area of opportunity for play. Identity becomes fluid, and fakery — the more blatant, the better — becomes a badge of honor.
That’s nowhere truer than in the drag show. And that, I think, is the key to understanding divas, from Judy Garland to Barbra to Beyoncé; they are so much larger than life that they are, in essence, the drag-queen version of themselves, readymade.
So any protests that one may raise about Barbra Streisand being a preening show-biz phony — those are entirely beside the point. You know that going in. It is a scorpion’s nature to sting: it is Barbra’s nature to be a narcissist. All the blather about being a person who needs pe-e-e-e-eople — it is simply a lie agreed-upon. No news here.
But what is breathtaking about Barbra Streisand is how thoroughly postmodern her engagement with her audience is, despite the fact that she’s been in the business for nearly fifty years; she keeps the shuck front and center. On the first disc of this DVD set, “Live in Concert 2006,” she talks at length about how, in her return to the stage after a decade-long absence, and performing for the first time in an in-the-round setting, where she is literally surrounded by the crowd, she feels a new connection, a rare and exquisite bond between performer and audience. It’s wonderfully articulated, and genuinely moving to think that even an old warhorse like Barbra may feel anew the humility of youth. But then you watch the second disc, “The Concert at the Arrowhead Ponds” — shot for television in 1994 — and she does the same shtick. Shameless.
And kind of wonderful. It’s that simulation of grand emotion that elevates Barbra to the pantheon of the greats. When you look at the mystique surrounding her vs. what she actually does, it’s striking. She is treated as not just a light entertainer par excellence (which she is), but as an icon, even a goddess. At the bottom, as a singer and comic actress, drawing largely on the show-tune repertoire, she’s more Beverly Garland than Beverly Sills — or maybe Anthony Newley with a vagina. Lot of records, stage work, movies, puts on a good show, good for a long run in Vegas or maybe a residency in Branson; but Barbra becomes the diva for what she gives, or seems to give, and in the end it makes no difference.
The 2006 concert is probably for devotees only, as it is a rather solemn affair, all gothic pinpoint lighting and regal gowns of black. The program draws largely from Funny Girl, giving Barbra plenty of time to reminisce about the good ol’ days; she pokes fun at her own advancing age with the subtlety of a sledgehammer — “Oh, I need my glasses,” she announces, not quite as if to herself, each time she puts them on — and takes time out for a few political homilies that are inoffensive enough in their content, but horrifically banal in execution; “Tonight I don’t see red states and blue states, tonight I see the United States!” = O RLY?
For the Streisand fan, though, this is catnip, since it’s basically All-Barbra, All The Time. There are 62 musicians up on the stage with her, but you never get more than a glimpse of any of them. The intro may have a medium wide angle, or a crowd shot, but at some point in every song the camera settles into an extreme close-up of That Face, and just sits there for literally minutes at a time, as Barbra wails and emotes and acts up a storm. She scrunches her brows, she crosses her eyes, she holds every gaddam note that it is possible to hold for about as long as it is possible to do so, and then she does it again. And again. (I should note, here, that Streisand herself executive-produced, co-wrote, and directed the film of the show, along with co-designing her own gowns and, for all I know, mixing the cosmopolitans at the intermission bar.) Her voice is still remarkably strong and supple, and it had better be — because there’s basically nothing else going on here, musically. The orchestral arrangements are perfunctory — grand, but empty; great pillowy strings, with all the chords in place but little color or motion. Ballad follows ballad, with only a single uptempo number early in the show. Only the occasional duets with special guest Il Divo break up the monotony; unfortunately, they also provide an opportunity for more oy-vey-am-I-old humor — an opportunity that Barbra does not squander.
(A brief aside here about Il Divo. These guys are basically an international operatic boyband; imagine the Three Tenors, if there were four of ’em, and they were all young and reasonably good-looking in a Eurotrash kind of way, and they did a program of light classics and pop chestnuts, “La donna e mobilé” up with Andrew Lloyd-Webber. It’s not just a bizarre idea, but a terrible one; the wide vibrato of the classical voice is antithetical to the tight harmonies of the boyband style, meaning that whenever these guys try to sing together, the pitch is all fucking over the place. “My Way” is a sturdy song, and can put up with a lot of over-the-topness, but it meets its match and crawls away weeping in its encounter with these dudes. This middlebrow nightmare was assembled in the studio — and heavily hyped — by impresario Simon Cowell. Yeah, that Simon Cowell. Now based on this, why, exactly, have we appointed him the arbiter of public taste, again?)
The second disc, from 1994, has considerably more to offer the novice. The bandleader here is that canny old hack Marvin Hamlisch, and he keeps things cooking along in the brass and percussion, such that even the ballads — and the show is still lopsided in that regard, though not quite as egregiously — have a touch of swing. It’s a multimedia extravaganza, with Barbra performing a duet with Marlon Brando (!), via footage from Guys and Dolls on a giant screen; she even gets to do some acting, in a series of skits that find her interacting with the disembodied voices of various psychotherapists. It’s more overtly campy than the Holy Holy Holy Barbra gas of the 2006 concert — which is itself camp, of course, but of a far more subtle variety — but overall, that’s to the good.
The third disk is made up mostly of clips from Streisand’s various TV specials throughout the years. Its intended function is mostly as an enticement to the true fan to pony up and buy them all — each is available in its own deluxe DVD set, of course — but they prove the same point that the comparison between the 1994 and 2006 concerts does; that before there was this myth that grows stronger with each passing year, the myth of all-caps BARBRA STREISAND, there was an entertainer named Barbra Streisand — and as the myth has grown, the entertainer has diminished.
Maybe, at this stage of the game, Barbra doesn’t figure she needs any new fans. Certainly she hasn’t made any in this house. Her presentation is all too self-impressed, too solemn, and unlikely to become less so as the legend grows. Authenticity is a debased coin, these days; I get that. But is it too much to ask that an evening with one of pop’s great divas should at least be fun?