In February 1963, syndicated columnist Robert Ruark wrote of Barbra Streisand that “she will be around 50 years from now if good songs are still written to be sung by good singers.”
Ruark died in 1965, so I don’t know if he would have agreed that “good songs are still written to be sung by good singers” — 5 Seconds of Summer and Lil’ Pump seem to exist as arguments against this. This is 2018, a little over that 50-year target, but I think the columnist would have agreed that 2013 was about as kind to Streisand as 2018 is. Whatever talent she does have — and I think we ought to be fair and conclude she possesses a fair amount of it — has receded into the background while Streisand’s political activism has come front and center.
There’s one thing to do when your political persona overtakes your artistic persona, which is to combine these two and transmogrify yourself into a protest singer. This rarely ends well for most artists, however (see also: Madonna), because the tendency is for novices at the Bob Dylan/Public Enemy game to make their entry as overt and ham-handed as possible.
Streisand, of course, is going down the Dylan route; the Funny Girl is getting deadly serious. But she swears she’s not going to be conspicuous on her new album “Walls,” due out Nov. 2. In fact, she’s not even going to mention President Donald Trump by name.
“You have to write lyrics that can be more than just a protest,” Streisand told The Guardian in a story published Friday. “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.”
This isn’t a new concept; the last time I remember it being done was on the Pet Shop Boys’ “Fundamental,” which couched its anti-George Bush rhetoric behind the face of anonymous disco-pop love songs. That album also wasn’t particularly subtle; its lead single, which was about the relationship between W. and Tony Blair, was titled “I’m with Stupid.” A smarter version of this concept might be Radiohead’s “Hail to the Thief,” again an anti-Bush album.
At least Neil Tennant and Thom Yorke were somewhat temperate in their outlook on Bush, however. Streisand is walking proof of the political maxim that anger makes one infinitely stupider.
“I can’t bear the man!” Streisand told The Guardian about Trump, apparently with “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.”
Instead, she said, the president is “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. … The big guy.”
Yes, someone who’s “good at marketing” and who doesn’t know what they don’t know. Completely unlike someone who’s making a political album at 76 which revolves around the left’s most despised of presidents, Donald Trump.
But you can’t deny she has talent at political songwriting. Just take a look at some of the lyrics for “Don’t Lie to Me”:
Why can’t you just tell me the truth?
Hard to believe the things you say.
Why can’t you feel the tears I cry today?
How do you sleep when the world keeps turning?
All that we built has come undone.
How do you sleep when the world is burning?
Everyone answers to someone.
You can build towers of bronze and gold.
You can paint castles in the sky.
You can use smoke and mirrors, old clichés.
Not today, not today.
Oh man, that’s deep. Depeche Mode called; they want their painfully obvious, overwrought songwriting back.
The album’s overarching theme, Streisand says, is “what’s on my mind” these days, which seems to confirm my postulate that there isn’t a whole lot on the Hollywood icon’s mind.
“This is a dangerous time in this nation, this republic: a man who is corrupt and indecent and is assaulting our institutions,” Streisand said.
“It’s really, really frightening. And I just pray that people who are compassionate and respect the truth will come out and vote.”
That sounded nice, but then she kept talking.
“I’m saying more than just vote,” Streisand said. “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.”
Vote for Democrats, who are what you want your nation to look like and feel like and be like. Unless you’re a Republican, of course, but if you’re a Republican who treats others with kindness and respect and will agree to disagree, you’ll vote Democrat — because you respect the truth, of course.
“Walls” hasn’t been released yet (and my guess is nobody’s bothered to leak it online, given that it’s a Streisand album in 2018), so I can’t give you a definitive album review. I can, however, glean certain things from the interview and “Don’t Lie to Me.”
I can tell you, for instance, that she’s still the same self-involved Hollywood bubble figure, who really believes that the only real Republicans — as opposed to the zombie-like figures that apparently populate flyover country and continue to support the GOP — are the ones that abnegate their own political beliefs in the face of the slightest breeze of liberal opposition.
I can tell you that she’s convinced herself (or is at least adept at convincing The Guardian that she’s convinced herself) that she’s totally tolerant of moderate Republicans, just not Republicans these days! Except, of course, when she wasn’t.
Streisand in April 2001: “Look at his ratings — how could such a destructive man be so popular with the American people? Not only is he poisoning our air and water by withdrawing his promise to enforce emissions standards and arsenic regulations, but he’s poisoning our political system as well. Bipartisanship only works if you can trust the other side. As we have learned in the past weeks, we cannot trust George W. Bush.”
Streisand in August 2008, after Sen. John McCain picked Sarah Palin as his running mate: “Maybe he had enough of the late night talk show hosts poking fun at his age, maybe he realized that belonging to a party that has been associated with rich, white men was not going to connect with voters in this historical election year.” (Upon his death earlier this year, after he went full anti-Trumper, she opined that McCain was a “great statesman who lived his life with dignity and grace and carried the values of our great nation.”)
Streisand in October 2012: “I love Big Bird and I hope no one tells (Mitt) Romney how to get to Sesame Street … or to Pennsylvania Avenue … He’s a good actor. (He’s) a chameleon. It’s great.” One month later, she said that Romney “would take us backwards and is as extreme as it gets when it comes to a woman’s right to choose and giving America’s wealthiest even more tax cuts on the backs of the middle class.”
In other words, she’s been crying us a river over Republicans for years. But this time, she swears it’s different.
I can also tell you how the album ends — appropriately enough, with a sigh.
“That final sigh!” she told The Guardian. “When I first did it, people went: ‘What? We’ll cut that out.’ I said: ‘No, no, no, no, no. That tells the story. That tells how I’m deflated.’ I didn’t plan on doing it, but when it came out of me, wow … That was the truth.”
Perhaps there are no more good singers. I would argue, from what I know about “Walls,” that people are no longer writing good songs for Barbra Streisand. Given that she’s the songwriter, she has nobody to blame for this state of affairs but herself.
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