Barbra Streisand: Two or three things I know about Barbra

Her voice - its limitlessness and its range of colours - is among the wonders of our age. As Barbra Streisand celebrates her 60th birthday today, Paul Taylor explains his lifelong admiration for her extraordinary talent
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The Independent Culture

In any chart of the most ironic statements ever uttered in the world of showbiz, the following would be bound to make the Top 10. It was perpetrated in 1962 by Goddard Leiberson, head of Columbia Records. He'd been sent a tape of material sung by the 19-year-old girl who was wowing Broadway audiences as the comic stenographer-spinster in the musical I Can Get It for You Wholesale. Leiberson listened to the tape and fired off a terse note: "Barbra Streisand is indeed very talented, but I'm afraid she's too special for records."

Cut to 2002. Her 58th album, The Essential Barbra Streisand, has just been a No 1 hit in the US, the UK and across Europe – publicised by a poster that declares, without false modesty, that she's "the biggest-selling female recording artist of all time". Beating off the likes of Kylie, Robbie and Will is no small achievement for a woman who celebrates her 60th birthday today. In lieu of a card or a cake, I offer this series of personal observations about Streisand – a talent who excites a singularly conflicting mix of admiration and frustration, awe and irreverence in any thoughtful fan. She is, par excellence, living proof that you can't be truly prodigious without also being a touch preposterous.

Streisand and Me

It's pretty embarrassing for my poor children to have a father who is a Streisand nut. I mean, what kind of signals does that send out? They get their revenge on me by making frequent, mischievous allusions to the movie In and Out, in which Kevin Kline plays a Barbra-buff who is outed as gay on the brink of matrimony. There's a hilarious stag-night scene in which one of the hero's male friends starts a punch-up by insinuating that "she was too OLD for Yentl". This has become quite a catchphrase among my offspring, trotted out whenever they really want to wind me up.

God knows, Barbra has done some terrible things to me in the course of her career – The Prince of Tides and The Mirror Has Two Faces, to name just a couple. But I enjoy irritating people by keeping the faith when so many have lapsed into apostasy. I love to hear friends groan when I wave at them a newly purchased later album such as A Love Like Ours (everything you wanted to know about her second marriage, apart from the small print of the prenuptial contract) or Higher Ground (a kind of "Call Me Mahatma" spiritual group-hug).

I love to see the incredulity that crosses people's faces when I tell them how I forked out £500 for myself and my mother-in-law to see the first of Streisand's Wembley concerts. And I fully intend to maintain this behaviour unto death, when I envisage my children dumping the whole of my CD collection, with all its rarities, into the coffin beside me.

Streisand and Excess

The great classical pianist, Glenn Gould ("I'm a Streisand freak and make no bones about it") was very witty when tilting against critics who thought that she overdid things vocally. "It would never occur to her," he wrote approvingly, "to employ the 'I'll meet you precisely 51 percent of the way' piquancy of, say, Helen Reddy, much less the 'I won't bother to speak up 'cos you're already spellbound, aren't you?' routine of Peggy Lee." There's a paradox, though, in the soaring Streisand voice. The goose-bump inducing speed of the vibrato and the penetrating narrowness of the timbre are quite unmistakable. Heard in the distance in a noisy shop, the sound instantly declares itself as hers. But the voice is such a cornucopian vaudeville trunk of identities – she can do anything, from clowning like Fanny Brice to wailing like the great gospel singer Mahalia Jackson, from tintinnabulating with the clarity of a choirboy to smouldering camply in the Mae West manner – that you could argue that it lacks the distinctive and deepening-over-time personality of a Mabel Mercer or a Barbara Cook.

The limitlessness of the instrument and its range of colours are, however, wonders of our age. Is it any surprise that so many of her songs end in the word "fly", or that, on film, she has been seen, with slightly risible regularity, at the prow of a speeding ship? With that unmatched capacity for lyrical lift-off, where would you rather have her – in a rocking chair?

Streisand and My Grandmother's Canary

When I was about 11, and already a keen collector of La Babs's LPs, I used to like playing them to my grandmother's canary, who would rivalrously sing its heart out. The family joke was that this poor bird was trying to drown the terrible sound of Barbra. But my guess is that its trilling, thrilling performance was conducted in a spirit of emulation. The only other singer who turned on our feathered friend in this way was Maria Callas.

Streisand and Dame Edna Everage

Barbra is the last celebrity on earth whom you could imagine as a guest on Dame Edna's chat show. Other divas – Liza, say, or Bette: these you could picture being given a verbal goosing. But Barbra, who began as a fast-talking Funny Girl, has too solemn a sense of her own dignity these days to risk it being even mildly dented. Unwittingly, though, she contributed to Barry Humphries' characterisation of the great Dame. He's on record as saying that it was some of Streisand's more pretentious pronouncements (as when she told an interviewer that her favourite painting was Munch's The Scream) that inspired him to give Dame Edna inflated global musings – on, among other things, Scream's The Munch (sic), a daub that hangs over her megastar mantelpiece.

Streisand and Sex

She seems to have had a fair bit, courtesy of a veritable Who's Who of partners, including Warren Beatty, Ryan O'Neal and Pierre Trudeau. (Prince Charles is a purely platonic fan: as she herself says, if she'd played her cards right, she could have been "the first real Jewish princess".) She also, from where I'm sitting, radiates sexiness (beautiful throat, shoulders and hands; generous, sensual lips; great ass).

And vocally, she can combine, better than anyone else, sex and comedy. One of her finest recordings, played over the credits of What's Up, Doc?, is a sizzling reinvention of Cole Porter's "You're the Top", a witty, but usually rather neuter, patter-song. Bathos is its basic joke – "You're sublime/ You're a turkey dinner", etc, etc. Barbra seizes on this and widens the parameters, repeatedly toppling from an ecstatic parody of the sublime into the steamily ridiculous. Seduction has never been such a good laugh.

Streisand and Not-So-Easy Listening

In his autobiography, Arthur Laurents, who gave her her big break in I Can Get It for You Wholesale and who co-scripted her hit movie The Way We Were, notes that a fault in the young Streisand's armoury was her inability to listen convincingly on stage. In moments of alleged repose, she reverted to being her screwed-up self. This remains a problem on screen. In her reaction shots, she's so busily self-conscious that less would be a great deal more. This does not apply, though, to her greatest achievement, Yentl (on which she did everything but the catering). Here, as the Jewish girl who gets disguised as a boy in order to join a yeshiva and study, she lets most of her clogging mannerisms float away. Watch the beautiful way that (as both actress and director) she studies the faces of Mandy Patinkin and Amy Irving. The film has been disparaged as a sort of "Tootsie on the Roof". Rubbish. Not since As You Like It has there been such a searching, delicate, funny-sad examination of what we can learn about gender and reality from playing hookie, for a while, in the clothes of the opposite sex.

Streisand and the Future

A big frustration even for the diehard fan is that Streisand has often wasted her enormous gifts on material that is beneath her. It's a pity that her vocal prime coincided with the disco era. At 60, with a voice still in very good nick, she could branch out into a more daring repertoire and to direct movies in which, liberatingly for all concerned, she does not need to star. Reviewing Classical Barbra (1973), the one brave, if only patchily successful album where she ventured into Radio 3 territory, Glenn Gould wrote: "My own prescription for a Streisand dream album would include Tudor lute songs (she'd be sensational in Dowland), Mussorgsky's Sunless cycle, and, as pièce de résistance – provided she'll pick up a handbook or two on baroque ornamentation – Bach's Cantata no 54."

Well, that didn't happen, nor ever will. My personal prescription would involve Streisand hooking up with intelligent songwriters from generations younger than that of Stephen Sondheim and Michel Legrand. Her friend Burt Bacharach has collaborated with Elvis Costello, and the classical singer Anne-Sofie von Otter (who acknowledges a debt to Streisand) has made one of the few enjoyable crossover albums in the great Liverpudlian's care. So what stops Streisand, who knows how to project a carnivorously biting lyric, from getting into bed with that calibre of songsmith?

Could it be that the woman regarded by many as the megalomaniac's megalomaniac actually underestimates herself? So, along with wishing her a very happy birthday, I want to put in a heartfelt plea. Come on, Barbra, surprise us and surprise yourself. It's not too late. Sixty's no age.

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