The greatest pop voices of our time. Day 2: Streisand

February 21, 2011 • 4:32 am

Today’s popular music is heading towards belting: the production of very loud sounds in the middle range.  Loudness now seems prized on its own, a viable substitute for technique.  One example is the execrable star of Glee, Lea Michele, wildly popular and widely praised.  (I predict that Glee will result in the debasement of all Broadway-style singing.) But all Michele has is volume, and to me her voice is intensely unpleasant (for an example, see this video, where she fails miserably to reprise the Streisand classic from Funny Girl, “Don’t rain on my parade”; the horror show starts at 3:30).

Which brings us to Barbra Streisand.  Yes, she can sing loud, but, more important, her voice is beautiful, and she has style and technique.   And her voice is absolutely unique.

Any singer wishing to make his/her mark has to have a voice that’s instantly recognizable on the radio: Bing Crosby had that, and Frank Sinatra, and Dean Martin, and so too the other singers I’ll highlight this week.  Can anybody hear a Streisand song and not know immediately who’s singing?

Many of us were first introduced to Babs through the movie Funny Girl, made in 1968 when she was 26.  Her performance nabbed her a best-actress Oscar.  To me, the best song in that movie is not “People,” but “My Man,” in which Streisand, playing comedienne Fanny Brice, sings through tears right after she’s dumped by her gangster boyfriend (Omar Sharif).  You can see the original here—don’t miss it! But here’s a great concert version from 1975.

“He touched me,” from a 1965 concert in Central Park:

And the Sig Roberg/Oscar Hammerstein classic, “Lover come back to me”, from the 1965 television special, “My name is Barbra.”  I watched it live!

Streisand is a fabulous singer and stylist, a good actress, and a talented producer and director (Yentl, The Prince of Tides)—and a drop-dead gorgeous Jewish girl, too!  I would have married her in a minute, but I was too young, and Eliott Gould (née Goldstein) got to her first . . .

101 thoughts on “The greatest pop voices of our time. Day 2: Streisand

  1. I have an inexplicable, but strong and probably stupid, dislike for two of the – in other people’s opinion – greatest female 20. century singers. Edith Piaf is one … Barbra Streisand is the other.

      1. I don’t know about TrineBM, but sometimes it is for me. I do not like any of the female actresses on “Desperate Housewives” even before the show premiered and never watched it. Each of those actresses rubbed me the wrong way.

      2. JS1685: no, probably not completely inexplicable, but I can only find partial reasons for my dislike. One is, that I’m not big on pathos. You know the kind that is not filtered or presented with a glint, just a glint of humour or … dare I say: class?
        I have a feeling that the amount of emotion shown by these singers stands in no relationship to the quality of the material they are singing. I think that about a lot of opera as well, so I’ll not accept the “You just don’t like chansons/musical”-argument. I am probably just an uptight Scandinavian out of touch with my inner feelings. But so be it. I don’t much care for Rachmaninov either.

        1. Thanks! The reason I asked is that I thought we’d probably have a similar take.

          You are right. In pop, so much effort is put into, and emphasis on, “peripheralia” to Coyne a neologism. The musical content itself? Well, you’re lucky if it’s not completely awful.

      1. Whoa – Sili! Can we not find common ground on some other music-personality? You suggest some, please! Or do we really have to drink a beer somewhere in Denmark to un-die me?

  2. Ah, beauty…. I always hate that when it’s dropped into the conversation.

    She’s bilaterally symmetrical and relatively proportional. After that it’s just a matter of taste and emotional projection on the part of the person making the judgment.

    I know lots of guys that think she’s ugly. Or, to move it away from someone you’re infatuated with…

    It’s like that woman on Baywatch. The one with all the plastic surgery. I think she’s revolting after all that work she did on her face and boobs, but lots of guys think she’s beautiful because of it…

    I can’t stand her because look past her plastic boobs and have noted she’s lost her proportionality in her face. Things are not right depending on where she’s at in her plastic-surgery fetish.

    1. “Ah, beauty…. I always hate that when it’s dropped into the conversation.”

      Well, Kind and Charitable Sir, what supernatural creature invaded you to prompt you to bless us with your statement that “I know lots of guys that [you mean “who,” don’t you?] think she’s ugly.”

      Noted.

      How many is “lots”?

      Are we worthy to examine these “gentlemen”‘s mugs?

      George Shearing, the British jazz piano master recently passed. He was blind from birth. Would that one could get his, or Ray Charles’s, opinion on Barbra Streisand’s voice. Of course, they would have nothing to say about her visage.

      I know of a fellow who stands around and evaluates out loud the physical merits of other women, in front of his wife.

      In “Yentl” one gets to see her feet. Quite nice feet.

      Will you give her credit for anything?

    1. Her duet with herself is pretty darn good too (I hope this embed works):

      [youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LrhEzKZxyRs&w=480&h=390]

    2. I turned the Streisand / Garland video off in the middle as it was causing me physical pain to the listen to the screeching. Not pleasant at all.

  3. Streisand has a half-sister named Roslyn Kind who has the same incredible voice. I have an album (probably the only one she made) that beats Streisand by a mile. Roslyn didn’t have the drive to continue her career, so few people have heard of her.

    1. Sheesh, I just looked on Youtube. There are many listings for Roslyn Kind. She did continue performing. Guess my brain hasn’t evolved this morning…

  4. Sorry, she still sounds shrill to me, and I just don’t like her music. Her “incredible” voice takes some getting used to.

    1. Could be the recording quality? I think it’s hard to compare singers head to head when you got a generational gap in recording technology.

  5. At some point, Ms. Streisand apparently started working out and had a nose job. In her appearance in the motion picture, “Nuts,” (where she doesn’t sing), she looks quite different then in her previous motion pictures.

    1. Noted.

      “Apparent” this and “apparent” that. Just how do you come by this knowledge? By how many per centage points does she look “quite different”? 7 2/11%? Pi%? Sqr rt of -1%?

      I’ll have to listen to her ’67 and ’72 “live” albums again for her oblique answer, “Never,” to the question with which you bless us. But I grant you, she could have changed her mind.

      Whatever she did or did not do about anything, it’s fodder for bloviation.

  6. That My Man should be held up as an example of Streisand’s greatness tells me the author has either no taste or little knowledge of the past. Listen to Fanny Brice’s version (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RKivfzjQxOQ)
    and you’ll understand how much of the real emotion Babs sucked out of the song in order to show off her belt. Lea’s mistake was in copying the wrong woman. As to her Tonys DROMP, it doesn’t take a lot of musical knowledge to recognize she and the orchestra were completely out of sync for the first half, possibly because of the physical distance separating them which might not have been rehearsed. Lea’s best to date are O Holy Night and Papa Can You Hear Me.

    1. I didn’t care for the song to begin with but I especially dislike the Brice version. I find it annoying and grating. Sorry.

      1. Ok, if Brice doesn’t sing her own theme song well enough for you, how about Billie Holiday’s version then: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IQlehVpcAes
        It’s what Streisand did to the song that’s truly “execrable”, not the young woman who foolishly copied her. To decry belting when praising a singer who used it self-indulgently to destroy the essence of a song is utterly ridiculous. And to have such an apparently vested emotional interest in a great but flawed singer that one has to defend to the point of hyperbolic insult every new artist who sings the same repertoire is doing oneself no favor.

    2. it doesn’t take a lot of musical knowledge to recognize she and the orchestra were completely out of sync for the first half

      Good call. And she was popping her p’s and t’s and various other consonants. 😛 That and the lame concept of walking up the aisle like that. How very entertaining. *yawn*

      1. The aisle bit was to reprise the way it was done on Glee. Lea and Matt Morrison were on the Tonys to help bring in Glee’s large audience and pander to their tastes. Ultimately, though, it was the show director’s call. Overall, Lea was imitating Babs’ Funny Girl performance, including accent and enunciation, because that’s what her character (a 16 year old girl) would do.

          1. It could be microphone effects or that Lea felt a need to make sure every single word was understood be a TV audience not all of whom were familiar with the music. Her acting often informs her singing in a very positive way, but she does have her vocal tics and she has lots to learn. The popping is something I’ve not heard to before. Here’s how someone who knows a bit about B’way singing wanted his consonants done: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8-VXXZLh2a0

  7. I’m not a huge mainstream music lover but even I get goosebumps when I hear Evergreen. Streisand super-fans probably want to thump me for saying that…

  8. I would not argue with much of what you say, but simply make an observation. When we lived in Malibu, Babs and Mr. Streisand 🙂 lived within a mile of our place, and many other well-known folks were also close by. We never saw Streisand or Brolin out and about, but most others who were just as recognizable went about living in the community as typical residents – Gibson at his kids’ soccer matches, Anderson and her boys at Pepperdine baseball, Brosnan picking up carry-out, Sandler and Hoffman on the beach, van Dyke everywhere, Schwarzenegger at Starbucks, Duchovny, Diggs and Sting playing noontime basketball with us ordinary folks, etc. I believe that some folks overestimate their importance in society.

  9. eh…I don’t care for Streisand. All affectation afaict.
    Honesty and true self-expression are optional in “pop” music.

      1. Her best work wasn’t pop or B’way, it was jazz-like (-lite?)where she riffed with great vocals, as in this ’75 DROMP:

  10. “Today’s popular music is heading towards belting: the production of very loud sounds in the middle range.”

    Much as I admire your expertise within your field, I have to say that your knowledge of modern popular music is limited to say the least. The majority of young people have always favoured loud, crass music because it annoys the older generation (Little Richard anyone?). When has it been otherwise? Modern pop music is louder only because new technology allows it to be. Sinatra and Streisand, etc were exceptions of their time – and there are plenty of those around now if you take the trouble to look for them.

  11. I would have married her in a minute, but I was too young, and Eliott Gould (né Goldstein) got to her first . . .

    Plus you would have had to fight off my cousin and best friend Steve – also too young, and a goy, and a skinny kid in glasses, but you would have had to fight him off all the same.

    1. I used to give EKGs to both Streisand and Gould way back in the day at a posh celebrity MDs in Manhattan when I was a doctor’s assistant while attending nursing school. Her mother, too. Extremely ordinary looking folks. The only celebrity that I ever encountered up close that looked fabulous was Eddie Murphy (at a Sumo wrestling match).

      But I would have introduced Jerry somehow when I knew she was coming for an appt–maybe you could have delivered the freshly ground coffee from Zabar’s?

  12. Streisand does not sing from the heart ~ it’s unconvincing fakery. During live performance she uses teleprompt for lyrics & for the ‘off the cuff’ remarks to band members & audience.

    Sinatra & all the other crooners & Elvis ? I’m not transported. It isn’t a life lived.

    Dylan & Bowie had the advantage of being songwriters; they could craft their work to be close to their current choice of persona. I’m still not convinced though.

    #
    Not really ‘pop’, but I will settle for David Crosby & particularly his 1971 début solo album, If I Could Only Remember My Name 🙂

    ###
    I also choose Jack Bruce (Cream R.I.P.) “World-class pioneer in his main instrument; a composer of some of the most endurable and recognisable rock songs of our time; an accomplished classical, jazz and Latin musician and one of popular music’s most distinctive and evocative voices”

    I’m particularly fond of his (OK, it’s patchy) album Songs For A Tailor

    Peace’n’Love
    Michael

    ###

  13. I can objectively respect the talent of a Streisand, but I find most of her music rather depressing. Even when singing something like “Happy Days are here again,”, should doesn’t communicate happiness. Yuck.

  14. Recognizability is not really a very good metric for determining a musician’s worth. I can instantly recognize the bass Thomas Quasthoff, or the pianist Glenn Gould. Yet what they do (did) is profoundly unmusical. Ugly, even.

      1. Glenn Gould drives me up the wall like nails on a chalk board. Just one example – his recording of Bach’s Prelude in C Major was an assault on the Western canon. All that horrible staccato plinkety-plink.

          1. I should clarify – I love the harpsichord, and its repertoire. Love it, love it, love it. And yes, I’m fully aware that Bach composed for the harpsichord and the organ, not the piano, for obvious reasons.

            What I don’t like is Gould’s playing the piano as if it were the harpsichord. To my ear, it sounds affected and gimmicky. If you want to play the harpsichord, play the harpsichord. Don’t try to force the piano to be something it isn’t.

            Of course, this is entirely subjective.

            1. Couldn’t have said it better myself. Trying to create the effect of a harpsichord on the piano doesn’t work.

              But also, his ornaments were weirdly slow and measured, he never used rubato or agogic, and his tempi were rarely appropriate. I’m left wondering if he had one musical bone in his body. Do you know the story about Leonard Bernstein’s “disclaimer”, issued before a performance Gould and the NY Phil made of Brahms’ 1st piano concerto? He didn’t want the audience thinking he was responsible for all the ridiculous tempi.

              Whenever our local classical station plays a keyboard work of JSB, Gould is the performer they choose. *Sigh* Bunch of “bandwagoners.” Pfft.

              1. OMG, Bernstein issued a disclaimer before a Gould performance? That warms my black little heart.

                Gould was a right pain in the ass about his pianos, too. If I remember correctly, he drove everyone at Steinway (and several assistants) nuts with his obsessing over his one perfect-can’t-be-replaced piano, and went to absurd lengths looking for one that had a “harpsichord quality.”

                Nutter.

              2. Here are the details of what happened:
                http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/New_York_Philharmonic_concert_of_April_6,_1962
                The too-slow tempi Bernstein complained about resulted in a performance one minute FASTER than on a Bernstein-conducted recording. Gould was regarded as a genius by some of the most important musicians in the world, which is why he was invited to play with the NY Phil in the first place. As to his eccentricities, they would not have been looked upon in the same way back in the 19th or early 20th centuries, when Mahler changed the instrumentation of Beethoven symphonies, and performers, both instrumentalists and vocalists were accorded much greater leeway in interpretation.

              3. I’ve seen that WP article.  

                A lot of people out there are determined to hear Gould’s performances as quirky in a good way – as if he was a genius understood by few.  You can find glowing reviews of his playing all over the place that, on the face of it, sound as if the performer they describe couldn’t possibly be unmusical.

                Believe it or not, but a LOT of backscratching goes on in the music world – people are praised, invited to perform, and given commissions all the time, not on their actual (or non-existent) merit, but for altogether more socially mundane reasons.  Often because ostracization is feared as a result of passing judgment on something; fear of being tarred as closed-minded.

                I’d be EXTREMELY interested to see what this recent research wrt the Brahms is that supposedly vindicates Gould.  The very same WP article also notes that Gould’s tempi were not the ones indicated by Brahms.  After 20 min on Google, I can’t find any of this research, and moreover, I’ve never heard of it.  The citation for the research is Chapin’s liner notes for the recent CD release of this performance.  You can find these online, but they contain no actual research; only a mention of the subsequent 54 min Bernstein/Zimmerman recording. Some vindication.

                And besides, I don’t deny that sometimes his tempi are OK.  Try searching YT for his late recording of the fifth Goldberg Variation for an idea of what I mean by inappropriate tempi.

                Also, my other gripes still stand.

            2. “Don’t try to force the piano to be something it isn’t.”
              A piano is a percussive instrument that pianists try to force to be something different all the time. Pianists play Mozart and Bach with pedaling the composers couldn’t imagine. There are huge disputes over Beethoven tempi. All of these broad generalizations of what is proper and correct and true are completely beside the point of the enjoyment of music. A performance moves you or it doesn’t, you like it or you don’t.

              1. Don’t lecture me, and go stuff your condescension. I know full well what a piano is. I’m entitled to believe Gould stretches it beyond a point where it’s aesthetically pleasing. You’re entitled to believe otherwise. You are not entitled to tell me my sujective experience of this is wrong (a favorite move linguistic and musical descriptivists; they get to be presriptive indeed when it comes other people’s views).

              2. And before you start (because I can almost hear you typing this out already) – don’t bother waxing about how I should clearly label my enjoyment or lack thereof as such, and that I’m committing a fallacy by making definitive pronouncements about what a piano is and isn’t. Really – don’t bother.

  15. Well, it seems as if you want to provoke some REAL controversy, you have to have a discussion about taste in music.

    Must be that different way of knowing I keep hearing so much about.

  16. Streisand. Check. Mom’s fave also.

    I distinctly remember watching Funny Girl in a Los Angeles theater with those genetically closest to me.

    I think she’s gorgeous, too.

  17. I’d never seen that Judy Garland duet before 🙂

    I seem to remember some years ago reading a Time magazine critic pondering why Celine Dion insensitively belted out an otherwise beautiful song. His conclusion: because she can.

  18. I haven’t heard all that much Streisand, but I clearly remember the first thing I heard of hers: “Guilty”, the duet with Barry Gibb. She made him sound like a constipated goose in comparison – sang him off the vinyl.

  19. My vote for (among the best) pop voices: Julie Andrews. The trite phrase, “clear as a bell” really does apply to her. Always perfectly on pitch without any of that awful deliberate warbling around the note that so many contemporary singers think is a beautiful embellishment. (Can someone help me out here with terminology – what is that called? Think Mariah Carey and vocalists like her, who barely ever hit one note without going two whole steps around it).

      1. Thanks sasqwatch.

        I’m not sure that’s really what I’m referring to, though (but it might be). I don’t mean music that is written so that each syllable has more than one note. I mean vocalists who add that kind of embellishment excessively – way beyond what the score says. It’s common in American black gospel music – and it’s often very effective there – but it’s become so overused among contemporary pop “divas”. Some of them (I’m looking at you Mariah Carey and Christina Aguillera) will go up and down the entire damned scale by an octave when they get to the end of a phrase (that’s supposed to end on one pitch, not 8) and you just want someone to stop their caterwauling.

        1. Whoops – that silly emoticon was supposed to be the numeral eight. As in “girl, that’s supposed to be one note, not 8 of them.”

          1. In fact, I believe I might be the first person to Coyne the phrase “miasma of melisma”. Now that I have done so, I would appreciate it if you language innovators (especially you, Tim Martin) would try to insert it into every conversation you have for the next six months or so, until this takes off. I don’t need any personal credit. And slap everybody that says “meme”. (but that’s another story)

          2. See? See!?? I told you about that Aguilera woman:) That’s exactly the kind of crap I’m talking about – that was a completely grating, musically awful treatment of the national anthem (not withstanding what a poor choice that piece is to be our national anthem in the states, but I digress).

            Moaning, cat-in-heat performance.

            I’m so glad I’m not the only one who’s gotten really tired of this vocal style. It’s run into the ground.

            You know, Aguilera and some of her co-perpetrators are really technically proficient. They’re perfectly capable of turning out great performances, but they’ve become parodies of themselves. A little goes a long, long way.

          3. I fully admit that I am an incurable musical snob of considerable training, which is why I’m so short on substance in this thread – and probably the next threads having to do with popular music.

            I am, however, also one of the world’s experts on extremely, extremely bad music. (as evidenced by my brazen Shooby Taylor reference in the Sinatra thread).

        1. update. I should have Googled before making that claim. There are 142 occurrences of “miasma of melisma” before I peed on that bush. Nothing new under the sun.

  20. Karen Carpenter’s voice was glossy smooth like Streisand’s also, but it had texture, depth, and softness woefully missing in BSs.

    1. Yes! Yes! Karen Carpenter – how could I forget. One of my all-time faves. Because so much of their music was really sugary and sentimental, I think her vocal acumen gets overlooked too often.

      Loves me some Carpenters, and I’m not ashamed to have dozens of their albums. And also a huge honking collection of sheet music.

    2. Concur. Hits the notes spot on. Able to sing a song at least two times the same way. She and Richard sufficiently self-disciplined, with regard to tempo and rhythm, to repetively dub their voices to produce as many as thirty-nine voices in a song.

    3. Now you’re talking.
      Let’s see Babs belt out a tune as beautifully as Karen did while simultaneously playing drums!

  21. Personally I can’t stand Streisand – though it may be the songs she picks.

    Its the empty, plastic love song sung joylessly.

  22. I like this better, on personality, and not so boring music like the previous choice. But Piaf was mentioned, we have all those fabulous soul singers (Franklin, say), and who ever can forget Joplin?

    1. “and who can ever forget Joplin”
      Well, ‘The Entertainer’ was a nice tune on the piano but I’d never have considered him as a famous singer.
      😉

      1. Ditto. Memories…

        “Oh Lord, won’t you buy me a Mercedes Benz ?
        My friends all drive Porsches, I must make amends.
        Worked hard all my lifetime, no help from my friends,
        So Lord, won’t you buy me a Mercedes Benz ?”

  23. Jerry Coyne says

    “I would have married her in a minute”

    There is evidence that Pierre Trudeau (Canada’s 15th prime minister) would have married Streisand. Trudeau and Streisand had an “open affair” (winter 1969–70).

    According to John English in Just Watch Me: The Life of Pierre Elliott Trudeau, 1968–2000, (51–54),

    “Trudeau approached the question of a lasting relationship . . . But suddenly [Streisand] found it ‘scary’: her marriage had just ended; her career was gloriously successful; and however enchanting she found Trudeau, Canada was a foreign country.”

  24. All you Barbra detractors must be 12? 13? What a bunch of uneducated individuals! Her lustrous career is longer than you people have been alive. None of you are worthy or qualified to lick the soles of her Stuart Weitzman pumps!

  25. I disagree with you about Streisand being a “belter”… that’s what she might have WANTED to be, but really she has a more lyrical voice than anyone else I can think of and has always sounded better in her calmer performances.

    As for that girl from Glee ~ what about her performance of Papa Can You Hear Me..? Please no!!

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