The definition of “cool” is difficult to pin down, but part of the perceived notion of being cool is authenticity and spontaneity. And when I’m talking about being cool, I don’t mean wearing the latest style of shoes or having the most popular haircut. Cool is something deeper, something more profound – it’s an honest rejection of social mores that often define and restrict. Rock and roll and pop music has become a canvas of sorts, for appropriating “coolness” and we have lots of images that people find to be cool – Bruce Springsteen, Prince, Kurt Cobain, even Michael Jackson at his 80s peak – these were men who defined coolness, even if their images were products of artifice, public persona, music videos, stylists, etc. There is a rebellious streak that binds Springsteen, Prince, Cobain, and, yes, even Jackson – think about it, when MTV first aired, Jackson was one of the first black performers to be featured on a channel he’d later dominate; and it’s no small feat that his ability to shatter racial barriers among consumers was unprecedented. So with all this in mind, we turn to Barbra Streisand. Now, it’s no controversy to say that Barbra Streisand is not cool – she never was. And while her talent is up for grabs (some find her inspiring, others find her grating), her image has evolved from kooky eccentric to middle-of-the-road superstar. Simply said: Barbra Streisand can’t be cool.
When she first came to the public’s attention, Streisand seemed the antithesis of the 60s starlet. Her slanted, cat eyes were elongated with Cleopatra eyeliner; her hair was piled up in a sky-scraping bee hive; and her outfits screamed shtetl chic. Also in an age when Audrey Hepburn was the epitome of beauty, the lanky Streisand surely didn’t measure up – her features – especially her crooked nose, wide mouth and slightly crossed eyes – were almost defiantly plain. And this was part of her charm and her defense. Talent is great, and she had an abundance of that, but her schtick quickly became playing the ugly duckling underdog – something that she would return to well into middle-age.
When Streisand was selling millions of records in the 1960s, she was competing for the Billboard charts with the likes of the Beatles, Bob Dylan and the Rolling Stones. Here’s a fun fact: Streisand was born in 1942, the same year Paul McCartney was born; Dylan was born a year earlier and Mick Jagger was born in 1943. So despite her being the same age as McCartney, Dylan and Jagger, Streisand seems indefinitely older. And why is that?
The answer could be partly answered by the material these artists produce. McCartney, Dylan and Jagger record and write rock and roll. The “writing” part is key. Streisand, meanwhile, rarely writes (though she nabbed an Oscar for penning “Evergreen”), and at least initially her claim to fame was a repertoire of supper club pop, standards and showtunes: old people’s music. So even though, she was in her 20s she was singing stuff that her mother was feeding her.
But material isn’t everything: after all, Streisand ditched the Great American Songbook (too bad for music listeners) and raided Laurel Canyon, the Brill Building and the Tin Pan Alley in the 1970s, creating a template for the pop diva that would be followed by the likes of Celine Dion, Whitney Houston, Bette Midler, Beyonce Knowles and Toni Braxton. She sold a ton of records and was everywhere, and possibly flirting with being cool (Lord knows she tried – just listen to her strained pot-smoking bit she trots out on her Live From the Forum record). And while she was convincing when she sang Laura Nyro and even Carole King, when she tried singing Joe Cocker and McCartney/Lennon, she sounded hopelessly out of her league. If you want proof, listen to her honking her way through David Bowie’s “Life on Mars.” Without a clear understanding of his cryptic lyrics, she barrels through, trying to emulate what she believes “pop” singers should sound like. Her rendition of “Space Captain” is equally head-scratching: her mannered phrasing, and near-operatic delivery completely crushes that spacey ballad. And if you want a good laugh, take a quick listen to her murder “With a Little Help From My Friends,” which she inexplicably turns into a rousing showbiz pop ballad.
So even when she’s singing contemporary material, she sounds out-of-date. And yet, early in her career, she owned her outsider, nerdiness and she was charming and funny. The problem is that once she got famous, she seemed to bristle at the kook and wanted to reinvent herself as a star. She had no trouble, from the 70s up until now, she capped one career high after another: hit records, smash concerts and popular movies. But she slowly traded in one aspect of uncool for another. Before, she was uncool, in the same way of that kid who wears a top hat or carries a brief case to school; or the kind of uncool where a girl can perfectly play an accordion or tuba; or the tween who rushes through a history museum, breathless in excitement at seeing King Tut’s tomb.
Now, she’s another kind of uncool – boring. She ditched her Salvation Army threads and instead donned tasteful numbers created by Donna Karen. She no longer wore crazy makeup and ridiculous hair ‘dos; instead her face is expertly made up by a team of stylists who have also created her signature housewife pageboy. Aside from being boring, this move also does something a little sad: it de-Semitizes her. Notice her speech patterns: she’s all but erased her endearing Brooklyn tawk.
This kind of reach for the WASP gold hoop has also infected her art – namely her music. While still in possession of a fantastic voice, little changed with age, she luxuriates in oppressively lush orchestras of strings and synths as she sleep walks from one pop ballad to another. She’s admitted in press interviews that she doesn’t really like to sing all that much: it shows. Her performances smack of competence. But with a talent like Streisand’s, you expect more than just mere competence.
It’s interesting because in the 2004 comedy Meet the Fockers, Streisand made her big screen return as Ben Stiller’s mom in his popular Gaylord Focker franchise. Instead of being entombed her in upper middle-class swaths of respectability, Streisand instead, embraces all the Borscht Belt comic clichés of Jews. As Rozlyn Focker, Streisand’s done up in New Age garb, with flowing scarves and low cut tops, revealing an ample cleavage. Is it high art? Nope. Is it subtle? Of course not. Is it funny? You betcha. Streisand never was so appealing and likable – by embracing the Jewish mama stereotypes, she transcends them (after all, despite being incarcerated in years of mediocrity, she’s still Barbra Streisand). Meet the Fockers dealt with a man’s quest to impress his gentile in-laws (played by Robert DeNiro and WASPiness personified, Blythe Danner). By doing so, he starts to cringe and feel ashamed at his more ethnic parents (Streisand is paired, note-for-note with a hilarious Dustin Hoffman). There is something ugly Stiller being so embarrassed at his kvetching parents, who barrel into every scene with good humor and kindness. But there’s a subtle parallel in Streisand’s slowly evolving public persona that does the same thing: etch away at spots of “otherness” to settle comfortably among the starry Mount Rushmore of Superstars like Oprah, Julia Roberts, Will Smith (whose lack of cool should also be analyzed) and Tom Cruise.
Parents will tell you that “cool” is being yourself. Fonze will tell you that on Happy Days, too. Of course, the most important element of being cool is being your authentic self. And that is what’s so sad about Barbra Streisand. When she was that weird, awkward girl singer onThe Ed Sullivan Show or sharing the TV screen with Judy Garland in the 1960s, she wasn’t cool, but she was pretty fantastic. She was strange and impossiblenot to look at (and she sounded heavenly). Now that she’s achieved (or probably surpassed) her career goals, she’s no longer the over-achieving girl in the back of the class who raises her hand because she knows all the answers; instead, she’s the boring teacher, reciting the lesson plan in front.
A couple years back Streisand made the rounds of TV shows to promote an album she had just finished. One of the stops she made was on Bravo TV’s Inside the Actors Studio. Because it was Streisand, she got like two hours of airtime to discuss her career with professional sycophant, James Lipton. During the Q&A, Streisand touched upon some of the qualities that made her interesting. But it was during the final portion of the show, when an audience member asked Streisand to explain her legion of gay male fans. And it was at that moment that the “fantastic” Streisand came up, when she described herself as an outsider, someone who never got to play the great roles (she wanted to play Juliet, Hedda Gabler, Nora). She recalled being told to fix her nose and her teeth and talked about not being Sandra Dee and Audrey Hepburn.
This late in the game, Barbra Streisand probably won’t indulge in her inner nerd. She’s too famous and with this level of fame comes an unwillingness to take chances. Coupled with being surrounded by people who won’t say “no” to her, she’ll probably continue in a similar fashion: making records every couple years, that will be commercially successful, but instantly forgettable; possibly going on another farewell tour; maybe popping up in a movie or two. But her public persona has been on autopilot for years now: the multiplatinum diva, frozen into an institution. When she appears on TV now, she immediately gets a standing ovation, but it’s more because of what she’s done and not what she’s about to do. And with an artist as capable and as talented as she is, that’s pretty uncool.