Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Bette Midler

  • The Divine Miss M [Atlantic, 1972] A-
  • Bette Midler [Atlantic, 1973] B+
  • Songs for the New Depression [Atlantic, 1976] C+
  • Broken Blossom [Atlantic, 1977] C
  • Live at Last [Atlantic, 1977] A-
  • Thighs and Whispers [Atlantic, 1979] C+
  • Divine Madness [Atlantic, 1980] C+
  • No Frills [Atlantic, 1983] B-
  • Some People's Lives [Atlantic, 1990] Choice Cuts
  • Experience the Divine: Greatest Hits [Atlantic, 1993] Choice Cuts
  • Bette of Roses [Atlantic, 1995] Dud
  • Bathhouse Betty [Warner Bros., 1998] *
  • Bette [Warner Bros., 2000] Choice Cuts
  • It's the Girls! [Warner Bros., 2014] A-

Consumer Guide Reviews:

The Divine Miss M [Atlantic, 1972]
Midler thinks "cabaret" encompasses every emotion and aspiration ever transfixed by pop music. People who've seen her like this record more than people who haven't, which isn't good. But as someone who's been entranced by her show many times I'm grateful for a production that suggests its nutty quality without distracting from her voice, a rich instrument of surprising precision, simultaneously delicate and vulgar. I'd ease up on the '60s nostalgia by replacing "Chapel of Love" with "Empty Bed Blues," but anybody who can expose "Leader of the Pack"'s exploration of the conflict between love and authority has a right. A-

Bette Midler [Atlantic, 1973]
Side two does seven great songs with umpteen instruments in just over fifteen minutes, a perfectly amazing miracle of concision. But side one is less than hot. Two (why two?) just-wrong Johnny Mercer songs lead into a properly excessive intro to Ann Peebles's "Breaking Up Somebody's Home" that is destroyed inside of two minutes by an improperly excessive, funkless production. Bette's overstatement works on "Surabaya Johnny" and "I Shall Be Released," but I've heard better. Most important, why isn't there one song by a contemporary composer here? Dylan doesn't count--I'm talking about Randy Newman, Gilbert O'Sullivan, Joni Mitchell, maybe James Taylor or Cat Stevens, she's always made me believe in miracles. As it stands, this record is perilously close to the ostrich nostalgia of her dumbest fans. B+

Songs for the New Depression [Atlantic, 1976]
It's going too far to claim that she's taken on a corporate personality--a very unusual individual does definitely peek out through the curtain of groupthink that hides these songs from the singer and from us. But that individual seems to have taken on so many advisers because she's afraid of herself, and such fear is not attractive in an artist of Bette Midler's power. No matter what your voice teachers tell you, wackiness is not something to modulate. C+

Broken Blossom [Atlantic, 1977]
So she can translate Billy Joel into Phil Spector--she has nevertheless become, at least on record, just another pop singer, albeit with a few interesting idea. I ask you, is the redemption of Billy Joel fit work for a culture heroine? C

Live at Last [Atlantic, 1977]
Her fans may find some of the material on this live double-LP repetitious--I could do without five minutes of "Delta Dawn" myself--and her overripe singing will offend those she offends anyway. But she's never recorded fifteen of these twenty-five songs, a few repeats are enhanced by the particulars of this performance, and others gather meaning in theatrical context. A typical stroke: prefacing the glorious tearjerker "Hello in There" with campy, occasionally unkind patter about ladies with fried eggs on their heads, so that the song's romanticized heroine and the weird and depressing fried egg ladies both seem to have something in common with Bette, and therefore with each other. A-

Thighs and Whispers [Atlantic, 1979]
The songs are pretty good, and when you listen up they get better, their apparent flatness undercut by little touches of drama, comedy, or musicianship. But the songs aren't that good. And they don't get that much better. C+

Divine Madness [Atlantic, 1980]
From anybody else, the second live album in under four years would have me charging unfair trade practice. From Bette it has me begging for intros--which rarely forthcome on a concert-flick "soundtrack" that plays better on screen than turntable. Streisand's claque is right--she's a sloppy singer, which without the diversionary shtick of Live at Last sometimes matters. On anything she's perfected in the studio, for instance. Or when she expresses herself all over "Stay With Me" or "Fire Down Below," good notions that suggest cabaret may be her musical calling after all. "E Street Shuffle" she can handle--maybe because it has a plot. C+

No Frills [Atlantic, 1983]
Although it helps that she gets stronger material than usual from yet another phalanx of International Pop Music Community pros, what makes this Bette's best studio album in a decade is a Habana production number set in Miami, a newly written Sophie Tucker song about a driving wheel, and not-quite-comic readings of Marshall Crenshaw and Jagger-Richard. What makes it not good enough is the curse of Broadway rock and roll--the beat is conceived as decoration or signal rather than the meaning of life, or even music. B-

Some People's Lives [Atlantic, 1990]
"From a Distance" Choice Cuts

Experience the Divine: Greatest Hits [Atlantic, 1993]
"From a Distance"; "In My Life"; "One for My Baby (And One More for the Road)" Choice Cuts

Bette of Roses [Atlantic, 1995] Dud

Bathhouse Betty [Warner Bros., 1998]
Reclaiming her integrity if not--waddaya want?--her edge ("I'm Beautiful," "Lullabye in Blue"). *

Bette [Warner Bros., 2000]
"In These Shoes" Choice Cuts

It's the Girls! [Warner Bros., 2014]
When Midler covered the Dixie Cups and the Shangri-Las in 1972, she was reclaiming "rock"'s female principle. So on this tribute and Christmas gift, the artist who did so much to make "girl group" a brand and a byword broadens its reach. In addition to mining the great American songbook of Goffin-King, Mann-Weill, and Holland-Dozier-Holland, she invites the foundational Boswell Sisters, the Cuban-born DeCastro Sisters, cover queens the Chordettes, and the Andrews Sisters singing in Yiddish to the party. She turns TLC's "Waterfalls" into a nightclub ballad and the Shangri-Las' "Give Him a Great Big Kiss" into a senior-care burlesque. Her wittingly lowbrow notion of class uncorrupted by her success, she sings every lyric like it's Cole Porter, or at least Irving Berlin, because in historical context it is. Midler recognizes no disconnect between good-humored sincerity and the idea that camp is a tender feeling. And she knows "Will You Love Me Tomorrow" is every bit as eloquent as "They Can't Take That Away From Me." A-

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