Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Any Old Way You Choose It Book Cover

Barbra Streisand, Featuring Mary Hopkin

Two album jackets.

Barbara Streisand, What About Today? Avedon portraits of Barbra fore and aft. On front she's a delicately tinted rotogravure beauty from the thirties, but behind, sheathed in some sort of black leotard, she is all soft-focus moderne, vague and soulful. There are also credits and a signed message: "This album is dedicated to the young people who push against indifference, shout down mediocrity, demand a better future, and who write and sing the songs of today. With my deepest admiration, Barbra Streisand."

Mary Hopkin, Post Card. Three color photos of Mary, one front and two back, framed in white to resemble old-fashioned rough-edged postcards. Very demure. Also, on what is apparently the back of the postcard, the credits, printed childishly in felt pen and signed "love from Paul." There are no additional messages.

Paul is producer Paul McCartney, whose distaste for messages is well known. Yet his album certainly has thrust and shape, and it dovetails perfectly with What About Today? If Streisand, the only important traditional pop singer the under-thirty generation has produced, is paying her tribute to the mainstream music of her contemporaries, then McCartney, the most fluent if not the most profound genius of that music, is paying his to traditional pop. In his purposely slight way, he succeeds. Streisand fails.

By conventional standards--that is, by Streisand's own standards--this cannot be the case. Her record has to be superior merely because she possesses the better instrument. Mary's soprano is lissome enough but almost devoid of color or dramatic range, and for Barbra that is what vocal music is all about. Even more than her predecessors, she is not so much a singer as an actress, turning each song into a little playlet--or rather, since hitting the notes is important to her, a little operetta. Every song is a new role, and her natural mode is the tour de force.

It is this very conceit that rock has striven to destroy from its inception. The rock singer may play-act, but never so frankly or variously: His concern is image rather than role. Like the blues and country artists who were his forebears, his aim is always to appear that he is singing his own life--not just recalling his own experience in order to enrich a song, in the matter of Frank Sinatra, but singing his own life and preferably his own composition. To a sensibility accustomed to this conceit, the histrionics of Broadway nightclub pop seem absurdly corny, no matter how "sophisticated" the approach, and the audience for such transparent dramatics seems positively innocent in its eager suspension of disbelief.

Yet it is affection for this sort of innocence that has prompted McCartney to put together Post Card. The material ranges from Donovan fantasy and Nilsson whimsy through folk songs and children's songs right down to that classic role song, "Those Were the Days" (how can a teenager sing such a song?), and the perfect finale, "There's No Business Like Show Business." The accompaniment, most often woodwinds and piano, is full of sentimental flourishes but never banal, and everything is held together by the stubborn sweetness of Hopkin's voice. She sounds just like the somewhat star-struck rural adolescent she is, and her unworldliness binds all the disparate elements into a coherent tribute to everyone's dream world, the dream world that the pop of the past served so well.

Post Card is a very unprepossessing album; its achievement is oblique, even inferential, like the dramatic achievement of the singing itself. Miss Streisand takes the opposite tack. It is possible to see the very overstatement of her style as another response to the plight of traditional pop; because she doesn't even pretend to be natural, her naturalness ceases to be an issue. This sort of mentality readily produces the sort of earnest tribute Miss Streisand has included on the back of the jacket and ignores the fact that those she is saluting eschew just such straightforwardness.

Here are the two mes, Barbra is clearly saying: Showbiz Chantoozy and Serious Young Person. The songs on What About Today? range from the frivolous to the painfully meaningful, the composers from contemporary to Harold Arlen. The contemporaries are hardly a startling bunch: You might find Paul Simon, Lennon-McCartney, Bacharach-David, Jim Webb, and even Buffy Sainte-Marie on the next Al Martino record. What is startling is that except for Webb, who is really a traditional pop composer anyway, it is they who have contributed the whimsy. All of the earnest songs about changing the world come from the fogeys. The messages of these songs are as predictable as the brass and strings that hammer them home. Not only is Streisand's emoting wasted on such dull material, it is shown up as an arbitrary exercise.

When applied to such songs as "With a Little Help From My Friends" and even "Alfie," however, it is worse than arbitrary. It is excessive, and it ruins the songs. After all that bull about the songs of today she has chosen only songs of today that are pointed deliberately at yesterday, and still she has failed. There are exceptions: Buffy Sainte-Marie's "Until It's Time for You to Go" and Lennon-McCartney's "Goodnight" both receive adequate treatment, and the two minutes and thirty-seven seconds of L-M's "Honey Pie" make it seem that the song was written for her, which it may well have been.

The most unforgivable failure, however, cancels all the good. That is Paul Simon's "Punky's Dilemma," which seems the essence of lightheartedness on casual hearing but is really a poignant and ironic presentation of a young man's military alternatives: resisting or playing along with the draft. In order for this irony to come across, however, it must be sung by a man. One wonders whether Streisand discovered this midway through recording and figured the hell with it, or worse still for such a famed interpreter, never got it at all. The second seems more likely, for there are apparently many things about the music other twenty-seven-year-olds are making that pass her right by. This record misrepresents the spirit of that music in just about every way imaginable.

New York Times, Oct. 1969
Any Old Way You Choose It, 1973

Postscript Notes:

Originally published as "Two for the Young" on Oct. 26, 1969.

Smokey Robinson Two Night at the Westbury Music Fair