Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Any Old Way You Choose It Book Cover

Bette Midler:
The Art of Compassion

I knew nothing about Bette Midler when I first saw her perform at the Bitter End. If I had, I suppose, my uneasy presentiments might have hardened into prejudices. Bette Midler really is showbiz, easy to pass off as a minor-league camp queen or a ringer for Barbra Streisand. Upon reflection, however, I prefer to think of her as the Beatles.

A Jewish girl from Honolulu--a combination worth mulling over--Bette achieved some Broadway success with a small part in Fiddler on the Roof, but she really wanted to be a solo singer, waiting her turn at clubs like Hilly's and the Improvisation, where she performed torch songs, for free. Her present act came about only when she got what appeared to be a dubious break--a gig at the Continental Baths, a gay men's hangout. It was there that she got together with her band, and there that she was discovered by Johnny Carson, who introduced her to the night people of middle America both on television and live in Las Vegas. It was there that her new career of club dates, talk shows, and record contracts began.

The Bitter End was part of this new career, designed to introduce her to people like me. Admittedly, my immediate reaction was befuddlement. There was the band, a typical scruffy rock quartet except for musical director Barry Manilow, who looks suave. And there, followed by a slow spot, was the Divine Miss M., making her entrance. This woman was definitely not pretty. Her hair was in some weird bob, she wore a lot of obvious makeup, her left shoulder strap slipped every time she shook her bazooms, and her matching platforms and pedal pushers were gaud for a bawd.

I grew more confused as Bette opened her act with "Friends," by Buzzy Linhart, a local singer-songwriter who seems determined to hang on until God makes him a star or an egg cream, and Bessie Smith's "Empty Bed Blues." Each song was performed in a brassy, gesticulatory style appropriate to neither, and there was a moment during "Empty Bed Blues," which had been stripped to its raunchiest metaphors, when Miss M. sounded more like Betty Boop than the sainted Miss Smith. Yet something in her enthusiasm for her audience and her material captivated me. While I mulled the combinations over, Miss M. introduced herself in a breathy voice, told what I assume were some fibs about where she bought her shoes--she likes to refer to herself as "the last of the tacky women"--and launched into a choreographed version of the Andrew Sisters' "Chattanooga Choo Choo." Then she sang "Delta Dawn," which she said she had learned from Tracy Nelson.

I was amazed, and thinking of all the times I'd sat in my living room turning people on to records they'd never try themselves, I decided that this woman was one of us. She was obviously open to every emotion and aspiration ever transfixed by pop music, somehow surmounting all its forms without abandoning an eye-level perspective. She didn't devalue Bessie Smith by implying that some of her images were slightly overextended--on the contrary, that was how she experienced the extremity of the blues singer's pain. And by parodying the absurd, precise energy of the Andrews Sisters, she also celebrated the joy and playful cunning with which they responded to their dilemma in their time. It was all showbiz, just an act; we both knew that. In a way, that was the point.

By the close of "Delta Dawn," which she performed straight--melodramatic, but straight--I was physically moved. Bette had had her way with me. I careened from laughter--at her patter, at her self-deprecation, at the way she shook her bazooms--to a surprising ache--her version of John Prine's "Hello in There," a song I had always considered hokum, had me flashing on every old person who ever struggled up the stairs of my building--and often I felt both at the same time. The tour de force was her final selection, the Shangri-Las' "Leader of the Pack," which she interpreted as the great exploration of the conflict of love and authority I had always known it was. Sure its tragic overstatement was silly--viewed in perspective, adolescent breakups hardly warrant such sturm und drang, even when parent-induced. But for both artists and audience, the emotional reality went beyond the facts. Bette had the compassion to respect that emotion.

It is Bette's genius to replace self-expression with compassion, compassion that is directed not merely at the audience, in the manner of Judy Garland, but also at the material. This is very much a woman's genius. Because they are forced into narrower images and stereotypes than men, women have barely participated in the long struggle to make singing as real and undefended as speech--not until Carole King could a natural woman exploit the modest range of a normal speaking voice. Because everything about Bette screams artifice--not just the way she stretches her voice into every conceivable theatrical shape, but her clothes, her makeup, her comedy routines--she seems a throwback. Her theatricality becomes a metaphor that unifies all her styles and periods. The women in her songs inhabit images and play roles, and so does she. Why not? Naturalness is a phony, and no matter how many guys with guitars tell you different, doing your own self-expression just isn't enough. The world is too hostile.

This is the kind of postsixties perception that has moved youth culture toward electoral politics on the one hand and pastoral escape on the other. Bette is anything but a throwback, because she understands that artifice is a necessary gambit, not a desirable way to organize your life, and like most of her contemporaries--she is in her late twenties--she has gained from all the utopian canons of the free self that made the sixties possible. One reason she doesn't want to turn into Barbra Streisand is that her voice isn't as conventionally beautiful as Streisand's--if all the strictures about singing hadn't been relaxed, she might not have the chance to turn into Streisand, and knowing that affects her ambitions. The gay people who were her first fans understand better than anyone how essential masks are to the survival of anyone with an unusual or threatening self to express, but they are also striving to come out. Bette can deal with this surface paradox because she is a child of the sixties who has lived in a pocket of contrivance, the world of theater.

What Bette does has excited me more than all the new rock groups put together, and in my palmier moments--especially at her Carnegie Hall concert in June, where an auditorium full of peacocks gave her a two-minute standing ovation just for trotting onto the stage--I wonder whether the messiah will be a woman this time. For several years now, those who live their lives by music have been waiting for a new miracle worker, someone to bring us together again. Elvis in 1955, the Beatles in 1964, and who in 1973? Not Bette Midler?

The very unlikelihood of the idea is what makes it intriguing, for avatars never arise where you're looking for them. They need room and time to grow among folks who love them, preferably in an environment so ignominious that the outside world won't even notice. The contempt inspired by English rock and roll in 1963 can only be compared to the contempt inspired by Southern red-necks in 1954. Because communciations are so expanded, the wise money in the music business says it won't happen again, and the wise money is probably right. But if it does happen, you can be sure it won't be a rock group. Music from Africa or Latin America or Japan, perhaps. Or maybe someone who paid her--yes, her--dues in a steam bath for New York's homosexuals.

If I were really serious, I suppose, I wouldn't jinx the chance by writing about it, only I know not even Bette herself will believe it. For she has yet to perform the essential task of the miracle worker--the gathering of the new tribes--and if gay people and certain women and the hip theater crowd suggest an interesting core, they are not enough. She has to reach the kids. She has to convince the love generation that she really knows about love, for if Elvis was about sexual rebellion and the Beatles were about joy, love is what Bette is about, in all its intricacy and effort. I don't even like to imagine the kind of effort that will require from her, for if the youth audience is the most flexible and devoted in the world, it is also the most self-righteous, and it isn't about to cotton to a musical-comedy queen.

So far, youth spokesmen have regarded Bette with suspicion. She attracts older people, after all. The commonest put-down is to pass off what she does as camp. It's a lot more than camp, I think, but then, camp is more than it is usually imagined to be by those who think the gay world is alien to us normal people by definition. Allow me to quote Susan Sontag: "Camp taste is a kind of love, love for human nature. It relates rather than judges the little triumphs and awkward intensities of `character.' . . . Camp taste identifies with what it is enjoying. . . . Camp is a tender feeling." Bette Midler does something like that, and it seems to me that whole insular masses of people could use a shot of it.

Newsday, Aug. 1972
Any Old Way You Choose It, 1973


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