Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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****1/2

BETTE MIDLER
The Divine Miss M
Atlantic

Three "oldies" and two "standards" interspersed with five contemporary titles--conceptually, it seems pretty normal, a cover album Cyndi Lauper or Bryan Adams might try. But in 1972 The Divine Miss M was an outrageous assertion of taste. No rock-identified artists were consorting with the enemy--i.e, the grownups who teared up over the Andrews Sisters' "Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy" and Ethel Waters's "Am I Blue." Bobby Freeman's "Do You Want To Dance" had an acceptable rock and roll pedigree--released 1958, before "the day the music died," snuffle snuffle--even if Midler slowed it down and torched it up. But Beatle-era girl groups like the Dixie Cups ("Chapel of Love") and the Shangri-Las ("Leader of the Pack") had not yet, incredible though it may seem, joined the canon.

If it seems doubly incredible that this future Hollywood diva was rock-identified, her choice of contemporaries assured it, John Prine and Leon Russell especially, and never mind that the Carpenters got to "Superstar" first. As for "Delta Dawn," how were mere rockers to know that Nashville thought it was Tanya Tucker's, much less that Helen Reddy wanted it too? How were they to know that this brassy-voiced musical comedy vet and her jazz-tinged schlock-rock production were corrupting red-blooded heterosexual singer-songwriterdom with a sensibility both gay and feminist--a sensibility that adored daring women from Ethel Waters to Midler herself and made room for Tanya and Karen too?

Never again would Midler sell this sensibility with such verve--a part of her really liked schlock, and once established she indulged the weakness. But on this album the facetious comedy and complex kindness of camp still lifts songs that seem obvious now because she helped make them that way. It posits a unified field theory of American pop that only philistines would be narrow-minded enough to deny.

Rolling Stone, (unpublished)