By the time Bernhard appears, a full backing band—electric guitar, piano, drums, and a backup singer—has begun to play, coaxing her onstage with a simmering, downtempo rock tune. The song itself is less specifically recognizable than it is lazily loitering on the tip of my mind’s tongue.
“Don’t look at me,” Bernhard casually demands of the audience, as she takes center stage.
The crowd erupts in Pavlovian laughter—it’s what we’re here to do. The band chugs on, and she begins to sing a song that I don’t recognize, although a few members of the audience hoot at the next line she delivers.
“Every day is so wonderful,” she sings. “And suddenly, it’s hard to breathe.”
I chuckle at the delivery, but I’m still not catching on. Only as she gets to the chorus do I recognize the song: Christina Aguilera’s “Beautiful”. The song builds with each verse, and within just three minutes Bernhard manages to jut her head toward the stars, grasp towards the audience, and do a stunted kung-fu kick or two.
The rock show is on.
A few weeks ago I interviewed Sandra Bernhard over the phone for an article that has since appeared in the LA Alternative Press . The article concerned the premier of this, her newest show, “Everything Bad and Beautiful”. I found Bernhard to be pleasant, although quite direct and not particularly given to elaboration. The only topics with which she seemed ready to engage were the Bush administration and singing.
“Of course I’m going to have a full band,” she told me, offended that I would suggest otherwise. “I always have a band. [Singing] is something I love doing and always wanted to do kind of exclusively.”
This statement would inform my approach to her live appearance (I had never seen her perform live), as this sentiment is played out in the show. The show is billed as Bernhard’s inimitable mix of satire, snark, and songs but the set is more a matter of monologues squeezed between a healthy batch of schlock-y rock tunes. This woman loves to sing.
Earlier, waiting for the show to start, I eyed the audience. Horn-rimmed glasses are a bit more popular than I had realized; there were no less than two-dozen women (or men who looked very much like women) wearing black and sporting such spectacles. My attention was diverted from this spectacle (hardy-har) by the arrival of Laurie Metcalf (the sister on Roseanne). My wife is a huge Roseanne fan and is particularly fond of Metcalf’s work on the show. As Metcalf and her date milled about, asking me what seat I was in, my wife sat in rapt suspense. That utterly unique-to-LA feeling that we are not only among the C-List, but that we are also relishing the exposure, is palpable. And then Bernhard took the stage.
Bernhard’s rendition of “Beautiful” is very funny, and also pretty apt—her voice is limited in its range, but chock full of authentic emotive possibilities. This performance immediately set the tone for the show’s tightrope skip over the intermingled complexity of high camp and the decent performance of really bad material. To stretch the tension on this metaphor, Bernhard works with a safety net, incorporating such bad and/or clichéd material (“Don’t Stop Believin’”, “Like a Rollin’ Stone”) that you cannot help but believe that she’s not taking any of it seriously, though the sincerity of her performance indicates otherwise. One of the richer upshots of camp—what separates it from the cynicism of merely ironic performance—is its ability to traverse the line where the social unacceptability of taking one’s self seriously meets actually taking one’s self seriously. You’ve got to relish the trashiness of the material for camp to work, and Bernhard is a master of this dialogue.
I don’t want to say that the show’s spoken material—her comedy, her political satire, her personal anecdotes—is not funny, because much of it is very amusing. But I couldn’t shake the idea that each spoken bit was just a segue for the next song (and anyway, the show is comprised largely of recycled material from past shows). A monologue’s very stilted recollection of being phoned by either Dylan or a Dylan imposter leads into “Like a Rollin’ Stone”, and the cover is so foreshadowed that its ultimate arrival is plainly predictable.
But in fairness, this is a very new show for Bernhard, one that she is still modifying and perfecting. Her material works best as short, unpredictable jabs, be it in monologue or song.
After a second wardrobe change (the first of which she had gone through on stage in front of the audience), Bernhard emerges in a silver mini-skirt and dives headfirst into “In My House” by The Mary Jane Girls, an appropriate and stellar choice, given its own loaded camp/sincerity duality. She tears this slow cooker up, capitalizing on the song’s tantalizing/corny sexuality before moving into “Nasty Girl” by Vanity 6.
At this point, it’s safe to say that the gloves are off and people are falling out of their chairs with laughter. Yet it’s difficult to dismiss Bernhard’s zeal in performance: we’re laughing at her, but grooving with her.
The medley rolls on, next stopping on Sheila E.‘s “Glamorous Life”, which strikes the audience at first as being something of a descent from the heights of the previous Vanity 6 number. But with utter precision, a man earlier identified as Bernhard’s makeup artist emerges from stage right with a floor tom set, and the Sheila E. rendition is taken to another level of satire/homage. Once the toms are in place, the stage lights disappear and Bernhard plays the drums under a strobe. The cacophony created by the band in high gear, the strobe light and the guffawing of the audience made interpreting Bernhard’s skill on the drums an impossibility, but the effect of the performance is winning—the show’s highlight for me.
The medley concludes with Prince’s “I Would Die 4 You”, clarifying a Prince/Prince protégé motif in the string of connected songs. The song is fairly dramatic, and Bernhard wrings the number of all its heroic emotional worth. She drops a punch-line midway through the song, footnoting the tune with a couplet from “Little Red Corvette”. The medley is easily the most memorable thing about “Everything Bad and Beautiful”, fulfilling my expectation, and Bernhard’s own suggestion, that she wants to sing more than anything else.