“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.”– Barbra Streisand in the liner notes of What About Today? (1969)
For the past 40 years, it seems like Barbra Streisand had to be reminded of her music career. Between September 1980 and October 1988, she released four albums. Comparing this to her more prolific output in the 1960s and 1970s (when Streisand averaged about an album a year), it’s clear that her film work took precedence. As a musical performer, she debuted in the 1960s as a Baby Boomer who embraced the Great American Songbook. Instead of performing original material like her peers, the Beatles, Bob Dylan, or the Rolling Stones, Streisand sounded like a refugee of the pre-rock pop era.
During the 1970s, as her superstardom grew exponentially, she balanced her career as a movie star by releasing a string of hit pop ballads and the occasional disco hit. Her popular work of the 1970s – hits like “The Way We Were”, “Evergreen”, “You Don’t Bring Me Flowers”, and “My Heart Belongs to Me” – were pop ballads that showed off Streisand’s glorious, brassy voice at its sentimental best. Those songs were rooted in contemporary soft-rock pop but had echoes of the Brill Building, Tin Pan Alley, and the Hollywood musical. Though she was most comfortable singing standards and Broadway show tunes, she was never above jumping on current pop trends to sell albums.
In the 1980s, Streisand was facing a rapidly changing music industry that was leaving the 1970s behind. Disco was suffering a backlash, evolving into post-disco dance-pop, while punk and new wave were pointing toward the New Romantic movement. The other major seismic shift in music was the advent of MTV. The music channel, launched in August of 1981, took an existing art form: the music video clip, and created a one-stop destination for viewers to watch their favorite pop stars perform their hit records. Though the practice of setting pop songs to visuals wasn’t new, what MTV eventually accomplished was to create a standard for these video clips to become cinematic and innovative. Artists throughout the 1980s would look to MTV to promote their albums. Some, like Michael Jackson, Madonna, and Janet Jackson, would prioritize music videos when creating their projects, becoming visual artists.
In its heyday in the 1980s, MTV wasn’t just a time capsule of the decade’s pop but also of its visual aesthetic, trends in fashion, celebrity culture, and pop culture. An artist like Madonna, who came of age during this time, was a native of the MTV generation. Her musical work was inseparable from her music video work.
The best videos on MTV weren’t merely filmed performances but cinematic interpretations of the songs. Though it wouldn’t be fair to say that the music didn’t matter or was inconsequential, the visuals were just as memorable. The most iconic moments of the MTV music video: Michael Jackson in “Billie Jean”, nimbly stepping on pavement tiles that light at the touch of his foot; Madonna, in Marilyn drag, cavorting with boy dancers, copping to be a “Material Girl”; the pioneering 3D computer animation that scored Dire Straits’ “Money for Nothing”; a dapper Robert Palmer holding court as a bevy of blank-faced supermodels in black cocktail dresses pretended to play instruments behind him in “Addicted to Love” created indelible moments in pop culture.
This televised musical revolution must have been dizzying for an artist like Barbra Streisand, who got her start singing standards, show tunes, and novelty songs in supper clubs like the Bon Soir or Mr. Kelly’s. As a musician, Streisand was unapologetically unhip. Her introduction to the 1980s was with her 1980 Bee Gees-produced album, Guilty. It was a perfect pop confection, a feathery, light record that applied the Brothers Gibb’s sun-bleached yacht rock to her dramatic flair.
The album was a massive seller but unabashedly uncool. Streisand’s fellow megastar Diana Ross was similarly at a crossroads in her career at the time. Ross, like Streisand, was also a legendary diva who ruled the pop charts throughout the 1960s and 1970s, crowned as a pop queen but mindful of younger competition. For her 1980 album, diana, Ross joined the explosive disco group, Chic, who took their pop diva to the clubs with a platter of angular, funky dance tunes. For Streisand, the Gibbs took Streisand to the wine bars of Malibu.
After Guilty, Streisand turned her attention to her labor of love, 1983’s Yentl, a film she had sought to make for years. Based on the Isaac Bashevis Singer story, Yentl was Streisand’s turn as an auteur. She not only produced the film, but she wrote the screenplay with Jack Rosenthal, produced and sang on the film’s soundtrack, was the star, and, most importantly, directed the film. The film is a profound tale, with feminist themes, of a young girl in turn-of-the-century Poland who dresses in drag so that she can access education in Talmudic law. Even though the film’s themes were progressive and provoking, Streisand’s instincts as a filmmaker were rather old-fashioned, influenced by filmmakers like William Wyler, and the resultant film was a sentimental story.
After Yentl’s qualified success, Streisand returned to the studio to record her 23rd album, Emotion. Like some of her work in the 1970s, Emotion was a concerted attempt for Streisand to fit into the 1980s. Like most superstar releases of the decade, her label sought some big names to make appearances on the album. Reading the guest list on Emotion feels like thumbing through an old copy of Rolling Stone or NME: joining Streisand on the album include Kim Karnes, Jim Steinem, Maurice White, John Mellencamp, and the Pointer Sisters. Eight producers worked with Streisand on the album’s ten tracks, the album looking to hit various pop formats. There are dance tunes, pop numbers, romantic ballads, and even a game attempt at rock. More so than any other record in her discography, Emotion was a way to make Streisand a competing presence on pop radio.
Emotion opens with the title track, a dance song that is one of the most dated entries in Streisand’s illustrious career. A synth hums as an electric guitar strums, and Streisand’s vocals glide on the beat. When she moves to the chorus, “I need the emotion / I need to laugh, sometimes I need to cry,” thick, shiny synthesizers buzz, and the drum machine pulses. The Pointer Sisters lend their soulful harmonies to the song, lending their high-wattage star presence to the piece. Like Streisand, the Pointer Sisters was a veteran musical act looking to adapt to the flashy, neon-lit 1980s. Their 1980s MTV work was more successful, churning out a string of five top 20 hits in the span of just a year. In the liner notes, Streisand includes a gushy thank you, calling her work with the Pointer Sisters a “real kick”.
“Emotion” is the most blatant attempt at crossover pop and MTV success. Though Streisand offers a characteristically competent performance, it feels a bit rote and anonymous, and she feels as if she’s slumming a bit. It’s not that contemporary pop is beneath Streisand’s talents: if it’s well-written, a modern pop tune is a perfectly fine vehicle for Streisand’s voice. Case in point: her spirited cover of Laura Nyro‘s “Stoney End”. But she isn’t given a top-shelf song. It’s a mediocre, mid-tier dance tune that wouldn’t sound out of place on a Sheena Easton album.
Even more dated is the video for “Emotion”. Though not Streisand’s first attempt at making music videos, it’s a curio. Perhaps emboldened by her experience directing Yentl, she took on directing duties for “Emotion”. The video opens with fashion shots of Streisand starring in a neo-noir filtered through 1980s MTV. Between flattering images of her shapely gams running down a rain-soaked street in the night, we see quick flashes of Streisand mugging in front of a mirror, trying out different looks, including her awkward blunder into the New Wave aesthetic, including icy grey makeup and white frosted hair.
As she sings, “Face in the mirror looks the same,” we settle on Streisand looking pensively in the mirror, wearing a shoulder-padded bathrobe and sporting some pink-hued makeup. She’s nestled in a bedroom set that is a 1980s deco boudoir pink horror with some garish flourishes like a neon vanity and fake white ferns. Streisand employs some wide shots so that we can see the vulgar room in its entirety (including a large bed with gooey silk sheets), and as she mimes, vacuuming the set, she again shows off her great legs. The thin plot of “Emotion” mirrors the lyrics as Streisand keens for affection from her lover – played in the video by Who frontman Roger Daltry. As if Daltry isn’t a big enough star, ballet dance icon Mikael Baryshnikov breezes across the scene, taking Streisand in his arms for a quick pas de deux.
The video is undoubtedly a failed attempt at fitting into the MTV generation, but it’s interesting. Though it’s a forced attempt at 1980s slickness, there’s a strange stubborn streak of Streisandian humor to “Emotion” that doesn’t seem to let up. Streisand repeatedly indulges in lavishing viewers with closeups of her legs as she reminds people that she’s a sexy and gorgeous woman. But she still manages to slip in some schtick. There are several moments in the video when she turns to the camera to do one of her patented cross-eyed takes, and she slips into some goofy physical comedy later in the video. The video never seems to reconcile what it’s doing: at one moment, Streisand is performing in a nightclub scene, and the video is populated with a cast of 1980s New Wave and New Romantic extras – lots of Boy George and Siouxsie Sioux lookalikes – and it appears as if Streisand is hoping to ingratiate herself to this younger, artier audience. But in another scene, Streisand directs her male cast to throw punches in vaudevillian cartoony fighting for her hand.
Similarly, the album’s first single, “Left in the Dark”, has Streisand clumsily trip in an attempt to broaden her sound to fit into a pop radio of which she was aging out. The song is a dramatic power ballad written by Jim Steinman, the man responsible for Meatloaf’s rock operatics. Steinem originally recorded the tune for his solo album, Bad for Good, but Streisand made it a middling hit when it was released in September of 1984 ahead of Emotion’s October bow.
Like Steinem’s work with Meatloaf, “Left in the Dark” is a melodramatic, somewhat absurd song. Ominous synths pound as Streisand introduces the track with a ponderous spoken word intro. Her voice echoey, as if she were reciting the lines in a dark cave, Streisand asks,
Where did she touch you? How did it feel? Why did you let it begin? What did she whisper, and what did it mean? And where do you think it’ll end? How long did it last? Do you think it’ll stop? Did you get to try anything new? How good was she? Honestly. Where did you go? And who made the very first move? Who made the very first move? Who made the very first move?
The rumbling synthesizers clear away like a storm that has passed, and a lone piano chimes as Streisand starts in on Steinem’s lyrics which tell the painful story of a woman whose lover is stepping out on her. She accuses her partner, reminding him, “You swore you’d be with me at seven o’clock / Now it’s a quarter to three / And whatever you got and whoever it was / I guess you couldn’t get it from me!” The words are extravagantly overwrought and stressed.
Streisand sings the song with furious abandon, much like Meatloaf’s leather-lunged caterwauling Steinem songs. (Perfect, given how the song’s lyrics point toward a desperate woman on the verge.) It’s a hammy vocal performance that sounds a bit unhinged. As if the instrumentation wasn’t overblown enough, at the bridge, we have a blaring synthesizer pounding away as drums crash and Streisand’s boulder-sized voice wails over the gaudy production.
Lights, Camera, Action: Streisand as an MTV Star
As with the title track, “Left in the Dark” was released with a music video. Directed by Jonathan Kaplan, the premise has Streisand performing in a nightclub. One of the patrons is Kris Kristofferson, her co-star from their 1976 film collaboration A Star Is Born. In the film, the two portrayed competing performers, she on her way up and he on his way down. In the video clip, the premise has Kristofferson play her lover, who’s engaged in an affair. In one particularly effective scene, Streisand and Kristofferson are facing each other off in the club, and a mysterious man appears – Kaplan’s composition implies that the man and Streisand are having an affair, and Kristofferson is the one caught in the middle.
Kaplan and Streisand make an interesting choice: the two men face each other, Kristofferson’s familiar visage staring down the man, whose eyes are obscured by shades (despite the scene taking place in a dark and smoky nightclub.) Streisand’s character passionately performs the song on stage while smoking a cigarette. Streisand does something quite strange as the two men seem to confront each other. It’s unclear if this was a mistake or by design, but she stops lipsyncing to the song, even though her voice is still blaring. As the singer takes a drag off her cigarette, Streisand looks bemused at the confrontation in front of her. She takes one final puff of her cigarette and returns to miming the vocals – the action so smooth and deliberate that it comes off as planned. Then, Kaplan reveals the twist: the mystery man isn’t the destructive factor in the relationship; it’s the pretty woman who comes gliding into the frame after the mystery man decamps. Kristofferson and the woman share an intimate moment as he lights her cigarette. With a cigarette freshly lit, the woman walks away as Streisand sings accusingly, “I just want to get at the truth.” The drama in the video climaxes with Streisand waking in on the woman and Kristofferson having sex in their shared bed.
Though MTV ushered in the use of the music video as mini-works of cinema, few of the performers that starred in the videos were great actors. At the New Music Seminar in 1984, John Oates of Hall & Oates groused about pop stars becoming actors to sell records because of the music video revolution. In response, Madonna, a panelist at the seminar, countered that working on a stage is a performance. Though Oates’ objections seemed a bit silly in retrospect, he does bring up a valid concern: how compelling can music videos be if the star isn’t necessarily a skilled thespian?
Kaplan, however, doesn’t have this problem. Streisand is an Oscar-winning actress and comedian, so she is one of the few performers on MTV who would be qualified to act. As a result, more so than any other star on MTV, Streisand had both a cinema history and the bonafides to create something affecting on the screen. That’s not to say that “Left in the Dark” is classic MTV. It’s not – it’s far too strained in its effort to make Streisand a 1980s video pop star. The MTV music video as a genre is not too hospitable to performers who came of age during the pre-rock era of pop music; one-offs by performers like Dean Martin or Frank Sinatra in the early 1980s were treated as novelties, almost. Tony Bennett scored a sustained comeback in the mid-1980s, aided by his successful MTV Unplugged album, which was a redundant work of art, as Bennett was rarely plugged.
And though Streisand came of age during the rock revolution, she was essentially a bridge: a child of the rock era who counted Paul McCartney and Bob Dylan as her generational peers but who came out of the pre-rock pop tradition of Sinatra and Bennett. She was successful in her occasional attempts at embracing current pop/rock trends – in the 1970s, she scored several disco hits, and she was the leading pop balladeer of adult contemporary and MOR pop – but her singing style felt far more suited for the tunes of Gershwin and Porter. She acknowledged her musical affinity in her speech at the 1992 Grammys when she paid tribute to the patience and loyalty of her fans by saying:
If anyone deserves ‘legendary’ status, it’s the fans who stayed with me. As the musical tastes of the country changed from decade to decade, you were there when I attempted to change with the times, and you were there when I came back home.
So, “Left in the Dark” wasn’t a success in bringing a singer of one era into another; despite Kaplan’s best efforts, the results still read as somewhat awkward and stiff. Still, it is compelling to watch how Streisand brings her gravitas to a somewhat disposable work of pop/commercial art.
The rest of Emotion is a hodgepodge of 1980s pop, designed for Streisand to stumble upon another hit. The dance-pop of “Emotion” and the power ballad of “Left in the Dark” make way for some synth-rock, most notably the Maurice White-produced “Time Machine”, arguably the most dated moment on Emotion. On “Time Machine”, Streisand’s powerful voice is swathed in synthesizers and drum machines, with some engaging guitar work by Paul M. Jackson, Jr. The song is smeared with studio effects, icy and metallic, with a dramatic bridge, revved up like a car engine as Streisand’s vocal punches its way through the thick wall gloopy studio production like the Kool-Aid Man. White, a founding member of the soul Earth, Wind & Fire, brings some of his R&B roots to the song (though, honestly, whatever soul White brought to the song was leeched by the trendy high-tech production.) Streisand was never a soul singer, and despite her sounding impeachable on the record, she sounds stiff and distant – about as emotional and authentic as one of the clattering synthesizers pounding around her.
In fact, that is precisely the issue with Emotion. Most of the songs are rote, assembly-line pop that anybody could have recorded. Listening to the album, one wonders why a singer of Streisand’s gifts would bother. After the album’s release, and relative disappointment, Streisand took stock of her career and returned with the brilliant, The Broadway Album, which went to number one on the Billboard charts and won her the 8th Grammy. When comparing Emotion to The Broadway Album, Streisand suggested that she turned to Broadway music because she wasn’t satisfied recording music any other singer could sing just as well.
If there is a moment of transcendence on Emotion, it’s a return of sorts for the singer. Not to her Broadway roots or her supper club past. Instead, it calls back to her greatest contemporary pop triumph, 1980s Guilty. “Clear Sailing” is produced by Albhy Galuten, a collaborator with the Bee Gees, who worked with the Gibbs on Guilty, producing Streisand’s smash hit, “Woman in Love”. “Clear Sailing” is an easy standout on the record because it sounds like a song written for Streisand. The production is (relatively) clean and unfussy, and it’s Streisand’s clear and gorgeous voice that is highlighted. The song isn’t free of the era’s highly synthetic musical aesthetic, but it’s as restrained as it will be and, as a result, is a highlight of the album.
Emotion wouldn’t be the last time Streisand steps out of the Great American Songbook on vinyl. In the following 38 years, she would release more studio albums, some reaching out to the pop charts, but rarely has the outcome been as manifestly ambitious (and stilted) as Emotion. By 1984, Streisand was a showbiz legend and an icon. The mere mention of her name would evoke strong emotions, many over the top and reverential. Yet, though Streisand was a legend, she seemed to bristle at being entombed in that weighty honorific and worked to prove that she could also triumph on the pop charts as she did in the 1960s and 1970s. Ultimately, Emotion was an interesting experiment. It’s worth asking whether it was a necessary one.