Streisand takes on Trump

Bar­bra Streisand’s first al­bum in over a decade takes aim at Don­ald Trump and the dan­ger he poses to a coun­try split into two

The Guardian Weekly - - Inside - By Emma Brockes

Of all the rea­sons there are to love Bar­bra Streisand, the quick­est and eas­i­est can be found in the an­swer she gives to the first ques­tion I ask her. Streisand, speak­ing on the phone from her home in LA, is about to re­lease Walls, her first al­bum of pri­mar­ily orig­i­nal songs since 2005 and for which she has writ­ten the bulk of ma­te­rial. The lyrics are sharp and po­lit­i­cal, the ar­range­ments are strong, but it is the vo­cals that are the most sur­pris­ing: crisp, force­ful, with none of the mel­low­ing one might ex­pect of a 76-year-old artist who on re­cent al­bums has seemed muted. I men­tion this to her – how great she sounds – and she bursts out laugh­ing and says: “I know! I swear to God, I don’t know where my voice came from. I would come out of the stu­dio and [the tech­ni­cians] would go, ‘How the hell?’ And I don’t know, I don’t know! It just came out of me!”

One doesn’t look to Streisand for mod­esty, of course, but there is some­thing deeply grat­i­fy­ing about the fact that she has never once been known to de­mur. Streisand does not do lit­tle-me-ism. She is – in the lan­guage most peo­ple now recog­nise as coded to un­der­mine women – stri­dent, abra­sive, po­lit­i­cal in a way that fre­quently up­sets. In her art as in life, she can be very, very loud.

And of course it has gar­nered much ridicule. If Streisand was out­landish in the 1960s, dressed in a mis­shapen fur coat with very long fin­ger­nails and in­sane eye makeup, that im­age has only con­sol­i­dated over the course of five decades, two Os­cars, 68m al­bum sales and eight Gram­mys, so that in large ar­eas of the pop­u­lar imag­i­na­tion she con­tin­ues to be an ab­surd crea­ture, in­deco­rously out of line with how women should be. A week be­fore the in­ter­view, I am at a din­ner in New York when Streisand’s name comes up and a male guest snorts and makes a deroga­tory re­mark, where­upon the eyes of ev­ery woman in the room swivel coldly in his di­rec­tion. “The Way We Were is one of the great­est movies ever made,” I say stiffly; back we swivel, as one. With ev­ery­thing else go­ing on, this is not the mo­ment to tan­gle with us on Babs.

And it’s true about The Way We Were. There are a lot of turkeys in Streisand’s fil­mog­ra­phy – The Main Event, Nuts, All Night Long – but along with Funny Girl and Hello, Dolly!, The Way We Were stands fa­mously in US film his­tory. Streisand should have won the Os­car for it in 1974 – in­stead it went to Glenda Jack­son for A Touch of Class – and it is as­sumed that she lost, in part, be­cause of the film’s con­fused fi­nal edit, in which its lefty pol­i­tics were toned down by the stu­dio. More than 40 years on, though, she has com­plete cre­ative con­trol and can be as po­lit­i­cal as she likes. And so here it is: an al­bum that is a well man­i­cured mid­dle fin­ger to the 45th pres­i­dent of the United States.

Nowhere in the al­bum is Trump men­tioned by name. “You have to write lyrics that can be more than just a protest,” she says. “They have to ap­peal to a uni­ver­sal au­di­ence. Even when I wrote Don’t Lie to Me, at first I thought, well, I could make you think it’s like a love af­fair, a mar­riage break­ing up. It’s a uni­ver­sal thought: don’t lie to me.”

She is not, how­ever, talk­ing about a love af­fair. As the video for the song makes clear, she is talk­ing about Don­ald Trump, who flashes up on screen and about whom, over the course of our con­ver­sa­tion, Streisand is by turns calmly an­a­lyt­i­cal and in­tem­per­ate. “I can’t bear the man!” she says at one point, her voice ris­ing up to the roof. “He’s a man with no man­ners! He doesn’t see his own flaws; he doesn’t know what he doesn’t know. You know? He has no hu­mil­ity.” He is, she con­cedes, “good at mar­ket­ing. He knows how to sell; he’s a con­man. That’s what he’s good at. But he doesn’t think he needs any­one’s help, he thinks he can go it alone.” She adds, drily: “The big guy.”

Walls is not a con­cept al­bum, but it is the first al­bum in which Streisand has linked the songs with a broad theme – the dan­ger Trump poses to her coun­try. “This is what’s on my mind,” she says. “This is a dan­ger­ous time in this na­tion, this repub­lic: a man who is cor­rupt and in­de­cent and is as­sault­ing our

in­sti­tu­tions. It’s re­ally, re­ally fright­en­ing. And I just pray that peo­ple who are com­pas­sion­ate and re­spect the truth will come out and vote.” Ac­tu­ally, she says: “I’m say­ing more than just vote. Vote for Democrats! Vote for what they want their coun­try to look like and feel like and be like. And treat each other with kind­ness and re­spect – I have friends who are Repub­li­cans and we have din­ner and agree to dis­agree.”

But surely they are not Trump sup­port­ers? “They don’t like Trump. They like other as­pects of be­ing a Repub­li­can. About two weeks ago, I had a call from Bob Dole and he wanted to tell me how much he en­joyed my mu­sic and it was just so sweet, he’s 95 years old. And we talked about Trump! I don’t want to put words into his mouth, but we talked about when peo­ple are fair and open-minded, they can walk across the aisle. That’s what life should be about.”

It is highly risky to flood an al­bum with pol­i­tics, not just be­cause you may alien­ate 50% of your au­di­ence, but be­cause it can give the whole thing a pinched air of ag­it­prop. This hasn’t hap­pened with Walls. Don’t Lie to Me has a feel of Wil­liam Or­bit-era Madonna about it; the few cov­ers – in­clud­ing a blend of Imag­ine and What a Won­der­ful World – are largely suc­cess­ful. And the pol­i­tics, rather than cramp­ing her style, seem to have un­leashed some­thing of the old Babs, the holy ter­ror who would in­sert wild out­bursts into her songs and who, over the years, has tended to be buried be­neath rose petals and whimsy.

In fact, says Streisand, the whole ex­er­cise has been a re­lease. “The first words I ever wrote about this al­bum on a lit­tle piece of pa­per were: ‘Up is down, wrong is right, facts are fake, and friends are foes,’” she says. “And that be­came part of The Rain Will Fall. What [Trump is] do­ing is re­vers­ing re­al­ity, ac­tu­ally. It’s like that joke: a woman walks in and her hus­band is in bed with an­other woman. And he says, ‘Who are you go­ing to be­lieve, me or your lyin’ eyes?’

“Facts mat­ter,” she con­tin­ues. “Words have mean­ing. This man de­fies that. He says cli­mate change is a hoax. Let’s re­lease more coal and car­bon into the air and have more megafires and hur­ri­canes. I mean he’s so stupid! He’s so ill-in­formed. Liar is not enough of a word. There must be a big­ger word for some­one who lies about ev­ery­thing.”

The Rain Will Fall has an an­themic qual­ity about it, full of fore­bod­ing that, Streisand says, she “meant as prophetic. I meant it as if the word were spelled ‘reign’. In other words: [Trump] is like Humpty Dumpty, a fat egg, sit­ting on a wall, and one day he’s go­ing to fall off the wall. And crack.” It is im­pos­si­ble to con­vey quite how much dis­dain she packs into the words “fat egg”, but it is so heart­felt we both burst out laugh­ing.

Given Trump’s propen­sity to slam his en­e­mies on Twit­ter, is she anx­ious he will come after her? “I know that’s a pos­si­bil­ity. Maybe he doesn’t think I’m pow­er­ful enough. I’ve seen him in the film of peo­ple in my au­di­ence … maybe he’s a big fan!” She laughs. “I don’t know. That’s the chance you take. What­ever. The coun­try is more im­por­tant to me at this point than whether my al­bum sells. I’m sure Don’t Lie to Me turns off a lot of peo­ple who are Repub­li­cans or rightwingers. But there are some good Repub­li­cans! I was friendly with John McCain. I’m friendly with Colin Pow­ell.”

Her great­est po­lit­i­cal al­lies in re­cent years have been the Clin­tons. Streisand was a sup­porter of Hil­lary and, be­fore that, Bill. She clearly iden­ti­fies with Hil­lary as a woman at­tacked for what she rep­re­sents. Years ago I gave a speech about lan­guage and how women are de­scribed com­pared to men. You know, he’s as­sertive, but she’s ag­gres­sive. And it re­ally ap­plied to Hil­lary Clin­ton. It has been said that a man’s reach should ex­ceed his grasp. Why can’t that be true for a woman?”

This is a ques­tion with which Streisand is her­self fa­mil­iar, as is the no­tion “that men and women are mea­sured by a dif­fer­ent yard­stick. And this makes me an­gry. Of course, I’m not sup­posed to be an­gry. Trump raises his voice, screams at the top of his lungs, and they’re fine with that. A woman has to be some­thing else. I think they just didn’t want a woman to run the coun­try. Re­mem­ber when he said she doesn’t look pres­i­den­tial.” Streisand’s ac­cent takes a sharp turn to­wards the Brook­lyn of her youth. “He looks pres­i­den­tial?” she says. “With that hair and that makeup?”

The last track on the new al­bum is Happy Days Are Here Again, a totemic song that ap­peared on her first al­bum and that she has been singing ever since. That first record­ing has a fi­nale in which Streisand spins off into a scream.

This ver­sion is dif­fer­ent; it col­lapses down into a whis­per and she seems al­most to be cry­ing. “I did it sev­eral times and thought, Je­sus.” Her in­spi­ra­tion was Mahler, “es­pe­cially Sym­phony No 10, and I wanted to do a Mahler-es­que ver­sion of Happy Days, be­cause he was deeply sad, he had lost his wife when he wrote that, with the com­bi­na­tion of the beauty of the orchestra and this great de­spair writ­ten into it. I re­mem­ber think­ing: I’m go­ing to end the al­bum with that.”

In fact, the fi­nal mo­ment of the al­bum is some­thing else: a long sigh. “That fi­nal sigh!” she laughs. “When I first did it, peo­ple went: what? We’ll cut that. I said: No. That tells the story. I’m de­flated. I didn’t plan on do­ing it, but when it came out of me, wow.” In a highly par­ti­san pro­duc­tion, it feels like a uni­ver­sal note of de­spair. “That was the truth.”

Walls is re­leased on 2 Novem­ber on Columbia Records

The coun­try is more im­por­tant to me than whether my al­bum sells


A star Is re­born Bar­bra Streisand in 1970. Her new al­bum is her first since 2005


Mem­o­ries Below, with Robert Red­ford in The Way We Were; left, the 76-year old singer

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