June 9, 1994
The art of conversation is not dead. Granted, it may not be as widely practiced as it once was, but there are still those capable of turning a few moments chatter into a witty and engaging bit of wordplay.
Take Bette Midler, for example. It’s one thing to be funny when you’ve carefully choreographed every bit of stage business, quite another to seem equally witty in an ad-lib. But as anyone who’s caught Midler’s current act on stage knows, some of the funniest moments in the show are her off the-cuff cracks between songs.
Midler can be just as entertaining in casual conversation, too.
She rang up recently from Charleston, S. C., as her current tour was just getting underway, and talked about everything from music to why it is that other singers aren’t as hilarious onstage.
Q: When you were out on tour last summer, it was pretty impressive to see how fast your jokes came, and; how much of it clearly was stuff that wasn’t in the show the night before, and probably wouldn’t be there the night after. People don’t do that onstage anymore.
A: Hmmm. I guess that’s true. Well, the style of performing has changed a lot. I think I’m a throwback. I might be the last of a certain type of performer. When people go to concerts, they expect to have someone who sings, plays the guitar or plays the piano, has a band, and musicians aren’t, they don’t… (laughs) They don’t tell jokes. They don’t chatter. They just play. I’ve never seen Garth Brooks, but they tell me he’s quite entertaining. I hear Jimmy Buffett is very entertaining. But there’s a certain tradition of entertainer that is not the same as it once was. And for those of us who are in a certain age range, we remember what that was, and that’s the kind of thing we do,Â because we always loved it ourselves. Kids nowadays don’t have that tradition to fall back on. They do the best they can, I guess, but 1 don’t see Pearl Jam getting ready to tell (jokes). And the public sits still for it. They don’t expect them to be entertaining. So all that has changed.
Q: Probably the only star of this generation who does make an effort to be entertaining is Madonna.
A: She does try. She really does. She doesn’t talk, though. She has spectacle, which I think is fabulous. She’s sort of like the Lido deÂ Paris, a one-woman Lido. I went to see her the last time she was out, and it was quite marvelous, but she doesn’t talk. And I thought that was really too bad, because her crowd really wants her to speak. She doesn’t go that extra step, which is to be enchanting. She doesn’t care if they laugh or not. She doesn’t care if they cry. She’s not interested in moving them, and that, I think, is too bad, because she could. She can. She has that ability. She just hasn’t tapped into it, yet.
Q: Speaking of making people cry, after starting out making really irreverent recordings, does it feel odd to have had such enormous success with sentimental ballads like “Wind Beneath My Wings” and “From a Distance’*?
A: Well, it was a big shock. But it was also a great relief, in a way, because you look for a musical identity, and it was hard for rne to find one that sustained. I mean, they always thought of me as a retro-, Andrews Sister type of personality, someone who could swing almost like a swing singer. Not a valid swing singer, like Ella Fitzgerald, but someone who was just an impersonator. It was thrilling, actually, to find that there was something I could do that people related to, and that was also considered musical. I like the idea of being able toÂ move people. Sometimes I’m surprised at how big the ballads are. I like them, but they’re hard to come by.
Q: It does seem to be a matter of matching the singer and the song. After all, a lot of people did “Wind Beneath My Wings,” before you, and it wasn’t a smash hit. It must be exciting to hit that right arrangement on the right song.
A: Oh, it’s tremendously exciting. I was very surprised with “Wind Beneath My Wings,” because I didn’t understand the power that it was going to have over people’s emotions. I mean, people really related so much to it. I think it said something that people needed to hear that said in a song context. They wanted to be able to say that to someone else, someone that they loved. I think the picture probablyÂ helped a little bit, too, but it was just a part of the sound track. In the movie, it wasn’t a production number, you didn’t see anybodyÂ singing it.