ALL THIS diverse material â€“ old Broadway show tunes, a Phil Spector classic, a Wardell Gray jazz novelty, soul songs, Dylan â€“ you can almost hear those presenting Bette murmuring, “See how versatile she is?”
The singer herself doesn’t project that sort of pretension, but her unfortunate misunderstanding of the material, her inability or unwillingness to distinguish between the real and the artificial, the astigmatism that has her seeing camp as humor and pathos as tragedy are all as insidious as the adulation of her adoring audience. Yes, she does lots of different types of songs. But she does nearly all of them wrong.
In the first place the notes are not there. Listen to ‘Skylark’ and ‘Drinking Again’ â€“ you’d have to be pretty drunk to hear some of those tones without flinching. Maybe it’s due to her technique. Her most characteristic device is to pull her lips back tight and bleat. For anything stronger than that she just ups the voltage; but it’s not strength that comes across, it’s screeching.
This isn’t the latest chapter of the old chops-versus-soul argument that used to rage in the pages of Downbeat magazine. She hasn’t the soul either.
She’s not a good rock and roll singer, not on ‘Da Doo Run Run‘ (sic). She’s no Aretha. Her best moments are the thirties-forties numbers, ‘Lullaby of Broadway’, ‘In the Mood’, with herself overdubbed as a vocal trio and lots of fast scatting to rush us along to the finish line. She rushes through all these songs and milieus, hurrying the tempo, jumping from one mood and era to another, here a spot of comedy, there a bit of the blues â€“ what will she be recreating next, ‘Ball and Chain’?
What is the past to her? It seems like she’s suffering from nostalgia for a time when people had genuine feelings. Wow, in 1938 love really meant something to people.
The sacrilegious summit is her “tackling” of the Weill-Brecht gutwrencher ‘Surabaya Johnny‘, a sung-spoken lament delivered by a longsuffering woman to her faithless, mocking captor. The classic version by Lotte Lenya is readily available in both English and German, and its currency makes clearer how invisible was the need for this embarrassing cover. Bette sighs, catches her breath, clutches her bosom, but you still don’t believe she’s lived what she’s singing about. The chorus, delivered with that fullthroated bleat to the accompaniment of obtrusive cymbals a la an Anna May Wong film, is the perfect auditory affront.
Having gone beyond romantic images (Sinatra), having discarded flawless technique (Ella), we’ve arrived at this weird stage where Bette Midler can be cheered for doing an impression of someone who has heart.
We’re all starved for entertainment, but need we settle for ersatz emotion?