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The Washington Times
Author: George Varga
Date: 12-

The flip side of Midler

Bette Midler does not play trumpet on her engaging new album, "Bathhouse Betty." But she cannot resist a recent invitation to toot her own horn before she addresses some more (and less) serious issues.

"I wore corsets before Madonna," crows the redheaded singer and actress fondly known by her devoted fans as the Divine Miss M. "Yes, I was a seminal entertainer!"

The operative word here, at least as far as Miss Midler is concerned, is "was."

Although she still is a household name to at least one generation of music and film buffs, this vital entertainer is alarmed and annoyed by what she perceives as the growing ageism in the entertainment industry.

"MTV used me and then threw me out, right after Dan Aykroyd and I hosted the first MTV Video Music Awards show in 1984," says Miss Midler, a three-time Grammy Award-winner, lamenting her 14-year descent from hipness to squareness.

She is understandably dismayed that she is no longer welcomed by MTV, which regularly aired her 1984 video for her version of the Rolling Stones' "Beast of Burden" (which featured a prancing cameo by Mick Jagger). But she is even more upset by the current state of commercial radio.

Like other gifted pop-music veterans, Miss Midler, 52, has discovered she is persona non grata on radio. Her trademark stylistic eclecticism - pop, blues, swing, country, rock, torch ballads and more - makes it impossible for myopic radio programmers to pigeonhole her in their rigid niche-formatting system.

As a result, her typically diverse new album, "Bathhouse Betty," has been largely ignored by radio.

"They don't pay any attention to me," she says, speaking from her New York home.

"I do what I do, and you can't force them to play what they don't want to play. They are such Nazis and such fascists in their tastes. And I think it's bad for the business. I'm talking like an accountant, but truly, it's bad for the business."

Does Miss Midler know of a remedy?

"Yeah, shoot them all," she replies. "The first thing we do, to paraphrase Shakespeare, is kill all the marketing people. I don't know what to do. Everything is so fragmented, and the niches are so tiny, and it's only gonna get worse. It is the Balkanization of music and society, and it panders to really stupid people."

For all her frustrations, though, Miss Midler is savvy enough to realize she is now at the flip side of a cultural generation gap she first experienced several decades ago from the opposite perspective.

"There is a new generation every five years, and radio and MTV goes on twisting these kids into these robotic people," she says.

"They just throw the other generations aside as soon as they get too old, which is what we did to our own parents and what is happening to us now."

A child of rock 'n' roll, Miss Midler cites the electrifying rock 'n' roll of the late Janis Joplin and Tina Turner as pivotal musical moments.

She saw them perform, separately, at New York's fabled Fillmore East in the late 1960s. Her life was irrevocably changed, and music supplanted acting, her first passion.

Both worlds came together when she portrayed a Joplin-like character in the 1979 film musical "The Rose," for which she earned a best-actress Oscar nomination.

"I instantly understood what Janis and Tina were doing, what the power of that energy was. And I'd always had it, and decided I was going to harness it," Miss Midler says.

"Actually, once I saw Esther Williams, I said, `That's for me.' But you've never seen me swim."

Returning her attention to Miss Joplin and Miss Turner, Miss Midler says: "I'd heard of them. But I had never seen them live before, because I was desperately poor growing up and never had the money to go to shows.

"I remember when I saw Janis, I strained my ankle the next day because I was so overwrought. I was so distracted and so tense. It was the kind of thing where (after) you saw it, you were still up two nights later."

Mimicking and creating various poses and gestures has long been a strong suit of Miss Midler, who is able to shape and occupy myriad personas with ease and authority, be it in song or onstage. Since releasing her debut album, 1973's "The Divine Miss M," she has distinguished herself equally in music and film, drama and comedy.

She scored two of her biggest hit records with "The Wind Beneath My Wings" (which was featured in her 1989 film "Beaches") and, a year later, "From a Distance." But these melodramatic ballads are hardly representative of her multifaceted musical career.

This, after all, is a singer whose first hits were her exuberant versions of Bobby Freeman's "Do You Want to Dance?" and the Andrews Sisters' "Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy," both in 1973. The former is one of three Midler-sung numbers prominently featured in the Meryl Streep film, "One True Thing."

"Meryl is fabulous," says Miss Midler, whose ballad from the film, "My One True Friend," is also her latest single.

"She has cancer in `One True Thing.' And, of course, I have cancer in my next movie (`Isn't She Great,' due out next year). But I have to say that her cancer is much better than mine. Mine was much more `show-business cancer.' "

In 1974, the same year she won a best new artist Grammy, Miss Midler scored a hit with her version of Glenn Miller's "In the Mood" - more than two decades before the current neoswing revival ignited. Coincidentally, her new album features a rousing collaboration by Miss Midler and Royal Crown Revue on the Big Maybelle jump-blues classic "One Monkey Don't Stop No Show."

"Bathhouse Betty" also features a sassy, rap-styled declaration of self-affirmation called "I'm Beautiful," which recalls "I Look Good, " one of Miss Midler's most popular concert numbers.

Her fluid scat singing on "I'm Hip," like her svelte phrasing on " Junkman," sounds like heartfelt homages to Ella Fitzgerald, the late, fabled queen of scat.

"Well, I love her," Miss Midler says of Miss Fitzgerald. "To me, Ella was the greatest `white' singer who ever lived. I mean, I know she was black. But her singing was so pristine and elegant, and I loved her. Yes, I did. And when I listen to her, I don't know how she did it. She never hit a wrong note, and she hit everything like a piano that's just been freshly tuned - right in the middle of the note - and that is so unbelievable."

Miss Midler hopes to eventually do a concert tour to promote her new album, although nothing is planned at this point.

George Varga, The flip side of Midler. , The Washington Times, 12-19-1998, pp B1.