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Dec 08

BARBRA STREISAND – “Woman In Love”

FT + Popular49 comments • 5,112 views

#468, 25th October 1980

Barbra Streisand won her fame as a musical star – in other words an interpretative singer. And so “Woman In Love” raises a thorny question: what happens to such a singer when what she has to interpret is gibberish? The brothers Gibb seem to have put together the song from a bunch of resonant phrases that they knew Streisand could really sell – “I am a woman in love!” “I stumble and all – but I give you my all!” – and then polyfilla’d them into place with some vaguely metaphysical cheese. You know you’re in trouble from the first line – “Life is a moment in space….”: Streisand, doing her best, makes this sound like she’s taking you into her confidence – which actually makes matters worse, because you’re focusing on the words, not letting them drift by you. And the words make her seem like a flake.

It’s a shame, because there’s a great song lurking in “Woman In Love” – the Gibbs know their way around a tune, and in spots things come together: on the “riiiiiiight to defend” line, for instance, it’s as stirring and showy as only a big-haired ballad can be, and the contrast with the weariness implied in “over and over again” is strong. But those moments, and Streisand’s soft-focus classiness, can’t quite distract me from there being nothing much to grip onto in “Woman In Love” – it’s a melody and a performer in futile search for a point.

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Comments

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  1. 1
    Billy Smart on 1 Dec 2008 #

    Eight year old Billy reaction was surprisingly positive for a drippy grown-up love song. The Gibbs can certainly knock out a resounding tune. “I’ll probably understand what this song actually means when I’m a grown up”, I probably thought.

    Twenty-eight years later, I can report that I don’t understand this song any better. Which doesn’t stop me having a cheerful time whenever I hear it!

  2. 2
    Mark M on 1 Dec 2008 #

    My reaction to Streisand combines two things – the first, and more powerful, is a total recoiling from the Streisand public persona. We went to see Yentl as a family outing to the cinema when I was thirteen, and I’m traumatised to this day. I think What’s Up, Doc? is just about the only thing she has been involved in that I like in any way…
    But beyond that, I can’t actually hear what it is that her many (often obsessive) devotees are so excited about. Ie, I don’t get what is meant to be so unique and so appealing about her as a vocal stylist…

  3. 3
    lonepilgrim on 1 Dec 2008 #

    I’ve never really listened to the lyrics to this beyond the chorus and a few odd phrases that I recognise from the quotes above but would struggle to remember independently. It’s a pleasant tune although she always sounds a bit cross to me – not particularly romantic.

  4. 4
    Mark G on 1 Dec 2008 #

    No more tears is OK when it gets going.

    I had that “tv special” album where she does a song to the accompanimenet of household objects and various white-goods.

    It’s actually less interesting than it’s been described as.

  5. 5
    LondonLee on 1 Dec 2008 #

    The ‘Guilty’ album is something of a memory touchstone for me and my college friends, the one that got put on late at drunken dinner parties and we’d all sing a long to the (terrific) title track. We were probably unusual in being five hetero art students with a mutual love of that sort of thing (back when it wasn’t in any way ironically hip), yet somehow we found each other at the same college.

    Though having said that I’ve never really been that fussed about this track, at the time the meeting of Babs and The Bee Gees was like the fusing of the two biggest objects in the celebrity universe so no wonder it went to #1. It’s a decent enough song but it never really goes anywhere and just sort of pleasantly meanders along which really isn’t the right environment for Streisand. The highs need to be higher or something.

  6. 6
    Taylor on 2 Dec 2008 #

    I’m with Tom on this one: kind-of liking the song, but finding “nothing much to grip onto”, pretty much sums it up. The way the arrangement starts to swell towards the end, as BS raises her voice, those strings in particular – there’s something really great happening there, somewhere in the distance. But reach out, and it just sort of slithers away.

    Perhaps the problem is that everyone involved with this record is very professional, but they’re being too professional. There seems to be a sort of Noel Gallagher approach on the part of the Gibbs: hook your target audience with some basic signifiers, then make the song so fuzzy and non-specific (lyrically and melodically) that while none will be consumed by it, none will feel locked out.

    Interesting, though, that this is essentially a mum’s ballad, and would have sold to the same demographic as past number ones by Englebert, or perhaps The Pipes and Drums and Military Band of the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards (my own stork song, to my chagrin). Clearly, something has changed – about pop, about Britain. You only have to listen to the record to get a sense of what that might be. What’s been lost between “Release Me” and “Woman In Love”? Innocence, primarily. What’s been gained? A certain sophistication, a certain sexuality (or at least a sense of oneself as a sexual being) – and a world-weariness that’s hard to ignore. It’s hard to think of too many future number ones, after “Woman In Love”, that sold to parents and didn’t have that mood: vague melancholia, with the head held high.

    (Eventually, of course, we get to the point where parents and children start buying the same records, and the picture changes again.)

    Seem to remember Paul Gambaccini telling me that this song has the longest-held note of any hit record. I have no idea if this is correct.

  7. 7
    pete on 2 Dec 2008 #

    A five is too low for this, probably Striesands most perfect single. There were many flaws with the Guilty project, the Gibbs not exactly knowing what to do with caged tiger that was Streisand’s voice, but Woman In Love manages to merge their breathy backing vocals with her strident bellow. I AM a woman in love, she says, and you don’t believe her in exactly the same way you don’t believe anyone who finally appeals to their emotions for the reason why they do something.

    The vibrato in her voice in the long notes (Gambo’s wrong, there are many long unprocessed notes out there) tips the lie in what she is saying. This is a middle aged womans stab at love, and she has to believe what she is saying. The reason it is so convincing is that this is also Babs hitting middle age with the last chance of an already shakey pop career. She is a Woman in love like she is a woman in pop. And she wouldn’t be a woman in pop much longer.

    Whats Up Doc rules as the non-musicals go, and outside Hello Dolly i couldn’t really be doing with Babs films (Yentl is the dull Fiddler On The Roof). But this is a terrific song, almost as good as Evergreen – which I would have given a 9.

  8. 8
    LondonLee on 2 Dec 2008 #

    I would think Bill Withers holds a note much longer on ‘Lovely Day’

    The Gibbs did head for the easy listening middle of the road with their collaborations once they’d struck disco gold. After that it was all Streisand, Dionne Warwick, Dolly Parton and Kenny Rogers. What happened to Tavares, Candi Staton and Samantha Sang? Did the others just pay more?

  9. 9
    AndyPandy on 2 Dec 2008 #

    Haven’t got a clue which thread the stuff about Billy Ocean now being a landlord was in but I hope its alright if I put this here but it seems he’s also “back”.
    I was driving past the Frontier Club in Batley at the weekend and there’s posters promising “Billy Ocean – the Legend is Back!” and yes as someone said he has now got what look like long grey dreads…

  10. 10
    wichita lineman on 2 Dec 2008 #

    “Life is a moment in space. When the dream has gone, it’s a lonelier place.”

    Not sure about “metaphysical cheese” – I’ve got that down as one of the most desolate opening lines to any pop song, myself.

    Pete’s nailed the performance. This is a 9 for me.

    Babs took a lot of convincing to sing “it’s a right I defend”, apparently, in case anyone mistook her for a feminist.

    Has any other act in the world been so unhip that they’ve had to farm out their best songs for several years? The Bee Gees didn’t release an an album between 81 and 87 knowing it would tank, yet wrote the Guilty, Heartbreaker, Eyes That See In The Dark and Eaten Alive albums for Babs, Dionne, Kenny and Diana, scoring a no.1 here or in the US off each one – and the best selling country single of all time (Islands In The Stream). Their feelings were understandably mixed – “that should be us” said Maurice to Robin when they first heard Heartbreaker on the car radio.

    You can buy Barry’s Guilty demos on itunes – got to be worth 80p to hear him sing “I am a woman in love.”

  11. 11
    Izzy on 2 Dec 2008 #

    Another one to which I was oblivious before meeting Missizzy. Unlike Kelly Marie, however, this is excellent.

    There’s a pleasing degree of adult sophistication in the music as well – having a key change in the *middle* of the guitar break is quite something – that makes me discount demographics as being at all significant here. Instead, I’d be inclined to say it’s just a great record, and as such stood a decent chance of reaching the top regardless of who it was pitched to. I think it was from a film, which may account for why it took off where other adult ballads didn’t.

    It’s a disappointment to find out that the Bee Gees lurk behind it though – I’m normally a fan of promiscuous virtuosity, but in their case it just makes everything feel (even) less sincere, somehow

  12. 12
    Izzy on 2 Dec 2008 #

    PS regarding longest notes, this is from Everyhit.co.uk. Streisand doesn’t get a look-in:

    “Longest Note Held In A Hit
    This record is held by Morten Harket, lead singer with group A-Ha. In “Summer Moved On” (no. 33, June 2000) he holds a vocal note for 20.2 seconds. Runner-up, and the man responsible for the longest note held on a solo single is Bill Withers. In his 1978 (and 1988) hit “Lovely Day”, he holds a vocal note for 18 seconds. We’re told that the note is the ‘E’ above ‘middle C’. The longest note held by a woman, is found in “Dim All The Lights,” Donna Summer’s 1979 hit (16 seconds).

    It is worth pointing out that a number of recent dance tracks have utilised digital ‘stretching’ techniques to give the impression of extended vocals. We have management / record company confirmation that the notes being held in the above tracks were all done in ‘real time’ and represent genuine vocal skill.”

  13. 13
    Tom on 2 Dec 2008 #

    #7: Thanks for the impassioned defence of Babs, Pete – 9 seems very high but I may have another go at her, perhaps in an album context. And thanks WL for reminding me of “Heartbreaker”, which is a cracker.

  14. 14
    Lex on 2 Dec 2008 #

    I’m tangentially interested in Streisand given her status as a gay icon of a certain type that I definitely recognise, but have never actually knowingly heard her (apart from the mighty ‘No More Tears’) – I was surprised to discover that this was her only UK No 1, though, as I’d never heard of it and it’s not a title I think of as a Streisand standard. Do the people familiar with her career consider it “representative”?

    (Mariah Carey – who I imagine is to me what Streisand is to lots of older gays – is another whose UK No 1s showcase maybe 1%, and an unimportant 1% at that, of what she’s about, but I guess that is a discussion for a few decades hence.)

  15. 15

    my sister developed a sudden interest in streisand round this time — aged c.17 — having previously been keen on the buzzcocks, the rats and the police: i must ask her what that was about (it didn’t last)

  16. 16
    Pete on 2 Dec 2008 #

    Obv there is a degree of history involved in that nine as this is the only record that I can think of which, when played when both of my parents were suitable sloshed, that they would without fail waltz around the living room too. So it brings back happy memories. But I do think it is a beautiful and strident song even without that.

  17. 17
    will on 2 Dec 2008 #

    Another Radio Two Number One. As Billy points out at 1, it was one for the ‘grown ups’, rather than us kids.

    Thus, I kind of blanked it out at the time. However, I do remember seeing second division Britpoppers, the Bluetones, attempt an unlikely (and quite baffling) cover version when my then-girlfriend dragged me along to see them earlier this decade.

  18. 18
    Conrad on 2 Dec 2008 #

    I can’t really hear “Woman In Love” now without being reminded of the superior “Hearbreaker” – I prefer Dionne Warwick’s voice and I think “Heartbreaker” flows better as an arrangement.

    That said, “Woman In Love” is a fine recording in its own right. The feel of the opening riff always struck me as melancholic, almost bleak, and I used to feel quite sad as a kid when this came on the radio.

    A 6 or 7 from me. 7 if Babs cut back on the histrionic pronunciation of “werrr man”

  19. 19
    Izzy on 2 Dec 2008 #

    I was singing this on and off to myself at lunchtime, and each time it turned into ‘Oops! … I Did It Again’ by Britney. Is it just me?

  20. 20
    pjb on 2 Dec 2008 #

    # 19. That’s uncanny. If it was just you, you are no longer alone. I’m imagining the Brits style duet. Uncharitably, I’m not certain which performer would be more wooden.

    So no, this never made a great impact at the time, and despite the feeling that one ‘ought’ to investigate if only from a gay icom perspective, I’ve never really got Babs. As a pop thing, Guilty (the song) was surely better and the Bee Gees certainly went on to produce better third party hits than this one.

  21. 21
    Erithian on 2 Dec 2008 #

    Izzy – no it’s not just you! Mind you I did see the video for that song (i.e. Oops I Did Baby One More Time Again) last night as 4 Music have started playing Every Number 1 of the 21st Century (continues 9pm tonight). God there was some drivel that year, and we’ll have some good old debates when we get there.

    My mum loved Streisand’s version of “Evergreen” and I’d have to go along with that. Taylor – could it have been “No More Tears” Gambo was thinking about for that long-held note? Either way, it’s well short of the record, as Izzy (#12) found out for us.

    “Woman in Love” is a perfectly good song, well constructed, and one with which you could spend a contented few minutes, though not one I’d go out of my way for. It didn’t make much impression on me at the time – during the Police run at the top I’d started my first year at Royal Holloway College, the place Billy knows well albeit under a subsequent name. My first time at a co-educational establishment since primary school, and when I met a girl in fresher’s week who looked like Corinne Tate Flotsky from “Soap”, I knew I’d enjoy myself. A cramped room in the breezeblock jungle of Cameron hall of residence, central London a shortish train ride away, and regular Students’ Union gigs and discos (were they still called “Stomps” in your day, Billy?) within a few minutes’ walk. Great times. The only drawback was the neighbours, and finding out that the people with the loudest sound systems usually had the worst musical taste. Great times though, and a new phase in life. Wasn’t listening to Barbra much at the time.

    Number 2 Watch – “What You’re Proposing” by Status Quo. Just before the moment they went “on the turn” like a bottle of milk left outside the fridge too long.

  22. 22
    Billy Smart on 2 Dec 2008 #

    “Stomps” rings no bells with me. I think that the Students Union was rebuilt in about 1990, and the term must have gone with the old building. The better discos were always in the smaller ‘Holloways’, which was probably there in the eighties (and which has now been remodelled as ‘Chemistry’).

  23. 23
    Taylor on 2 Dec 2008 #

    Hmmm… could it have been the longest-held note in a number one single?

  24. 24
    AndyPandy on 2 Dec 2008 #

    As No’s 1 and 18 say a real Radio 2 Number 1 this one, something by Manhattan Transfer* and a bit of Captain and Tenneille or Dr Hook the real sound of late70s/eighties Radio Two.

    * unlike all the others mentioned Manhattan Transfer did however became briefly respectable – on the soul scene anyway in the mid-80s with ‘The Spice of Life’.

  25. 25
    Erithian on 2 Dec 2008 #

    Billy – another RHC word that probably didn’t last until your day derived from the name of the former catering manager Mr Boog. College food was always named “Boog” and the corridor where you queued for the dining room was “the Boog Tube”. Strangely the name was retained when Mr Boog was replaced by a Mr Mold.

    College gigs were not usually major acts of the past or future, since we were a self-contained college of some 1500 students some distance out from London, but we did get Classix Nouveaux on the way up, and acts such as The Blues Band and The Members (being able to tell the time from Nicky Tesco’s watch – now that’s what you call getting close to the band!) Plenty of Two-Tone styled bands in that first year, a good workout guaranteed.

  26. 26
    wichita lineman on 2 Dec 2008 #

    Tom, the Guilty album could be worth a moment of your time – What Kind Of Fool is another Babs/Barry duet, a (very) sweet soul ballad, with Barry aiming for the longest held note which anticipates his next line (hard to explain but will make sense once you hear it).

    1980 in a nutshell was knocking on the door behind Woman In Love:
    2. Quo – What You’re Proposing (NWOBHM-inspired biggest hit since Down Down)
    3. Bad Manners – Special Brew (novelty hit = death knell for ska)
    4. Matchbox – When You Ask About Love (decent rockabilly-ish cover anticipating Stray Cats/Polecats revivalism, and onwards to Psychobilly)

    Has youth culture ever been more splintered?

  27. 27
    Mark G on 2 Dec 2008 #

    #26 – Was Barry Gibb’s next line “please stop I have a headache” ?

  28. 28
    a tanned rested and unlogged lørd sükråt wötsît on 2 Dec 2008 #

    “NWOBHM-inspired” — does this mean that Quo were inspired by the NWOBHM to write it, or that the NWOBHM-fans were rushing to buy it? (neither seems terribly likely)

    or that it’s actually ABOUT the NWOBHM — which is admittedly my favourite theory —
    What you’re proposin’ the other night
    As I was leavin’, I looks left and right
    And not believin’
    And not believin’ that I’d finally be leavin’

    “you” is the new wave, what it’s “proposin” is the arrival of this new young heavy sound; and francis can’t believe it’s time for him to leave the stage etc

  29. 29
    Taylor on 2 Dec 2008 #

    “NWOBHM-inspired” — does this mean that Quo were inspired by the NWOBHM to write it, or that the NWOBHM-fans were rushing to buy it? (neither seems terribly likely)

    Not sure the latter is that unlikely. All the metallers at my school loved the Quo, which baffled me at the time as I couldn’t see much of a link between ageing, winking boogie and the piss-drenched histrionics of Saxon and friends. They were indeed embraced by the NWOBHM massive, with some force, and I suspect this explains that chart placing.

    Persisted, too: cf “In Bed With Chris Needham”, 1992, specifically the interview with Needham’s seven-year-old brother (“Britain’s youngest thrash metal fan”).

    Greg: Do you like Iron Maiden, AC/DC, Sepultura, groups like that? What’s your favourite out of them?

    Jon: (thinks) Quo.

  30. 30
    a tanned rested and unlogged lørd sükråt wötsît on 2 Dec 2008 #

    i don’t even think of quo as being metal, and i’m old and from the midlands (haha like metal)

    oh well, they’re better than maiden, ac/dc or sepultura so yay for jon needham and his secret ears

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