A couple of weeks ago, an arts festival in my neighborhood produced Dionne Warwick out of thin air. I wandered down to witness the beginning of her performance—which was akin to witnessing a grave robbery—and caught a rendition of “Walk on By.” I had forgotten Dionne Warwick was known for “Walk on By” because it was recorded five hundred years ago, but on the way to pick up a friend at the airport soon after this, I heard an NPR interview with Diana Krall, who also sings “Walk on By” on her latest album. So in accordance with universal law, I got “Walk on By” on the brain, and because my brain is wired in a way that necessitated a metric ton of pharmaceutical drugs, this transmogrified into “Woman in Love,” by Barbra Streisand.
You must understand that I have always loathed Barbra Streisand. One of the reasons I resisted coming out of the closet was because I thought all gay men were required by law to worship the ground upon which she trod, and I was convinced I would end up a musical fugitive, hunted down by dogs in sequined gowns. So having one of her most celebrated songs running intensely through my mind was a low point in my biography; purchasing it on iTunes was an act that made me wish I could go back in time and prevent my parents’ first kiss, but I did it anyway because I am an advocate of confronting one’s fears and I have enough problems without delving into the logistics of bungee jumping.
Barbara Streisand recorded “Woman in Love” in 1980. It was written for her by the Bee Gees, probably in some sort of floundering death throe as the 1970s vanished out from under them. Something in this intersection of time and personality makes it one of the creepiest recordings ever made, including the entire oeuvre of Marilyn Manson. The song begins with a holdover from the previous decade, a soft jazz wa wa guitar, which alone is enough to put your hair on end. And then we get to the lyrics that make no sense from one line to the next: “Life is a moment in space / When the dream is gone / It’s a lonelier place.” This mixture of metaphors warrants a bomb squad, but it immediately gets worse: “I kiss the morning goodbye / But down inside you know / We never know why.” These are the ramblings of a madwoman with a rhyming dictionary, which I suppose is the point. The song is about a woman obsessed with luring men into the Venus flytrap of her affections, never to let him go. While there is nothing remarkable about a woman in love, “Woman in Love” feeds into misogynist fears of vagina dentata.
Every vibration of this recording is physically and emotionally manipulative, to the point that it is a textbook study of function dictating form. Although Streisand’s voice is as clear as a bell, it works best when emerging from behind the background singers’ in the refrain: “I am a woman in love / And I do anything / To get you into my world / And hold you within.” Here the song builds into a crescendo, intensifying as it reaches its hook (“It’s a riiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiight I defeeeeeend / Over and over again!”), and her tone transcends the typical human range into the realm of howler monkey.
When I approached my friend Tiffany about how uneasy this song makes me, she got to the point. “All of Babs’s songs are needy,” she declared. But it’s not necessarily the song itself . . . written by a man as the conservative god Reagan appeared on the scene, it’s not surprising that this is an unflattering portrayal of female sexuality. The horrifying part is that Streisand, a female, not only sings it as written but throws herself into it with a passion that reverberates through the ages. A quarter of a century later, Liz McClarnon of Atomic Kitten recorded “Woman in Love” as her first solo single; the video depicts McClarnon writhing in the sheets as she anticipates her boyfriend’s proposal and immediately thereafter cuts to him getting ambushed by murderers on the street. I’m not sure that we’re not supposed to be relieved that he has found the only escape possible from his fiancé’s clutches.
I can’t tell you what all of this has to do with anything other than my randomly firing neurons. Perhaps it is a graphic illustration of how you can’t stuff a genie back into its bottle. If only I didn’t feel like Dr. Bellows, caught in the codependent crossfire, I could go back to wondering what sorts of things my dog gets up to when I’m not home.