Barbra Streisand – Queen of Nothing, Ruler of Everything?

There are divas, and then there are DIVAS!

In the world of music, including all its genres (rock, pop, soul, R&B, hip-hop, country, etc.), we tend to exalt our favorite singers to royalty status as if they’re reigning over a court in a monarchy.  Often times, we throw out all the rules of a typical empire – those involving selection, succession and hereditary rule – and ourselves elevate entertainers, typically singers, to the highest attainable position in their respective “kingdoms,” a position they usually retain for life and far beyond.

Likewise, record labels and artist’s publicists create these monarchies as marketing ploys and, in some instances, brand artists with their royal status before they’ve even proven themselves in the industry.

Aretha Franklin bore the title Queen of Soul before she even joined Atlantic Records.

Take, for instance, the Queen of Soul (Aretha Franklin) or the King of Pop (Michael Jackson).  Franklin has worn her crown for going on 50 years – about as long as the term “soul music” has been a thing – and will likely remain the Queen of Soul long after her years on this earth are done.  It helps in her case that real soul music, as it were, is essentially a lost art and the genre will likely never even produce another artist of Franklin’s caliber.

Similarly, Michael will forever be known as the King of Pop, despite being gone for over seven years.  His crowning – like Aretha’s before him – may be the result of a publicist’s work, but no one – regardless of how many hits that person might record or how many sales he might achieve – will ever take the throne from MJ.

Michael began calling himself the King of Pop - and rightly so - after his Thriller success.
Michael began calling himself the King of Pop – and rightly so – after his Thriller success.

There’s also the Queen of Pop (Madonna or Janet, take your pick – I’ll let fans decide who really wears that crown).  The King of Rock and Roll has been noted as Elvis Presley (although his reign has been challenged by historians who correctly point out that he was NOT the founder of the genre).

Further down the hierarchy are more hybridized titles like the Queen of Disco (eternally Donna Summer, but actually once worn by “I Will Survive” singer Gloria Gaynor), and the highly niched Queen of Hip-Hop/Soul (Mary J. Blige – that title was actually created for her around the time she launched her début album and hip-hop and R&B were becoming synonymous).

Sticking with that latter genre, there’s the King of R&B (widely recognized as R. Kelly – although the late Whitney Houston, herself considered music royalty of sorts, pulled authority out of nowhere and awarded the crown to her then-husband Bobby Brown and dared anyone to disagree).

R. Kelly, the King of R&B
R. Kelly, the King of R&B

There’s even the Queen of Vegas (Celine, J-Lo, Mariah or Britney are names that are typically thrown out, but, for argument’s sake, I’ll go with Celine given the duration of her residency and her box-office intake).

In the more contested group, there are country music’s queens.  There’s the once-dubbed Queen of Country, Kitty Wells (although I’m sure Dolly Parton, Tammy Wynette, and Loretta Lynn fans might have something to say about that).  There was even a Queen of Country Rock (Linda Ronstadt), who possibly was the only subject in that court.

The Queen of Rock is either Tina Turner or Janis Joplin, depending on your fandom and – unfortunately, sometimes, where you stand on the color spectrum.  (8/20 Editor’s note: readers have correctly pointed out that rocker Stevie Nicks has been dubbed Queen of rock in the past).  But whichever one you choose, in your eyes she will likely never abdicate the throne to the other one or anyone else for that matter – despite legitimate arguments that might support otherwise.

Yet there’s one potentially deserving artist out there who’s never really been called the “Queen” of anything during her nearly 60-year recording (and acting and directing and producing and screenwriting) career, while all the others around her have donned their blingy crowns for decades.

Barbra Streisand
Barbra Streisand

She’s Barbra Streisand.

Yes, the same Barbra Streisand that rarely ranks at number one on any industry or fan-generated lists recalling the greatest women (or artists in general for that matter) in music history.  She’s usually very close though.

The same Barbra Streisand who, with a reported 245 million in worldwide record and digital sales, has sold more recordings over a longer period than practically any other artist ever, with the exception of the Beatles who’ve been inactive for 46 years but continue to sell well into the 2010s.  (I’ll digress for a few seconds to note that the Fab Four are music royalty on another level who’ve never needed such a label to market themselves…but back to Barbra.)

The same Barbra who, since 1963, has recorded 35 studio albums (not counting soundtracks, compilations and live sets), including one that is coming out in two weeks and will surely become her eleventh chart topper, further moving her ahead of other women in the category of most #1 albums ever among females – and third-most overall (behind the Beatles and Jay Z).

I’m talking about the highly sought-after Barbra Streisand, the legendary singer whose reputation of being a control freak in almost anything she does precedes her (it’s also something she self-confesses), yet she’s arguably teamed up in duet recordings with more other music legends than anyone else because, well, she can and – quite frankly – they want her to.  Before “featured” artists became a thing in the 1990s, her duets with Neil Diamond and Donna Summer in the late 1970s made her the woman with more #1 collaborations than anyone before her.

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Surrounding Streisand from top left (clockwise) are: R. Kelly, Rihanna, Janet Jackson, Elvis Presley, Aretha Franklin, Michael Jackson, Beyoncé and Madonna.

And speaking of those Number Ones, this is the same pre-music video era Barbra who became the first solo woman ever to have #1 singles in four consecutive years (1977, ’78, ’79, ’80) – a mark that has since been matched or exceeded by the likes of Madonna, Whitney, Mariah, Rihanna and Katy Perry.

In other words, she paved the way for all those women, without the aid of MTV, the Internet, digital downloads and streaming.

Yet it’s those women, particularly Rihanna and Perry, who – alongside Beyoncé, Taylor Swift and Adele – get mentioned as the most successful artists of the current century.  Those five singers lay the most legitimate claim to current music “royalty” when it comes to digital sales, concert tours and multimedia popularity.  Their fans can debate for hours (and likely will if they read this) which one of them truly is “the Queen” as they compare notes about their principals’ accomplishments since 2000 – and all of them might have legitimate arguments.  But the point is, each of them has been called the “Queen of” something during their recent and current peaks in popularity.

Rihanna
Rihanna, Queen of the Millenium?

And when the conversation expands to “greatest pop vocalists of all time,” Whitney and Mariah are regularly thrown into the mix, alongside other powerhouse singers – and “queens” – like Celine and Aretha.

Yet, unadorned is Barbra – an extremely accomplished singer who has done it all and then some.  A woman who overcame many obstacles to get where she is today – including poverty, a single-mother household in Brooklyn, and an initially fledgling acting career that was actually her first love and nearly usurped her musical career before Streisand was encouraged to pursue the latter professionally.

Simply put, she’s a movie star who sings and a singer that acts, and a former movie director in a male-dominated industry who bucked the odds to success.

And now here stands Barbra, having conquered music, movies and Broadway, without a crown.  She’s one of 17 EGOTs – having won an Emmy (five of those), a Grammy (ten), an Oscar (two) and an honorary Tony award.  For the unenlightened, those are the top honors in their respective fields, and collectively, they represent the Holy Grail in entertainment…the equivalent of a tennis Grand Slam or winning pro golf’s four major tournaments.

She’s the Serena Williams, Roger Federer or Tiger Woods of entertainment – or more accurately, Woods, Federer and Williams are the Barbra Streisand of their respective fields, since her EGOT “slam” happened before any of them had even won their first major.

So why isn’t she recognized as “Queen”?

She has all the qualifications of royalty: worldwide recognition, dominion over her field, the need to be in control (her words not mine), a reputed unwillingness to budge, and awards galore.

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Could it be her self-described desire not to be in the spotlight?  She has repeatedly said that she doesn’t like being photographed (although she’s appeared on countless magazine and album covers, whether she chose to or not).  She famously took herself out of live concert touring for nearly three decades (because of a self-described stage fright) during the height of her popularity between the 1960s and ’90s.  She’s essentially spent the last three decades playing catch-up.

Or maybe it’s because her music career has had to compete with her other talents, particularly her first love – acting.

Streisand’s successes across many fields reflect an unmatched versatility that, despite its prolific nature, has perhaps removed the renowned singer and actress from consideration for anything as parochial as this royal crowning in the music industry.  While the other artists I mentioned have all conquered radio and record sales, none of them can even hold a candle to Streisand’s acting career – or even her movie-directing one for that matter.  Yes, some of them have dabbled in motion pictures, even good ones.  But their careers have been primarily musically driven – a more singular focus which dictates that all evaluations and comparisons be equally parochial.

It’s that jack-of-all-trades, master-of-none phenomenon.  They’ve each mastered their trades in music, but can you picture any one of them directing Golden Globe and Oscar-caliber films like Yentl or The Prince of Tides?

Streisand’s done that and more.  In fact, not only is she a jack of all (entertainment) trades, but she’s excelled in all of them.  Witness the EGOT status I mentioned earlier and the fact that her two Oscars include one for actress (Funny Girl) and song (“Evergreen” from A Star Is Born).  There are nine Golden Globe awards that sit on her mantel along with the ten Grammys (including Lifetime Achievement and Legend awards), the five Emmys and that special Tony Award (“Star of the Decade” – 1960s).

Yet the one thing missing from that mantle is this mythical royal crown in music, the likes of those worn by Aretha, Madonna, Janet, Donna, Mary J., Celine and the others.

I doubt Barbra loses any sleep over this type of stuff, it’s really for us fans and marketing geniuses to ponder.  In fact at her recent concert here in Chicago, she mentioned that it was her publicist who had to inform her that she’s achieved a number one album in each of the past six decades and that she’s the first and only one to do it – something chart watchers like me have known since it happened two years ago.  It was that conversation, she said, that inspired the theme for her current nine-city summer tour.

So maybe she’s not a Billboard chart-watcher or historian, but it’ll be big news when her new album, Encore, which streets August 26, debuts at #1 on the Billboard 200 the following week, giving the legend her eleventh(!) chart-topper and further extending her record over all other women and nearly all men.

And if the voice on that record sounds anything as bejeweled as the voice I heard at her concert earlier this week, Encore will simply add to her still-growing (but unnecessarily so) legacy.

And as for those crowns?  Well, with accomplishments like hers, she doesn’t need any fan’s or publicist’s anointing to substantiate her rule over everyone else in the game.

Her work and that enormous mantle speak for themselves!

DJRob

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