Though it’s perhaps not strictly a biography, and perhaps a little out of place in this column, I simply could not listen to Barbra Streisand’s “Release Me 2” without considering how her cross-decade compilation of melodies reflects the progression of her career as a whole. In just the album’s opening number, “Be Aware,” Streisand clearly expresses her lifelong commentary on political and social issues.
The previously unreleased tracks in “Release Me 2” traverse a vast musical gamut from a 1962 showtune recording to a 2014 country-tinged duet. Per usual, Streisand’s album also has its share of gooey love ballads and wistful breakup numbers, familiar sounds from Streisand marked by her crooning voice and characteristically deliberate articulation.
Amid those tunes, however, “Be Aware” stands out as a stark reflection of Streisand’s own public life, and as a result feels intimately personal and autobiographical. Streisand belts on the 1971 track composed by Burt Bacharach, “When there is so much, should anyone be hungry? … When there is so much, should any child be homeless?” While the song was originally composed and sung in response to the Vietnam War, its verses are easily applicable to any time and any issue “somewhere in the world,” as Streisand sings it.
And, as the first song on the album, “Be Aware” is a fitting transition coming off of her last album, “Walls,” which directly addressed former President Donald Trump with its lead single “Don’t Lie to Me.” Thus the pleas and protests of “Walls” continue to bleed into “Be Aware,” as Streisand moves from criticizing inept political leadership in 2018 to entreating fellow citizens to open their eyes to injustices around them in 2021 — or 1971.
Political protest is a core aspect of Streisand’s brand, as her ardent fans and detractors know.
Long before Striesand released “Walls,” wrote her anti-Trump guest columns and shared impassioned tweets, she fundraised for Pentagon whistleblowers Daniel Ellsberg and Anthony Russo, performed benefits for Democratic presidential candidates Eugene McCarthy and George McGovern, and even made her way onto Nixon’s Enemies List for her unrelenting expression of her liberal viewpoints.
Whether you respect or abhor political commentary from celebrities, an interesting note about Streisand’s advocacy is the way in which her humble Brooklyn upbringing has informed her politics and philanthropy to this day.
Notably during her childhood, her father — a teacher — died when she was an infant. Though she knew little about him, she knew he valued education above most anything else. After finding success as a singer, she donated an educational building in his name to Hebrew University of Jerusalem and funded programs for gender studies at the University of Southern California.
As a child, she shared one room with her mother, brother and a hot water bottle she’d dress up in clothes as her “doll.” Due to this living arrangement, she now makes it a point to support political candidates who, in her words, care about “the needs of working people as opposed to corporations.”
To be fair, though, there is also a glaring irony in her opening song “Be Aware.”
When Streisand sings “And while your stomach’s full / Somewhere in this world / Someone is hungry,” it is likely she herself needs to hear this reminder more than many of her listeners. Considering she produced the album from her palatial Malibu mansion, it is worth wondering why an entertainer with such unimaginable wealth is aiming to school others on being aware of societal injustices.
Despite her wealth, however, you cannot help but admire Streisand’s resolute and, in my opinion, lovable conviction in what she believes is right. It’s not just her willingness to speak what she believes is right today, when her fame and legacy has long been solidified, but her willingness to do so in the early days of her career too, when her reputation was more precarious.
“I love to have a purpose that’s bigger than myself,” Streisand says, and as illustrated by her career off stage, she is succeeding.