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How the media make sense and nonsense of the world.

In Praise of Older Women

Reflections on the 2013 Oscars and who made the night sing.

 

It’s the Oscars and I’m happily watching the tribute to 50 years of James Bond, because any break from host Seth MacFarlane's painfully distended chat with William "Capt. Kirk" Shatner, is a good break.

Shirley Bassey, 76 and Gold laméd to the hilt, comes on stage to the opening strains of the iconic 007 title song, Goldfinger. 

Bassey’s delivery was cautious at first, testing her “instrument,” avoiding the perils of the inelasticity of aging vocal cords, then hitting the notes she could and transposing high notes to low when necessary.   We watched her work it -- the years of performance savvy, the pro in control.  Still, there seemed to be fragility, a tentativeness to her voice.

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Can she make it? you felt the audience collectively worrying.  “Can she do it?,” I wondered as my breathing shallowed.  I anxiously leaned in toward the television, into the sound, empathizing, silently cheering on the former music legend who was putting herself out on a limb in front of one billion viewers.  Then as she approached the final reprise of the song, Dame Shirley Bassey pulled out all the stops, kicked caution aside, and closed out with a range and volume that brought the audience instantly to its feet.

Shirley Bassey at the Oscars

“Nailed it!”  I yelled as I exhaled and flopped back in my chair.  My wife and I applauded wildly as we eyed Bassey smiling at the roaring crowd.  As they say in sports, she left it all on the field.

Six hours later in the Oscar show, Barbra Streisand,70, sang her tribute to Marvin Hamlisch.   She massaged the notes in a huskily crooned rendition of Hamlisch’s title song from the movie of the same name, The Way We Were (1972).  The high, sustained notes of the original recording, like those of Bassey’s Goldfinger, were masterfully transformed to keep the tonal memories satisfying, while respecting age’s mortalizing effects on Streisand’s once immortal voice.  But it was good.  Real good.  Damn good.  Another deserved audience Standing-O.

Streisand at the Oscars

Truth?  The Oscar show really stunk.  Hell, it was hosted by the often tone deaf, camera-hogging Family Guy’s Seth MacFarlane and produced by Craig Zadan and Neil Meron, producers of the disastrously ill-conceived, ill-scripted, and mostly ill-cast Broadway musical themed TV series, Smash.  What did I expect?.  

But what a night for Shirley Bassey and Barbra Streisand, shimmering legends of song.  I went to sleep in reverie.

My reverie was elbowed off-stage the next day over coffee at the local Panera. I overheard a middle-age (not young, mind you, middle age) couple talking Oscars.  They were groaning their disappointment over the performances of Bassey and Streisand.

“What happened to them and their voices?  I was embarrassed for them,” the woman whispered loudly,

“They got old, they lost it,” he agreed as he got up to leave.

“I hate when Hollywood goes sentimental and plays the age card at award shows,” she said rising, “Let sleeping dogs -- sleep.”

This could be a teachable moment, I thought into my coffee cup but when I turned around to take issue, they had already left the building.

Frankly, they pissed me off.  Why in hell were they framing their expectations as if The Way We Were and Goldfinger were released last week and Bassey and Streisand were still this side of twenty-five. 

Some people live but don’t learn.

What they should have been marveling at is the fact that Shirley and Barbra can still deliver.  The couple’s shallow and myopic critique completely missed that Streisand and Bassey provided a master class to millions of wannabe singers around the world.  They modeled how to navigate vocal topography with wisdom, a wisdom that only comes from staying in the game.

And what a game it turned out to be.  Bassey took the audience from interest to apprehension to a roaring standing ovation with a soaring vocal blast from the past.  And Barbra?  Why, she sweet-talked the house with reminders of the way she was and on a good night, still is. 

In praise of older women?  I should say so.

 

Stuart Fischoff, Ph.D., is Senior Editor of the Journal of Media Psychology and Emeritus Professor of Media Psychology at Cal State, Los Angeles.

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