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I was expecting the worst when I put on Sandra Bernhard's new CD "Excuses for Bad Behavior, part I," and I was admittedly somewhat disappointed. The album is short on Bernhard's increasingly boring what's-an-outrageous-Jewish-dyke-to-do monologues, and long on her singing, and she's a good singer. She's not a good songwriter, but she hired excellent producers and back-up musicians, the result being that this collection of Bernhard originals interspersed with covers of the Rolling Stones, Jimmy Hendrix and others is a nice listen.
Inevitably, though, it leaves the listener asking, "What's the point?" Sure, it's more palatable than most celebrity albums, although that's not saying much, but it's all been done before. It's unclear whether Bernhard herself knows what the point is; it's probably that she likes to sing and has the renown and money to put out an album. But, she doesn't have enough faith in her singing to let it speak for itself. In "The Letter," one of several spoken word tracks on the album, she imitates a whining fan: "Oh Christ. Why is she singing? I didn't buy this album to hear her sing. I want her to bitch and complain and talk about supermodels and act sexually ambiguous and titillate me and make me resent her for not being there as a role model in the lesbian community..." Bernhard's trademark sarcastic irreverence comes off badly here. It's annoying, as well as insulting to her fans and to her self, since it's both an admission that she's better at being a bitch than a songstress and a criticism of her public for not being big enough to accept her in the latter role.
"The letter" goes on to describe the disgruntled fan taking her revenge by destroying the items of Bernhard's ouevre in her possession. The message seems to be that Bernhard doesn't care what we think, and that she will do whatever the hell she feels like, and that, moreover, we should do the same. The first track, a short spoken-word piece entitled "Excuses for Bad Behavior," frames the album as a self help course that will teach us that what life boils down to is "me, me, me." This is fine, but you'd have to be pretty hard up to find it either outrageous or liberating.
In any case, it's silly of Bernhard to attempt to undercut our criticism by predicting it. I personally would rather hear Bernhard sing than bitch any day, as she's gotten downright pathetic lately, but no doubt much of her public feels otherwise. It's not an unreasonable proposition that an entertainer should be entertaining, which Bernhard isn't when singing, though she's tuneful enough. Her response would probably be, Okay, then don't buy the CD (I got my copy free), but the fact is that someone who relies on public performance can't get too selfish, not even Bernhard, whose shtick relies on her being a mean bitch.
At her best, Bernhard is such a bitch it's funny; at her worst, she's such a bitch she's a bitch. She's at her best in her one-woman comedy/torch song film "Without You I'm Nothing," which I saw and enjoyed when it came out in the late '80s. When I saw her perform in San Francisco last New Year's Eve she was at her worst. Her show that night seemed poorly and hastily planned, and there were moments when she was roaming about the stage in her leather hot-pants, clearly at a loss for words.
Even though her mostly gay male audience was forgiving and supportive, it was a boring experience. I felt insulted that she hadn't put more care into her show, the more so because of her supercilious attitude towards potential detractors. In "Without You I'm Nothing" Bernhard involves her audience in her to-hell-with-what-anyone-thinks attitude, letting us in on her scorn towards snotty New York celebs, etc. This complicity was absent in her San Francisco show, and her snottiness felt directed at us. Instead of hinting that we all were smarter than other people, her performance left me with the feeling that she thought she was smarter than us.
I experienced the same unpleasant sensation upon listening to her CD--that if I don't like it I can go screw myself. This makes it all the more onerous to admit that I do like some of it. Bernhard has a sexy and compelling voice, and when she belts it out, it sounds good. Her rendition of J. Wirrick's "You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)" is very nice, despite her precious additional lyrics, and the original "Who Knew?!" is funny and catchy. Most of her original songs are uninspiring, and her cover of Paul Simon's "50 Ways to Leave Your Lover" is laughable, but the album undeniably has its moments.
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