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  • The Blacks, the Jews, and the GaysBette Midler's Third-Order Vaudeville
  • Mitchell Morris (bio)

Nearly fifty years ago, the young Bette Midler occupied a curious place in American popular culture: not really rock (though rock genres were aging almost as fast as their musicians), but not entirely Broadway; adult listening, but trashy, rude, frenetic, vulgar, and, for anyone who was willing to see, gaygaygaygaygay! Midler had quickly crafted a special position for herself in American popular culture largely because she was able to express in the most brilliant ways some of the energies that had been released among some queer communities in the wake of Stonewall. Even in rural eastern North Carolina, for instance, where Stonewall wasn't even a pebble and all things gay were kept suppressed and unmentionable, it was impossible for yours truly, nearly age twelve, to ignore Midler's risqué busyness. That particular busyness was fantastically allusive and multiplicitous on its face: anyone who grew up in the media culture of the United States during the sixties and early seventies would have recognized in Midler's manic stagecraft a wide range of quotations, paraphrases, and references to contemporary and past issues of popular culture and everyday life, all mixed up in a dizzying camp cocktail. (Cocktail. As it were.)

In many ways, Midler's style in the early seventies was one apotheosis of trends in the gradually accreting media landscape. Vaudeville was superseded by film, but it was also enfolded into the movie business at a deep structural level; vaudeville plus film then gave way to (and merged into) TV. In each case, materials of the older tradition transformed under the pressure and heat of the new medium until striking blends, composites, and new materials of representation could emerge. For Bette Midler, an overlaying of earlier performers and types allowed her a capacious representational space to summon and reaccentuate historical notions of gender, race, and sexual desire, and it did so with a loud insistence on fun. [End Page 108] Let me recall that classic early Midler performance style, albeit in her polite mode, with a short clip easily available online—Midler in a relatively early appearance on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson in 1973.1

The appearance on the talk show was connected to publicity for Midler's second album, so in this excerpt, Carson, always an attentive host, begins the buildup for her fabulous appearance. After his short introduction, in which he mentions the gold-album status of her first album, The Divine Miss M, Carson hands the performance over not to Midler elle-même but rather to her fabulous backup singers, the Harlettes. At this point in Midler's career, the trio consisted of Robin Gean, Sharon Redd, and Charlotte Crossley, all talented and seasoned professionals able to sustain the frantic choreography and complex vocals of what already seemed to be a characteristic Midler remix/medley. This particular number opens with a fragment from The Wizard of Oz (for all you friends of Dorothy). It's worth noting, incidentally, that two Harlettes are black, one is white (but mannish). This combination of races was not uncommon for the Harlettes as a lineup; in fact, in the footage of Midler I've seen, I've never seen a Harlettes lineup that wasn't racially mixed in some way. Their femmely butch costumes, too, are congruent with the visual style established in Midler's early years.

As the Harlettes move into "The Lullaby of Broadway," they use a vocal style that invokes the forties, particularly "radio style"—it was the native style for the Oz quotation, after all, and continues the number's period feel. Midler's entrance is interesting in the way that it scrambles the gendering of the Harlettes in a complementary fashion. Most obviously, she shows up in big femme gear—and her voice is substantially bigger and lower than those the Harlettes are using. The disposition of voices and gestures in the arrangement is intricate and subtle, in all the best traditions of studio musicianship and professional songcraft as it had developed in the sixties. (Behind Midler and her girls is a skinny youth at the piano...


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