The Number Ones

The Number Ones: Barbra Streisand’s “Woman In Love”

In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.

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Barbra Streisand – “Woman In Love”

HIT #1: October 25, 1980

STAYED AT #1: 3 weeks

Americans weren’t as sick of the Bee Gees as they might’ve thought. In 1978, the Bee Gees had been on top of the world, dominating the Billboard charts like they were the Beatles in 1964. But after 1979’s “Love You Inside And Out” hit #1, the Bee Gees went a full decade without scoring a top-10 hit. Thanks to the absurd success of the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack, the Bee Gees had come to personify disco in the public eye. When disco fell from favor, so did the Bee Gees.

And yet Bee Gees songs still hit huge in the US; they just did it without the words “Bee Gees” on the record cover. Consider Barbra Streisand’s 1980 LP Guilty. Barry Gibb produced the album with his regular Bee Gees collaborators Karl Richardson and Albhy Galuten. Gibb also wrote or co-wrote every song on the LP. He sang, played guitar, and did the horn and string arrangements on Guilty. Guilty was basically a Bee Gees album, except with Barbra Streisand singing lead. It wasn’t like Streisand was trying to hide the Barry Gibb factor. The album cover is a picture of Streisand and Barry Gibb, both wearing blinding shiny white clothes, all hugged up with each other. And yet Guilty still sold in ways that the ’80s Bee Gees albums never did.

It’s easy enough to compare Guilty to Diana, the 1980 album that Diana Ross made with Chic writer/producers Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards. Both albums came out around the same time. Both featured two classic pop divas, both of whom had been galactically famous since the mid-’60s, teaming up with dominant late-’70s disco hitmakers. Both albums spawned multiple top-10 hits and became the all-time biggest albums of the singers’ careers. But Diana is a giddy dance-pop album, and Guilty is not. There are ballads on Diana, but those ballads are clearly just there to switch the vibe up before the groove comes back in. On Guilty, the ballads dominate. “Woman In Love,” the biggest hit from Guilty, is an extremely Bee Gees song, and yet nobody would confuse it with disco.

Barry Gibb wrote “Woman In Love” with his bandmate and brother Robin. Streisand had gone to see a Bee Gees show at Dodger Stadium, and she was eager to work with the group. At the time, Streisand was one of the biggest stars in both music and film, and so she got what she wanted. The initial idea was for Gibb to write and produce half of the album, but he and Streisand liked working together so much that they just went ahead and made the whole thing.

Barry Gibb always had a gift for writing lyrics that sounded amazing but made very little sense on paper. That gift is all over “Woman In Love.” It’s a love song, obviously, but the lyrics are vague and misty and borderline psychedelic. From the opening lines — “Life is a moment in space/ When the dream is gone, it’s a lonelier place” — we’re all the way out on the astral plane. There’s a part where Streisand sings, “No truth is ever a lie.” And it’s like: Well, yes, that is true. But also: what?

Did Streisand know that these lyrics are ridiculous? I have no idea. But she sang them like she believed them completely. Maybe that’s the actress in her. On “Woman In Love,” she commits herself, doing the full-bore diva-histrionic thing the entire time. This is the right decision, and it’s also the only thing she could’ve done. On his demo version of the song, released years later, Barry Gibb also goes for the over-the-top diva thing, singing the entire song in his most piercing falsetto yowl.

That falsetto is all over Streisand’s version of “Woman In Love.” Multi-tracking his own voice, Barry Gibb does the backing vocals, echoing the song’s central melody and anchoring it so that Streisand can sing all her showiest runs. Gibb and Streisand recorded the song in Miami with an elite squad of session musicians, and it sounds lush and clean and expensive. Strings and horns hum to each other. Electric pianos glow. The heavily processed guitars murmur fancily. On the chorus, the echo on Gibb’s voice is immaculate, and Streisand holds notes for absurd lengths of time. It’s terribly dramatic, in a good way.

None of this would work if it weren’t for the melody. The melody is a monster. That, even more than the falsetto, is Barry Gibb’s true strength. There are parts of “Woman In Love” where Gibb echoes himself; the “I turn away from the waaaaall, I stumble and faaaaall” bit, for instance, sounds a whole lot like the “borne on the wind, making it miiiiiine” part from the Bee Gees’ “Night Fever.” It doesn’t matter. That’s a part worth repeating.

Guilty included a couple of Barbra Streisand/Barry Gibb duets, but Columbia, her label, didn’t want to release either of those songs as the first single. Streisand had only just hit #1 with two duets, “You Don’t Bring Me Flowers” with Neil Diamond and “No More Tears (Enough Is Enough)” with Donna Summer. Even though “Woman In Love” is a close and obvious Barry Gibb collaboration, it’s technically a solo Barbra Streisand song. It’s also easily the most striking track on Guilty. As the lead single, it was the right call.

“Woman In Love,” Streisand’s fifth and final #1 hit, happened to be the biggest song in America during the 1980 presidential election, when Ronald Reagan absolutely trounced the incumbent Jimmy Carter, winning 44 states and 489 electoral votes. I’d love to come up with some kind of analogy for Americans loving Barbra Streisand and Ronald Reagan at the same time, but there’s just nothing there. “Woman In Love” and Ronald Reagan don’t have anything to do with each other. Maybe we were all just really into Hollywood glamor? I don’t fucking know.

Columbia did release both of those Streisand/Gibb duets as singles, and both of them did well. “Guilty,” a soft and chintzy lounge-pop number, peaked at #3. (It’s a 4.) Later on, the slow-drip ballad “What Kind Of Fool” peaked at #10. (It’s a 5.) “What Kind Of Fool” was the end of Streisand’s era of pop dominance. In the years since 1981, she’s only had one top-10 single: “I Finally Found Someone,” a 1996 Bryan Adams collaboration from the soundtrack of Streisand’s movie The Mirror Has Two Faces. (“I Finally Found Someone” peaked at #8. It’s a 3. Bryan Adams will eventually appear in this column.)

Streisand kept making music, and she sold millions with the 1985 musical-theater collection The Broadway Album. She also got into directing. She co-wrote, directed, produced, and starred in 1983’s Yentl, becoming the first woman ever to fill all those different roles in a Hollywood movie. Yentl was pretty successful, and Streisand went on to direct two more movies. But after 1980, Streisand’s run as one of America’s most popular entertainers had ended. She’s still one of the most famous women in the world, though. She’s doing fine.

The brothers Gibb, meanwhile, kept writing and producing hits for other people. They’ll be in this column again.

GRADE: 7/10

BONUS BEATS: Here’s King Jammy and Wayne Smith’s 1981 track “Life Is A Moment In Space,” a reggae take on “Woman In Love”:

BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s Royce Da 5’9″‘s 2002 Amerie collab “Life,” which samples “Woman In Love”:

(Amerie’s highest-charting single, 2005’s “1 Thing,” peaked at #8. It’s a 10.)