Bette Midler Isn’t Your Beast of Burden

After seeing Bette Midler in the one-woman show I’ll Eat You Last: A Chat With Sue Mengers on Broadway, I made the executive decision to explore her catalog. Midler is one of many facets of pop culture that I have avoided for years because an ex was heavily invested in it. But as the years drag on and everyone gets older, I’m finding myself less inclined to keep to my self-imposed blackouts. And so one sunny day at home, I fired up Spotify and dug in.

Oh kids, what I have been missing. Her first album, The Divine Miss M, is a perfect distillation of camp (“Leader of the Pack“), sex (“Do You Wanna Dance?”), and a drag queen’s running mascara at three in the morning (“Superstar,” “Am I Blue?”). But it’s Midler’s cover of the Rolling Stones’ “Beast of Burden” on No Frills that I’ve become obsessed with.

Moved up from mid-tempo to pounding rock, Midler’s take is somewhere between a plea and throwing down the gauntlet. If I had heard this when I was single, it would be my hungover Sunday morning son aimed at whatever gentleman passed on enjoying quality time with me the night before. “Ain’t I hot enough? Ain’t I rough enough?”

But in the music video (featuring Mick Jagger), the song becomes self-confident seduction. Throwing around her over-sized jacket like Bette Davis in that off-the-shoulder dress in All About Eve, Midler struts and swaggers around the stage, sure that by the end of it she’ll have convinced Jagger to stay with her (the framing device is that they’re a couple but he’s come tonight to her concert to break it off.

“Just stay long enough to hear me sing your song,” she begs. “I sing it better than anybody.” “Well, almost anybody,” Jagger says.

I could go on to dissect the lyrics, how the singer’s little sister, that pretty, pretty girl, isn’t strong enough to survive rejection but the singer is, and how the whole song is a scream from the heart to give the singer a shot. But who cares about all of that when it’s so damn catchy? “Now write this down,” Midler bellows before launching into the song. And you had better take notes.

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