"THE LOVE MACHINE is about . . . everything," Sandra Bernhard says of her new show in that emphatic, ingratiatingly fabulous way of hers (she is, unsurprisingly, big on the word fabulous). "It's about culture. It's about music. It's definitely in keeping with my style, but, of course, there's always new turf to be mined all the time. So it's definitely my style, with new, updated, fabulous observations about music."
Bernhard's style—swooping, profane, almost incantatory reflections on popular culture—has richly excavated that turf, turning up gems other performers might not dare touch. Watching Bernhard perform, even listening to her on the phone, you get the sense that she's constantly catching pop culture in the act and taking barely disguised delight in telling on it.
She does a slick, perilous balancing act with the information. Her seminal late-'80s show, Without You I'm Nothing, was a dizzying piece of bone-dry wit dipped in glossy-magazine glitter—a pop confessional making fun of pop confessionals while simultaneously suggesting that, in a country dominated by Top 40 hooks, a pop confessional may be the only way to get to the truth. Surrounding her tongue-in-cheek patter with music ranging from Burt Bacharach to Prince, the tone of ironic contemplation has inspired numerous others, and even something as singular as Hedwig and the Angry Inch owes it a huge debt.
"I call myself an entertainer," she says, when asked how she labels what she does. "In the great tradition of, I don't know, the Rat Pack. From Sammy Davis to Shirley MacLaine to Frank Sinatra. . . . I take it one step further because I do write, and I'm obviously much more contemporary than those people."
Obviously. Ol' Blue Eyes, cagey as he was, would not have been capable of Bernhard's succinct, priceless frontal assault on, say, Mariah Carey. The pop princess took a beating for her synthetic post-divorce attempt at street cred in Bernhard's last show, I'm Still Here . . . Damn It!, and is, the performer says, the only such victim to "freak out" about it.
"[It] was so ridiculous because I didn't dig into anything except what I saw on MTV, which was suddenly she was hanging out with Puff Daddy," she recalls, still a bit appalled. "She had her manager at the time call me, whom I knew. And I was just, like, 'You gotta be kidding me. I'm not making this shit up, I'm not talking about her in any way that isn't available to everybody.'"
IN CASE YOU missed it or aren't one of the homosexual devotees who can do it by heart, the bit included a hysterical, politically improper impersonation of a sycophantic Carey ("Oh, I've got a little bit of black in me, too, Puff, I evah tell you 'bout that? Mmmmm-hmmm"), a surmise about what a real R&B diva like Mary J. Blige must think about her ("Don't fuck with me, phony white bitch!"), and the indelicate assertion that the pop princess was "gettin' all niggerish."
"I think anybody black who comes to my shows gives me carte blanche to say that because I'm really coming from their place," she says. "I'm not some cracker up there. . . . It's so obvious that I'm a part of that culture."
But Carey and her manager didn't quite see it that way. "They were just upset because supposedly she's half black," Bernhard explains, before addressing the diva directly. "Then why are you upset? I'm saying niggerish like you would say it, honey. And it's also a comment on white people. . . . Everybody laughed, so I must've hit a nerve."
No doubt next week's Seattle engagement will find her hitting more nerves, even if motherhood (she gave birth to a daughter in 1998) and "just a general appreciation of my life" has given her a different take on the world. The pop kaleidoscope is still a distraction but no longer everything.
"Nobody enjoys it more than I do," she says. "It's fun. It's fun to be in the eye of the storm and be swirled around. But it's also wonderful to have your feet firmly planted on the ground."