I tend to float through my days blissfully unaware of pop culture. Keeping up with music news isn't a big priority. Despite that, I found myself surprised to learn that Barry Manilow had debuted a new album in June—his first collection of new material in a decade—without me noticing. I was a huge fan of his back in the day, so ...
What? Why are you looking at me like that?
Anyway, the album, 15 Minutes
, is apparently somewhat of a departure from his usual style, more guitar-driven than his previous work. I checked out a few clips on Amazon.com
, and ...
* * *
"At the Cooooopa ... Copacabaaaaaana ..."
"What are you singing?" I asked.
It seemed like a reasonable question to me, but my friend Tina could hardly believe it. I'd never heard "Copacabana"? I'd never heard of Barry Manilow? My awareness of pop culture at age nine wasn't much better than today, so yes on both counts.
Not long after that conversation, I caught "Copacabana" on the radio and listened carefully.
"It's a pretty stupid song," I told Tina the next day. "And you sing it better than he does."
But for some reason, "Copacabana" started to grow on me. Enough that I asked my mother to buy me the album when I was home sick. She brought me back a copy of Even Now
, and I wore out my little kiddie record player's needle on "Copacabana." Every other song on the record was a keeper too. Soon I was spending countless hours in the living room, parked in front of the stereo, listening to Barry Manilow's Greatest Hits
What wasn't to like? Catchy melodies, heartfelt lyrics, great piano arrangements—Barry Manilow had it all.
Alas, other members of the household didn't share this assessment. My mom mostly tried to ignore the music, if memory serves, but my dad was not one to suffer in silence. We had constant battles over the volume when he got home from work. I had no idea how funny this was at the time. I could have blasted Judas Priest at them. I could have spun Led Zepplin backwards, trying to find satanic messages. I'd say they didn't know how good they had it, except that they probably would have preferred the satanic messages.
Anyway. Somewhere around the age of 11, my musical tastes went in a different direction. I started listening to the "adult contemporary" station whose format would today be considered classic rock-ish. I discovered Chicago and the Eagles. A friend introduced me to "Hey Jude" and it blew my little mind.
Barry Manilow fell by the wayside. This wasn't a conscious decision on my part. I wasn't convinced by my parents and other naysayers to stop liking him—in fact, I never really stopped liking him. I just moved on.
* * *
Home alone one night, flipping through radio stations, I came across a Barry Manilow song—"Weekend in New England," I think—on Lite Rock 94.9. Yay! I was in my 30s at this point and hadn't heard him in ... I couldn't even remember how long.
I settled in to listen, and ...Oh god.He sounds like THAT?
All these years, I'd assumed everybody made fun of Manilow because he was sappy. But no. At long last, I heard what everybody else heard. The earnestness. The lack of any kind of edge combined with a dropping of the Gs ("yearnin'"). The highly produced arrangements, complete with violins and soft brass.
Bring them all together and you had a perfect storm of cheese.
After the first shockwave of realization, a discomfiting thought hit me: If there was a time when I could listen to this and not hear the cheese, it was because I hadn't been filtering it through a half-dozen layers of cynicism.
There was a time when those layers simply didn't exist.
So now what? Would I join the ranks of all the people who made fun of Barry Manilow's music? Chalk up my previous adoration to not knowing any better?
I didn't want to. I couldn't. Those songs were my friends when I didn't have a lot of friends. They made a long, rough patch of childhood a little more joyful. Who can ask any more from music than that?
Besides, love him or hate him, you couldn't doubt the man's sincerity. He meant every word he sang. He performed the way he did because he wanted to, not because people considered his sound cool at the time. Hell, even at the height of his popularity, Barry Manilow was never cool. He was just Barry Manilow.
Above all? I wanted to preserve that kid who hadn't yet grown all those layers of cynicism. Who could listen to the earnestness and the dropped Gs and the violins and just accept his music for what it was intended to be. This went far beyond nostalgia. If I treated Barry Manilow like a joke, those last vestiges of my innocence would dry up and blow away.
So I decided. And to this day, I still smile when I hear one of his songs.
And I'm buying his new album, dammit.