Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Manilow and me

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, and ...


Shut up!

* * *

"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.


MOS said...

Just to set the record straight, Susan's mother hated Copacabana, but pretty much liked the rest of his songs. Cheesy, yes, but also melodic and romantic.

Fireblossom said...

Dear Barry,

Please find another way to finish a song besides singing LOUDER.

Thank you.


cinderkeys said...

Sorry, Mom. On the plus side, me remembering it that way must mean that you guys successfully presented a united front!

Fireblossom: Now I'm going to have to listen closely to the end every time I hear a song of his to see if there's an exception to that rule.

Reb said...

This new Manilow CD 15 minutes is nothing like any Manilow you've ever heard before. this CD was released by the man himself with no Record Company support. it's "guitar driven rock" and while it takes a little getting used to it's actually very good...and different. give it a listen through as the sound clips don't do it justice at all.

John Wenger said...

So, Susan, you think that bringing all of Barry Manilow's parts together yields "a perfect storm of cheese"? I wouldn't call it cheese, but since this is a family blog, I will let that go.

I'm glad Manilow brought you comfort through the rough edges of childhood, but you are grown up now and have to own up to your total lack of taste as a child. But do you?

"Besides, love him or hate him, you couldn't doubt the man's sincerity. He meant every word he sang."

WHAT? Manilow's SINCERITY? The only sincerity I ever heard from Manilow was the snickering he was doing under his breath as he took money from the fathers of little girls in exchange for some of the worst music the world has ever seen.

But there is no excuse for this anymore, Susan. How can you expect to be forgiven by a decent world? How can you... But wait. Susan is still young. She can't help herself. She... oh God, I can't even pretend that someone on the plus side of 40 shouldn't be thrown into a dungeon for still carrying a torch for Manilow. And now you say, "If I treated Barry Manilow like a joke, those last vestiges of my innocence would dry up and blow away." It can't happen fast enough. How can my own child prefer Manilow to, oh I don't know, say Pat Boone singing Happy Birthday accompanied by Liberace?

But Susan isn't my problem anymore. No, no, she is all grown up now and in Tucson, where I can't even get my hands on her. My problem is my wife, who said that she "pretty much liked the rest of his songs. Cheesy, yes, but also melodic and romantic."

MELODIC AND ROMANTIC? Dear Lord, my marriage has been a sham, my life is over, how can I go on?

But Susan, you are still young and capable of doing better. Perhaps you could find something else to occupy whatever has happened to your life. Have you considered the joys of crystal meth?

Love, Daddy

cinderkeys said...

See what I had to put up with? I'm being repressed! I'm being repressed!

Anonymous said...

As I read these comments, my coworkers are wondering why I'm laughing this robustly at work. I would admit to having a Barry Manilow station on Pandora (which I do), but that would surely incur the wrath of Susan's hilarious dad. What's even more amusing is several friends have told me that my fiancee looks a lot like a younger Barry Manilow. I showed my darling "recent" photos of the re-made/resculpted Barry Manilow and begged him to never consider plastic surgery. If you come to my wedding in a few months, Susan, I promise I will play a Barry Manilow song - and maybe throw in a John Denver classic as a bonus.

Beth Dolezal

Anonymous said...

Oh, wow - see? I was so profoundly affected by this BarryBashing that I inadvertently changed the gender of my soon-to-be husband into a woman. For the record, he is a fiance, not a fiancee. Sigh.

Anonymous said...

Two things:

I STILL like Barry Manilow.

Your Dad made me laugh out loud. A lot.

Big CHEESY Hugs,

Kyle Bennett said...

Barely Manenough broke into the business writing TV commercial jingles. He got his sincerity the hard way, lots of practice.

cinderkeys said...

You don't think it's possible to write stuff you don't care about for somebody else, then write/perform stuff you do care about for yourself?

... Although it is true that if you play "Mandy" backwards at 2:08, you hear "Wouldn't you like to be a Pepper too?"

DeppityBob said...

A lot more people used to like "Copacabana" than will admit to it now. I remain free from judgment.