Looks Like He Made It

Reviewers have tried to get rid of him for years, but Barry Manilow's not going anywhere.

Like many rock-music lovers who came of age during the Seventies, I grew to despise the songs of Barry Manilow, and the passage of years has not yet shown me the error of my ways. But even those of you who think that "It's a Miracle" deserves banning by the Geneva Convention for its possible applications as a torture device should be impressed by Manilow's resilience. Despite regularly receiving notices that would flatten lesser men, he remains a popular concert attraction and a consistent record-seller; his latest disc for Arista Records, Manilow Sings Sinatra, received little airplay, but it's moved an impressive number of units anyway. A full quarter-century after his first chart-topper, 1974's "Mandy," he continues to prove that the opinions of critics often don't mean a damn thing.

Manilow's attempts to seem contemporary by, for instance, suggesting that he's a closet Nirvana aficionado, can seem mighty forced. But for the most part, he comes across as charming, self-deprecating and funny, admitting at one point that he regularly speaks to his therapist about, of all things, his obsessive punctuality. ("There's something wrong with me about being on time," he says. "I get physically agitated when I'm not prompt. The problem is, when you're prompt, there's never anybody there to appreciate it.") But no matter how hard he tries, he can't quite disguise the hurt he feels over how, in his opinion, his work has been so grossly misunderstood. His earnestness didn't make me want to take back the unkind words I've written about his work in the past, but it did make me feel guilty about them -- and that's a miracle in itself.

WW: Making Manilow Sings Sinatra was a risky proposition because of the danger that people would think you're comparing yourself to someone who's widely regarded to be the greatest popular singer of the twentieth century. How did you guard against that?

BM: I was stupid. (He laughs.) I was just a fool. Had I thought a little bit more about it, I probably never would have done this thing -- but I led with my heart and not with my head. It was all about my emotional response to his passing. But as I began to get into doing it, I realized, whoops, people might misconstrue this album, thinking that I'm trying to compare myself to Frank Sinatra, and that certainly was never, ever my intention. I know this music from my gut. This is what I was raised on, and before I found myself in the pop-music world, this was the world I wanted to be a part of.

WW: Was the danger part of the fun for you?

BM: All of those bad reviews have always made me stronger, and once I realized the risk of trying to do something like this, I tried to give it my own spin without stepping on Frank's toes at all. I was very, very careful not to re-create his arrangements or his phrasing or his style. I don't think there's anything on the album that says I'm trying to copy him.

WW: You've done a lot of recordings of late that have focused on other folks' songs. Are you still writing songs on a regular basis?

BM: Oh, yes. But I'd say over the last eight years, I've had fun exploring different facets of this music world that I find myself in, and I've got a record company that allows me to make records based on my little cockamamie ideas, like show tunes and jazz and big-band. The next album is going to be a totally original album. But, you know, these totally original albums are very dangerous for people like me, because who knows what gets played on the radio? After your first five years of fame on the radio, the next decades of your career can get very interesting.

WW: Your music has always tended to polarize people. Even in the Seventies, when you had such huge sales, you were the target of viciousness, particularly at the hands of rock fans. Do you have a theory about why?

BM: I have two theories. Number one, when you become that popular that quickly, there's no way out. When I did my research about Frank Sinatra, I found out he got creamed by the critics for his first five to eight years. I mean really creamed. And it happens to all of us, from Ricky Martin to Billy Joel to Lionel Richie to Michael Bolton. We all get it. In Britain they call it "the tall poppy theory."

WW: The tall poppy theory?

BM: Yeah -- the tallest poppy is the one that gets cut down. And that's what happened to me. Of course, what I learned from this is, you cannot take it personally or it'll kill you. So you have to develop a thick hide and move on and do what you believe in, which is what I did. But the rock critics always had problems with me because they thought I was trying to do rock and roll, and I never was. I was trying to be passionate; I was trying to be committed to the work I did. But I never claimed that I was a rock-and-roll singer. It was just that I was able to make and produce records that felt and sounded great on rock-and-roll radio because of this power-ballad thing that I seem to have come along and created. There were these big, smashing backbeats and big guitars, and there I was crooning over it, and it seemed to work on the pop radio. When the critics saw what it was, they said, "He's not rock and roll." And I said, "Yeah? And your point is...?"

WW: Your music is extremely melodic, and it seems to me that a lot of rock critics, or critics interested in hip-hop or electronic music, are uncomfortable with too much melody -- maybe because some hooks can get past all your defenses. Even if you don't like a certain type of music, a hook can still get stuck in your head whether you want it to or not.

BM: And they begrudgingly respond to it. But I can tell you that even if the critics don't like melodies, the public loves them. They always look to the melody. For all of my career, I have heard all of the records that have been popular, and they are all kind of wallpaper. But then there's one a year that hits the number-one spot, like the song from Titanic, and you realize that there's an enormous audience out there that has been silent. I think the general public really responds to melody, and if they can't get it on the pop radio, they get it on the country radio. But I think it's coming back with all the young kids, like 'N Sync and 98 Degrees.

WW: Of course, the critics have gone after them, too.

BM: It's easier to like rock and roll and music that's aggressive than to claim that they like melodic music. But it didn't seem to be like that before I started making records. There were the Gershwins and the Cole Porters and the Harold Arlens, and before that, the classics. Those are melodies from heaven. But now when you listen to the radio, there are no melodies. There are great grooves, great-sounding records, but I'm telling you: When they hear a great melody, a majority of the public will arise and make themselves known.

WW: Have you ever written a hook where you knew instantly that no one would be able to resist it? One where you knew people would be totally powerless before it?

BM: I would have to say that "Copacabana" did that. I never knew that it would turn out to be the kind of standard that it is. It started out as a novelty record, but I knew it was pretty hooky.

WW: And when you performed it live for the first time...

BM: There was no doubt.

WW: At times like that, are you able to almost stand outside yourself and watch what these songs you wrote do to people?

BM: Once you finish writing a song, it doesn't belong to you anymore. That's why I connected so much with this awkward song called "I Write the Songs" that Bruce Johnston had written. Because I understood what he had written. I thought he had said it awkwardly, and I knew I would get myself in terrible trouble...

WW: People didn't think it was about inspiration; they thought it was about you, Barry Manilow, claiming to have written every great song.

BM: That's right. This morning, I just got a review from some putz in New Jersey where he said "the egomaniacal 'I Write the Songs,'" and I slapped my forehead and said, "After all these years, they still don't understand." Now, that doesn't mean the whole world doesn't. But there's some putz in New Jersey who's writing for a newspaper who still doesn't understand. Yes, I knew I'd get myself in trouble, but I also understood what Bruce was saying, and I agreed.

WW: After all these years, are there people who come up to you after shows and say, "I used to hate your music in the Seventies, and now I enjoy it"?

BM: I don't think anyone's ever said, "I hated your music in the Seventies"; I don't think they'd be that insensitive. But I do think that they have rediscovered it. These audiences that I've been performing for have been larger than any audiences I've had since the very beginning, and "Tryin' to Get the Feeling Again" still brings down the house. It always did, and it always should. But these days I hear squealing, and I know it's affecting a younger audience. They're discovering me through their parents' records and through the underground people that loved my music but have been afraid to say they have.

WW: Is it particularly satisfying to you that most of the people who came after you with both barrels are gone but you're still here?

BM: I'd love to say that it's satisfying, but I never really paid much attention to it. I would wince at these continually brutal reviews, but it didn't ever really stop me. The furthest I would get was to be amazed at how cruel some writers needed to be to a human being that they didn't even know. I was a young guy trying to say something -- trying to become more of a musician and trying to entertain people. And I had something to say. I wanted to say, "Here's a melody that moved me. Here's a lyric that might affect you. This is an interpretation that I hope you can connect with." That's all I ever wanted to do -- to connect with an audience. But these critics would love to have annihilated me, and I was always amazed and astounded at how cruel they felt they needed to be. But after I'd get out of the self-pity after an hour or so, I'd feel bad for them, thinking that they needed to do that to somebody that they didn't even know. And then I just moved on.

WW: That therapy must be working, because if I were in your position, I'd be gloating.

BM: There is some of that, but it's not as sweet as you would think it would be. It just feels like they were wrong, and I've always known they were wrong.

WW: Do you think you've gotten hipper in the eyes of people as the years have gone by?

BM: Well, I've always felt that I was the hippest man on the planet. (Laughs.) Except for those platform shoes -- but everybody was wearing those stupid platform shoes. Take a look at Rod Stewart. He looked even weirder than I did. But, listen: When you believe in what you do, you believe in what you do, and that's it. And I always believed that "Weekend in New England" was a wonderful song and "Even Now" and "Ready to Take a Chance Again" were wonderful songs. I've always tried to stand for songwriting that would outlive me, and that's what's happening. They will be ruining my songs in elevators for all time, and I couldn't be prouder. (Laughs.)

WW: How would you like to be remembered?

BM: As somone who connected with you -- someone who made you feel something. A true artist conveys his passion across the footlights. I don't like grunge music, really; I don't connect with it. But when they do it right, when they do it for the right reasons and live for what they're doing, I'm moved by it. I'm moved by their passion.

WW: Do you like some of Kurt Cobain's music?

BM: Oh, yeah. I'm moved by his passion, and I'm moved by Axl Rose. Now, do I play it at home? No, it's not my taste. But I'm moved by their honesty and their passion, and that's what a true artist is. It's the same with paintings and books and prose and poetry. Give me your honesty and I'm hooked.

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