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Looks Like He Made It

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...?"

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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts

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