I’ve always hated Barry Manilow. The feathered hair, that monster schnozz, the anchorman teeth, his pansexual wholesomeness, all those sappy songs: hate it—hate it all.
I especially hate the music. In 1974, when I was in eighth grade, “Mandy” was the number one song in the nation, and during the bus ride home it played on the radio at the exact same time every day for the entire year. In 1978, when I was a senior in high school, the guy had no fewer than FIVE best-selling albums on the Billboard charts. Boston, Foreigner, Kansas, Supertramp, REO Speedwagon—even these insufferable bands were no match for Manilow. The man’s music was inescapable. When I think of the time I’ve spent struggling to get “I Write the Songs” or “Copacabana” out of my head, I weep for the brain cells that have died along the way. Even as I write this, the chorus of “Mandy” is going through my head and I cannot make it stop! It’s no accident that officials in Australia blast Barry Manilow to chase teenagers and thugs out of their parks. For many, Barry Manilow’s songs aren’t music; they are a kind of aural weapon that seeps into your brain through your ears and drives you crazy—slowly or quickly, depending on your tolerance for shamelessly sincere love songs.
So it was with some fear and trepidation that I ventured into Xcel Energy Center Friday night to see what was billed as a “pumped up” version of the stage show Manilow has been doing at the Hilton in Las Vegas for the past few years. At a party a while back, a friend whose judgment I respect suggested that I might change my mind about Manilow if I ever saw him live, so I was putting that challenge to the test. “He puts on a helluva show,” was how my friend put it. Plus, Manilow: Music and Passion is reportedly being transported around the country in eleven semi trailers, and I was curious how all that crap would fit into the Xcel. (Clearly, at least one of those trailers was devoted to carrying boxes of green glowsticks, which were passed out before the show to the all but capacity crowd. The Manilow faithful love to wave glowsticks in time with the music, and Barry likes to wave back, so it all works somehow.)
These days, Barry Manilow sports a frosted, punkish hairdo and the skin on his face is Botox tight, but it’s hard not to be impressed by the power of his primary instrument: that voice—the one that haunted my childhood. Backed by a combo orchestra/rock band and four backup singer/dancers, Barry belted out one tune after another, leading each song to a soaring, Vegas–worthy crescendo. I never saw him take so much as a sip of water to whet his pipes; he just kept the songs rolling, one after the other, in a barrage of giddy nostalgia.
But something else has happened to Barry Manilow along the way, something I didn’t expect: He’s gotten cool. He knows he’s a nostalgia act, and in between songs he makes self-deprecating fun of himself for it. “My only hope is these songs will be ruined in karaoke bars everywhere for a long time to come,” he deadpanned early in the show. When a picture of him from the 1970s flashed on the jumbo screen, he looked up and said, “Look at the clothes I’m wearing. Shoot me now!” The crowd eats this stuff up. During a little skit before his 1960s medley, he pretended to smoke a joint, then said, “I’m just kidding. The only drug I take is Lipitor.”
Manilow also appears to have reached that humble age where one doesn’t take anything for granted. Certainly, twenty-five years without a hit song could have that effect, but on stage last night, Manilow seemed genuinely amazed that thousands of people in St. Paul, Minnesota would drive through the snow and cold just to hear him sing songs they’ve all heard hundreds of times before.
To honor his fans, Barry Manilow hasn’t simply embraced himself as a nostalgia act; he has appointed himself the grand keeper of all nostalgia, the living embodiment of a mythical world seemingly untainted by irony or cynicism. He is a one-man jukebox who plays hits from the 1930s, 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s, decades that cannot be improved but which can be remembered fondly, if only someone is willing to sing the songs of those bygone days as if they still matter.
And when it came time for the dreaded 1970s—the decade of “Mandy,” “I Write the Songs,” and “Copacabana”—the cannily self-aware Manilow let the stage go dark. The giant video screen behind the stage lit up with a clip of one his first appearances on television, wearing sequins and singing “Mandy” behind a white piano. The man onscreen is impossibly young, his skin boyishly smooth, his blue eyes big and clear. Slowly, the lights came up and present-day Manilow joined his 1975 self in a touching duet that spanned the decades and made me feel something I didn’t expect to feel: respect, a grudging sort of gratitude, and a wee bit of pity.
I may have grown tired of these songs, but I can choose to listen to something else. Manilow, on the other hand, has been singing “Mandy” practically every night of his life for the past thirty years. He is trapped inside this song; that is his fate, and he has accepted it, with graciousness and humility, even though deep down he must hate that song more than anyone.
And yet he continues to sing it, with as much passion and conviction as he can, because even after all these years his audiences aren’t sick of it. It amazes him. It amazes me. So when his orchestra builds to that all-too-familiar chorus, there is only one thing for him to do, and Manilow does it as well as anyone ever has—he belts that song out again, like he did back in 1974, and appears genuinely grateful that he is still alive to hear the applause.