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Barry quite contrary

Music | Manilow's haughty attitude makes public mocking easy

Issue: "Millions cut down," Jan. 17, 2009

In late November, pop singer Barry Manilow made news for two very different reasons. One was the release of the latest installment in his best-selling series of cover songs, The Greatest Songs of the Eighties (Arista). The other was that his music was being used to punish petty criminals in Fort Lupton, Colo.

According to the Rocky Mountain News, Municipal Judge Paul Sacco got so tired of seeing the same "noise violators" repeatedly in his courtroom that he decided something more punitive than fines was needed. As the offenders tended to be teenagers whose playing of music at excessive volumes constituted disturbance of the peace, the judge decided that giving them a taste of their own medicine-i.e., making them listen to music they can't stand, such as Manilow's-might accelerate their rehabilitation.

Actually, Sacco's soundtrack consists of more than Manilow. It also includes Barney the Dinosaur, "Only You" by the '50s vocal group the Platters, and, according to the judge himself, "Glenn Close singing opera." Readers commenting on websites where the story was posted were both supportive and ready with other suggestions. "What do you think John Denver's Christmas Hymns [sic] would do?" asked one. "One of our co-workers has this blaring, [and] it's driving me nuts."

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But it was the inclusion of Manilow in the headline that gave the story legs. Apparently, the use of his formulaic and sentimental music as a form of torture struck a chord among those old enough to remember, and to wish they could forget, his virtual omnipresence in the soundtrack of their adolescence.

What is it, one wonders, that has made Manilow the poster boy for purveying "chicken soup for the sappy soul" when, both now and during his 1970s heyday, he had serious competition for that dubious honor?

One reason, no doubt, is the sheer abundance of his output. From 1974 to 1983, he notched 25 top-40 hits, with 11 of those reaching the top 10 and three reaching No. 1. Exacerbating that abundance was the fact that most of his hits really did sound the same. Their slow tempos, maudlin melodies, swelling choruses, lovelorn lyrics, and post-bridge modulations made them sound in many ways like one big never-ending song. To dislike one was to dislike them all.

But another and more subtle reason has to do with the public persona that Manilow has developed over the years. Unlike other camp icons (Tom Jones, Wayne Newton, Pat Boone), Manilow has a track record of taking himself too seriously. His well-publicized refusal in 2007 to appear on The View because of the presence of the show's token conservative Elizabeth Hasselbeck, for instance, was not the first time he'd let his anti-Republican sympathies turn him into a party pooper. In 1994 he pulled out of an Atlantic City concert three hours before show time because he'd learned that the charitable event at which he was to perform was in part a celebration for then New Jersey Governor-elect Christine Todd Whitman.

Neither has he seemed able to take a joke. In 1994 he sued a Los Angeles radio station for nearly $30 million when it ran ads boasting that it didn't play his music.

He does not, in other words, seem like a very nice guy.

Or at least not a very humble one. Humility can buy a singer a lot of good will, no matter how much the public derides his music. Haughtiness, however, not only goes before a fall (or, in Manilow's case, before having one's music used as punishment) but also keeps people from feeling guilty about enjoying the descent.

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