Tara Brabazon: Music and passion, but never in fashion

Barry Manilow has the skill to vacuum-seal emotion in every lyric and speaks for and to those who are neglected and marginalised

March 4, 2009

I would like to apologise to Barry Manilow. For ten years in classrooms, I have used Manilow’s songs as a stunt in lectures. There is no more effective performer to capture the extreme emotions triggered by popular music. It was a cheap shot. I played four bars of Mandy and received a response. It was part-Pavlov’s dog, part-drag queen. A point was made and I moved on to teach Lawrence Grossberg’s theory of affect.

That was a decade ago. These days, the students are much wiser than me. Previously, where they would groan, hoot and laugh, now they welcome, nod, appreciate, sing along and sway their arms in the air. In response to Mandy, my first-years comment with great seriousness about the subtlety of Manilow’s piano playing. The masters students dance in my office to Copacabana.

Their commitment is convincing. They are the generation that heard the Ultimate Manilow album in 2002 and became intrigued by his distinctive path to celebrity. They did not allow the views of rock journalists to impose a Stalinism of sound over their iPods. It is convenient to forget that when Manilow released The Greatest Songs of the Fifties in January 2006, it debuted at number one on the Billboard chart, the first time he had accomplished this feat in his career.

Manilow is back. He has great musical abilities as both a pianist and accompanist. His gift for arranging makes other songwriters’ melodies and lyrics fresh, intimate and engaging. There is no doubt – despite my cheap shots – that Manilow is a popular cultural icon. He is one of a very select group of performers that has lasted for more than 30 years. That makes him important intellectually, socially and politically. Popular culture that has survived through time – such as Star Trek, James Bond and Star Wars – allows us to track the movements between it and unpopular culture.

His strong voice, expansive range and adept control over volume and vibrato ensure that emotion is vacuum-sealed in each lyric. No one says the words “touch”, “shaking” and “adored” like Manilow. He may not have the “I want to make you pregnant before the end of this song” power of Tom Jones. But he has the ability to make sad, disillusioned, bitter, twisted, angry, disappointed, disconnected, feral, nasty, aggressive and lost women (yes – those adjectives are redundant) feel that someone – one man on the planet – actually knows their pain.

Most of the population do not understand the attraction to Manilow. Rock journalists, upon the mention of his music, begin carving the names of ex-girlfriends into their upper thighs. Dave Hickey explained why performers such as Manilow, Engelbert Humperdinck, Bryan Adams and Michael Bolton are treated like rotting corpses in the sweet-smelling garden of rock music. He realised that “during the 1970s… I wondered why 90 per cent of the pop songs ever written were love songs, while 90 per cent of rock criticism was written about the other 10 per cent”.

Scholars of popular culture replicate this problem. We love supposedly trashy “low” culture when it is bright, profound and clever. The Pet Shop Boys are adored above the morass of disco stompers. We flatter ourselves. Manilow is a Rosetta Stone to translate and understand why unpopular culture (with academics and journalists) is so popular with marginalised, ridiculed and oppressed communities.

The truth is that Manilow’s fans are at least as interesting as he is. They are exciting, committed, focused and dedicated. If they were following Barack Obama they would be called “stalwart supporters”. Because it is Manilow, they are termed “fanilows”. They use the music as sonic punctuation in their lives.

Famously, during his last tour before assuming a residency in the Las Vegas Hilton, he would bring a woman on stage to sing Can’t smile without you as a duet. He said by way of introduction, “I’ve been singing it for so long that I don’t like to sing it by myself.”

The fans brought signs explaining why he should select them ahead of other fanilows. On the Manilow Live! DVD, Michelle from Arkansas was brought on stage. She spent most of the time waving to her friends in the crowd. Manilow commented: “You know everyone in the audience.” She turned and waved behind her hero. A more stunned Manilow realised that she even knew the band. But Michelle had constructed her life – and memory of a now-deceased family member – through this music. Manilow was her memory conduit and she loved him for it.

It is easy to abuse this adoration. But how many 55-year-old men who are fans of Arsenal think that they are just one call-up away from helping their heroes qualify for the Champions League? Nick Hornby has based a career on the delusion that loving football and writing about it means that the up-for-it-fiftysomething can play in the Premiership. This is a normal delusion. This involves white men drinking beer with their mates and dreaming. But when women have a couple of house wines and laugh, cry and dance with their friends, then “we” lampoon “them”.

When the fan is older, white and male, their cultural obsession is valued, important and worthy of critical analysis. When the screaming obsessive is very young or very old, black or female, they are ready fodder for derision, concern or marginalisation. Cultural studies – in that inspiring period between the late 1980s and early 1990s – investigated these ridiculed communities.

Fandom was inserted into wider social movements and debates about ageism, sexuality, race, masculinity and femininity. Now, too many of us have relinquished research into citizens who would not be invited to attend either a polite meeting of the Fabian Society or a British National Party rally. Similarly, new media specialists see little of interest as fanilows sing and dance, rather than Twitter and text message.

Manilow reminds us that emotion is messy. It spills out of the saucer of life. Whether he is real, authentic, important or significant does not matter. Manilow has been prepared to be unfashionable for 30 years. Considering the scale of changes in clothing, music and style, it is incredibly difficult to remain uncool for this length of time. His capacity to be the first to laugh at himself has sustained a career. Because he has “felt like the underdog”, he spoke for and to those feeling neglected and marginalised, desiring intimacy but being endlessly disappointed.

Barry Manilow reminds us that popular culture is often unpopular among those who gain from marginalising women, the gay community, citizens of colour and the working class. There is a pretence to mock disco, glitter wigs and Manilow himself. Actually, the attack is on the fans, not the performer. For example, Gareth McLean, when reviewing Manilow’s concert at the O2 Arena for The Guardian in December last year, described the crowd as “overwhelmingly women of a certain age”. The Daily Telegraph was more vitriolic, terming Barry an “emotional puppet master” and “perfect for the lonely, mid-Seventies housewife’s mid-afternoon weep”.

Nasty. Misogyny, ageism and racism exist in many contemporary forms. Occasionally though, such assumptions can backfire. In 2006, an Australian local council started playing Manilows music from Friday to Sunday to stop young people loitering, vandalising and frightening shoppers. In response, Manilow released a statement suggesting the bored youth may actually like his music. The puppet master was right. While being ironic, he did not need to be. He may have left Mandy in the 1970s, but millions have stayed with him. And he does not send them away.

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