Utopian Turtletop. Monsieur Croche's Bête Noire. Contact: turtletop [at] hotmail [dot] com

Wednesday, March 23, 2005


One of the things that’s so touching about the new live Barry Manilow album that I’ve been listening to is that he seems genuinely surprised and happy by the enthusiasm of his reception. Barry’s booklet note points this out -- he originally planned a 6 week tour to promote a new album; then a new compilation came out and it sold like crazy, and they went out on tour for 9 months. My spouse and I saw the show early in the tour. The songs from the new album were “eh,” and none of them made it onto the 2-disc live album from later in the tour. But another new song was one of the most memorable from the show we saw and on the album: the title song from a stage show he’s written about the Comedian Harmonists, a German vocal group from the ‘20s that the Nazis broke up because half the members were Jews. It’s a really catchy, super-engaging song, like a bright lively complex Sondheim opener, without the sardonic undertones.

The album has a great arc, opening both discs with songs that can be heard as love songs to the audience, and closing with a medley that definitely plays that way, Sondheim’s song “Old Friends” and Barry’s own “Forever and a Day,” 2 songs I hadn’t known. “Old Friends” is the simpler of the two; oddly, Barry’s song sounds like a haunting Sondheim creation, with an insistent, melancholy figure that underlines the improbability of the happiness that the song’s words and foreground melody convey. Beautiful, emotionally complex song.

I was cranky the other night when I grumpificated about the critical disdain for Barry, but the history of that disdain is part of what makes the album so touching. With no discourse apparatus in support of his career, and a cult status that’s invisible to me anyway (unlike Streisand, another bete noire to the rockers whose cult status is well publicized), he woke up 25 years after his heyday and found himself well and widely loved; his public stuck with him despite the negative cultural cues. Though I have to admit, now that I look for it, his fans are not averse to expressing their enthusiasm (scroll down).

His case helps me understand the boundaries of rockism. It’s not his bombast and lack of irony that make him an exile from rockville -- otherwise U2 and Springsteen would be kicked out too, and to my ears Barry’s standard musical narrative, which starts quiet and ends loud, covers a lot of U2 songs too. His doe-eyed romanticism is a strike against him in rockerville, for sure. I’m guessing it’s mostly his reliance on strings and horns for power chords instead of the canonical electric guitar that gets him in trouble with the rockers, even though the beats on most of his hit songs were contemporary, and he was no acoustic fetishist.

It’s too flattering to say that he’s the Nat King Cole of the rock era -- he isn’t nearly the pianist Cole was; few people in pop, jazz, or rock have been. But he’s written a lot of good songs and picked a bunch more, his voice was comparably lovely, his ability to deliver a lyric’s meaning and emotion is topnotch, and his approach to singing is in the same showbiz vein as Cole’s. And that may have been the biggest reason that rock history and pop criticism have had no way to deal with him. He pushes too many of rockism’s anti-pop buttons, and the “pop studies” people have written no general histories that I’m aware of.

Barry Manilow, like any star, is an individualist.
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