Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Barry Manilow: The Greatest Songs of the Eighties (An Album Review)

From an alert reader (my cousin, Chris), writing in response to the prom blog and its reference to Mr. Barry Manilow:

Just a note that the other day as I was driving I-285 and listening to intelligent discussion on a local sports-talk show, they were discussing how unmanly I, and apparently one other man in Atlanta, was to have any Barry Manilow song on their iPod. Not sure how or why, but as I was driving ALONE I looked into the rear-view mirror and saw that I was embarrassed ...

Now, not to cause you any further embarrassment, Chris, but a true Fanilow would neither be ashamed of his appreciation for superior adult-contemporary music and musical genius, nor would he question his own manhood because he happens to have excellent musical taste. I am not a man, but I imagine that if I were, I would still recognize Manilow's talent for what it is: unmatched.

The remorseful e-mail I received from Chris prompted me to grab all of my Manilow CDs (and there are plenty) as I was walking out the door Tuesday so that I could sing my heart out in carpool lines. Much of Manilow's repertoire is on my iPod--where it serves a healthy purpose at the gym, the park, on long car rides--but the iPod is a handy listening device when you're craving certain music, but the rest of the car population is not. What a refreshing change of pace to have the CDs playing at full volume so that I could sing like I was performing in an Up With People halftime show.

Yet I feel compelled to provide the following reader service.

Barry Manilow: The Greatest Songs of the Eighties may be a misleading title.

I borrowed this CD from the public library the same month it was released (November 2008). That alone should tell you something--that someone had already discarded it and donated it to the public library. Maybe they, too, were misled. Barry Manilow + greatest songs of the '80s should = songs by Barry Manilow released in the '80s. Instead, this is a compilation of Manilow COVERS of songs that I would argue are not all that great. Good? Yes. Memorable? Certainly. Greatest? Not so fast, mister. I hastily uploaded it to my iPod, and have regretted it ever since.

Here's why: Islands in the Stream (with Reba McIntire), Open Arms, Never Gonna Give You Up, Have I Told You Lately, I Just Called to Say I Love You, Careless Whisper, Right Here Waiting, Arthur's Theme, Hard to Say I'm Sorry, Time After Time, and I've Had the Time of My Life.

And then he really lost me with (and you won't believe the irony of this at all): Against All Odds.

The reputation of Barry Manilow's musical stylings were largely compromised with this release. If I were independently wealthy, I would gobble up all copies of this disc from eBay, Amazon and public libraries everywhere, just to keep them off the street and keep the kids safe.

I am forever devoted to Manilow (he had me at It's a Miracle). Nothing can shake that. But as he was going through his cover phase, he should have stopped with the '70s. He should not have stooped to '80s covers. (And I am an '80s girl at heart; and I firmly believe some things are better left untouched.)

I do love Barry Manilow. He writes the songs that make all the young girls cry (and make old women sing). I used to dream of being pulled on stage to sing the "Can't Smile Without You" duet with him, but his roadies (does Barry Manilow have roadies?) have never chosen me. And then he moved his show to Las Vegas, where, apparently, it will stay. But if he ever leaves the Las Vegas Hilton and ventures back to our amphitheatre, I'll do whatever it takes. Underwear on the stage. Big poster. Whatever.

A P.S. to Chris, whose favorite Manilow song is Mandy: Mandy may have given without taking, but the legend surrounding that song is that Mandy was a dog.

Monday, April 06, 2009

Let's Talk About Proms

Here's what I know about proms: not much.

The theme of the only one I ever attended was Almost Paradise, the smarmy love song from Footloose. But the prom SONG was the theme from Against All Odds from the largely forgettable movie of the same name. (Go ahead and Google all day long to figure out the year I graduated.) Performed by Phil Collins, it was a lovely song ... the first 100 times you heard it. But when you're one of 389 seniors and the song is played over and over during the prom lead-out, well, you begin to develop a small tic.

How can you just walk away from me,
When all I can do is watch you leave ...

I'll tell you how. It's this SONG. Played on a cassette recorder and broadcast over and over and over again on the P.A. system in a run-down civic center with a pink and purple Almost Paradise backdrop in the corner where photos were shot. Just watch me. This is me, walking away, with Phil Collins crooning, rewind, play, crooning, rewind, play, crooning.

You must know, though, that the theme of Almost Paradise was hardly a shoo-in at voting time, as Whiskey Bent and Hell Bound came in a close second.

If I were to go back in time, I would probably have spoken up and come up with a third option. Like, "Let's Blow This Taco Stand and Move On With Our Lives," or "Wake Me When It's Over," or "Can't We Just Skip This and Graduate Already?"

My own daughter's prom was Saturday night. And that is hard to believe because I don't seem old enough to have a high school junior, but nonetheless, she went to her prom and looked lovely. Probably lovelier than anyone else did. I'll never know for sure, as I didn't follow her to the prom or to the prom prelude picture party, which was apparently a media event attended by every parent in town. Except us because we were not hip to the latest trend in prom protocol, which dictates that moms and dads are supposed to follow their kids all over town, snapping pictures like they're at the Academy Awards. In the weeks to come, we are fully prepared to be talked about as That Couple Who Didn't Follow Their Daughter Around Half the Night. And I will follow with a retort that goes something like, "Hey, we didn't get that memo, and since when do parents hide in the bushes like paparazzi and snap photos of their kids eating coconut shrimp?"

It wasn't until Sunday night that it occurred to me that I didn't know much about what went on at the actual prom--never mind the pre- and post-events that seemed to have no end. "Hey, did this thing have a theme?"

"It was 'Midnight Masquerade.'"

"What does that mean?"

"I don't know. But one girl actually wore a mask."

"A mask? For how long?"

"The entire night. Her name is Julia ... but she called herself Jenny." And then we laughed until we nearly wet ourselves. (Not only was my daughter lovelier than anyone else's daughter -- she also has a better sense of humor.)

"Did you have a theme song?"

"A theme song? What's that?"

And I just didn't have the energy to explain it. Besides, there probably wasn't an explanation. But I do know that Barry Manilow is highly critical of senior classes that (in the '70s and '80s) chose his vocal masterpiece Looks Like We Made It as either their prom or class song. I've seen Mr. Manilow in concert enough times to know how this really gets his goat. "Did these kids ever listen to the lyrics?" he asks at concerts. And everyone laughs at his self-deprecating joke.

Being the Fanilow that I am, I committed those lyrics to memory while singing into a hairbrush when I was in junior high. Did that make me the coolest kid in the hall? Absolutely not. But I knew enough to know that Looks Like We Made It was about moving away from old paths and letting old feelings die. Hardly the stuff that prom and graduation dreams are made of. Teenage angst is built on grudges and hard feelings and obsessing over ex-boyfriends and girlfriends.

While prom themes may still be alive and kicking, prom songs seem to be a dying breed. And why not? What else is there to choose from? I Hate This Part? Boom Boom Pow? Right Round? Put a Ring On It?

And to bring this thing full circle, I asked my husband, who graduated the same year I did, but half a state away, "Do you remember your prom theme? Your prom song?"

"Oh, who knows. It was that Phil Collins Against All Odds song. Or that may have been our graduation song. I don't remember. That song was in there somewhere." Just think, some 20something years ago, a teenage boy and a teenage girl a half-state apart were listening to that same song ad nauseum, at a prom, at graduation and the weeks in between, wondering what in the world those lyrics had to do with their senior year. And 20something years later, they're still wondering. They can't remember what they had for dinner or where they last saw their (car keys, wallet, sewing scissors, fill in the blank), but they remember that song.

P.S. -- After more than a solid month's absence from the book review blog, I've returned. Go check it out at But be warned: It's a reprint, or reprise, or redo, or cop-out. I hope you enjoy it anyway.