I've got nothing against Barry Manilow.
Really, I don't. I like his music. I grew up with it. A lot of us did. My favorite cousin, the cousin I most wanted to be like back when I thought I could be like another person, she loved Barry Manilow, drew pictures of Barry Manilow, drew Barry Manilow so frequently all the drawings she drew of anyone else looked a little tiny bit like Barry Manilow, or at least that's what my relatives who can allegedly track resemblances used tease her about. I didn't see it. My cousin was perfect. An artist, my idol, the very definition of cool. She stayed up late in her gloriously messy room listening to Barry Manilow records while drawing pictures of Barry Manilow. She recruited all the adult women in our family into Club Barry. In fact, I think the only concert my mom attended in her thirties was the Barry Manilow show she went to with my aunt and favorite cousin. It was a huge deal, I'm happy Mom got to see it. She had to retire her Barry Manilow shirt in the late nineties, it felt like the end of an end of an era.
When I was little, Mom would put a stack of her favorite records on the hi-fi and turn on the flicker flame pendant lamp that hung in the front window for me and I'd spin the sunken living room(1) into straight lines joy stimming while I pretended I was hanging out with my favorite cousin. My favorite song was "Daybreak." It might have given me my first deep listening experience: the song really sounds like that moment the sun breaks the horizon line. Barry Manilow's version of it, anyway. It's totally Barry's coming out song, I felt it when I was a toddler, though I couldn't put it into words for a long time. He's embracing who he truly is, he's doing it on his own terms, and it's joyful.
Early in his career, Barry Manilow paid the bills with advertising. I know this because one of my mother's records contained a fabulous, roughly five minute long medley of his best known jingles. Like a good neighbor stuck on bandaid join the Pepsi people you deserve a break today you think you don't also know several dozen Barry Manilow songs to the extent of them altering your brain chemistry? Well, actually, if you're a millennial or younger, I'm less certain. Your generation (not counting my brother, who I raised right) was only averaging one out of five respectable Simpsons references the last time I had the heart to check several years ago. For those of us born in the early to mid-seventies into network television scored households, Manilow's jingles were our first soundtrack. Unfortunately. American Bandstand! Bandstand!
And that might be part of it. Manilow is a master of the anthem. I don't know that I know that many songs by him, but every song I know exists in delighted exhalation of something. It gets stuck in your head until it changes your thinking. Do this right and it provides a pleasant enough shortcut around all that indecision and introspection: exactly why I don't generally like anthems. Anthems can be dangerous. What I like about Barry is that, for the most part, he uses his powers for good. Even the jingles. Insurance and Band-Aids are useful tools and consumers should know their options. Soda pop maybe not so much, but the American marketplace is driven by soda pop. If you write jingles and are successful, there's going to be at least one on your resume. Barry had two.
The fact that he performs his jingles live, on our record under the title "A Strange Medley" demonstrates a kind of good humored self-depricating transparency about the matter; also, pride. It's good work. Barry Manilow's jingles are the epitome of jingles. And, hey, for all I know, "Daybreak" might have served me as an effective vaccine against homophobia. That's more than okay, that's an indication that I might have been plausible Club Barry material, were circumstances different.
And then there's "Copacabana."
That damn song. It's constructed from all those materials from the seventies that make me feel claustrophobic and queasy. It's pure, distilled "smelly seventies," a phrase I coined in reference to that one emotionally troubled neighbor girl with Farrah hair who made a habit of surreptitiously sticking her hands down her horrible seventies-style white and canary yellow stripped terrycloth short shorts and then shoving her fingers up your nose, forcing you to inhale her glory. Probably that was the early eighties that this happened, actually, but this girl consolidated every aspect of the previous decade that I cannot stand. Like her stinky fingers, you couldn't escape any of it. It got up your nose. You couldn't scrub it off. God, smelly seventies was worse than the Brady Bunch.
Also, I don't know. I've been writing this piece in bits and pieces over the last couple days. I flagged the lyrics as problematic in my notes and I probably had a good reason for that but a lot of stuff has happened since then and I can't remember my reasons. Maybe I was just ornery. Seems likely. It's been rough. But I'll try to break it down fresh.
Thing is, from my perspective as a storyteller, "Copacabana" does not do right by its characters, especially not Lola, who is the very definition of a two dimensional prisoner of an uninvested narrative.
Her name was Lola
She was a showgirl
With yellow feathers in her hair
And a dress cut down to there
She would merengue and do the cha-cha
And while she tried to be a star
Tony always tended bar
Across the crowded floor
They worked from eight til four
They were young and they had each other
Who could ask for more?
I could, and I do. Barry. Please, man. Tell me more about this woman you are about to destroy. Give me more than her work schedule and that she wore feathers in her hair and a "dress cut down to there."
One of my rates of exchange for doing something horrible to a character is that I work overtime to make my readers invest in that character, first. Otherwise it's just senseless violence and I don't want anything to do with that. Before I can do the horrible thing, I need the character to feel real. I need them to matter. I need to give them something to take into eternity. Their sacrifice needs to mean something. You'll love them, you'll hate them, maybe both; if something bad is going to happen to them, I need the reader to have a genuine response to that. So what we know about the dancer and the bartender is: they're young! they're pretty! they fell in love. Aw, I....guess? Then this shit goes down:
His name was Rico
He wore a diamond
He was escorted to his chair
He saw Lola dancing there
And when she finished
He called her over
But Rico went a bit to far
Tony sailed across the bar
And then the punches flew
And chairs were smashed in two
There was blood and a single gun shot
But just who shot who?
Yeah. Wait, what? This top dollar asshole comes into the club, gets the red carpet treatment, assaults Lola, then kills the love of her life for trying to protect her. She's standing right there in the middle of it. She helplessly watches the whole thing unfold. This is the moment of Lola's destruction and Barry's throwing out some glib gimmick about "...who shot who?" I mean, these situations, it can be ambiguous who fired the gun, but in the event of "a single gun shot," you're going to know who the victim is pretty instantaneously. As far as the narrative goes, it's an unfortunate misdirect. Any investment you've developed in these folks just slides off in a meaningless tag line. It's sloppy, so damn dismissive and makes me question the entire purpose of the song. Why do this to your characters if it doesn't mean anything?
It might be what happens when societal pressures force a gay man to write hetronormative love songs.
And I'm actually going to stop here for the night and finish writing this tomorrow because I want to sit with that for a while.
Something I'd like you to do the next time you have a chance: pull up a recording of Elton John's "I Don't Want to Go On with You Like That." Forget the video. Listen to the lyrics, to the sonic shorthand of that gunshot percussion. Remember that the song was released in the late eighties. Remember where we were in the AIDS crisis. Remember how much pain and grieving there was in the gay community at this moment in history. Think about how dramatically gay culture was changing and how hard it must have been to decide what action you were going to take, how you could make a stand against the pandemic killing everyone you loved.
Maybe Elton didn't pen the lyrics, but his delivery absolutely makes this a coming out song. He's embracing who he is, he's doing it on his own terms, and it's badass. The speaker is announcing that he expects and deserves monogamy. He loves the person he's singing to and isn't trying to tell him who to be, but the world has changed. The speaker wants to stay in the world. He's seen enough loss in the community and knows that the fire spreads faster in the breeze. No more casual hookups. No more sneaking around behind each other's back. You choose me or that's it, there's the door, go find whatever the hell else you think you're going to find out there. Badass. Pretty sure I know what my choice would be.(2)
The world sure changed a lot between Manilow's "Daybreak" and John's Reg Strikes Back.
Like "Rocket Man" can be read as a song about not being able to come out of the closet - because, say, you married and made a family with a woman you genuinely care about but will never love the way you both need to love because your love doesn't work that way - maybe "Copacabana" is a song about the exploitative marketplace of performative sexuality; about being forced to embody a public persona in opposition to your core truth in order to make a living.
Giving up your life in order to make a living.
Lola's job means pretending she is sexually available to people to whom she is not sexually available. Lola is very good at her job. Lola's job is not very good to her. For the love of money, her employer neglects to provide her with sufficient protections in her dealings with the clients she serves. As a direct consequence of being good at her job, Lola loses her one true love. Her job, subsequently, becomes the only thing in her life. Then she loses her job. Of course she does. The exploitative marketplace of performative sexuality only wants you when you're young, pretty and able-bodied.
Her name is Lola, she was a showgirl
But that was thirty years ago
When they used to have a show
Now it's a disco, but not for Lola
Still in dress she used to wear
Faded feathers in her hair
She sits there so refined
And drinks herself half-blind
She lost her youth and she lost her Tony
Now she's lost her mind
The same year "Copacabana" was released, Barry started his relationship with Garry Keif. Because Barry didn't want to alienate his fan base, Barry and Garry kept their relationship secret for 36 years. The last lyric we hear Barry sing:
Don't fall in love.
He repeats it twice. Whoever it was amongst the three person songwriting team responsible for "Copacabana" that penned this lyric, I can't imagine it always felt super great to sing. Every night. In front of millions and billions of screaming women.
Damn, Barry. I'm sorry.
So I've come out the other side of writing this having written a great deal more than I was expecting to write, with an unexpected appreciation for this song.(3) True, I had to look at it through a filter of Elton John, and everything I said earlier about it clashing with my storytelling fundamentals still stands. There are problems with "Copacabana," and chain retail forced me to listen to it way more than I ever wanted to hear it. I won't be adding it to my music library any time in the foreseeable future, but might pull it up on YouTube from time to time.
Give it a good spin.
(1) In case you have no idea what I mean by 'sunken living room.' The room in question, as well as the open, carpet wrapped stairs and all the common areas upstairs were wall-to-walled with this intense, mandarin orange carpet. The overall effect inspired more than one of my elementary school friends to ask if our house was the house from the Brady Bunch. I have always despised the Brady Bunch.
(2) And as much as I'm into Elton's better-known big comeback number, "Mona Lisas & Mad Hatters, pt. 2" is and always will be THE SHIT.
(3) This is NOT going to happen for that Toby Keith shit
Thank you for giving me the opportunity to write about this, trillian42 and awayslow.
want to vote on the poll? you still can. do that here.