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For Six Hours, Barry Manilow Was Punk Rock

A false rumor that Mr. Unhip was going to take his music off Spotify in solidarity with Neil Young made him suddenly seem cool. Why did we get so excited that he might actually be ready to take down the man?

Barry Manilow has never been cool. In an age when every popular but unhip musician is receiving a critical reappraisal — even Kenny G — it’s somewhat remarkable that the 78-year-old entertainer seems impervious to cultural reconsideration. It used to be worse, of course: At the height of his fame in the 1970s, he was mocked for his pretty tunes and sentimental lyrics, his corny love songs and his ersatz disco smash “Copacabana (At the Copa).” A former jingle writer, Manilow was a joke, inspiring legendary magazine writer Bill Zehme to lead off his 1990 Rolling Stone profile of Manilow with, “When your name is a punchline, you live in hell. Barry Manilow lives in hell.” 

The world isn’t so cruel about Manilow anymore — and let’s not forget that a lot of that scorn probably was tied to homophobia, which prompted him to deny he was gay most of his life, finally coming out in 2017. But it’s not like you see a lot of “Actually, Barry Manilow Slaps” think-pieces, either. And yet, for a short time on Friday, Manilow seemed pretty awesome. It only lasted about six hours, and he actually had nothing to do with it. But it was a fun moment nonetheless.

The strangeness began a few days earlier, when Neil Young gave Spotify an ultimatum: Either pull controversial podcast host Joe Rogan from the streaming site or take Young’s music off there. Not surprisingly, Spotify stuck with Rogan, leaving observers wondering if other musicians would show solidarity with Young, refusing to have their work associated with NewsRadio’s least-funny star. Disappointingly, no one has really stepped forward… until Barry Manilow decided to have Spotify take his music down, too.

If you don’t remember reading any stories about that, that’s because there weren’t any. The news was broken for most of us by writer/activist Amy Siskind:

Quickly, her tweet went viral, sending social media into hysterics. Classic rockers Peter Frampton and David Crosby had previously tweeted in support of Young’s decision, but this was a far bolder stance — and far more unexpected. All of a sudden, Barry Manilow was trending, inspiring a fair amount of jokey tweet responses. But there were also waves of surprise and admiration in there as well: Who knew Barry Manilow was such a badass?

You see these sorts of shocked/jubilant responses all the time in politics. Usually, it comes when a Republican leader offers the vaguest condemnation of Trump, prompting folks on the left to fall all over themselves praising that person for his “bravery.” We have a tendency to get awfully moony when bad people manage to go above and beyond our incredibly low expectations for them. 

To be clear, Manilow is not a “bad person” by any stretch, but a similar phenomenon occurs in pop culture whenever artists we write off as “lame” end up being cooler than we expect. Neil Young has made a career out of flipping off people in power, but nobody expects Manilow, whose brand is comfort and warmth, to protest Spotify’s support of a noxious anti-vaxxer who should never, ever talk about race. And yet, for six hours, it seemed like that was the case. It was easy to feel heartened. If someone as milquetoast as Barry Manilow, who has about 2.8 million monthly listeners on the service, was willing to speak out, it only underlined how dangerous it is for major media entities to spread misinformation on their platforms. Whether it’s Mitt Romney or Barry Manilow, the feeling is the same: If this guy gets it, why doesn’t everybody else? 

That euphoria was short-lived, though.

To be fair to Manilow, he never chose to wade into this debate — he was just the guy who had to squash a rumor that got spread around online. But it’s funny how many of the replies were, essentially, “You know, maybe you should take your stuff off Spotify?” No doubt the folks who felt that way were a combination of anti-Rogan people and pro-vaccination people. (Hmm, maybe that’s the same thing?) But there was probably also a contingent of individuals who had just gotten used to the idea that Mr. Easy-Listening was ready to take down the man. (Barry… welcome to the resistance.) And now they had to contend with the fact that it wasn’t true — that Manilow wasn’t going to help lead this popular revolt. He was just going to be the guy he always was: perfectly pleasant, utterly inoffensive, not someone who’s going to lock horns with Spotify.

It’s human nature to find solace in famous people agreeing with your worldview — especially when you would never expect that specific famous person to do so. (If Kevin Sorbo starts tweeting in favor of universal health care, I’ll drop dead from shock.) But I also felt kinda bad for Manilow. For most of his very successful, highly lucrative career, he’s given uncomplicated pleasure to millions of listeners, never rocking the boat or, frankly, rocking at all. But for six hours on Friday, he was a rebel, an advocate, a man of principle. (Just imagine what all those 1970 punk bands who detested what he represented would have thought about that.) 

For six hours, Manilow was cool, but then he let us down — except he didn’t. He hadn’t changed — for a fleeting moment, our impression of him had. For a lot of us who’d love to see Spotify boot Rogan, it was fun to think that somebody like Barry Manilow was on our side. Sadly, we’re going to have to carry on without him — which shouldn’t be that hard. After all, he didn’t mean to be dragged into this whole thing in the first place. He’s just the guy who writes the songs.