The U.S. presidential election is scheduled to take place just two weeks after the concert, and the bitter national debate is causing stress in a great number of ways. However, Manilow proved himself to be politically prescient, and he probably wasn’t even aware of it.
Stopping freeway traffic on his way to and from the same venue, George W. Bush also had performed in Nationwide Arena several weeks prior to Manilow’s concert. The night of Manilow’s concert, John Kerry returned once again to Columbus, using a Baptist church as a stage before breathless reporters and staying the night in a Columbus suburb. A so-called battleground state, Ohio has seen more than its fair share of presidential and vice presidential candidates. Many politically weary Ohioans wish that Bush and Kerry would go away to compete for the electoral votes of Rhode Island, Alaska, North Dakota and/or Hawaii instead.
So, Manilow brought his show to Columbus at just the right time to lift the spirits of listeners so that they could feel good about themselves again.
Lyrics like "Turn the radio up/Hear the melody/Turn reality down./Turn the radio up/Hear the harmony/Turn the negative down" assumed double meanings, even though they wouldn’t have done so in a non-election year. Consider this: "I'm singin’ to the world./Everybody’s caught in the spin./Look at where we’ve been./We’ve been runnin’ around,/Year after year/Blinded with pride,/Blinded with fear./But it’s daybreak./If you wanna believe/It can be daybreak,/Ain’t no time to grieve./Said it’s daybreak/If you’ll only believe./And let it shine shine shine/All around the world." Or: "In this world/That’s lost all its reason/At least there’s a reason/For hope in our hearts."
Indeed, Manilow’s lyrics brought into focus the reasons for his appeal.
Of course, members of Manilow’s fan club were there, reminiscing about his popularity in the 1970’s. Others came for the romantic nature of his lyrics, wives dragging embarrassed husbands to the arena. Some people in the audience were excited by the sheer irresistibility of his music, despite career-long criticism about Manilow’s over-the-top schmaltz-which did occur during the suspensefully drawn-out crescendo to the final chorus of "Weekend In New England."
But Manilow by the very nature of his music represents what’s good about America: the citizens’ optimism and good will. That point was driven home the day after the concert when an article in the October 17 edition of the Columbus Dispatch reported that "huge majorities [of foreign citizens] said they have a good opinion of Americans" even though they have strongly negative opinions of American politicians. It wasn’t surprising to see a "Manilow for President" sign, among many others, in the audience.
Barry Manilow remains hugely popular to a broad cross-section of listeners. Even though he joked that the contestants of American Idol didn’t know who he was, they know his music, which permeates public consciousness. Now that some jazz artists are reconsidering the music of Burt Bacharach, the lyrics for whose music can be just as saccharine, it’s a miracle that Manilow’s music hasn’t more often been material for improvisation as well. After all, Manilow approached jazz artists like Gerry Mulligan and Sarah Vaughan to record on his 2:00 AM Paradise Café album. But jazz artists haven’t gravitated to him, with occasional exceptions like Diane Schuur for whom Manilow wrote music for her Midnight album. Nonetheless, the logical musical simplicity of "Weekend In New England" is as direct and affecting as "A Child Is Born." "When October Goes" provides the material for a ballad with the same potential for improvisation that many jazz standards offer.
Manilow knew his audience. As he said, "You’ve all come here to adore me!" At 58 years old, Manilow, still elfin, is threatening that this is his last tour; his fans wouldn’t miss it. Part of his appeal is he doesn’t take himself seriously. Dressed in an outfit suggested by Keanu Reeves of Matrix, sunglasses and floor-length coat signaling his coolness, Manilow made his entrance by rising pneumatically, phoenix like, in the middle of the stage set up in the center of the arena. But after the put-on, Manilow assured the audience that "It’s just Barry from Brooklyn" and that "This is what Clay Aiken will look like in 30 years." Dancing around the stage, and quite limber at that for a person approaching 60, Manilow said that he continues to entertain "because I’m still able to do it." Indeed, while other performers like Rod Stewart continue to reinvent themselves, Manilow has succeeded by being himself and by remaining prolific.
So prolific that he recently finished the score for two musical productions, Copacabana and Harmony, which opens on Broadway in 2005. Even though Manilow’s new CD, Scores, contains selections from both shows, he performed only "Copacabana," "Sweet Heaven" and "Dancin’ Fool" from the former and "Every Single Day" from the latter. Manilow knew that his audience was there to hear the older songs that assured his place in the Songwriters Hall Of Fame.
And he delivered, at first alone on the revolving stage under projection screens for the audience in the upper decks, with "This Song’s For You" and "Singin’ To The World." "Mandy," his breakout song of 1971, began with video footage of the then-25-years-old Manilow singing at a white grand piano in his first television appearance with Mike Douglas. And then, dramatically of course, Manilow rose from below the stage seated at a black grand piano to sing it live.
Debra Byrd, the vocal coach from American Idol, joined Manilow in mid-concert, being allowed her own time in the spotlight with "I’ll Never Love This Way Again." A mostly anonymous back-up band made Manilow’s "Brooklyn Blues" successful as they laid down a Memphis shuffle for it, and three other singers besides Byrd joined Manilow on stage.
Those in the audience who resisted the temptation to dance, particularly the women, were overwhelmed by the disco-tinged version of "Copacabana." Then, all the troubles of the world and all of the tribulations of the political season dissolved in the massive dance hall that Nationwide Arena became. Everyone clapped without being told to when Manilow sang "Turn The Radio Up." Everyone sang along without being told to when he sang "Can’t Smile Without You" on stage to a lucky girl from the audience. (She was chosen because shrewdly she held up a sign reading "I’m the luckiest girl.")
The previously non-apparent political content of Manilow’s songs, innocent and uplifting, became obvious at the close of the concert. Telling his audience that "You touch my heart" by continuing to value his music, Manilow stood at stage center and stared into the spotlight to sing "America." Rousing the audience to patriotic enthusiasm, Manilow, ever the showman, had more to sing, of course: specifically, "Let Freedom Ring," which he performed during the 2002 Super Bowl pre-game show. American flags unfurled from all four corners of the overhead trusses. Confetti shot into the audience. The applause was deafening. And the audience remained standing after Manilow’s fake exit before he came back on stage to sing "I Write The Songs."
The audience left uplifted and positive, its collective self-esteem restored from perhaps the last opportunity to see Barry Manilow perform in a live concert. The transformation lasted until the audience members went home to watch the television news. Once again, unfortunately, the volume of reality increased, and they unable to turn the negative down.