Barry Manilow on Anthony Weiner and the Trappings of Fame: 'I Know That Feeling'
During his four decade-long career, Barry Manilow has been a master of the singles chart, with dozens of top 40 hits, including his most famous “Mandy” and “Copacabana,” a multiple Grammy winner, a consummate showman and a good sport who’s as likely to mock his own seventies fashions as he is to play himself in a TV sitcom, like he did in 2003 on Will & Grace. No doubt Manilow knows all too intimately the highs and lows of fame, which is one reason why his introspective new album -- and first independent release, out this week -- is titled 15 Minutes. Manilow spoke with THR about the difficulties of public life, the new music business, and why he would never, ever be a contestant on a reality singing show.
The Hollywood Reporter: You’re no longer contractually bound to a record company, how you go about promoting an album in this day and age?
Barry Manilow: This was the big question because the album is on my own label, [Stilleto], but we needed a hand distributing it. So I would ask the people that I met over the last couple of months, “How do you sell a record these days?” Everything is diffferent, and it seems to have changed a lot over the last year. When we were selling records, we fought for room on the top shelves in Tower Records, but there’s no record stores… So you need to have people working for you who live and breathe on the internet, and that’s a bunch of young people. Between my company, Universal and Fontana I felt very safe with that batch of young people.
THR: Lindsey Buckingham mentioned in a recent interview how difficult it would have been to make an album like Rumours now. If you were starting out today, how would you approach a music career? Is there anything you know now that you wish you knew then?
Manilow: You have to be strong. Fame is always a shock to the system; there’s no school to go to, there are no books to read, and when it hits you, it’s a surprise. You could be working for 10, 20 years and when it finally hits you, you get knocked down. I keep reading about people who want to be famous -- it’s not that they want to be great songwriters or great actors, they want to be celebrities. That is scary because you can be famous doing some really stupid things.
THR: How did you avoid those trappings of fame?
Manilow: I was always into the music. Music, in general, saved my life. But the fame part… I would look up, see what was going on around me, the reporters and photographers and all, and then I would just go back to making my music. And it never really got me. I think the people who are out there for fame get themselves in a lot of trouble.
THR: There are certainly plenty of examples in the news in recent years, everyone from Britney Spears to Charlie Sheen to Anthony Weiner. In your song, “He’s A Star” you sense a sort of loneliness. Does that just come with the territory?
Manilow: It's what can get you in trouble. From highs like you never imagined -- the screaming of the audience, the accolades from people around you -- you really believe that you are the smartest, most intelligent, most beautiful person. And then you go to your hotel room, close the door and, ergo, the Weiner. This is when you go online and take a picture of your penis. Not that I would! [Laughs.] But I know that feeling, after all this unbelievable attention and flattery, you wind up alone in front of your computer and that's when you get yourself in trouble.
THR: When you were writing the songs on 15 Minutes, were you looking at it from the point of view of a fictional character or did you recognize your own experience?
Manilow: On “Written In Stone” I realized, “Oh, I had lived through that.” It’s about sharing this success with a girlfriend -- they wanted it together, she started off encouraging him and they would have this life together for the rest of their lives. You start off grateful to this person, and this happens to everyone, you realize you can’t take her to work with you. I tried it over and over and suddenly the relationship starts to fall apart. And when I wrote “Written In Stone” and sang, “Didn’t we say we were written in stone? Weren’t we gonna do this whole thing together?” I realized I was really writing this album about experiences I had myself.
THR: You were a guest judge on American Idol, a show that means instant fame for its participants and has become an increasingly legitimate launching pad….
Manilow: That’s the most frightening thing for me. I saw these kids who haven’t got much experience or paid their dues. It was a great chance they took and wow, they become a household name in months, but you kind of countdown the days until they wind up on TMZ.
THR: Sounds like they need career training…
Manilow: I actually thought I sort of made a dent the three times I was on the show. I did the best I could. They were like sponges -- so appreciative and I do think they got better. But they really need some direction or suggestions, they’re very alone.
THR: Now there are so many singing competition shows, including The Voice, Idol and X Factor, if you were Scotty McCreery's age today, would you audition for one of these shows?
Manilow: I would never, ever have done it. I haven’t got the balls to do anything like that. To stand in a line and sing a capella? No way. I never wanted to be a performer, that was not one of my goals. I wanted to be a musician and that was that. So this performing thing, when I made my first album, nobody was more terrified than I was to get up from the piano and try to communicate with an audience and sing and talk. So no, I never would have gone down that road that these young people are taking.
THR: Did you have any self-revelations while working on this record?
Manilow: The dark night of the soul for me was one night in Florida, when I had been on the road for about four years and I realized that everybody around me was on my payroll, that my old friends hadn’t been in touch with me and my family didn’t know where to get me. I was a very unhappy guy and it was because I was really alone. All these people that you work with all day long are in your house all night and then in the afternoon, these same people are in your car and on the plane and they’re all people you pay. I looked up and said, “Wait a minute, what happened to my life?” I had to make a decision and my suggestion to anybody who’s going to do this is: keep your family and old friends around you. That’s what I had done and that’s what saved my life when it came to being famous.