Barry Manilow is gay. Surprise! Or, maybe you think it’s not so surprising. Let’s think about that.
Barry Manilow’s gayness has nothing whatsoever to do with his earnest, soft pop mellifluous ballads, nor is it in any way related to his ostentatious showiness. If Barry Manilow spent all his time in a parlor clad in the wildest of Bob Mackie’s ensembles, decorated with garish chandeliers and drawings of cocks, it wouldn’t make him gay. If he dressed in drag and performed private renditions of Cabaret with Alan Cumming, this would not make him gay. Likewise, if he went on a cruise with Cher and Kathy Griffin and drank wine spritzers for a week at Carnival in Venice, it would not make him gay. Barry Manilow’s gayness is defined by one thing only, and that is his own self identification as such.
Finding the homoerotic subtext has been a sport among the gay community since well before it could safely exist above ground. Camp’s various manifestations is built on Hollywood’s subtly hidden queerness in movies from Maltese Falcon to Top Gun to Fight Club to The Women, and by riffing on gender tropes, Drag Race style. The straight world has cracks in it, and the gay community found them and owned them enough to form a culture. These gay readings literally saved the lives of those who found for themselves a way to belong in one of the subcultures created by queering the narrative and appropriating it. Top Gun is so gay it’s two scenes shy of being actual porn – per this dialogue excerpt:
Wolfman: This is giving me a hard on.
Chipper: Don’t tease me.
Also, see exhibit B.
Media is fair game for gay interpretations. Yes! Let us for sport turn Hollywood’s lack of imagination and tired use of tropes on its head. Let’s drink every time men proposition one another obliquely, and whoop over the meaning of Tom Cruise’s tight skivvies. Because that’s not only fun, but constructively transgressive.
But seeking a gay subtext in people? Not so much. Conservative capitalism very much rests on traditional gender roles, where women are nurturers and men are gladiators of industry. A man who dedicates his career to baring his feelings without irony breaks the rules as badly as a woman with open ambition and raw intellect. He’s a pansy, she’s hawkish. He’s girly (the worst insult to bestow upon a man in our culture), she’s unlikable and needs to smile more. On both sides, rumors of homosexuality surround the person in question. When we project homoerotic imaginations onto individuals who are brave enough to live outside of gender proscription, we promote the conservative and unimaginative gender roles of our fascistic ruling class.
Deriding Manilow for his lack of cool is so deeply embedded in our conversations about pop culture that, rather than shy away from them, Manilow collects jokes and cartoons about himself. He tells his favorites among them regularly at interviews, at the same time that he talks about his incredible commercial success and deeply loyal fan base. Top tier tickets to his shows during his seven-year Vegas series went for $500, and the shows sold out. I went to a Manilow show in 1979 (I’m told), and it’s likely that a lot of the Fanilows, as Manilow fans call themselves, did too. Extreme Fanilows see him hundreds of times, and structure their vacations around his concert schedules.
Never a sex symbol, he is and was for many of his fans a source of consolation and warmth, a man who takes feelings seriously and eschews swearing and toughness in favor of hallmark love. His sweet, mushy sincerity — the exact qualities for which he is mocked — is what inspires loyalty from women. His lyrics are thick with schmaltz:
I’m standing on the edge of time/I’ve walked away when love was mine/Caught up in a world of uphill climbing/The tears are in my mind and nothin’ in rhyming.
Perhaps like no other man in show business, Barry Manilow has successfully commodified the stickiest of romantic sentiments, packaging it in the most guileless and sensitive of packages. He started out writing ad-jingles; he wrote the Band Aid song, and the State Farm song and became known for his skills at writing the catchiest of earworms. He even starred in a Jimmy Kimmel sketch about it for charity. Later, as a popstar, he then gave us “Mandy,” “Copacabana,” and “Could it Be Magic,” now affixed to the popular canon, whether we like them or not. His songs are even more famous than he is.
This sticky sweetness is the polar opposite of what we expect of men, and Manilow has been both rewarded and punished for it. His huge commercial success didn’t give him a sense of community, and he has a ton of stories of feeling like an outsider, not uncommon for closeted members of the LGBTQ community. During his time as the house pianist at The Continental he would watch naked people drinking in hot tubs while he played, wanting to join, but lacking the confidence. He wasn’t in the right cliques, as he tells it, to have received an invitation to participate in “We Are the World.” He managed to put his foot in his mouth and piss Billy Joel off at a dinner, and Joel held this grudge for years — by Manilow’s account. It’s hard to know how much of this is his own projection, but it’s easy to understand why he felt a lack of acceptance.
Manilow was in his early twenties when Stonewall happened, right near where he grew up in Brooklyn. He was working in New York at the time, playing piano bars and writing ad jingles. He was already a pop star while Harvey Milk was talking about closets being busted open, already in his continuing relationship with his manager. Was he born too late? We’ll never know why he never came out. It’s not our business why or how or if anybody comes out. But, while we laud gay representation in the media for the sake of young people, let’s also not forget all of the older people still in the closet, all the people who may now be emboldened by the bravery — never too late — of our stickiest hallmark hero. Like his song says, he made it through the rain, and, having done so, could inspire so many others to live their lives openly. He could, in fact — and reader, I am so sorry for the pun — be magic.