When Cheeseballs Sing Standards

Barry Manilow’s got a No. 1 album. What gives?

What the hell is Barry Manilow doing at No. 1 on the Billboard album charts? I don’t ask the question rhetorically. Pop critics like to think they have a decent handle on the musical zeitgeist, but believe me, a Barry Manilow resurgence can really upset all your received wisdom and well-rehearsed riffs. The fact is, last week 156,000 people stampeded to stores to buy a new Manilow record and, for a few days at least, Mary J. Blige and Kanye West and Eminem cowered in the reeling shadows cast by Barry’s blow-dried mane. It’s a comeback for the history books: Manilow last topped the charts in 1977, a stretch between No. 1’s that has been bested only by a couple of dead geniuses, Elvis Presley and Ray Charles.

Actually, there’s a fairly straightforward explanation for the Manilow revival: He’s singing some very old songs. On The Greatest Songs of the Fifties, he’s taken a handful of big hits from a half-century ago (“What a Diff’rence a Day Made,” “Young at Heart“), slathered them in string-heavy big-band arrangements, and done his best to imitate a crooner. It’s a far more toned-down act than the one that made Manilow a huge star in the ‘70s, although he can’t resist turning his signature trick: the swelling half-step jumps at the outset of the final chorus that announce things are about to get really emotional.

In hitching his comeback hopes to a collection of song standards, Manilow follows a trail blazed by another extravagantly moussed older star, Rod Stewart, who has sold millions of copies of his four-volume Great American Songbook series. The mastermind behind both projects is Clive Davis, a music mogul with a proven genius for channeling middlebrow taste, who correctly intuited that older record buyers would embrace standards recorded by ‘70s and ‘80s hit-makers. The result is a music biz boomlet, in which aging stars hoping for a career resuscitation are resurfacing with big bands and Café Carlyle-appropriate apparel. In recent years we’ve seen standards collections by Stewart, Manilow, Carly Simon, Bette Midler, and Cyndi Lauper, and it’s a virtual certainty that several more are currently in the works. (Coming soon to a record store near you: Corey Hart Sings Jerome Kern.) Even rappers are getting into the act: Who can forget The Dana Owens Album * (2004), in which Queen Latifah rocked such old-school joints as “If I Had You“ (1928)?

For years, the rock audience regarded prerock pop with an indifference bordering on disdain. Now, however, the generational animosities of the ‘60s and ‘70s have receded into history, and rock itself has been deposed by music whose aesthetics represent a far more jarring break with the past than the shift from Tin Pan Alley pop to rock. Has hip-hop sent baby boomers scurrying back to the comforting warmth of their parents’ and grandparents’ hit parade?

Whatever the explanation, I’m all for more albums of song standards. There’s some nasty ideology built into the term “golden age of popular song”—the ridiculous idea that all craft drained from music the day that rock and soul’s barbarians stormed the gates— but the fact remains that between 1920 and 1960 American songwriters created some of the greatest popular art of the 20th century, music of enduring wit, beauty, and charm. The world can never have too many recordings of “Let’s Face the Music and Dance” or “Stormy Weather.”

But there’s a problem with the new converts: They haven’t the foggiest idea of how to sing these old songs. Although Manilow has a tendency to meander off-key—and Carly Simon seems physically incapable of swinging with her mildly swinging band —the issue really isn’t one of chops. The art of pop singing is primarily about projecting emotion and personality, not technical proficiency. Bing Crosby’s singing conveyed masculine assurance and effortless cool—the voice of the hip dad we all wish we had. Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, * and Mel Tormé used the standards as their personal playthings, launching pads for spectacular vocal improvisations. Billie Holiday and the self-proclaimed “18-carat manic-depressive” Frank Sinatra were pop existentialists who found giddy highs and soul-rending deep-blue lows in even the dopiest material. It just isn’t enough to drag out the Rodgers and Hart songbook, hire an orchestra, and cobble together some “classy” arrangements. There’s a reason that pop singers were once called “vocal interpreters”: A singer must engage his material, tease out the drama in the lyric, and wring the right emotion from the melody. As great as “My Funny Valentine” is, the song falls flat if, like Rod Stewart, you ooze through it without an ounce of genuine feeling.

Stewart, Manilow, and company are clearly cowed by the standards—they treat them with too much respect. You can hear that reverence in their careful emoting, and see it on their album covers, where they pose stuffed into double-breasted suits and ballroom gowns, as if headed to a very fancy gala event. They view the standards as something old-fashioned and refined, museum pieces to be handled with the utmost delicacy and deliberation. And nearly all of these records worship at the altar of Sinatra’s 1950s recordings for Capitol, transparently modeling their sound on the styles of famous Sinatra arrangers like Nelson Riddle and Billy May.

If you’re looking for traditionalist readings of standards, there are plenty of terrific working musicians who will deliver the goods: Jimmy Scott, Blossom Dearie, Annie Ross, and many others. These people are pros, and they’re still out there on the cabaret circuit. And as long as Andy Bey is recording albums like American Song, future volumes of Stewart’s Great American Songbook series—believe me, they’re coming—will be superfluous, to say the least.

But rock (and R&B, and even hip-hop) musicians could, and should, bring something to the song standards: their own music. The thing about the standards is, they’re not fixed in stone. There’s no such thing as a definitive version—these numbers are meant to be interpreted and reinterpreted. The catalogs of Irving Berlin, Harold Arlen, the Gershwins, et al., have proven plenty durable, withstanding all the noise and speed and crazy time signatures that successive generations of jazz musicians have thrown at them. If the American Songbook is going to remain a living, breathing thing, then young musicians of all stripes will have to take their shot. How about a punk-pop “It Had to Be You”? An electro “Stardust”? We’ve already had tastes of this: the Red Hot AIDS benefit compilation series has loosed an array of rockers, rappers, and DJs on the songs of Gershwin, Cole Porter, and Duke Ellington. By far the best of the recent spate of standards albums by yesteryear’s pop stars is Cyndi Lauper’s At Last (2003), which includes, among other experiments, a spooky and affecting trip-hop version of Jacques Brel’s “If You Go Away“(aka “Ne Me Quitte Pas“) and a rollicking ska rendition of “On the Sunny Side of the Street.” The standards could use more of that kind of cavalier treatment, and less of Barry Manilow’s love.

Correction, Feb. 15, 2006: The article originally and incorrectly identified a Queen Latifah CD as The Dana Stevens Album. Dana Stevens is a frequent contributor to Slate. The correct name of the CD is The Dana Owens AlbumThe article also originally misspelled the name of Sarah Vaughan. (Return here and here to the corrected sentences.)