Barry Manilow is the most sensitive male in the human race.
He must be, because the Manilow Question divides the world into two camps, aligned almost exclusively by sex: men generally think he's pretty schmaltzy (though they sing along earnestly to Manilow hits such as "Mandy" in the solitude of their cars), and women just want to spread that schmaltz on rye and eat it with a pickle and cream soda.
The Manilow-faithful station-wagon moms of the '70s may have yielded to the minivan moms of today, but folks of all ages are heeding Manilow's easy-listening love calls more than ever. His latest greatest-hits compilation, Ultimate Manilow, actually hit the Billboard chart at No. 3, slapping down the likes of Pink and Ludacris. His other newly released product, a concept album titled Here at the Mayflower, ranked high on another chart and demonstrated the singer/songwriter's ability to tweak his style and still keep the success train rolling. A recent profile in the New York Times and a revealing turn on Bravo's Musicians have sealed the deal: to borrow from Neil Simon, suddenly Manilow is Africa-hot.
How does it feel to be on top again? "It's certainly better than being called an idiot in print, as I have been over the years," Manilow says. "I guess you hang in there long enough and you believe in what you do and you just keep doing what your gut tells you to do and somehow you rise and survive if you're lucky ... and it's much better and sweeter the second time around, let me tell you. I guess youth is wasted on the young -- they're not kidding. The first time around, in 1978, '79, when this thing really hit, it was overwhelming and it just wasn't as much fun. This time, it's much more fun to share it with my loved ones and for this lightning bolt to strike a second time."
The new tunes on Mayflower were inspired by a childhood memory. "I grew up right around the corner from a six-floor apartment building called the Mayflower in Brooklyn," says Manilow, "but the songs are about fictitious people. It [the building] had a lot of people in it and a lot of families and a lot of stories, and I just thought, 'Wouldn't that be fun to write an album of original songs based on the stories of people's lives in an apartment building?' Over the last 15 years we [Manilow and his lyricists] piled up a whole batch of songs, and it all came together this last couple of years."
Somehow the years of tremendous radio success, the critical disses of Manilow's sentimental oeuvre, a few relatively quiet decades and two new albums have finally added up to the sort of comeback for Manilow that fellow mom-magnets Neil Diamond and Tom Jones have previously enjoyed -- devotion to an icon, with the occasional knowing wink from the under-30 set.
There's a name for serious Manilow fans, says the singer: "I hear they're called Maniloonies."