This month, to celebrate the Internet’s unbridled love for wallowing in nostalgia and even greater relishing of talking about why certain cultural artifacts are horrible, Sound of the City presents First Worsts, a series in which our writers remember the first time… they ever hated a song enough to call it The Worst. (And to be fair, we’re also going to see how these songs have stood the test of time.)
THE SONG: Barry Manilow, “Mandy.”
THE YEAR: 1978.
THE REASONS: Sounding like unflavored syrup; first-crush memories.
I was always an opinionated little fucker. In 1978, my mother took me to see Carbon Copy, one of the many comedies starring (mis)matched black and white male leads—in this case George Segal and, in his first starring role, Denzel Washington—to come along in the wake of Silver Streak. I have no recollection whatsoever of seeing Carbon Copy, and I haven’t seen it since. All I know is that my mother told me when we left the theater I said, in no uncertain terms, that I hated it. I was three.
The same thing applied to the MOR radio my mother doted on. Soft pop was her music of choice—endless Dr. Hook and Barbra Streisand and Air Supply and the Carpenters. Even as a pre-kindergartner, the stuff nauseated me. When Karen Carpenter died, I was in second grade, and a teacher who was a fan made sure to tell us about the dangers of anorexia and bulimia—important information for sure. But mostly I just rolled my eyes, because I was a seven-year-old with a bad attitude, and the Carpenters fucking sucked.
Barry Manilow, “Mandy”
Not as hard, to me, as a kid, than Barry Manilow, though. He was so gratuitously mannerly that it drove me up the wall. “Copacabana” was everything I disliked about show tunes combined with everything I found stupid about disco (as opposed to everything I found awesome about disco—still got a ways to go with show tunes, sorry), all before I knew enough to have a real opinion about either. He was unflavored syrup, so white-sounding (damn right I knew what that meant at three) that it was almost unreal, like the time I watched Lawrence Welk with my great-great aunts Loretta and Arlene. The first couple on the show took a dance, torturously flashing their dazzling whites at the camera between waltz steps, and I laughed so hard I was asked to leave the room.
But Welk was an aberration, an emissary from an old world that the brighter, harder pop culture I was obsessed with had long since wiped out. Manilow, on the other hand, regularly appeared on American Bandstand and Solid Gold. I was cursed to live in his times, and with my mother’s tastes. She did like Motown and Philadelphia International and Al Green, but most of what she liked was much worse.
There is, of course, a reason that “Mandy,” more than any other Manilow song, lodged so hard in my hate spot: Guess the name of my kindergarten crush? The first day of school, I came home crying, because I loved Mandy and she didn’t love me back.
“Did you ask her?” my mom said, sensibly.
“No!” I wailed.
I lost interest in Mandy fairly quickly, but my mother’s family has a problem letting go of a joke; it must have been third grade by the time the last of them had quit cranking the volume whenever the Manilow song came on the radio. Also around then, Mandy moved to a different school district, coming back in junior high, which is always a great time for everybody. “You used to have a crush on me!” she hooted at me once outside the school, between cigarettes. “Not anymore!” I responded, sincerely, suddenly embarrassed at ever having had feelings about anything, ever, in my life.
SO HOW IS IT NOW?
Today I look back at that moment and cringe a little—not because I should have held onto a crush that faded quickly (that’s what crushes do), but because I realize now that Mandy was probably in similar circumstances as I was: poor, rebellious, uncertain, in need of direction. Not that it would have changed anything—I found her coarse, she found me a skittish dink. Neither was mistaken.
Nor was I about Barry Manilow. I don’t hate him as actively as I did when I was a kid for a lot of reasons—with age comes a cooler temperament, though I still have my moments. I, too, would likely find it hilarious if a kid I knew were sweet on someone whose name is the subject of a tune that climaxes with a wailed, “I neeeeed yoooouuuu!” It’s just perfect, you know? But no amount of cultural relativism, or reshuffling of the pop-historical/critical deck, or learning more about the pre-rock pop Manilow is steeped in, is going to stop his music from being endlessly overblown. If “Mandy” isn’t his nadir, it’s close enough. Not bad for a three-year-old.