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The Saving Grace of Music (or how Barry Manilow saved my life)

by TRISTAN MADDEN

I define myself by very simple terms. I am a human first, male second, and Barry Manilow fan third. These are the things that are at the core of who I am—basic things. All other affiliations—nationality, religious denomination, political party—are secondary to these primary traits. The primacy of my humanity and masculinity probably doesn’t require much explaining, but I imagine that third trait—“Barry Manilow fan”—raises a few eyebrows.

How could a person’s love for an over-the-hill pop star be at the center of who he is? To put it bluntly, I owe my existence to Barry Manilow. Now, I don’t mean that in the crude sense that my parents just happened to get busy while “Mandy” was playing in the background—though, let’s be honest, Barry does inspire animalistic lust. No, unfortunately, it’s a little darker than that.

Courtesy: celebritiesbrasize.com Pictured: animalistic lust
Courtesy: celebritiesbrasize.com
Pictured: animalistic lust

I was a chubby kid in middle school. I mention this characteristic only because my peers loved to remind me that it was my defining characteristic. I was bullied, and as you might expect from the kind of kid who listens to pop stars who haven’t been relevant since the early 80’s, I didn’t really possess the social grace to properly handle this kind of treatment. I became depressed, and this eventually led me down a very dark path. I came very close to doing things I would have most certainly regretted. But I didn’t do these things. Why?

To help cope with my depression, I asked my parents to get me an MP3 player, and being the wonderful people they are, they obliged. Now, at 14, I didn’t really have an extensive music library, so I just copied the Itunes folder of my father—a man whose musical tastes begin in the year 1960 and end somewhere in the late 1970s. And so began a strangely cathartic nightly ritual of aimlessly wandering through my neighborhood, listening to a selection of radio hits that had stopped being popular several decades before my birth.

It was as I was taking one of these therapeutic walks, shuffling through my father’s retro playlist, that Barry Manilow’s “Copacabana” started playing. Considering the man who raised me, it goes without saying that this was not the first time I had heard “Copacabana,” but songs can mean different things at different moments in one’s life. And at that moment in my life, “Copacabana,” in all of its bombastic and over-wrought glory, communicated one very important thing to me: passion.

The funny thing about depression, at least as I understood it, is that it isn’t a very emotional thing. I spent most of my time in a state of dispassionate introspection, staring at the floor and contemplating the merit of my own existence. Sure, I cried a lot in the beginning, but after a while I ran out of tears. Depression, at its core, is hopelessness; it is the absence of impetus and energy. One of the biggest criticisms Barry Manilow faces is his tendency towards songs that are saccharine and overly sentimental. But for someone who felt like life was increasingly bitter sweet, saccharine and sentimental songs filled me with a much needed surge of energy.

Before I even realized it myself, I was sprinting down the side walk. The song was providing me with a seemingly limitless supply of energy and passion and my body just kicked into this rapid motion in an effort to expend it. Of course, I only managed to run about a quarter of a mile before slipping on some black ice and face-planting into the concrete, but that just made me feel more alive—in a figurative sense of course because I actually laid on the ground immobile for about two minutes while I nursed my wounds. Still, despite the night’s unfortunate end, it inspired something in me.

I started to run every night afterwards. And in only a year, I went from being able to run a quarter of a mile to being able to run ten miles without stopping. I don’t think you need to guess what musician dominated and continues to dominate my workout playlist.

I lost all the weight I was so much maligned for, but more importantly, I found the cure for my depression. Barry Manilow’s music was something that could really energize and empower me. And all of this progress stems from the serendipity of hearing the right song from the right artist at the right time. I dread to imagine what might have become of me if I had gotten really in to death metal instead of Barry Manilow.

The funny thing is I didn’t even realize how important Barry and music was in my life until I attended one of his concerts a few weeks ago. He was talking to the audience. He said,

“My favorite thing in the whole world is a four letter word called ‘hope’.”

He then proceeded to sing “I Made it Through the Rain,” a song about perseverance through the toughest adversity. I was amazed—I had no idea a human being could so offend my capacity for cliché. I considered storming out of the Verizon Center in protest, but then I took the time to really think about what Barry said.

Depression is hopelessness, so it stands to reason that the best cure for depression is an injection of hope. Music, specifically Barry Manilow’s cheesy and saccharine songs, provided me with that booster shot. It gave me a sense of passion. It filled me with an energy that was funneled into a singular drive to improve myself and my condition.

There is something inherently powerful in music. On the surface, it seems to be such a superfluous thing. It’s something you turn on to add ambience to a family dinner or make work a little less tedious. Certainly, this is how I have often regarded it. But music is so much more than that. For me, it redefined who I was. I went from aimless and fatalistic to determined and optimistic. It was my saving grace. So yes, I say without irony or shame that I am a human first, male second, and Barry Manilow fan third.

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