Madonna. Almost four years ago. I’d never been a fan of her, either, but I decided to go on a whim. It hadn’t turned out well. The audience had been filled with middle aged women, some of them wearing lace fingerless gloves and giant bows in their hair. Although Madonna came on stage almost two hours late, there was a giant projection of a stained glass window and we thought we heard the strains to “Like a Prayer”. Everyone got very excited, but then the window shattered and the music changed to a song no one in the audience seemed to have heard before. Incan priests in full headdresses rose out of hidden compartments on the stage (I think they were actual Incans). Madonna danced and sang and we sort of tried to follow along. Then a bed appeared on the stage and Madonna sang “Bang You’re Dead, Shot My Lover in the Head” (I’m guessing that was the name of the song because she repeated that over and over again). She pretended to shoot a male dancer, then she stripped, then she climbed on top of him with an open bible and a bottle of whiskey and pretended to simulate a sex act.
I looked around at the faces of the shocked middle-aged women with drooping bows in their hair. They’d come hoping to relive a piece of their childhood and hear songs they’d known and loved, but Madonna refused to give them that moment.
The low point came when she writhed nearly naked on the floor, telling the audience she was taking donations for charity, and asking people to throw money onto the stage. A few people half-heartedly threw some bills at her, and she got angry, swearing and calling people cheap until they threw more. People started leaving at this point, even though the concert wasn’t over.
On the ride to the Barry Manilow concert, I wondered if the same thing might happen. I mean, I knew Barry wouldn’t be writhing nearly naked on the stage, but I wondered if we’d all leave feeling a little disappointed and a bit sad and kind of dirty.
As soon as Barry took the stage, I knew it would be different. By the end of the concert I was a fan. It wasn’t just about enjoying the concert. Barry taught me some important lessons I could use as a writer.
1. Know your fans. Barry understands his demographic. It’s mostly women over the age of forty. The few men in the audience were there under duress. There was a boy in front of us, who actually seemed to be enjoying the concert almost as much as his mother, and there some adorable teenaged girls behind us who kept getting excited and saying, “Grandma! You love this song! Grandma!” They were sweet, but they weren’t Barry’s bread and butter. Grandma was his bread and butter.
2. Know what your fans want and play for your fans. Barry nailed this one, and this is exactly where Madonna went wrong. She played what she wanted to and didn’t care if the people in the audience liked it or not. It might be “artistic” or “edgy” to do so, but it’s also a good way to alienate loyal fans. Remember this as a writer. Barry has sung “Copacapana” an infinite number of times, but each time he does it with grace, style, and energy. It’s what his fans want to hear and he respects his fans enough to do it. If you want to write for yourself and your own pleasure, fine. That’s your prerogative. But if you want to be a successful writer and build a bigger fan base, take a note from Barry.
3. Know what you’re good at. I think the biggest shock of the evening came when I listened – really listened – to Barry’s songs and realized the man is a genius. His words are poetic, powerful, beautiful, and achingly romantic. He’s the Boss of the Ballads, the Sultan of Slow Dances, and the Earl of Elevator Music, but he's a master at what he does and he sticks to it. If you’re really gifted at writing YA, do it. If you have a knack for romance, go for it. Set aside your preconceived ideas about what is true art and write what you’re good at. Let the literary snobs look down their noses at you. Who cares? Be true to yourself.
4. But break out of your comfort zone every once in a while. This might seem the opposite of what I said above, but I saw Barry do this on stage with a boogie woogie tune and a bluesy number and realized even though these weren’t the songs he was most famous for, they were fun and he had fun performing them. It’s nice to stretch and reach as a artist, as long as you have a firm understanding of your fan base and also of your own talents. I had to try a lot of different genres before I really found one that fit. I wouldn’t have figured this out if I hadn’t been a little flexible and willing to try new things.
5. Storytelling is key. I’d heard Barry’s songs as a teenager, but listening them to an adult, and as a writer, made me appreciate them even more. He is a born storyteller. Take the song “Copacabana” as an example. In a few short sentences, you like Lola, you want her to end up having a happily ever after with Nick, you know they’ll be trouble when Rico comes into the bar, and the ending of the song just about breaks your heart. Barry just wrote an entire novel and put it into a short song. That is masterful storytelling. I think a good exercise for any writer would be to see if you could tell a story like that, encapsulating plot, character description, story arc, and denouement into a few short, concise sentences. Talk about brevity and word choice and the power of words to create mood – this is not easy to do.
The day after the concert, I shared my thoughts with my husband. He was trying to read the newspaper. Although he was happy I’d had a good time and a sort of an epiphany at the concert, when I tried to give him concrete examples, he looked confused.
“It’s like when he begins ‘I Write the Songs’ with the line, ‘I’ve been alive forever, and I wrote the very first song.’ That’s poetry. Don’t you love that song?”
He thought about it a bit. “Um. I don’t know that song.”
I froze, wondering how that could be possible, and began rattling off a list of songs I thought me must know. “Mandy”, “I Made it Through the Rain”, “Even Now”, and finally “Copacabana.” Finally, I had a reaction.
“Oh. I might have heard that one.”
Now it was my turn to look confused. “You must have heard these songs. They sort of defined an entire generation.”
He shrugged. “I listened to Metallica when I was in high school.”
End of subject. Oh, well. He might not see the beauty of Barry the way I did, but I did score a minor victory. I heard him singing “Copacabana” under his breath as he finished reading the newspaper.