In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.
Your ex is with somebody else, doing fine now. You’re with somebody else, and you’re also doing fine now. And yet everytime you see this person, you plunge yourself into a memory-haze, feeling the tug of old feelings, wondering what might’ve been if one or both of you hadn’t messed everything up. That’s a pretty common feeling. It’s probably a more common feeling now than it was in 1977, since there’s a good chance you’re Facebook friends with your ex. But in 1977, when people still had to run into their exes at parties or whatever, that feeling still got a drippy Barry Manilow ballad dedicated to it.
Around the time that Barry Manilow got to #1 with 1976’s “I Write The Songs,” he apparently figured out what the world wanted from him. He could sing silly, frisky, jazzy numbers, but those songs weren’t what the world wanted from him. They wanted big, grand, feelings-on-display adult-contempo ballads full of pianos and woodwinds and showy Broadway notes.
Manilow was self-aware about this. He hadn’t written “I Write The Songs,” but shortly thereafter, he wrote a song called “I Really Do Write The Songs,” a meta-parody of the ballads that had made him famous: “Love that chorus! / Shove that chorus! / Never overlook giving it a hook!” On the demo of that song, Manilow belts all that cynical stuff out with the same hammy sincerity that he used for his actual ballads. Manilow didn’t release “I Really Do Write The Songs” until decades later, when it came out as a reissue bonus track. While he was on top, he wasn’t going to break kayfabe.
In any case, you can hear that formula at work on “Looks Like We Made It,” Manilow’s third and final #1. As with Manilow’s two previous #1 hits, Manilow didn’t write “Looks Like We Made It.” Instead, the song’s music came from Richard Kerr, the pianist who’d already co-wrote the 1975 #1 “Mandy.” (No surprise that it sounds a whole lot like “Mandy.”) The lyrics, meanwhile, were written by Will Jennings, a ballad specialist who will appear in this column a bunch of times over the decades.
The one real good trick of “Looks Like We Made It” is that it sounds like a love song — a couple celebrating their resilience after making it through some stuff — while it’s really about the fact that they’re no longer a couple anymore: “Do you love him as much as I love her? / And will that love be strong when old feelings start to stir?” But that ex-factor feeling is a complicated one, and “Looks Like We Made It” is not an especially complicated song. Instead, Jennings’ lyrics spell those feelings out pretty clumsily: “Oh no, we made it / Left each other on the way to another love / Looks like we made it / Or I thought so till today.”
Barry Manilow has never been an especially subtle singer, and on “Looks Like We Made It,” he takes a bittersweet idea and almost entirely drowns out the bitter with the sweet. That’s probably why so many people hear “Looks Like We Made It” as a love song: Manilow never tries to sing it as anything else. He piles on the precise histrionics, belting out that title with a dopey and unconflicted force.
Like “Mandy” and “I Write The Songs” before it, “Looks Like We Made It” is a pleasant and professional piece of music. Manilow’s got an impressive voice, and he’s not shy about showing it off. He and producer Ron Dante pile on the strings, which makes for a whole lot of big, crashing moments. And yet Manilow never seems emotionally connected to the song in any real way, and the entire thing just slowly wafts off into the air like a fart on a warm day.
Barry Manilow would continue to be a reliable hit-machine for the next few years. He’s a quintessential ’70s artist, and he pretty much stopped making crossover hits as soon as the decade ended. (Manilow’s last top-10 single, 1980’s “I Made It Through The Rain,” peaked at #10. It’s a 4.) And long after that run of singles, Manilow remained a big album seller and live draw. Adult-contemporary radio has always been his kingdom, and he kept scoring big hits on the AC chart into this decade.
As far as the pop charts are concerned, Manilow only really branched out of his ballad zone once. The irresistible and deeply silly story-song “Copacabana (At The Copa)” wasn’t Manilow’s biggest hit. (It peaked at #8 in 1978, and it’s an 8.) But it’s easily the best of Manilow’s big songs, and I’d argue that it’s the best-remembered, too. In any case, I’m pretty sure it’s the only one of Manilow’s songs that has been adapted into a movie. In 1985, Manilow starred in a made-for-TV feature adaptation called Copacabana. Outside of the odd winky cameo where he plays himself, it’s Manilow’s only acting role.
Barry Manilow is fine. His keeps putting out greatest-hits albums, and they keep selling. He’s got a Las Vegas show right now, and he’s got a musical going into production in New York next year. He’s extremely rich. I don’t have any real use for his drippy ballads, but someone clearly does, so good for him. He made it.
BONUS BEATS: Here’s the bit from a 1996 Friends episode where Ross and his monkey get a goodbye montage set to “Looks Like We Made It”:
BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s a 2012 Chevy Super Bowl commercial, which takes place during the Mayan apocalypse and which is set to “Looks Like We Made It”: