On salads. Doubleheader baseball...

GROUND PEPPER

May 03, 1994

GROUND PEPPER on salads. Doubleheader baseball games.

Frankfurters out of the microwave. These are among the many things that most people can take or leave with a shrug.

On the other hand, there are two things that people explicitly love or hate: Raw oysters and Barry Manilow.

So it came as a bit of a surprise to see Mr. Manilow's face, along with somewhat amateurish portraits of Neil Diamond and Barbara Streisand, staring out from a billboard off Interstate 95 in East Baltimore to promote a new soft-music radio station in town, WSSF, 104.3-FM.

The new station expressly promotes the music of that troika, to distinguish it from other "top 40" radio stations.

Mr. Diamond and Ms. Streisand are immensely talented entertainers, but they're sort of like the ground pepper and baseball doubleheaders previously mentioned: A lot of people like them, and we don't know anyone who is repulsed by them.

Mr. Manilow, however, is more than a music-maker. He's a living referendum on values and taste. To despise Mr. Manilow is to be cool. To enjoy him is . . . to be a geek.

The truth be told, we like the guy's songs, which have included the hits "Mandy," "Weekend in New England" and "I Write the Songs." They're hummable. They have some heart. You can understand the words -- not that that has anything to do with what's hot in music anymore.

But there's no denying the fact that there's nothing vanilla about this performer.

In fact, he's suing a Los Angeles radio station (which coincidentally also broadcasts at FM frequency 104.3) for $28 million, contending that its ad campaign is injurious to his reputation; the station makes it a point to advertise that it never plays Mr. Manilow's music.

In a similar vein of ridicule, Ben & Jerry's, the dessert mavens who name ice cream flavors after the Grateful Dead rock band, recently held a corporate celebration of Mr. Manilow's birthday; the event was billed as an employee morale-booster, but was clearly poking fun at the pompadoured crooner.

Who's to blame for all this anti-Manilow venom? Who else, the baby boomers, who think to put down this music is to verify their hipness. Well, we're happy to see Mr. Manilow is trying to win them over -- one at a time.

When President Clinton made a rush trip to Minneapolis last month to promote health care reform, Mr. Manilow, who was in town to perform, volunteered to relinquish his hotel suite to make room for the president. Mr. Manilow was described as a "warm supporter" of the president.

If Bill Clinton really wants to heal a fissure in the national psyche, he'll drop the Fleetwood Mac tunes and select something from Mr. Manilow's repertoire for the '96 convention.

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