Howard Jacobson: For the youth of Rockdale, Barry Manilow firmly belongs in the tenth circle of hell

It's not the first time Australians have resorted to easy listening to curb delinquency. Beats an Asbo any day

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This is not the first time Australians have resorted to easy listening to curb delinquency. Some years ago a mall in Wollongong frightened off gangs of loitering teenagers with non-stop Bing Crosby. Beats an Asbo any day. Why we haven't tried it here I can't imagine. You aren't telling me that digging up an old record of Tony Blair and the Ugly Rumours and piping out a couple of tracks on a Saturday night wouldn't empty the streets of Newcastle and Nottingham in minutes.

Deputy Mayor of Rockdale, Bill Saravinovski, has no doubt, anyway, of the scheme's effectiveness. "Daggy music is one way to make the hoons leave an area," he says, "because they can't stand the music."

"Hoons" needs no explanation, but not all readers will be familiar with the concept "daggy". Yes, you will have come across the expression in the plays of David Williamson, in the novels of Peter Carey and Kathy Lette, and in the satirical songs of John Clarke performing as Fred Dagg, but unless you have lived some time in Australia, or in close proximity to Australians, you are unlikely to have fully grasped the subtle shades of meaning of which it's capable.

The first thing you need to know about a dag is that it is a lock of wool, clogged with either soft or hard dung, hanging from the nether regions of a sheep. So, on the face of it at least, to call someone a dag in Australia is far worse than calling them an arsehole. If you are a dag you are what hangs from the arsehole of a sheep. The beauty of the expression, at that level, being that it denotes ineptitude and unawareness as well as foulness: you are, as a dag, the ridiculous thing you can never see about yourself, that which is always to the rear of you, the mess you are unable to clear up because you never know it's there, and, short of rubbing up against a tree, can do nothing about it even when it's brought to your attention.

But that is to leave out the Australian's peculiar ambivalence in the matter of rear ends, whether of humans or of sheep. In the catalogue of Australian compliments, dag comes second only to old bastard - "You old bastard, Manilow" - and maybe arsehole itself, as in - "You're an arsehole Manilow, you old bastard." Most Australian women, for example, will call their husband or the man they love - in some cases they are the same person - a dag, as a way of expressing the affection they feel for his easy-goingness, his indifference to appearance, his lack of elegance and form in a culture which is suspicious of the elegant and formal.

The biggest mistake you can make in Australia is to assume that when a woman calls you a dag she doesn't like you. For reasons we are unable to enter into here - but rest assured they are buried deep in the psycho-sexual history of the country - Australians associate devotion, and sometimes even sexual arousal, with the locks of dung-clogged wool hanging from the behinds of sheep.

So, when Bill Saravinovski calls Barry Manilow's music daggy he is making a value judgement rich in knowing contradiction. And in so far as it implies contempt, it is contempt for those disabled by the culture of youth from finding anything to enjoy in "Mandy", "Copacabana" or "I Write the Songs".

I am entirely on Bill Saravinovski's side in this matter. That is to say I have been won over to Bill Saravinovski's argument. My own position vis-à-vis youth and motor cars, youth and music, youth and drawing breath, has in the past been uncomplicated. Firebomb them, is where I stand. Stood, rather, for now I see the sweet irony of punishing them with the limitations of their taste.

Piping Barry Manilow into the ears of those to whom Barry Manilow is anathema is not, you see, the same as singing "Hitler has only got one ball" or selections from Das Rheingold in football stadiums all over Germany for the next four weeks. Barry Manilow does not bear upon the values of the youth of Rockdale except in so far as he hurts their ears. To play him is not to jeer or be provocative. His music does not allude to any past or present boy-racer ideology or misdemeanour. It is simply a joke at the expense of their musical snobbery.

Behold, then, the tenth circle of hell, henceforth to be known as Rockdale - populated with those who are slaves to this or that musical fashion, and who presume that any taste but theirs lacks cool. Their punishment - to have Barry Manilow, Mantovani, Andre Kostelanetz and the Melachrino Strings played to them at maximum amplification for eternity.

Kostelanetz and Mantovani, as I remember, represented the height of "light-classical" taste for Ron Patimkin, brother of the Jewish-American Princess in Philip Roth's first novel Goodbye, Columbus. How we laughed when Ron offered to play Roth's hero his collection! Now it's de rigueur - every novel aspiring to be comic must have someone make a shmuck of himself by liking music he shouldn't. The badge of our sophistication - the racket we give our allegiance to. As though, Bach and Schubert aside, there is anything to choose between any of it.

I'm a Mario Lanza man myself. BBC2 showed a documentary about him last week, which made me cry my eyes out. All that instability, all that food, all those women, and all those lovely songs - some vulgar, some exquisite, some - when he was in good voice - performed as sweetly as any tenor has ever performed them. To be an opera singer or stay a movie star? The great melodramatic question of his life. Couldn't decide, so he ate, raged, fornicated, and died aged 38.

A life as brief and schmaltzy as any Puccini could conceive. Isn't that what breaks our hearts in opera, indeed in all music (Bach and Schubert aside) - realising what mawk-merchants we are, bound upon a wheel of schmaltz? That's what those kids are running from in Barry Manilow: the truth.

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