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The Embarrassing 1,000-Year History of the Male Power Ballad

While power ballads have plenty in common with the Romanticism of the 1800s, their roots go all the way back to the 11th century

When the great chronicle of human civilization comes to be written, the 1980s will go down as the decade when we had everything in our grasp but let it all go. So many self-inflicted threats were allowed to escalate unchecked during that time, and we’re now all being forced to live with their consequences: Nuclear proliferation, global carbon emissions, free-market capitalism, and most monstrous of all, adult-oriented power ballads. It’s virtually impossible to explain exactly how the first three Promethean nightmares came about. But with the last one, as a runaway outgrowth of deeply misguided pop-culture trends, we can at least attempt to trace its origins in the hope that it will never happen again.

First off, for a culture that daily had to deal with the risk of Cold War annihilation, the popularity of a musical style desperately reaching for immortality makes a lot of sense. Traditionally, the power balladeers sing of an emotional Valhalla where flames are eternal, feelings are boundless and everything — every bloody thing that pops into their heads — has to be forever. Power ballads are pop-culture’s response to the abyss, which is probably why they’re often so abysmal.

Yet for all its turned-to-11 epicness, the power ballad — at least in its classic, brooding, male-sung form — actually hasn’t been around forever. While its echoes linger on in vulnera-warbles from your Ed Sheerans or your Justin Biebers, the age of its commercial dominion over rock, pop and R&B has pretty much come and gone, and this can be seen clearly in two indelible tide marks left by its rise and fall. The first is last year’s standout song from Disney’s Frozen II, “Lost in the Woods.” As a pitch-perfect pastiche of MTV-era man-pop, the clip became an internet obsession for a while, and the nostalgia and absurdity the animators were trading on reveal just how much the world has moved on from puffy-haired he-strionics.

The second is the form’s high watermark, which, unusually for a musical style, can be pinned to a precise moment in culture. The male power ballad officially peaked in the 1991 slacker smash Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey, right at the point where a deceased Bill and Ted, attempting to gain access to meet God, are challenged at the Pearly Gates with the big question: “What is the meaning of life?” To which Ted (Keanu Reeves) most triumphantly responds by quoting the chorus of the paradigmatic soft-metal lament by the 1980s band Poison: “Every rose has its thorn…”

And really, for the power ballad, it can only have been one long descending stairway back from Heaven from there.

Pull It Down, Let It Go

How did such an affected, risible, ultimately silly formula ever get to be so popular? And which needy, over-earnest songwriters should we hold directly responsible? 

Before we get on to all that, there’s the oddly contested issue of definitions to clear up. Even though it’s one of the most easily identifiable song styles in all of popular music, fans of the PB get weirdly self-righteous and argumentative in their attempts to draw its boundaries. In his 2012 survey of the subject, University of British Columbia music historian David Metzer offers some much-needed clarity with some brilliant formal insights into the essential ingredients of a power ballad — which we’ll get to shortly — but he also makes a perceptive point that, “from early on the term ‘power ballad’ was applied to songs in genres other than rock.” For him, “a key feature of the power ballad,” is that “the songs cross genre lines.” Which is possibly what makes exact definitions so slippery (When Wet, you might be tempted to say).

Cutting through the abstract debate, though, there is at least one concrete test to reliably establish a song’s true PB credentials. It’s called the “Pull It Down, Let It Go” method, and it was scientifically developed by two friends of mine who, going through an intense power-ballad phase years ago, managed to capture the form’s essence better than anyone. 

Perform the test as follows: While the song is playing, find a line or two where you can grab all the feelings from the air around you (you have to physically do this); then hold them in a trembling fist in front of your eyes; then pull that fist down toward your belly-button/soul; then, after a second or two, release those feelings and gaze in wonder as they take flight before you like hummingbirds made of petals made of vanishing raindrops — if you can plausibly do that during a song, then you’re listening to a power ballad. 

This totally works, and if you’re in any way skeptical about it, here’s the video for Foreigner’s mighty definitive example of the form from 1984 to prove you wrong:

Could It Be Magic?

Thus elaborated, we can now apply the “Pull It Down, Let It Go” test all the way back through pop history to ascertain just when and where power ballads entered the story. And what we find (well, what Professor Metzer’s more scholarly research finds) is that they didn’t really exist before the mid-1970s — and not in mainstream consciousness before Barry Manilow midwifed them into being.

It’s true that a handful of American soft-rock bands, in particular R.E.O. Speedwagon, Styx and Journey, were groping their way toward ballads with balls throughout the decade — Metzer cites a 1981 interview with R.E.O. Speedwagon, in which lead singer Kevin Cronin mused, “We learned we could play ballads and still have them be real powerful,” with guitarist Gary Richrath adding, “Yeah, like what Led Zeppelin did with ‘Stairway to Heaven,’ which starts out acoustic and builds up.” But Metzer argues it was Manilow’s billowing orchestral arrangements that sold fully realized pull-it-down ballads as a winning formula to both the music industry and a swooning public. Between 1974 and 1981 Manilow wafted no less than nine power ballads in the U.S. Top 20, including “Ready to Take a Chance Again,” “I Made It Through the Rain,” and, arguably the song that launched a thousand final-chorus key changes, “Mandy.”

Both labels and musicians recognized Manilow’s repeated PB structure as a license to print money. But what were the key elements of that blueprint? According to Metzer, “The crux of the musical formula is continual escalation.” As opposed to other kinds of sentimental songs — torch songs, say, or traditional country and western ballads — from a quiet, calm beginning, a power ballad rapidly hikes its way up a steep emotional mountain, “through a series of expressive plateaus,” each more intense than the last. How it does this depends largely on the genre, but it tends to rely on arrangements that chuck more and louder instruments into the mix, and singers that step up their dramatics at key points in the performance. 

The second essential component is a complementary “expressive formula.” This, he says, “consists of two parts: Sentimentality and uplift.” Basically, in the first part of the song, something makes you go, “Ahhh, yeah…” in sympathy, while in the second, you go, “Fuck yeah!” in abandon. And it’s the “uplift” part that creates “the emotional adrenaline rush that so many listeners find addictive.”

“No matter what feelings the lyrics touch upon, the songs follow the same course, leading to euphoria,” argues Metzer. “It’s this hyper-impassioned quality that has made them so successful.” In fact, the formula is so straightforward that YouTube remixers have been trawling recent chart history and proving that, with the right synth and drum-pad plugins, that emotional rush can be easily manufactured, and just about any song can be Frankensteined into a convincing 1980s pop PB. Here’s Rihanna and Calvin Harris reimagined into an A.O.R. production line of 30 years ago:

Among a number of other characteristic ingredients of the power ballad, Metzer identifies “ecstatic displays” and “catapulted high notes” from the singer, along with the musical end zone of a “wrenching” final key change (“the cliché hallmark of a power ballad”) and/or a soaring guitar solo in rock variants — all signals that the song itself is struggling to contain an onrush of passion that’s bursting out of it at every seam. The sense of transcendence a PB shoots for, meanwhile, tends to “make the songs emotionally vague,” which Metzer believes might indicate one more reason for their massive popularity, since “listeners can draw whatever they want from that mist, including despair, resolve, comfort and exultation.”

There might be another, simpler explanation, though: Stirring from whispering romantic beginnings; finding a rhythm as it surges through heightening phases of intensity toward a euphoric release; all brought to a head inside of four minutes? It’s basically the industrial template for standard-issue, unremarkable sex, isn’t it.

I Don’t Wanna Live Without Your Love

It’s probably no coincidence, then, that the manly power ballad’s rock and roll heyday coincided with the rise of music-video culture in the 1980s and 1990s, and the sex-frenzied output of hair-metal bands such as Bon Jovi, Aerosmith, Mötley Crüe, Guns N’ Roses and the like. Around the same time, the prolific songwriter Diane Warren was volleying out her trademark PBs to artists at the fluffier end of the rock spectrum such as Air Supply, Glenn Medeiros, and, of course, Chicago — seen here depicting the emotional journey of the power ballad as a treacherous descent through a fallopian tube rendered in 1980s graphics and booby-trapped with deadly attack-penises:

With the build-toward-transcendence-at-80-BPM template having proved its commercial worth, the format turned up in all sorts of genres and contexts, notably heavy-eye-contact perm-pop heartthrobs such as Richard Marx and Michael Bolton; R&B crescendo-meisters following in the wake of Whitney Houston and Mariah Carey; and endless boy bands, each with their token let’s-sit-down-on-some-stools-for-this-one number. 

By the late 1990s, the power ballad had seeped into every cultural cranny, to become the mainstay of Hollywood soundtracks (thanks in large part to Titanic) and musical theater, where arguably it had always been lurking, though the British virtuoso sentimentalist Andrew Lloyd Webber perfected it for the stage in the 1970s and 1980s. His early version of a screeching PB emotional climax has since become one of the most successfully montaged things on the internet:

Placing the rise of the power ballad in the broader history of pop music, Metzer sees it as the logical conclusion of a drift in ballad-writing from the restrained torch songs of the 1930s and crooners of the 1940s and 1950s toward ever bigger, more dramatic expressive styles. Pull the historical perspective further out again, though, and the spectacle of men wringing themselves dry with grand emotional gestures before an indulgent public has a very long pedigree indeed.

Their lowness of brow notwithstanding, posturing power balladeers in the vein of Michael Bolton and Jon Bon Jovi find clear forebears in the tortured poets of the Romantic era, whose emotional battles and extreme idealization of the objects of their desire were the “take these broken wings” of their day. To put one example to the “Pull It Down, Let It Go” test, take the 1819 sonnet “Bright Star,” in which John Keats dreams of being:

Pillow’d upon my fair love’s ripening breast,
To feel for ever its soft fall and swell,
Awake for ever in a sweet unrest,
Still, still to hear her tender-taken breath,
And so live ever — or else swoon to death. 

And compare that to Warren’s 1998 “I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing,” where Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler wants his surely utterly terrified partner to know something very similar:

I could stay awake just to hear you breathing,
Watch you smile while you are sleeping,
While you’re far away and dreaming,
I could spend my life in this sweet surrender,
I could stay lost in this moment forever. 

Romanticism’s obsession with the sublime — the individual’s incomprehensible finitude compared with the excessive scale and power of nature — also predicts power ballad themes by 170 years or so. You can hear its faint echo in every lonely snare drum that calls out into a void of infinite reverb. But it’s perhaps more obvious in the stormy references to the elements that pepper power-ballad imagery, in their videos and their lyrics:

The bright sun was extinguish’d, and the stars
Did wander darkling in the eternal space…
— Lord Byron, “Darkness,” 1816

 Now when it rains it seems the sun never shines…
All the stars in the night shine in your name…
— Slaughter, “Fly to the Angels,” 1990

What is most like thee?
From rainbow clouds there flow not
Drops so bright to see
As from thy presence showers a rain of melody.
— Percy Bysshe Shelley, “To a Skylark,” 1820 

When I see you smile
I see a ray of light,
Oh oh, I see it shining right through the rain.
— Bad English, “When I See You Smile,” 1989 

I wandered lonely as a cloud.
— William Wordsworth, ‘Daffodils’, 1807

Like a drifter I was born to walk alone.
 — Whitesnake, “Here I Go Again,” 1982

And so on.

Now and Forever, I Will Be Your Man

The aching melodrama of male power ballads is another aspect that’s mirrored uncannily in the Romantic period — a time when poets would rather die than not have rainbows — but it’s also a striking throwback to an even more distant point in literary history. For knightly heroes of the “Courtly Love” tradition developed by troubadour poets among Europe’s nobility in the 11th and 12th centuries, passion for their beloved ladies was all-consuming and could only be adequately met by grandiose pledges of devotion and accomplishing increasingly perilous feats in their name. As it’s outlined in the Arthurian legend Sir Gawain and the Green Knight by the idealized Lady of the Castle: “In chivalry the chiefmost aspect to choose, as all knights acknowledge, is loyalty in love, for when tales of truthful knights are told … the topic they describe is how lords have laid down their lives for love.”

And of course, the ultimate sacrifice is a promise that pops up in power ballads all the fucking time. It comes with maximum chivalrous display in the eternally hanging “I’d die for yooooou…” from Bryan Adams in his 1991 number one ‘(Everything I Do) I Do It for You’ —

— taken, of course, from the soundtrack of a medieval-times movie, Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves. Even more explicit connections between the age of Courtly Love and the heyday of PBs can be heard in what was for many the archetypal power ballad, Peter Cetera’s “Glory of Love,” which accompanied the release of The Karate Kid Part II in 1986: “Like a knight in shining armor, from a long time ago, just in time I will save the day — take you to my castle far away…” And in another convergence, while the movie it soundtracked — the 1993 version of The Three Musketeers — was set centuries after chivalry’s medieval high point, this didn’t prevent the milky triple threat of Bryan Adams, Sting and Rod Stewart from rasping out the huskiest song ever recorded, “All for One,” in terms of pure Courtly Love convention: “I will defend, I will fight. I’ll be there when you need me. When honor’s at stake, this vow I will make…”

The undying faithfulness expressed by a gallant hero might appeal to a certain type of swooning maiden, but all those throbbing superlatives create an impossibly high bar for a relationship — as here illustrated by the noblest of their number, brave Sir Michael of Bolton:

This is where the heroic masculinity that was always at the heart of the male power ballad goes some way to explaining both its surge in popularity and its subsequent decline. If you were a 1980s pin-up about to show your vulnerable side, you’d better go all in if you still wanted to project a manly persona. If they weren’t enormous and overwhelming enough, feelings ran the risk of appearing frail and feminine.

As Metzer points out, this macho inflation is best illustrated in the split-personality concepts so often seen in the videos for hair-metal ballads, which “typically divide a band’s life into two worlds” — intimate scenes of romance or sensitive moments backstage, versus the hyper-hetero phallic shape-throwing of their live performances. In this set-up, he says, “The stage shows come across as overcompensation.” What the rock monsters did by “amping up the expressive formula of the power ballad,” he says, was reassure everyone about their macho heterosexual credentials. As the pop critic Ann Powers explained it in a 1998 article for The New York Times, “The splendor of a virile singer like Jon Bon Jovi pouring his heart out to a woman assured fans of both sexes that such sentimentality was all right.”

Power Down

So why did the power ballad, and the male-sung version in particular, fall from mass-market favor into its long, forlorn fadeout? 

Well, despite all protests to the contrary from Bolton et al, in reality, “Nothing lasts forever, and we [all] know hearts can change,” as one cock-rocker put it in an uncharacteristically wise ballading moment (and you’re absolutely right, Axl, it can prove difficult to hold a candle in the cold November rain).

Perhaps it was the rise of internet porn? Maybe people began to lose interest in an indirect, coy facsimile of sex when they found themselves surrounded, 24/7, by something much closer to the real thing. Or it could be that the pressure-cooker model for male emotional life has eased over the past couple of decades, and with masculinity in general more at home with displaying everyday human emotions there hasn’t been as much demand for what British musicologist Simon Frith called “songs of feeling bottled up and bursting out; musical, emotional and sexual release somehow all equated.”

If that’s the case, then the twilight of the male power ballad was announced in a 2003 song by the U.K. rock band The Darkness, whose video trots out all the form’s most puffed-up Romantic tropes — guitars howling from mountaintops, awesomely sublime landscapes, the sun bursting through clouds (there’s even a halfway decent “Pull It Down, Let It Go” from singer Justin Hawkins at 1:50) — yet whose lyrics categorically deny “forever” and admit that “love is only a feeling, drifting away, and we’ve got to stop ourselves believing it’s here to stay.” 

Or else it might just be that, like every artistic form that follows such a tight-wound formula, once it became a cliché, the power ballad went very quickly from stale to stinking to high heaven. Because the true power in a power ballad has nothing to do with drums, electric guitars or orchestral key changes; it’s all about the overplayed sincerity of the singer — which is always too, too much, and makes all these songs impossible to take seriously. Yes, it’s a transcendent kind of music, but in the same way as when He-Man (to take another cartoon cliché popular in the 1980s) held aloft his sword and morphed into a ridiculously ripped version of himself, it’s a “power ballad” only when it’s an overwrought caricature of a ballad.

That said, for a whole generation, the spectacle of men fetishizing notions of “together forever” in the context of a three-minute musical leg-hump somehow proved to be an irresistible emotional force. It certainly was for the guy who posted this in the YouTube comments for Bon Jovi’s 1986 stadium-swayer “Never Say Goodbye”: “I lost my virginity to this song in the backseat of my 1970 Chevelle with my wife,” he confesses, “and we’re still married to this day and I love you baby forever and forever.” 

The disturbing thing here is, this was a song about losing your virginity in the backseat of a car. Which shows that, at the height of their popularity, when some people got really into power ballads, they stayed there. Forever. They pulled it down, but they couldn’t let it go.

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