I am a full on child of the 80s. That means a few things.
First, I am old as Fuck.
Second, I remember a time when rap didn't exist, it sucked.
Third, I LOVE THE shit OUT OF SOME POWER BALLADS.
Now I am not talking about the run of the mill industry churned out sap-fests that ended up destroying a genre of music, that up until record execs figured out the formula, was pretty fucking fun. This means I am not talking about your White Lions, Wingers, or Warrants. I am talking honest to goodness POWER fucking BALLADS.
The first power ballad that caught my attention was probably the Def Leppard song Bringing On The Heartbreak, a slow but heavy churner of a song that found its way into heavy rotation in the very early days of MTV. This was before the success of Pyromania and Hysteria. This was a young band who looked like they still had day jobs that wrote a shit kicker of a good song. It wasn't formulaic, it wasn't pretentious, it wasn't anything really, other than a great song on a great album. People often forget or have no idea how good High and Dry was because by the time they hear about it, if they hear about it they are already covered in stripper glitter and have Pour Some Sugar On Me lodged i their head. Seriously though, give this bad boy a listen and tell me it doesn't kick all sorts of ass.
As the years went on I started to recognize that the power ballad became sort of a gimmick, a way for metal bands to reach a wider audience, particularly one that had vaginas. I can't really blame them. I have been an artist in a genre that was dominated by men who were obsessed with the music. It is equal parts creepy, boring and dull. When a woman showed even an inkling of interest it was like being knighted, laid and cannonized all at once. So it makes total fucking sense to me.
Motley Crue's Home Sweet Home was probably the first major power ballad that I remember, and remember thinking, this is gonna be fucking huge.
It launched a sensation and a million careers.
It is one of those songs that is right up there with Like A Virgin, 1999, and Every Breath You Take, that define rock in the 80s. You will get a lot of pretensious types who will scoff at that idea, because the power ballad itself represents something less than dignified and admitting that you liked them somehow paints you as less than hip, but Fuck them. The truth of the matter is that these songs were huge parts of the lives of teens in the 80s and thus are important. Whether you liked them or not is a matter of taste, if you didnt like them you probably had shitty taste.
In the grand scheme of things most of these fuckers are pretty forgetable and interchangable but so is Cyndi Lauper, Madonna and the Go Gos or Tears for Fears, The Police and Genesis. It is the exception to the rule that is important. It is the moment when the formula becomes something more, it is when it becomes trascendent that it matters. For me that moment will always belong to Skid Row and their song I Remember You. It was fucking gargantuan in every way. It was soft and honestly while maintaining a heaviness and cred that launched a whole new style of power ballad.
I Remember You started a trend of heavy bands, with cred, diving into the softer end of the pool and not losing their edge, whether it was Guns N' Roses with Sweet Child O' Mine which is perhaps the most important power ballad ever, or smaller lesser known but edgier bands like Faster pussycat, L.A. Guns, Tesla and even OZZY jumped in the fray.
It got to the point that bands built on cred and anger even jumped in, shit Metallica's One is one of the biggest and strangest power ballads of all time. The secret that nobody wants to talk about is that almost every Metallica album had a power ballad, whether it was Fade to Black on Ride The Lightning or Sanitarium on Master of Puppets. Sure the subject matter isn't lovely dovey bullshit but the structure is in place, Metallica was just unable to love so they had to sing about suicide, insanity and war.
If you want to get down to brass tax, grunge, the music that destroyed metal was nothing but power ballads. They used the same quiet loud, quiet loud approach, they were just smart enough to credit the pixies and not make their pussy plays so obvious. Instead of being super lovers they decided to be broken souls, the kind that needed to be saved and drove the women of the 90s wild. The game didn't change, just the dress code.
All that said, I am not trying to justify the power ballad as an artistitic statement, if anything it is a fucking lay-up, a low risk-high reward endevour. It is the rom-com of metal, but so what? Does everything need to be heavy riffs, lightning fast solos and lyrics about the dark side of life or how much you fucking rock? When you get down to it they are just as cliche, maybe even more cliche than the power ballad. They are also pretty limiting concepts, and just because love is a universal concept, it does not mean that it is dumbing down or lowering the bar. If anything it is a break from convention, from the kind of pandering that songs about rocking harder than the next man or some sort of affair with satan truly are. It is the olive branch to a wider audience and the risk of alienation from you base, teenage boys who are programmed to reject anything that might make them break ranks with the rest of the testosterone driving lot.
Sure there are a shit ton of these songs that are cookie cutter, hallmark bullshit and they should be mocked and shunned, but isn't the merit of any art truly about what you can create within the form? Just like most romantic comedies are shit, there are still some transcendant rom-coms, your When Harry Met Sally, Annie Hall, and anything with Tom Hanks in it. The same is true for power ballads.
A great song is a great fucking song, and with a song by the right band you can have moments that expand the scope of what the music is. I don't expect you to embrace every sappy, schlocky, schmaltzy and down right goofy power ballad that I fucking love, but I do hope that you can appreciate a great piece of music that went beyond the conventions of the form and reached deeper to make something timeless.