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For anyone who came of age in the '80s, the super-sappy power ballads which pilfered the pop charts are mile-markers and nostalgic tearjerkers. They're instant time warps back to slow-dances with specific people — even though you can't quite remember specifically why you liked them so much (or why they dumped you). So where did these power ballads come from? Why did every hard rock/metal album in the mid- to late-'80s include at least one? And what led to the subgenre's ultimate demise? In honor of the Journey, Heart and Cheap Trick appearance at the Verizon Wireless Amphitheater, it seemed fitting to conduct a bit of analysis on the lost art of the power ballad.
Born out of necessity more than personal taste, the power ballad was an adaptive trait developed by many hard-rock bands hoping to survive the '70's with a record deal intact. Imagine for a moment the pressure that must have been put on a group like Journey to sell records. The band (a spinoff of Santana) already had a wealth of talent and a committed niche fanbase, but with slim record sales, the band was definitely under the gun to produce a hit. By the late '70s, when Steve Perry was hired as Journey's new lead vocalist, the band was ready to embrace the commercial genius of the power ballad.
At the same time, record label execs were simply doing their job and reacting to a changing music industry. The impact of FM radio was growing and labels saw a chance to capitalize on rock music's growing popularity through a very simple but brilliant formula:
Young Dudes Buy Rock Music = $
Young Dudes + Young Dudes' Girlfriends Buy Rock Music = More $
Thankfully for these obviously music-loving record-label types, selling the idea of recording sentimental ballads to serious rock dudes wasn't as hard as it might have seemed — mainly because there was the "Stairway to Heaven" argument, which probably went something like this:
Label Dude: "Listen, guys, I'm seeing a new vision of what your band could be if we tap your total creative potential. I can see you guys reaching a whole new audience if you record a ballad like this.
Band Dude: "No way, man. We rock hard. Plain and simple.
Label Dude: "Of course you do — and frankly we wouldn't want it any other way. But I see this song as your 'Stairway to Heaven,' boys, and nobody ever accused Led Zeppelin of not rocking hard enough, right?"
How could anyone argue with that logic? And so the power ballad was born. Early attempts were influenced by not only "Stairway" but also by the delicate intricacies and sweeping dynamics of Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody," Styx's "Lady" and even the Carpenters' "Goodbye to Love." (That's right, I said the Carpenters — and that song was significant for being the first ballad to incorporate a fuzz guitar solo.) These precursors set the stage for the late-'70s hit parade courtesy of bands like Journey, REO Speedwagon and Foreigner.
By the early '80s more and more rockers were cashing in by going soft for at least a verse or two. Canadian classic-rock journeymen April Wine scored its biggest hit in 1981 when a song from its ninth studio album called "Just Between You and Me" made it to No. 21 on the Billboard charts in America. Coincidentally, "Just Between You and Me" was the fourteenth video played on the first day of broadcast for a fledgling cable network called MTV. The power ballad was truly on its way, but no one could have predicted just how crazy things would get.
The golden age of the power ballad (which spanned from approximately 1984 to 1988) began when Prince recorded the title track to his first movie at a small theater in Minneapolis. "Purple Rain" is the quintessential power ballad first and foremost because it's a great song. Far from cheesy or juvenile, the song takes on the issue of infidelity, but it also conveys a deeper spiritual meaning as well, with purple rain serving as a metaphor for the afterlife. But the arrangement of "Purple Rain" is what stuck, because it established the basic template that almost every hard-rock and metal band would use in its power ballads over the remainder of the decade. Established acts like Heart and Aerosmith mounted comebacks during this era on the strength of more radio-friendly "slow songs."
Unfortunately, as with any great movement, the power ballad's days were numbered. By the late '80s every metal monkey on Sunset Strip was in a hair band. All were trying to cash in by spotlighting their supposed softer sides. The formula that was perfected a few years earlier had become clichéd by the end of the '80s. It's not a surprise, but no one in particular should be blamed for its demise, either. Power ballads were never really built to last or designed to be a beacon of musical integrity, but they were the soundtrack to certain moments that meant a lot to people — if only for a fleeting moment on a low-lit dance floor somewhere in the middle of America. — Shae Moseley