Profile of the Power Ballad, an Essential 80s Music Form

Jon Bon Jovi, front man of Bon Jovi

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Even if some music critics and self-styled connoisseurs persist in contending that '80s music introduced little if any original, valuable content to the musical landscape, the era perfected one song style beyond the reach of practically any argument. An outgrowth of '70s stadium rock and a factor in boosting the popularity of hard rock, the '80s power ballad was all about maximizing appeal. To do so, it combined the thundering guitars and drums of hard rock with the keyboards, orchestration and tender lyrics of soft rock, finding its most perfect vessels in the popular '80s styles arena rock and pop metal.

Characteristics

In general terms, the characteristics of a power ballad are explained quite effectively in the two-word name. They're either sentimental ballads with occasional shifts into overdrive or loud rockers slowed and quieted by romantic yearning, depending on how you look at it. At any rate, power ballads seamlessly combine elements of hard rock (guitar solos, strong vocals, and theatricality) with a trend toward acoustic guitars, keyboards, reduced aggression, and subdued riffage. Although hard rock bands are the most common interpreters of the form, various pop, rock, and even country artists have been known to dabble.

Origins

It would be silly to argue that the power ballad absolutely did not exist prior to the '80s, but most proto-PBS contained only one or two elements of the songs that brought both the house and house lights down a decade or so later. So, if Bad Company's "Shooting Star," Boston's "More Than a Feeling," and the Scorpions' "No One Like You" qualify as vital '70s contributors to the style, they usually had a little trouble, one way or the other, balancing the "power" and "ballad" elements so perfectly blended later by artists like Journey, Bon Jovi, Heart and even Guns N' Roses on at least one occasion.

Arena Rock, the Early Years

Circa 1980, bands that sported the label heavy metal generally stayed true to the connotations of those words, with Judas Priest, Iron Maiden, and Metallica leading the way in that direction. Still, even if the power ballad found only sporadic favor among hard rock artists during the first years of the decade, another wildly popular genre, the more pop-oriented style of arena rock, became the testing ground for the alternately tender and tough sound that came to define the decade. Groups like Foreigner, REO Speedwagon, and Styx even bought a few extra years of success by skillfully applying this technique.

Peak of the Power Ballad, Pop-Metal

By the time early pop metal/hair metal bands began to show up on the pop charts, artists like Def Leppard, Night Ranger and Bon Jovi had begun to master the power ballad, leading to lengthy careers as major hard rock/arena rock/pop draws. But the form didn't become inescapable until the hair metal craze of the latter half of the '80s, during which almost every band was compelled to include at least one or two ballads to ensure decent record sales. Once Slaughter, Skid Row, and Poison established their dominance, the power ballad had nearly run its course, and a certain blandness became all too commonplace.

Decline of the Power Ballad

The rise of alternative music during the early '90s sounded warning bells for the power ballad that nearly caused the form's extinction. Of course, much of that trend stemmed from Nirvana, which led the way for a new style of hard rock—grunge— that explored darker subject matter and non-commercial impulses. Therefore, even '90s tunes that displayed some traits of the power ballad, perhaps Radiohead's "Creep" or Better Than Ezra's "Heaven," took edgy or mysterious lyrical and musical turns that followed few if any of the rules established by the '80s power ballad. Thus, the song style went on unintentional hiatus.

Survival & Persistence

If the '90s helped launch a temporary Dark Ages for the power ballad (and traditional hard rock, for that matter), the new millennium has been considerably kinder to '80s-styled musical strains. With the revival of cultural credibility for all things '80s (which has sometimes ranged into parody), music fans find themselves far more receptive to both the classic ballads and fresh takes on the form. The commercial viability of emo and punk-pop, for example, occasionally borrows from the spirit if not the sound of '80s melodic rock ballads. So watch out for the return of lighters held high anytime now.

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