But if Bon Jovi was surely the greatest of the hair bands, it was never merely a hair band. Bon Jovi continued to release critically acclaimed and commercially successful new music through the 1990s, even while a shift in pop-culture tastes made the ironical stylings of Gen X grunge the dominant force in rock music and made just about every other remnant of the power-ballad-and-glam-metal '80s seem deeply uncool. In the early years of the 21st century, Bon Jovi released a string of hit records; the album Bounce (2002) debuted higher on the Billboard chart than the legendary Slippery When Wet did back in 1986, and Bon Jovi had an album debut at #1 on the charts for the first time ever only in 2007. The band is arguably more popular today than it ever has been, even at the peak of its 1980s heyday.
What explains Bon Jovi's long-running, intergenerational popularity? How did the band break through the boundaries of a pop-metal genre that otherwise seemed deeply played out by the end of the 1980s?
The story of Bon Jovi's transcendence can be told, in part, through the story of the band's signature song, "Livin' On A Prayer."
"Livin' On A Prayer" is one of the most popular hard-rock songs of all time, a high point of every Bon Jovi concert and an unavoidable presence in rock radio, barroom jukeboxes, karaoke playlists, and sports-arena timeout entertainments. Fueled largely by strong ongoing sales of iTunes downloads, the song has recently reentered the contemporary pop charts in New Zealand and Great Britain, despite being more than twenty years old. The world, quite simply, still loves "Livin' On A Prayer."
The secret of Bon Jovi's success lay in merging the previously divergent musical sensibilities of heavy metal and pop. In its early days, heavy metal was, broadly speaking, music by and for adolescent boys and young men. With its typically dark lyrical themes, its aggressive and often abrasive sound, and even its odd comic-book-hero-gone-mad aesthetic of leather, spandex, and caked-on makeup, heavy metal was a music self-consciously designed to challenge (or even offend) mainstream pop music sensibilities rather than appeal to them. Bon Jovi emerged, in part, out of this tradition; the first Bon Jovi album featured a more typical metal sound than its later offerings, and in its early days the band often sported the classic leather-and-black-eyeliner look, too.
But as much as it might have looked the part of a typical heavy metal outfit, Bon Jovi always drew upon a wider set of musical influences. Jon Bon Jovi got his start playing Rolling Stones-style rhythm 'n blues back when he was a young teenager still known as John Bongiovi, and he had long been a fan of rock n' roll storytellers like Tom Waits, Bob Dylan, and fellow New Jersey icon Bruce Springsteen. (Springsteen's keyboardist, Roy Bittan, played the keys on "Runaway," the song that first won Bon Jovi radio airplay and a record contract in 1983.) Guitarist Richie Sambora grew up loving Led Zeppelin and Bad Company but also idolized the Beatles.
So Bon Jovi always tempered its brand of metal with something of a classic rock—or even classic pop—sensibility. As the band reached the apex of its 1980s popularity with the legendary 1986 album Slippery When Wet, the songwriting turned even farther away from traditional heavy metal themes to embrace an almost cinematic kind of romanticism—the lonely cowboy of "Wanted Dead or Alive," the unrequited lover of "You Give Love A Bad Name," the hard-luck couple of "Livin' On A Prayer." Some critics ripped those themes as clichés, and maybe they were… but they were clichés that were d--n appealing to millions of fans—especially female fans, who had previously shown little or no interest in most hard rock acts. (It didn't hurt, of course, that Jon and the gang were good-looking guys… even despite the ridiculous hair.)
Bon Jovi's brand of pop metal thus offered something for everybody—a sound hard enough to appeal to the guys, plenty of sex appeal for the girls, and a set of universal lyrical themes that could resonate with just about everyone. At times the band seemed a bit sensitive to critics' charges they had gone too far in "poppifying" the true essence of hard rock; "We're certainly not heavy metal," Sambora once bluntly proclaimed, "and we're certainly not pussy rock!" But there wasn't really any need for defensiveness. Bon Jovi's unique style was and is an intoxicating blend; to borrow the title of the band's 2004 rarities box set, 100,000,000 Bon Jovi Fans Can’t Be Wrong.
"Livin' On A Prayer," Bon Jovi's signature hit, epitomized the band's fusion of the best elements of hard-driving heavy metal, storytelling rock n' roll, and romantic pop. In fact, that stylistic merger is built right into the structure of the song.
The song opens by establishing—both lyrically and musically—a bleak environment in which the fictional Tommy and Gina's love must somehow endure. The sound of the song's first bars is ominous; a lone, prolonged synthesizer note lends the "Livin' On A Prayer" an eerie feeling from the very start, a feeling only heightened by Sambora's distinctively out-of-this-world-sounding talkbox guitar solo. Dark-sounding minor chords predominate as Tico Torres's drums and Alec John Such's bassline kick in to give the song a propulsive metal-driven momentum. And Bon Jovi's lyrics begin telling the story of Tommy of Gina, young lovers struggling to "hold on to what they've got" in the face of economic hard times. Through its intro and first verse, "Livin' On A Prayer" is a pretty grim song.
Then everything begins to change. As verse gives way to pre-chorus, Bon Jovi stops singing about the problems facing Tommy and Gina and starts singing about their mutual devotion and determination to "give it a shot" no matter what. Meanwhile Sambora lays off the ominous-sounding talkbox, switching to a more conventional soaring guitar riff while David Bryan's keys begin chiming in a brighter key. Things for Tommy and Gina seem to be looking up.
And then…. "Ohhhhhhhh! We're halfway there! Oh, oh, we're livin' on a prayer!" The chorus erupts in what UCLA Musicology Professor Robert Walser has called a "moment of transcendence." What has been a progression of gloomy minor chords shifts suddenly into bright, hopeful G Major, while Bon Jovi's voice is suddenly backed by a multi-tracked chorus, making it sound as if a stadium of fans is already singing along. The lyrics turn defiant, Tommy and Gina's love seemingly indomitable. Love conquers all.
This is one of the great choruses in all of rock n' roll, as joyful and exuberant as anything in modern pop music. This is a chorus to make fans dance wildly in the aisles, to joyfully scream their lungs out. But it's only as powerful as it is because it arrives as such a stunning counterpoint, both musically and lyrically, to the much darker song seemingly established in the opening verses. The chorus is pure pop adrenaline, but we only earn that kick—that "moment of transcendence"—by enduring the heavier stuff that precedes it.
In the same way, Tommy and Gina only earn their love by transcending hard times.
And in the same way, too, Bon Jovi earns its place among rock n' roll's pantheon of legendary bands by transcending the divide between heavy metal and pop.
"Livin' On A Prayer" provides perhaps the best example of just how much fun that transcendence can be. The "Ohhhh oh!" chorus is simply irresistible. We defy you not to sing along… it just can't be done. Just look at these people. Or this guy. They're completely unable to contain themselves, no matter that it's been more than two decades since "Livin' On A Prayer" first became a crowd favorite. They're halfway there, livin' on a prayer. Maybe we all are.