Zero in on the lyrics for deeper meaning.
Jon Bon Jovi grew up in the blue-collar industrial town of Sayreville, New Jersey, a little less than an hour's drive down the New Jersey Turnpike from Manhattan. By the time Bon Jovi rose to international superstardom in the mid-1980s, working-class towns like Sayreville—the towns that made up the so-called Rust Belt, America's old industrial heartland stretching from New York around the Great Lakes—had been facing hard times for more than a decade. In the 1970s, the American economy ground to a halt for everyone; in the 1980s, after a brutal recession from 1981-82, things picked up dramatically for white-collar professionals and investors in the stock market. But blue-collar workers were mostly left behind in the boom years of the Reagan Era
; the old factory jobs that had once offered high wages to even unskilled workers were gone, and they weren't coming back.
The ongoing struggles of blue-collar workers in America's fading heartland provided lyrical fodder for a whole genre of rock music in the 1980s. Bruce Springsteen (like Bon Jovi a proud son of New Jersey) was probably the pre-eminent figure in this genre, bringing his powerful storyteller's instinct to hard-luck tales of ordinary folks in songs like "The River," "Atlantic City," and "My Hometown." Other artists, like Indiana native John "Cougar" Mellencamp, mined a similar thematic vein in their own music.
Bon Jovi's music usually fell outside this subgenre of working-class rock anthems, but Bon Jovi's roots weren't really much different from Springsteen's or Mellencamp's. And despite all the fame and fortune, Bon Jovi never forgot where he came from. In many ways, "Livin' On A Prayer" might be seen as Jon's take on classic Springsteen… but with a distinctive Bon Jovi twist, of course.
The archetypal story of Tommy and Gina, young lovers struggling to make it through hard times, could fit easily into any of a dozen Springsteen songs. (And the line in the first verse about Gina "working for her man, she brings home her pay" bears an almost uncanny resemblance to a line in Springsteen's "Reason to Believe.") As in many of Springsteen's songs, it's the small lyrical details—the union out on strike, the six-string put in hock, Gina crying in the night—that give "Livin' On A Prayer" its emotional power.
When the song moves out of the verses and into its famous chorus, of course, the band mostly moves out of Springsteen/Mellencamp territory and moves into a musical space more fully and uniquely Bon Jovi. But the workingman's blues of those verses give the story of Tommy and Gina its heart and soul.
Interestingly, Tommy and Gina were not, despite their almost archetypal nature, entirely fictional characters. They were based on real people Bon Jovi knew back in Sayreville. While introducing his famous unplugged performance of the song at the 1989 MTV Video Music Awards, Jon said
, "You see, when I grew up in New Jersey we had a couple of buddies of mine who thought we were going to rule the universe. What happened one day is, as we grew up and got out of high school, one of them actually got a scholarship to go play baseball. And me, I was in the bars playing, writing songs. And he got a phone call one day. And it was his girlfriend; she said she was pregnant. Now he had to hang up those cleats, he had to retire the baseball glove. And all these years later, I guess all he has left is that dream. So a long-distance dedication: the names have been changed to protect the innocent. This is for anyone who ever felt like Tommy and Gina."