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Once upon a time
Not so long ago
Like any fairy tale, the story of Tommy and Gina begins with "Once upon a time…"
But "not so long ago" hints that this fairly tale takes place in our own time; this is a modern-day parable.
Much of the song's lyrical appeal comes from the almost archetypal nature of Tommy and Gina's story; what could be more universal than love conquering hard times?
Tommy used to work on the docks
Tommy and Gina, the fictional characters that star in "Livin' on a Prayer," are based on real people Jon Bon Jovi knew in high school.
"Tommy"—"the names were changed to protect the innocent" (source), Jon Bon Jovi once said—was one of Jon's high school buddies growing up in the industrial township of Sayresville, New Jersey.
Jon dreamed of making it big in music; "Tommy" planned to rise to the top on the baseball diamond. Shortly after "Tommy" won a college baseball scholarship, he found out that his girlfriend—that would be "Gina"—was pregnant. He had to abandon his baseball dreams and take a factory job to support his new family.
After debuting in "Livin' on a Prayer," the fictional Tommy and Gina returned in two later Bon Jovi songs: the lyric "Somebody even tells me Tommy's coming down tonight / if Gina says it's all right" appears in the song "99 in the Shade" (1988), while "This one's for the ones who stood their ground / for Tommy and Gina, who never backed down" appears in the 2000 hit "It's My Life."
Union's been on strike, he's down on his luck
The United States has two major dockworkers' unions, and both have played prominent roles in American labor history.
The International Longshoreman's Association represents dockworkers on the East Coast. The ILA achieved infamy in the early 1950s when the New York State Crime Commission implicated its leadership for corruption and connections to organized crime. The union was booted out of the AFL-CIO and "President for Life" Joe Ryan was forced to resign in disgrace.
This image of a corrupt, mafia-affiliated dockworkers' union provided the grim backdrop to the Oscar-winning Marlon Brando film On the Waterfront. West Coast longshore workers seceded from the ILA in the 1930s, after defying Ryan's leadership to launch—and ultimately win—a major strike against shippers in all Pacific Coast ports in 1934.
These West Coast dockworkers organized a new union, the International Longshoremen's and Warehousemen's Union, which was run much more democratically than the ILA but generated more than its own share of controversy for its militant left-wing politics. The ILWU's longtime leader, the charismatic Australian Harry Bridges, was secretly an officer of the Communist Party U.S.A. and the union often tried to use its leverage in the ports to advance liberal and left-wing social causes unrelated to its own contracts.
The U.S. government tried but failed to have Bridges deported on four separate occasions, and the union was expelled from the CIO in 1949 for being too tolerant of communists within its ranks. Assuming that Tommy and Gina live in Bon Jovi's home state of New Jersey, that would make Tommy an ILA man.
Working for her man, she brings home her pay
One of Jon Bon Jovi's most important influences as a songwriter was the work of fellow New Jersey native Bruce Springsteen.
Springsteen's songs often invoked a mood of working-class struggle and perseverance and, sometimes, triumph. In the verses of "Livin' on a Prayer," Bon Jovi creates much the same mood (before shifting into a rather un-Springsteenesque chorus).
This line, casting Gina as a kind of blue-collar female saint, literally working for her love, almost perfectly echoes the lyrics of Springsteen's "Reason to Believe" (1982):
Now Mary Lou loved Johnny with a love mean and true
She said, "Baby I'll work for you every day and bring my money home to you."
But where Bon Jovi's Tommy and Gina transcend material hardship through their love, Springsteen's Mary Lou finds only heartache in her relationship with Johnny:
One day he up and left her and ever since that
She waits down at the end of that dirt road for young Johnny to come back.
She says we've got to hold on to what we've got
It doesn't make a difference if we make it or not
We've got each other and that's a lot
For love we'll give it a shot
Some critics have long blasted Bon Jovi's songwriting as vacuous and cliché-ridden. The lyrics of the chorus and pre-chorus in "Livin' on a Prayer" are often cited as Exhibit A in the case for the prosecution on that count.
To be fair to the critics, there is something deeply clichéd about the overworked trope of true love overcoming all obstacles. But to be fair to Bon Jovi, the reason that trope has become a cliché is because it has played such a powerful role in Western culture.
From Arthurian romances to Cinderella to Slumdog Millionaire, we find ourselves drawn, again and again, to new versions of the same old story—and it's Tommy and Gina's story, too.
Oh, we're halfway there
The "Oh!" that kicks off the soaring chorus of "Livin' on a Prayer" may be one of the most transcendent "Oh!"s in all of rock music.
It's the exuberantly joyful chorus that makes "Livin' on a Prayer" such an irresistible pop hit. And the secret of the irresistible chorus isn't really in the lyrics, which are inspiring but perhaps a bit clichéd, but instead in the music.
The song's verses and pre-choruses are played in the rather gloomy minor chord progression C-D-E, a staple of many dark heavy metal songs. But the shift into the chorus—marked by that soaring "Oh!"—brings a sudden, delightfully unexpected shift into G major.
What had been a grim Springsteenesque tune about the hardships of working-class life suddenly becomes a soaring ode to the transcendent possibility of true love to conquer all. And the effect is awesome.
Tommy's got his six-string in hock
Now he's holding in what he used to make it talk
A sure sign of financial desperation: pawning off prized personal items to secure short-term loans from often-shady pawn shops.
This line eloquently conveys both the depth of Tommy's financial crisis and the depth of his character; he's not only a tough-guy longshoreman, but he's also a sensitive guitar-playing musician. He's both hard and soft.
In that way, he's a kind of mirror image of the band Bon Jovi itself, which became one of the biggest acts of the last 25 years by tempering hard-rock style with a more romantic pop sensibility, appealing to both male and female fans.
Oh oh, livin' on a prayer
While we seriously doubt that this is what Jon Bon Jovi had in mind, some fans have interpreted the song's famous chorus literally—as a religious statement.
For example, Jud Wilhite, senior pastor at an evangelical Las Vegas megachurch, included the song in his book That Crazy Little Thing Called Love: The Soundtrack of Marriage, Sex, and Faith and offered the following advice:
God knows what is best for you and your marriage. So think about what your marriage needs right now. Then lay your needs before him. He wants nothing more than for you to come boldly before him, 'livin' on a prayer.' (Source)
Whoa, we're halfway there
This "Whoa!" is probably the source of more karaoke-bar trainwrecks than any other high note in modern pop music.
At this point, Bon Jovi kicks the song's already-soaring chorus up another notch. A dropped beat and a key change give the song surprising new energy, making this "Whoa!" come faster and higher than those that came before.
It's no accident that this is the moment in the music video when Jon literally starts flying—on a wire, of course—out over his enraptured audience. It's the emotional high-water mark of the song, and it's also really tough to sing. In 1987, Jon Bon Jovi nearly blew out his voice after blasting out high notes like this day after day on tour, and ordinary mortals trying to sing along in their homes, cars, or favorite karaoke bars typically make a complete hash of this part of the song.