Friday, November 21, 2008
Livin' On A Prayer by Bon Jovi
I used to be a music snob.
I came to Northwestern University as a composition major and I thought I had an open mind and a broad knowledge of music. I accepted popular music artists like the Backstreet Boys and the Beatles and I thought I knew everything about popular music there was to know. Then during my sophomore year I met Elizabeth.
I remember one of my first conversations with Elizabeth and her talking about how her favorite musical artists, Bon Jovi and Garth Brooks. I remember trying to be respectful of her taste while thinking that both Bon Jovi and Garth Brooks were not valid musical artists and that it was not really worth my time. The thing was, that she was so open to my music as a composer and the classical musical that I loved that I really wanted to give what she loved a chance. I’m really glad I did.
Bon Jovi and Garth Brooks are incredibly important artists in our popular culture. They have pulled together communities of music lovers in ways that few artists have and they speak to the human experience that draw in people all across the world not through pandering but through genuine expression. I credit Elizabeth with helping develop my love of country music but giver her full credit showing me how much Bon Jovi rocks.
“Livin’ On A Prayer” by Bon Jovi is one if the most important rock songs of the 1980s. While other artists like U2 were pushing the envelope of rock music, there were bands like Def Leppard, which sat squarely in the middle of the rock genre, later called “hair bands” that spoke directly to people’s tastes. One of the greatest bands to do this, captivating millions and filling up stadiums like never before was a band from New Jersey called Bon Jovi.
Bon Jovi is most known for their second single “Livin’ On A Prayer” from their Slippery When Wet album. There is an art in creating a song that stadiums full of people sing -along with and Bon Jovi were masters of that art. Not only did “Livin’ On A Prayer” have an great melody and irresistible hook but it spoke to the Reagan-era working man who felt the hit of the economic downturn of the time. This song is so effective that over twenty year later it has become an anthem of hope, optimism, possibility and rocking out like you just don’t care.
“Livin’ On A Prayer” starts with a soft synthesized line that brings in the guitar, drums and bass. The guitar line utilizes a “talk-box” which is a technology made famous by Peter Frampton. Instead of having the guitar be amplified through a speaker it’s pumped into a tube that is placed in the mouth. The amp pushes the sound through the tube into the mouth and a microphone picks ups the sound like it would a person singing. The guitar acts as the vocal chords and allows the guitarist to form different vowel shapes to effect the sound. This is how Richie Sambora, the lead guitarist of Bon Jovi created the different sounds and tones of the guitar line in “Livin’ On A Prayer.”
The melody line is simple without being overly repetitive. The melody in the verse outlines the natural rhythms and contour of the lyrics, which makes it easy to remember. The melody in the chorus features sustained high notes, which are hilarious fun to sing. They rise through the chorus and the notes between the high notes become rests for us to prepare for trying to sing the next high note. It quickly becomes a “how high can you sing” competition that we all want to participate in.
Singing the chorus of “Livin’ On A Prayer” is so much fun because you can just scream along with it and it works. It takes NO singing technique to have fun with this song. People know they aren’t going to sing the high notes and sound great which makes it all the more fun to try. The high notes are in a call and response game with the lead singer, Jon Bon Jovi. It is simple to learn, lots of fun to sing, and even though never sounds great when you are doing it feel great to try.
This song tells a hopeful story. There is Tommy and Gina. Tommy lost his jobs on the docks and Gina continues to work and supports both of them. Tommy is so strapped for cash that he puts his guitar in a pawn shop (second verse: “six string in hock”). Gina dreams of running away but they keep it together. In the first verse, Gina comforts Tommy and in the second verse, Tommy comforts Gina. They say the same things to each other reminding each other of hope with some of the most powerful lyrics in rock music.
We’ve got to hold on to what we’ve got
cause it doesn’t make a difference if we make it or not
We’ve got each other and that’s a lot
For love well give it a shot
We’re halfway there
Livin’ on a prayer
Take my hand and well make it - I swear
Livin’ on a prayer
What Tommy and Gina have to hold onto is each other. The idea that it doesn’t matter if they “make it” reflects the fact that they feel in some ways they have already made it in finding each other. It is both an adolescent idea and a mature realization of the importance of finding someone you love. For love, they will work through all their struggles because in each other they have a lot
They are halfway there because they have a dream they share through a prayer. Alcoholics talk about admitting the problem as being half the solution. Tommy and Gina see having the prayer, the hope and dream as being half the journey to “making it.”
This is a powerful idea that harkens back to being a kid and being told that if we dream it, we can it happen. This song is anthem, crafted for people to sing along with in stadiums while embodying not only the struggles but also the hopes of within all of us.
I can still remember Elizabeth telling me about how much she loved Bon Jovi. I remember her eyes. There was a light in her eyes that could only come from true joy and a depth in her look that came from speaking about something that held significant personal meaning. I had a choice, either hold to my stereotypes about music or let her break down my understanding of art and experience the music she loved. I am so glad I chose to share in her music and I am grateful to her for reaching out to me with what she loved.
I hope you have met or will meet someone like Elizabeth in your life. When you do, look into those eyes and make the choice to share in world that they love. You just might be halfway there in making that human connection that brings meaning to our lives.
I promise you will not regret it.