Taking the long view on popular music

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Reviewed: What About Now by Bon Jovi

Hair apparent.

Bon Jovi. Photograph: Getty Images

What About Now (Island Records)
Bon Jovi

Here’s a bit of fun: which of the following are US presidential campaign slogans and which are songs by Bon Jovi? Something to Believe in. Believe in America. Made in America. Another Reason to Believe. A Stronger America. Forward. Undivided. The Distance. Change. Taking it Back. Bring it On. We Can Do Better. Yes We Can. Because We Can. What About Now. (Answers below.)

Great stadium rock employs the same nebulous, inspirational vocab as politics, which is why rock stars so often find their songs used on the election trail without their consent. The most famous case was Springsteen, whose “Born in the USA”, stripped of irony, was nicked by Reagan in 1984. John McCain hijacked Jackson Browne’s “Running on Empty” and in 2008 came to blows with Jon Bon Jovi after “Who Says You Can’t Go Home” (“These are my streets, the only life I’ve ever known”) became a Sarah Palin theme tune. So many of American rock’s golden values – patriotism, homecoming, the rugged individual looking out for his wife, kids and backyard – feed the conservative sentiment. That’s why people like Springsteen and Bon Jovi, while exploiting the full reach of their lyrical abstractions, go to lengths to state their Democratic loyalties. You also get the feeling that, having reached a certain vintage, they wish to reassert their “usefulness” to the world.

Bon Jovi’s new single (“Because We Can”) could be an Obama slogan and the theme of the album, he explained at a recent press conference, rubbing his eyes, is “the post firstterm Obama administration in America. The new normal, the consolidation of businesses and the beginning of a new economic upturn – the inspiration is out there every day . . .” When asked why he chose to release it now, he added, “The moment in time almost forced the record to come out because otherwise time passes and the record becomes aged.” Which from where I’m sitting sounds an awful lot like “We’ve written some more songs and decided it was time for an album.”

Jovi and his writing partner, Richie Sambora, are masters of a certain kind of musical euphoria best summed up by “Livin’ on a Prayer”, a fist-pumping delight of a song that still makes your hair stand on end 27 years after its release, wishing you were a hard-bitten waitress working in a smoke-belching east coast industrial town in the mid-1980s. They have a truly magical capacity for activating great feeling by saying very little. You can’t help but think they’ve got a job on their hands assessing the consolidation of businesses as well as the romance of the human spirit.

There’s an actual lyric here that goes: “If I’d robbed a bank, you wouldn’t care/You’d come sit on my lap in the electric chair/And when they’d flip the switch/We’d just kiss.” (from the you-and-me-against-the-world anthem “Army of One”). Springsteen’s 2011 single “We Take Care of Our Own” was an ironic examination of American small-town small-mindedness, people’s unwillingness to help one another when, as Bon Jovi might say, the chips are down. What About Now lacks such nuances – which is no surprise – though with fewer of their signature rousing choruses and guitar solos, and most of the songs chugging by on an MOR setting, it asks you to pay attention to the words.

“What’s Left of Me” is the most original “protest” song, if you can call it that: where you’d expect tales of the abandoned steel works you get the print-media crisis (“for 30- odd years I was a newspaper man. . . /God I miss the smell of paper and the ink on my hands”) and there’s even a punk band complaining their entire income comes from merchandise. But the desperate “Room at the End of the World” reminds you of those people who hide out in the woods with weapons and tins of food. There’s something in the spirit of this album that fails to capture the everyman, only the individual, edging towards conservatism rather than compassion, when you know the exact opposite was intended.

Hair metal, classic rock – whatever you want to call it – has had a bit of a reassessment in the past few years with the Rock of Ages musical and arena tours of many of the great 1980s bands: we’re starting to value the craftsmanship of those songs referred to, boringly, as the “guilty pleasures”. The magical formula, as evidenced by, say, “Don’t Stop Believin’” by Journey, or “Here I Go Again” by Whitesnake is about 50 per cent tune, 48 per cent slogan and 2 per cent meaning. If, as the new album suggests, Bon Jovi are in any way concerned about their “usefulness” to planet earth after 30 years on the road, they should remember they are a force of stability in the music world, a collection of great hair that still stands full and erect, leathery faces still keeping their noble shape, and lyrical clichés that age like fine wine. They are public servants mobilising vast crowds and infusing John Doe with inspirational sentiment. And that’s more than enough.

(Answers: Bon Jovi; Mitt Romney; Bon Jovi; Bon Jovi; John Kerry; Barack Obama; Bon Jovi; Bon Jovi; Obama; Bon Jovi; Kerry; J F Kennedy; Obama; Bon Jovi; Bon Jovi.).