Reviewed: What About Now by Bon Jovi

Hair apparent.

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.).

Bon Jovi. Photograph: Getty Images

Kate Mossman is the New Statesman's arts editor and pop critic.

This article first appeared in the 25 March 2013 issue of the New Statesman, After God

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Sunjeev Sahota’s The Year of the Runaways: a subtle study of “economic migration”

Sahota’s Man Booker-shortlisted novel goes to places we would all rather not think about.

This summer’s crisis has reinforced the ­distinction that is often made between refugees, who deserve sanctuary because they are fleeing from conflict, and “economic migrants”, those coming to Europe in pursuit of “the good life”, who must be repelled at any cost. The entire bureaucratic and punitive capacity of our immigration system is pitted against these ne’er-do-wells and their impudent aspirations.

Sunjeev Sahota’s fine second novel, The Year of the Runaways, now shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, takes a closer look at “economic migration”. Why do people – many of them educated, from loving families in peaceful communities – leave their old lives behind and come to Britain? Are they fleeing desperate circumstances or are they on the make? When they arrive here, do they find what they were looking for? Should we welcome them, or try to persuade them to stay at home? The book illuminates all of these questions while, much to its credit, offering no simple answers.

Sahota interweaves the stories of three people whose reasons for emigrating are as individual as they are. Both Avtar and Randeep are from Indian Sikh families that might be characterised as lower-middle-class. Avtar’s father has his own small business – a shawl shop – and Randeep’s father works for the government. Both boys are educated and Avtar, in particular, is smart and motivated. But with employment hard to come by and no social security net to fall back on, it doesn’t take much to make leaving the country seem like the only option. Avtar loses his job, his father’s business is failing and he has high hopes of earning enough to marry Lakhpreet, his girlfriend-on-the-sly. Randeep’s family’s finances fall apart after his father has a psychological breakdown; their only hope of maintaining a respectable lifestyle is for their eldest son to take his chances abroad.

For Tochi, the situation is very different. He is what used to be called an “untouchable” and, although people now use euphemisms (“scheduled”, or chamaar), the taboo remains as strong as ever. He comes to Britain not so much for financial reasons – although he is the poorest of the lot – but to escape the prejudice that killed his father, mother and pregnant sister.

Tying these disparate stories together is the book’s most intriguing character, Narinder, a British Sikh woman who comes to believe that it is her spiritual calling to rescue a desperate Indian by “visa marriage”. Narinder’s progress, from the very limited horizons for an obedient young woman to a greater sense of herself as an active participant in her destiny, reminded me of Nazneen, the protagonist in Monica Ali’s Brick Lane. But Narinder is a more thoughtful character and here the Hollywood-style journey of personal liberation is tempered by a recognition of the powerful bonds of tradition and family.

Once in Britain, Avtar, Randeep and Tochi enter a world of gangmasters, slum accommodation and zero job security, with an ever-present fear of “raids” by immigration officers. They work in fried chicken shops, down sewers, on building sites and cleaning nightclubs. Health care is off-limits for fear of immigration checks. Food is basic and the only charity comes from the gurdwara, or Sikh temple, which provides help in emergencies.

Avtar and Randeep struggle to send money back home while living in poverty and squalor that their families could barely imagine (at one point, Randeep notes with understandable bitterness that his mother has used his hard-earned contributions to buy herself a string of pearls). In the meantime, their desperation leads them to increasingly morally repellent behaviour, from selfishness to stealing and worse. Even if they do eventually find a measure of economic stability in Britain, they have done so at the cost of their better selves.

It has been pointed out that the novels on the Man Booker shortlist this year are even more depressing than usual and The Year of the Runaways certainly won’t have raised the laugh count. At times I had to put it down for a while, overwhelmed by tragedy after tragedy. It was the quality of Sahota’s prose and perceptions that brought me back. He is a wonderfully subtle writer who makes what he leaves unsaid as important as the words on the page. A wise and compassionate observer of humanity, he has gone to some dark places – places we would all rather not think about – to bring us this book. Whether we are prepared to extend a measure of his wisdom and compassion to real immigrants, in the real world, is another question.

“The Year of the Runaways” by Sunjeev Sahota is published by Picador (480pp, £14.99)

Alice O'Keeffe is an award-winning journalist and former arts editor of the New Statesman. She now works as a freelance writer and looks after two young children. You can find her on Twitter as @AliceOKeeffe.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis