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The Winners’ History of Rock and Roll, Part 3: Bon Jovi

How the hair-metal pretty boys from New Jersey became one of our last legacy rock bands

Our success had a lot to do with timing. I guess there was a hole — there was a need by the people for a Bon Jovi. Just a good-time entertainment band, you know? A bridge between Phil Collins and Whitesnake.” — Richie Sambora, 1989, in Rolling Stone

“Let’s talk about girls / I mean girls / let’s talk about women.” — The Chocolate Watch Band, “Let’s Talk About Girls”

Jon Bon Jovi was in his element. The 50-year-old self-described steel horse–riding cowboy stood backstage at Madison Square Garden as tens of thousands of people waited in the arena to hear him sing about imaginary New Jerseyans. It was a task he’d executed many times since his mid-20s. Only this time — this time being the star-studded 12/12/12 Hurricane Sandy benefit concert — he wasn’t going to sing about his pretend Garden Staters, at least not at this particular moment. Frustrated fictional ex–dock worker Tommy and his girl Gina would have to wait for Bon Jovi’s set in another hour.

“I want to bring out my great friend and neighbor,” Bruce Springsteen announced from the stage. Jon Bon Jovi, resplendent in skin-tight ’68 comeback black leather, strode out to embrace The Boss as The E Street Band launched into “Born to Run.” It wasn’t the first time that Jon Bon and Bruce had sung together — young John Bongiovi chanced into an impromptu jam with Springsteen back when he fronted an E Street–like R&B outfit called the Atlantic City Expressway during his early-’80s Jersey club days — nor would it be the last. (Springsteen returned the favor later in the evening by joining Bon Jovi on the “Born in the U.S.A.” pastiche “Who Says You Can’t Go Home.”) But the setting gave the moment extra gravity: Here was New Jersey’s greatest rock icon inviting Jon Bon Jovi up to his level to co-deliver the most beloved anthem from his bountiful arsenal of anthems, and in front of some of the most famous rock legends in the world, no less.

I wonder whether Jon Bon Jovi, if only for a nanosecond, took time to reflect on how far he had come — since hanging out at his cousin’s New York City recording studio as a glorified intern, since the release of Bon Jovi’s multi-multi-platinum 1986 breakthrough Slippery When Wet, since his tenure as the world’s hunkiest hair-metal pinup. In the late ’80s, it seemed inconceivable that Bon Jovi would last five years, much less 30. And yet here was Jon Bon Jovi, comfortably positioned next to Bruce freaking Springsteen, as the second-most famous face on Jersey’s rock-and-roll Mount Rushmore.

In popular terms, Bon Jovi’s stature in rock’s current landscape is unassailable: In 2011, the last year Bon Jovi toured, the band ranked no. 2 on Forbes‘s list of the year’s highest-paid musicians, ahead of Elton John and behind U2. In 2010, Bon Jovi played a total of four sold-out concerts at New Jersey’s New Meadowlands Stadium, including three consecutive shows when the venue opened in May. Overall, the band grossed $200 million in 2010; even more momentous that year was the appointment of Jon Bon Jovi to President Obama’s White House Council for Community Solutions, an acknowledgment of the singer’s prodigious philanthropic efforts. Not only was Bon Jovi doing Bono-like business, he was rubbing Bono-like shoulders.

I have no insight into the goings-on of Jon Bon Jovi’s headspace, but I like to imagine him having a “Once in a Lifetime” moment during the Springsteen duet: “This is not my classic-rock staple, this is not my classic-rock backing band. Well, how did I get here?” Maybe I’m projecting: In many people’s minds (certainly many critics’ minds), perceptions of Bon Jovi will forever be fixed in the late ’80s, the band’s most commercially successful period, when Slippery When Wet and 1988’s New Jersey spun off seven top-10 singles — an unprecedented run for what’s ostensibly a hard-rock band — including four no. 1’s. “Blaze of Glory,” the breakout song from Jon Bon Jovi’s “solo” soundtrack for Young Guns II, also hit the top of the charts during this period.

Susan Orlean’s1 1987 profile of Bon Jovi for Rolling Stone was typical of how the press treated the band at the time. The piece begins with an extended, oddly reverential treatise on Jon Bon’s “fourteen inches” of hair: “Its color is somewhere between chestnut and auburn, and the frosty streaks in it give it a sizzling golden sheen,” Orlean writes. “Truth is, it would be safe to say that Jon Bon Jovi has the most wonderful hair in rock & roll today.” Orlean describes Jon Bon’s locks as an oedipal metaphor for rebellion against his dad, a hairdresser, though her poker face doesn’t quite hold. She doesn’t really take this guy seriously, and the implication is that we shouldn’t either.

The writing is a perfect complement for the cheesecake photo on the cover, in which Jon Bon clutches a leather jacket over what appears to be his shirtless torso, his hair perfectly tousled in a wombat’s nest shape reminiscent of Tina Turner’s mane in Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome. The headline, emblazoned on Rolling Stone‘s annual “Hot” issue, is direct and vaguely naughty: “Hot Throb.”

Where Rolling Stone handled Springsteen or Bono as it would a political leader or some other figure of great social importance, Bon Jovi was held at arm’s length as Unserious Subject Matter, a passing fad the magazine could exploit for short-term sales without truly committing itself to. Inside, Orlean quotes the 25-year-old Jon Bon closely as he speaks grandly about his future. “I’m going to become a professor on the music business before this is over,” he declares. “I’ll never be satisfied. I’m not happy that we have the Number One album, single, CD, video, that I sold out every show and that I fly in my airplane and that I can buy a huge mansion if I want to. Next year I plan to be better. I want a bigger record. I want to do more shows. I want to be able to buy two houses instead of one.”

Perhaps this was included in the story for ironic effect, or to illustrate the naive ramblings of a lightweight whose return flight to obscurity was booked shortly after he appeared on the cover of Rolling Stone. But everything Bon Jovi said he was going to do, he did and then some. What hasn’t changed is Bon Jovi’s critical reputation, but Jon Bon simply worked around that. Bon Jovi won the favor of Springsteen, Paul McCartney, even a president. If anyone took a moment to question why Jon Bon Jovi was at Madison Square Garden on that momentous night last month, it probably wasn’t Jon Bon Jovi.

Bruce Springsteen
Bon Jovi is the most enduring band to come out of the hair-metal wing of ’80s rock; with the exception of U2,2 it remains the most popular ’80s rock band of any kind.

How did Bon Jovi survive when so many bands of its ilk didn’t? And what does this tell us about popular rock music in general? A good starting point for this chapter of The Winners’ History of Rock and Roll is the Susan Orlean story, which delves into the making of Slippery When Wet, Bon Jovi’s third album. Before Slippery When Wet, Bon Jovi was a hard-working yet unexceptional MOR metal band stuck in a perpetual cycle of unglamorous support tours. (The day Slippery When Wet went to no. 1, Bon Jovi was scheduled to open for .38 Special in Iowa.) Bon Jovi, like countless other groups, was pitched at a male-dominated audience that served as the primary patron of the heavy metal music industry. It was commonly believed that, at most, these bands could sell a few million records — a not-insignificant figure in the ’80s, but far below what superstars like Michael Jackson and Prince were selling.

With Slippery, the idea was to soften Bon Jovi’s image and music — which wasn’t terribly hard to begin with, but not yet polished enough to make them crossover stars. “Bon Jovi made its break by making nice: nice depositions, nice looks, nice songs, nice attitude, all of which appeals to listeners who think they don’t like heavy metal,” Orlean writes. “It appeals especially to girls, who are usually spooked by heavy metal’s adulation of the ugly.”

Crucial to the “nicing” up of Bon Jovi was Desmond Child, a brilliant song doctor who later became famous for writing “Dude (Looks Like a Lady)” and “What It Takes” with Aerosmith, “Livin’ La Vida Loca” for Ricky Martin, and tons of other disreputable yet maddeningly popular MOR rock and pop tracks that will be instantly lodged in your head the second I mention them.3 Child, writes Orlean, helped Bon Jovi and guitarist/co-songwriter Richie Sambora infuse “Slippery with grabby melodies and more of the ‘relationship-oriented’ lyrics that record executives consider a prerequisite for attracting a lot of girls.” More specifically, he co-wrote “You Give Love a Bad Name” and “Livin’ on a Prayer,” Bon Jovi’s first two no. 1 singles and their signature songs to this day.4 Not that Bon Jovi welcomed Child with open arms. “Jon didn’t want to try those new rhythms,” Child told Orlean. “He thought it sounded too Michael Jackson.”

I didn’t understand at first what Desmond Child meant by that “too Michael Jackson” remark. New rhythms? “You Give Love a Bad Name” and “Livin’ on a Prayer” are just well-executed but otherwise formulaic, fist-pumping arena-rock songs, aren’t they? Then I re-listened to “Livin’ on a Prayer,” and suddenly I was no longer blind: the subtly danceable groove, the synth-y accents, the surprisingly funky talk box, the repetitive chorus you’re singing along with by the end of the song. It was Thriller with the Michael Jackson/Eddie Van Halen ratio flipped. Desmond Child’s genius is that it took 25 years and approximately 743 listens of “Livin’ on a Prayer” for me to realize that he wasn’t a hack.

As Bon Jovi sold enough copies of Slippery When Wet to empty the racks at 10,000 Sam Goody stores across the nation, the makeup of its concert audiences became 60 percent female, Orlean noted. This was great for Bon Jovi — and also not so great. After consciously crafting Slippery When Wet to appeal to non-metal, non-dude music fans, Bon Jovi tried to pull back once this strategy worked a little too smashingly well. Rather than release the power ballad “Never Say Goodbye” to radio — the smart play after two rock singles — Bon Jovi went instead with the ersatz cowboy song “Wanted Dead or Alive,” as it was deemed more “masculine” and therefore a necessary corrective to Bon Jovi’s “soft” image.5 While Bon Jovi was fine calling itself a “safe” rock band, as Richie Sambora did in Rolling Stone‘s second feature on the band in 1989, it was far less comfortable with soft. “We’re not heavy metal,” Sambora said, “but we’re certainly not pussy rock.”

Now is as good a time as any to address an important and heretofore woefully under-discussed topic in The Winners’ History of Rock and Roll: women. None of the bands I’m writing about include any female members; to the contrary, they rank among the most outwardly male bands of all time.6 I suppose this could be blamed on me, the person who picked the bands. But I honestly could not think of a female rock band that was popular enough to justify inclusion. There are many reasons for that — way more than I could list here with the necessary depth — but it’s safe to say that rock music has generally not been very accepting of female musicians. Like your friendly neighborhood Deep South country club, mainstream rock music has paid dearly for its hostility toward women. This is a topic worthy of further discussion, but I’m going to set it aside for now. Instead, let’s talk about how female audience members have been marginalized in rock.

If I were to make a list of famous rock bands, and another list of super-famous rock bands, the difference in audience size more often than not could be explained by the preponderance of female fans for the latter groups versus the former. It is very difficult for a rock band — or any band or artist of any genre — to become really successful without appealing to women. Even Jon Bon Jovi’s hero Bruce Springsteen, the paragon of white masculinity in contemporary music, understood this: Critical cred was one thing, but Born in the U.S.A. didn’t start flying off the shelves until the Boss shuffled awkwardly with Courteney Cox in the “Dancing in the Dark” video.

This is partly due to demographics favoring women, of course, but it’s also related to musical attributes that are considered “feminine” in rock music: melody, lyrical sensitivity and/or thoughtfulness, dance-friendliness, sexuality that is playful or sultry as opposed to crass or pushy. (Or, in the case of indie rock, practically non-existent.) These qualities also happen to be hallmarks of popular music; people without pronounced anti-girl hang-ups tend to find them just generally appealing.

For people with those hang-ups, however, feminine attributes read as threatening. The rock audience, as sociologist Deena Weinstein writes in her landmark 1991 book Heavy Metal, “is more than just male; it is masculinist … Masculinity is understood in the metal subculture to be the binary opposite of femininity. Much like the religious fundamentalism that denounces heavy metal, the metal subculture holds that gender differences are rooted in the order of things: it is perilous even to question, let alone play with or breach, the boundaries.” Weinstein put an insane amount of thought into analyzing the native habits of hockey-hair era metal groups like Judas Priest and Mötley Crüe as well as their fans, but her observations also hold true for all of mainstream rock music. Rock bands that set out with the goal of going platinum someday are frequently motivated by the desire to meet girls, but the young males most attracted to rock music seem to be trying, consciously or not, to get away from girls. This is why an otherwise centrist band like Bon Jovi would recoil at being classified as “pussy rock,” even when a majority of the people who bought Bon Jovi concert tickets happened to have vaginas.

Rather than reject women outright — or risk alienating men — Bon Jovi tried to have it both ways, as most bands in its position attempt to do, which you can see most clearly in their music videos. MTV’s role in breaking Bon Jovi probably can’t be overstated. “Had it not been for Jon’s good looks, I’m not sure Bon Jovi would have been allowed to make a third album,” rock manager Alan Niven says in I Want My MTV.7 “Wayne Isham was at least as important to that band as Jon Bon Jovi.” Isham is the video director who shot “You Give Love a Bad Name” and “Livin’ on a Prayer”; it was his idea to fabricate an arena-rock environment populated by foxy ladies who stared lustily at these fetchingly swarthy, harmlessly grinning lugs like they were already rock stars. This might sound like an obvious idea, but like all obvious ideas, it had to be invented by somebody. And Wayne Isham was that guy.

What those Bon Jovi videos did was sell two different fantasies to two different groups at the same time. Male fans liked to pretend that Bon Jovi were rock gods that the girls loved to worship. Females, however, understood who was really being objectified. Imagine Magic Mike covered in big hair and stonewashed jeans, and you get the idea.8 Once Bon Jovi did the bump and grind for millions of crumpled-up dollar bills, a generation of pretty boys followed. Little did they know that Bon Jovi would eventually leave their skinny asses to rot on the skeeziest corners of the Sunset Strip.

The most extraordinary song of Bon Jovi’s career isn’t “Livin’ on a Prayer,” it isn’t “Wanted Dead or Alive,” and it’s definitely not that terrible early-’90s power ballad whose title was ripped off for a terrible mid-’90s Christian Slater vehicle that I’ve never actually seen.9 No, the most extraordinary Bon Jovi song is its 2000 hit “It’s My Life.” Which doesn’t mean “It’s My Life” is uniquely excellent, just that it’s sort of incredible that this song effectively rebooted Bon Jovi’s career in the 21st century.

The ’90s weren’t a great decade for Bon Jovi. The band released only two albums of original material, 1992’s Keep the Faith and 1995’s These Days. Neither came close to approaching the success of Bon Jovi’s late-’80s albums. It’s possible that even Bon Jovi fans weren’t aware that these records even existed; the world that Bon Jovi ruled had been all but wiped away.

That Bon Jovi was able to survive the ’90s and reestablish itself in the United States as a major touring attraction — and not just on the nostalgia circuit like the majority of its peers — can’t be attributed solely to female fans and New Jersey loyalists. Credit also must be given to former manager Doc McGhee and his original strategy for breaking Bon Jovi in the American market, which centered on first making the band stars overseas. He pushed Bon Jovi to tour Europe and Asia extensively early on, which led to large followings in England and Japan years before Slippery When Wet broke.

Even after Bon Jovi became rich and famous at home, the band kept on pushing to break into new international markets. Rolling Stone‘s 1989 Bon Jovi story focuses on the band’s efforts to become “the first foreign group sanctioned by the Soviet government to regularly perform and release albums” in Russia. Bon Jovi “is a benign band with no professional interest in politics,” writes Rob Tannenbaum. “They will not make inflammatory statements about refuseniks. They will play and leave. If Bon Jovi isn’t the best rock band in the world, it is — for Soviet purposes — an ideal band.”

Bon Jovi was an ideal band for dozens of other countries as well, which proved to be a godsend when the going got tougher in America during the height of alt-rock. Bon Jovi didn’t release a whole lot of music in the ’90s, but it did tour the world several times, playing large venues in the States and even huger sheds in other countries. Bon Jovi could essentially wait out the decade because it was still doing big business elsewhere. So what if 1995’s “Someday I’ll Be Saturday Night” stiffed against the latest Smashing Pumpkins single on American rock radio — it went top 10 in Australia, Finland, and the U.K. “It’s not that we have this planetary appeal, that when every record comes out, you are that big, everywhere,” Jon Bon Jovi told the Guardian in 2010. “Europe turns its back on you for certain records and then embraces others, as does America.”

Jon Bon Jovi, wannabe music business professor, came to understand that Bon Jovi was a mallet and the world’s nations were moles, and the band’s job was to simply whack wherever the moles suddenly shot up.

Bon Jovi illustration
By 2000 and “It’s My Life,” Bon Jovi wasn’t only still standing, it was one of the only legacy rock bands left. A few months after the release of “It’s My Life,” fellow ’80s survivor U2 reemerged from its own rough ’90s period with “Beautiful Day,” a single imbued with classic U2-ness much the same way the talk-box powered Tommy-and-Gina-isms of “It’s My Life” flirted with Bon Jovi nostalgia.10

Like the Rolling Stones, McCartney, and Springsteen, U2 and Bon Jovi now represent “rock” music in its most palatable (some might say “generic”) form. The small handful of legacy rock bands that are still around play a necessary role in our mass cultural gatherings: They populate Super Bowl halftime shows, American Idol finales, and nationally televised fundraisers like uncles at a family reunion. Those who complained about the 12/12/12 concert being too heavy on classic-rock bands were missing the point — for what other reason do we still need these artists than to perform at events like this? The world is an office, and our legacy rock bands represent the least offensive communal background music.

Richie Sambora was correct when he said that Bon Jovi arrived at the right time. Bon Jovi helped to fill a need for “default” rock music in American culture. That hole hasn’t gone away. But it is shrinking.

Coming up in Part 4: Few bands embodied the “sex and drugs” cliché of rock music like Aerosmith in the ’70s. I’ll pick up the band’s story once it cleaned up in the late ’80s and became more popular than ever as a power-ballad machine. Is Aerosmith rock’s greatest survival story, or a microcosm of the encroaching lameness of big-time rock music as it approached a new century?

Filed Under: Art, General topics, History


Steven Hyden is a staff writer for Grantland. His first book, Your Favorite Band is Killing Me, will be released in May.

Archive @ Steven_Hyden