The Ballad of the Wet Ballad
I blame Foreigner. Other bands may have done it before them, but Foreigner really pushed the envelope. With just one single, Foreigner changed the rules of how rock bands attain chart success, and simultaneously performed a lobotomy on one of our most basic emotions. The name of this aural A-bomb? "I Want to Know What Love Is."
A good percentage of you are preparing to hurl McNuggets all over this page at the mere mention of the 1985 Kleenex-buster. But another bunch of you are fondly recalling how misty you used to get whenever that million-selling sucker came on: "I wanna know what love is... I want you to show meeee...."
Oh, the humanity! Back when I was carving band logos in my high school chemistry desk, Foreigner was known as a rock group. Any hint that they were coming to play Madison Square Garden was sufficient to jolt my stoner buds right out of their cannabis-induced comas. After all, this was a hard-rockin' band - remember "Hot Blooded" and "Head Games"?
But with the release of "I Want to Know What Love Is," a ballad that Air Supply are still gnashing their teeth in envy over, Foreigner changed the music industry as we know it. No longer would anyone care if a rock band looked wimpy in the eyes of their hard-core fans; there were millions more warm bodies willing to blow a few bucks on a musical sobfest. Better yet, they might even be fooled into buying the whole album, thinking it was chock-full of ballads.
"I Want to Know What Love Is" also defined the term "wet ballad." Though it shouldn't need further explanation, a wet ballad is the type that hurts your stomach more than your heart. Something that sounds like it was inspired not by the crushing defeat of love, but by the anguish of not having a bigger swimming pool. And anything that would be included on a Touchstone Pictures soundtrack.
Of course, ballads have always been a part of any good rock band's repertoire. Many a venue has almost been incinerated by thousands of Bic lighters waving in unison with "Stairway to Heaven" or "Dream On." But the ballad as a marketing tool is a fairly recent development, and a nastily lucrative one at that.
To be fair, Foreigner isn't completely to blame. There are other reasons ballads help rock bands sell records. The simplest is that people fall in and out of love all the time, and it's kind of hard to do either to the strains of a Metallica slab.
Let's take a situation we've all found ouselves in: Loveybuns or Cookiehead (i.e., your beloved) gives you a free ride on the greased sliding pole out of their lives. You, feeling morose, loveless, and pathetic, find yourself in front of a half-empty bottle of some cheap vino and suddenly every ballad in the world sounds as if it was written for and about you.
Ballads are as necessary a part of life as leafy green vegetables are a part of regularity. However, as any trip to Publix will show you, there's a big fat difference between fresh radicchio and browning iceberg.
Beth I hear you callin'/But I can't come home right now/Me and the boys are playin'/And we just can't find the sound
-from "Beth" by KISS
Back in their make-up days, KISS didn't need any help selling concert seats, records, even comic books. But Peter Criss's weepy explanation to his wife about why he was late for dinner one night took KISS into America's collective living room via a spot on the Grammy Awards show. It was one of those things that makes record companies go "hmmm."
They realized ballads had become the diesel fuel that could push a rock band far beyond its core audience and way up to the top of the charts. A mucky tear-inducer became a mandatory track on every rock, hard rock, and even some metal albums, and the ballad-into-bucks conversion ratio was shown to be almost infallible.
Think I'm kidding? Let's look at some sales figures. Extreme is recognized by both critics and fans as a legitimately talented band. Pioneers of the funk/metal hybrid that is now all the rage, the band's first album was barely noticed. (That album's ballad, "Watching, Waiting," was a sober concept piece about watching Jesus' crucifixion. A&M Records, probably imagining the video, did not release it as a single.) The first single from the follow-up, Extreme II: Pornograffitti, was the fast, choppy "Decadence Dance," followed by a sassy spitball called "Get The Funk Out." Sales were an admirable 300,000.
Suddenly the big guns were pulled out and Extreme unleashed "More Than Words," an acoustic beauty that the band had been treating their live audiences to for more than a year. In it, singer Gary Cherone challenges his honey to show a little imagination: "Saying I love you is not the words I want to hear from you...If you only knew how easy it would be to show me how you feel."
Next thing you know, Extreme was in heavy rotation on MTV, played next to Luther Vandross on VH-1, and formatted on every "soft rock" and "lite" radio station. Not eager to mess with the program, the band's record company released an acoustic foot-stomper called "Hole Hearted" as the next single, and sales of Pornograffitti recently topped two million. Double platinum. Fans of the two Top Ten singles must be quite surprised when they get the album home and hear "Little Jack Horny."
I finally found the love of a lifetime/A love to last my whole life through/I finally found the love of a lifetime/Forever in my heart/I finally found the love of a lifetime
-from "Love of a Lifetime" by Firehouse
Firehouse is another band that enlarged its audience by balladeering. Taking the expansion theory one step further, soft-rock radio was given a choice between the electric or acoustic version of "Love of a Lifetime." After playing the latter to death, an afternoon DJ on WHYI-FM oozed, "What a bee-yoo-tiful song. But you know, I've heard that Firehouse is actually a rock band! Can you believe that?" Not hardly! And I bet some of the 1.3 million people who bought the album didn't know either.
The ballad also works wonders for those careers that just can't seem to get off the ground. Lita Ford enjoyed a bright (albeit brief) moment of success on a duet with Ozzy Osbourne called "If I Close My Eyes Forever." And really, who gave a shit about the Scorpions until they squeezed out "Wind of Change"? Not only was it a guaranteed arm-waver, but it was practically the theme song for the tearing down of the Berlin Wall. The grizzled German rockers actually got to meet face-to-face with Mikhail Gorbachev, who commanded the Scorps' presence in the waning days of the empire because he was such a fan of the tune. Now that's what I call marketing.
But the award for Band Saved By A Ballad this week goes to Mr. Big. Composed of highly proficient musicians who won't be mistaken for male models any time soon, Mr. Big put out an album, Lean Into It, nine months ago. It produced a market line so flat even Gage and DeSoto couldn't defibrillate it back to life. But Mr. Big's record company recently released an innocent acoustic love ditty called "To Be with You," and suddenly, we've got a pulse! Though Atlantic refused to give out any pre-single sales figures, the label did say the album was re-entering the charts at number 56 with a bullet at press time, and "To Be with You" was headed for the top ten. I rest my case.
Her hair reminds me of a warm safe place where as a child I'd hide/And pray for the thunder and the rain to quietly pass me by
-from "Sweet Child O' Mine" by Guns N' Roses
Hey, I've got nothing against anyone making a buck. Free enterprise is a beautiful thing, but I get a little tetchy if it's deliberately playing on my emotions. If I'm going to wallow in a large puddle of sorrow, I don't want some reject from the Hallmark poetry department. I want something truly weepworthy.
Just how do you separate a good, honest ballad from a substitute for ipecac? It's all a matter of taste. One girl's enchilada is another girl's cat burrito. However, some of the qualities I've found in real, touching ballads are a melody that takes at least a few listens before you can sing along with it; non-insulting lyrics (a house doesn't have to fall on most people for them to figure out you're talking 'bout the L word); and basically, if you find yourself getting moist in the optic region on the first listen, it's a keeper. Some examples that'll be in my Walkman if I ever leap off a building are the aforementioned "Sweet Child," "More Than Words," and "Sarah I'm Alone" by area heroes Forget the Name, from their Subtleties of Anger cassette. These songs sound like the musical equivalent of reverence and anguish.
If, however, you hear a ballad that you feel you could have written easily (or better), harbor pangs of guilt when you sing along, or know that it will one day end up on a K-Tel compilation, chances are it's a wet one. Save your tears for the real thing, or if you want a really good cry, go hit yourself in the head with a brick.
Get the Music Newsletter
Keep your thumb on the local music scene with music features, additional online music listings and show picks. We'll also send special ticket offers and music promotions available only to our Music Newsletter subscribers.