High Variance

The Mystery of the Hair Metal Power Ballad

Hair metal is weird. It showed up big in the mid eighties with Mötley Crüe and Ratt and then was gone by the early nineties. It was full of macho lyrics (Shout at the Devil, Wanted Man, Lick it Up, Rock of Ages,…), big guitar solos, leather, and head-banging. It definitely wasn’t real metal, but it had the aroma of metal. But then on top of all this testosterone, hair featured tons of make up, songs about partying, and strangest of all, a power ballad on almost every album. Why? I can think of four possible explanations:

1. Sensititivy? Did every hair band have a singer/song-writer who had to let the world see his soft emotional side on a regular basis? Did they really need to express their love so sticky sweetly and publically? Based on my analysis of band behavior and song lyrics, I think probably not. “Home Sweet Home” (Motley Crue) and “Closer to My Heart”by (Ratt) are unarguably the best of genre. The first is widely interpreted as being about how the song-writer (Nicki Sixx or Tommy Lee) is on tour but really misses being back at home with his girlfriend/wife:

    You know I'm a dreamer
    But my heart's of gold
    I had to run away high
    So, I wouldn't come home low

But those guys were so well-known for drunken debauchery on tour that their sincerity here is hard to believe. Ratt took a more honest tack:

    When you cross the line, then you'll find
    That you're one step closer to my heart
    Closer to my heart
    One step closer to my heart
    Closer to my heart

I’m not exactly sure where Ratt draws their line, but I am sure I don’t want to know. It ain’t holding hands. These are not the words of sensitive men.

2. Rest? Hair bands expend a lot of energy jumping around during their live shows and it gets tiring. With all the partying back stage and on the tour bus, these guys aren’t in great shape either. Maybe they perform these slow songs so they can take a breath and get their energy back? If that were the case, how do the real metal bands do it? Judas Priest and Iron Maiden could crank through whole sets with no ballad breaks. That’s where the guitar solo, drum solo, and even bass solo help out. And the hair bands took advantage of these too.

3. Economics? Now we’re getting somewhere. The non-ballad songs on every hair band album all appealled primarily to a young male demographic. So when I wanted to hear Ratt’s “Lay it Down “ or Dangerous but Worth the Risk”, I had to buy Invasion of Your Privacy. No one bought (or downloaded) singles in the eighties. When Ratt added “Closer to My Heart” to the album, they suddenly doubled (or more than doubled) the number of people who might buy the album. It was a brilliant example of product bundling. The most extreme example of this was when tons of people bought Extreme’s Pornograffitti because they loved the ballad “More than Words” and were shocked to find it wasn’t so representative of the tracks on the album. I used to see tons of these cd’s in the used bins in the early nineties.

4. Girls? I went to a lot of metal and hair metal shows back in the day and the crowds couldn’t have been more different. There were actual girls at the hair shows! I’m not saying they didn’t like the heavier music, but I know the ballads were a big draw. And the bands were pretty happy about this too. A good friend of mine went to a show where Winger was the opening act (Remember “She’s only Seventeen”?) and he saw the lead singer walking around in the venue after his set was over. My friend went and asked him for an autograph and was told “Get out of here kid, I’m looking for chicks.” So the ballads worked out well for them, but I’m not sure they were smart enough to see this fringe benefit ahead of time.

So at the end of the day, I think the power ballad was a side effect of the record industry economcs of the time. We shouldn’t be sad that the hair metal power ballad is gone though. We should be happy that it existed at all!

If all this talk has got you excited to listen to a few, here is my personal top seven:

  1. “Closer To My Heart” Ratt
  2. “Alone Again” Docken
  3. “Nobody’s Fool” Cinderella
  4. “Tears Are Falling” Kiss
  5. “Bringin’ On the Heartbreak” Def Leppard
  6. “Still Loving You” Scorpions
  7. “Home Sweet Home” Mötley Crüe

(iTunes playlist here–Thanks Ping!)