More Than Words 

The portentous return of the power ballad

Welcome to Build Your Own Power Ballad! When you took the last train outta my heart/Your love cut me like a knife/Can't you see it in my eyes?/Here I stand in the pouring rain/Oh girl, if you lay your cards on the table, I'll lay my love on the line." Sound familiar? Find a few clichés, put them in the first person, add precipitation, and bam! Faster than you can say "love bites," you've got a groupie on your jock.

Power ballads show a band's sensitive side; that life on the road can be tough on a relationship, as can stayin' late at the studio ("Just a few more hours, and I'll be right home to you..."). They show that a singer doesn't just love you for your tits or your cherry pie. He likes your ass, too.

The origin of the power ballad is much disputed. When exactly did this art form first drag its Flying V-shaped web feet onto shore? Purists will point to "Stairway to Heaven," still others cite Black Sabbath's paean to menopause, "Changes." The latter is a better example, since a true power ballad must come from a group that one wouldn't expect to pen a "chick" song. Only metal-influenced bands can have power ballads. As strange as it may sound, Journey songs like "Open Arms" and "Lovin', Touchin', Squeezin' " aren't power ballads, since Journey was only hard rock at best. Those songs are simply ballad ballads. "Still Loving You" by the Scorpions -- now that's a power ballad. "Sister Christian" by Night Ranger. "Every Rose Has Its Thorn" by Poison. (All you Slayer fans are no doubt balking at any description of these bands as metal. Go back to carving that inverted cross into your forehead and read no further.)

For all their bad press, power ballads actually are our friends, because they are a good bellwether of things to come. Whenever there's a preponderance of plodding odes in an otherwise rockin' genre, it means that music is in a holding pattern and something big is around the corner. It's like when sitcoms bring in "the kid" during the last season to try and drum up ratings ("Cousin Oliver" on The Brady Bunch). The show is about to be canceled, but something potentially worthwhile will soon take its place.

Take the end of the '80s. When bands like Poison and Mötley Crüe began receding from the charts faster than even their own hairlines, the PB died and "punk" went mainstream. Nirvana and Pearl Jam wrote some slow songs, but the chord structure was totally different than that of their spandexed predecessors. Then rap-metal began to gain momentum, and ink bands (tattoos) moved into the forefront. Surely power ballads could never emerge from a form based upon the rocky marriage of hip-hop and grindcore.

Until now. Witness Linkin Park's "Crawling," followed by the even droopier "In the End." How about Creed's "My Own Prison" and "My Sacrifice"? And just try to sit through anything by Staind. Could it be the return of the power ballad? Only this time the bands have adopted an ingenious approach to music marketing: Make each song a combo ballbreaker/power ballad, thereby appealing to both males and females simultaneously. It's that Wagnerian slow/hard/slow song formula attributed to emo, but with first-person lyrics about rain, abandonment, and healing. It's fucking brilliant.

It's also fucking awful. If you thought "Carrie" by Europe was slop, check out Staind. Billed as hard-as-hell badasses ready to penetrate your teenage daughter and get your son hooked on crank, these bald-headed Schleprocks sound more like the Counting Crows covering Creed at a high-school dance. They suck so hard that the "E" in their name was ripped clear out.

It's still wimpy, but this new brand of balladeering does have some differences from its hairsprayed predecessors. Instead of singing about being dumped, getting eighteen to life, or needin' time to fix things up with their old lady, these songs are about being trapped, tortured, and alienated. It's "man vs. himself," not "man vs. man," to put that English degree to work. The sloppy sentimentalism of the '80s has been replaced by futility and anger. The New Build Your Own Power Ballad must include some of the old favorites such as rain and first person, but it also needs to add some dolorous torment: "Dragging myself over broken glass/The rain beats down like a guilty verdict/I just can't see a way out of this place" (enter superfluous rapping guy: "It doesn't even matter how hard I try/this green mile is still my path in a dead man's walking tour through the past").

Relax, though. Just as '80s metal purists who hated hair bands could count on Metallica, ink-band fans can probably count on Slipknot, (the possibly defunct) Rage Against the Machine, or Korn not to ever do a power ballad. But Metallica's cover of "Turn the Page" skates damn near PB land, so never say never. Maybe every rose does indeed have its thorn.

The real question is, what do these power ballads portend? What lies around the bend? We're in the seventh season, folks, and the Nielsen ratings don't look good.

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