|The Best and Worst Thing
Nouveau Rock Ballads: Craftsmanship and Keeping it Real
By Adam Gropman
Aug 27, 2007
The hard rock power ballad is an awesome thing. And by “awesome”, I mean both the wide-eyed, street slang connotation and the literal definition -- “a thing provoking awe” -- awe being an overwhelming feeling of reverence or admiration.
The traditional power ballad was a way for rock bands and their listeners, who both usually reveled in the relatively blunt musical language of thick, simple chords, driving drumbeats and layers of delicious distortion, to return to the safe, warm, presumably nostalgic world of yesteryear -- or youth -- when all songs were pop songs and melodies were clean, pretty and in many cases, emotionally evocative or romantically poetic in the tradition of popular arts going back hundreds of years.
Delicate, highly-crafted and unabashedly manipulative tunes are planted in most of our brains and souls from a very young age. They were on the record player in our own homes and in those of our friends and relatives. They poured out of car radios -- via AM pop stations, and out of the ceilings of restaurants and stores wherever we went. Soft, catchy melodicism was even embedded in the songs sang to us in the crib and in the ones we later learned at holidays, summer camp and in school.
You show me an adult completely unaffected by the catchiest hits of 1950s crooners, 1960s Motown stars or 1970s folky-pop (e.g. James Taylor, Cat Stevens, Joni Mitchell) and I'll show you someone profoundly damaged by nihilistic, post-modern cultural static. I understand rocking out hard to Korn, Mudvayne or Pantera, but how could a person listen to Smokey Robinson's “Tears of a Clown” or James Taylor's “Fire and Rain” and not feel in the slightest bit wistful, bittersweet or indulgently philosophical? The Beatles became the biggest band on the planet because they understood and possessed the power of pure melody.
In the 1970s, several of the first wave of hard rock and proto-metal bands came out with “power ballads” as a way to pay tribute to and capitalize on the primal connection with sweet, romantic melody held by even their roughest, most hard rocking audience members. The obvious granddaddies of the power ballad genre are Led Zep's “Stairway To Heaven” and “All Of My Love” and Aerosmith's “Dream On”. All three are tremendously well-crafted, evocative, powerfully heartfelt tunes with all of the sonic elements combining together organically and harmoniously.
KISS's rather thin, treacly “Beth” was clearly several steps down, but still passed for some kind of arena epic and had enough melodic frills to get the crowd -- especially the girls -- swaying and holding out their lighters. Queen's “Bohemian Rhapsody” is considered by some to be a power ballad, but I consider it a ridiculously amazing, operatic tour-de-force, way too baroque and ambitiously complex to qualify in the genre. Kansas's “Dust In The Wind” is a beautiful song, light and supremely melodic, but once again, just not quite a power ballad.
The 1980s brought loads of hard rock-revival “hair bands” (e.g. Motley Crue, Poison, Skid Row, Warrant, Def Leppard), many of which excreted forth fairly cheesy, yet crafty and serviceable power ballads that followed predictable and un-challenging formulas of equal parts arena-bombast and dumb pseudo-sincerity. For the most part, these romanti-rock hits couldn't musically touch the Led Zep and Aerosmith masterpieces from the previous decade.
In the late-middle hard rock years -- the 1990s -- one band seemed to own the power ballad -- Guns N' Roses. Axl Rose and gang proved they could rock the absolute hell out of a straight-ahead power hit. But what about a power ballad? “Don't Cry” and “November Rain” were mixed bags. Fundamentally, they had catchy, sentimental and even vulnerable pop hooks within. But Axl maintained enough scruffy, screechy, tough-guy defiance in his voice to show that he wasn't taking this ballad stuff one hundred percent seriously. And to be perfect, a power ballad requires absolute dedication and soulful reverence on the part of its creators.
This all leads us to the current state of music, which could arguably be called “post hard rock,” or “post metal.” When FM rock radio and the entire popular hard music landscape changed fundamentally after the “Nirvana Explosion” of the early 1990s, one might have wondered if the sensitive power-rock ballad was to basically become extinct. The good news is that it has not. It has resurfaced in new, innovative, hybridized ways by the new, innovative, hybridized bands that define the state of popular rock music in the late 2000's. And for the sake of this column, let's call this version the “nouveau rock ballad.”
In the past decade or so, there have been some superb examples of gentle, uber-melodic an instantly classic songwriting by the post-everything, “modern rock” bands that dominate today's scene. The Red Hot Chili Pepper's “Under The Bridge” is a magnificent tune from its carefully picked guitar intro to the haunting, ethereal backup singing on the chorus.
Incubus -- sometimes dismissed by slacksadaisacal indie-hipsters for it's muscular, fuzzy groove-rock that tries too hard -- released a timeless hit with “Drive”, perfectly matching a killer chord progression with Brandon Boyd's clean, open voice and positive philosophical lyrics. Incubus's seeming doppelganger Hoobastank created an almost equally perfect example of the genre with “The Reason,” which apparently became a huge favorite slow-dance number at high school proms.
Ben Folds Five have cranked out quite a few brilliant piano-driven ballads, thanks to its leader's prodigious musical talents, but it was the wonderful “Brick”, a lyrically obtuse tune about a wrenching abortion decision, that qualified as a genuine radio hit. Weezer, who can crank it up loud with the best of them, scored a nouveau rock ballad for the ages with the supremely emotional “Say It Ain't So.”
Even Soundgarden -- hatched from Seattle's fertile fields of hard grunge in the 90s -- put forth the excellent, ballad-like “Black Hole Sun”, a mighty, theatrical epic with a strong psychedelic-rock influence.
While John Mayer is arguably more “pop” than “rock”, he definitely is a staple of today's post-everything mish-mash of a music scene. I'm willing to take the derision and ridicule of cool music purists when I admit that I think two of his softer-rock hits -- “Daughters” and “Your Body Is A Wonderland” -- are excellent, cannily written examples of the more light, mainstream sub-genre of the nouveau rock ballad.
The best nouveau rock ballad, however, has to be Metallica's “Nothing Else Matters.” It is as monstrously authoritative, powerful and classic a power ballad as the group's “Enter Sandman” is a straight-ahead hard rock hit. It does everything a nouveau rock ballad should do, with absolute perfection. Kirk Hammett's delicate guitar flourishes are as well thought out as a Spanish classical guitar master's and James Hetfield's vocals and lyrics are somehow totally vulnerable and believable, while maintaining his trademark aura of rugged-machismo-beyond-reproach. It's an amazing and highly touching dichotomy, like a trail-gnarled cowboy having a healthy cry or a brutal drill instructor gently applying Kiehl's skin lotion to his feet.
Just try to listen to “Nothing Else Matters" and not get carried away with the instinctively pleasing, timeless, albeit nearly Teutonic-classical pop-songcraft married to a grizzly facade of hairy, ultra-masculine new metal. You get the feeling that Hetfield really cares about the lyrics being expressed and Hammett really cares about the sentiment and appropriateness of his guitar parts. And this makes all the difference. All too often hard rock bands that play their ballad with a broad wink and a grin -- a refusal to surrender completely to the soft, vulnerable moment.
Drummer Lars Ulrich does bang away a bit unrestrained on the harder part of the song, perhaps as if to say: “Come on, guys, this is Metallica. Don't get too wimpy on me,” but neither that nor Hammett's virtuoso squealing solo takes away from this song's standing as a nouveau rock ballad of the absolute highest order.
Green Day is an excellent punkish-rock band, but their attempts at ballady fare have sucked in my book. “Time Of Your Life” and “Wake Me Up When September Ends” had melodies that -- to my ears -- just did not quite work, and in the case of melody in a ballad, not quite working is a huge problem. Without the churning, cranked-up instrumentals, primal groove, and sheer brute force that hard rock songs can fall back on, a ballad relies overwhelmingly on a perfect tune and superb lead vocals. When a rock ballad doesn't work, as with these Green Day tunes, it can come across as a pretentious and highly contrived display of narcissistic self-importance.
As much the Red Hot Chili Peppers hit the nail on the head with “Under The Bridge”, they completely dropped the ball with the mushy, meandering and musically sloppy “Soul To Squeeze”, a song that received an extra boost from its association with Coneheads, but always struck me as melodically broken. RHCP had a couple of arguably great rock ballads beyond “Under The Bridge”, with “Breaking The Girl” and “My Friends,” but with stuff like the recent, barely mediocre “Scar Tissue,” they seem to have lost the distinct, carved out and divinely inspired songwriting displayed in those earlier hits.
The band Audioslave was a super-group, a combination of two muscular rock entities -- Rage Against The Machine and Soundgarden. Whereas both of those bands had a lot of great attributes and songs, the shrill, pseudo-ballady “Like A Stone” played to their weaknesses, not their strengths. Combining the Rage players' skills at melodic subtlety with singer Chris Cornell's capacity for delicate restraint is sort of like combining southern efficiency with northern charm -- the age old, tongue-in-cheek description of St. Louis.
The worst current example of a nouveau rock ballad, however, is the song “Hey There, Delilah” by the Plain White T's. I don't know anything about this band -- except that they apparently released this grating assault on the eardrums, brain and soul something like five years ago and the magnificent little ditty only just recently got an amazing rebirth, and subsequent round of insane air wave saturation, after dozens of months cooling out in the quiet calm of rock n' roll obscurity.
First off, this folksy little delight of a tune has been played more frequently on radio than weather, sports and traffic reports combined. Spin the FM dial in Los Angeles on any given day, at any hour, and brace yourself for the oh-so-plaintive and yearning voice barking out: “Oh...what you do to me...what you do to me...what you do to me.” I don't know what's being done to the guy singing the song, but I know what's being done to ME. I'm being subjected to an insanely precious and dishonest piece of faux-folky, pop-mush cardboard, something so horribly artificial and musically ineffective that I practically yearn for some REO Speedwagon, Styx or Toto.
Plain White T's might very well be a great rock band. They might kick ass up and down the East Coast...and West...with raucous, real live, down home rock 'n' roll like momma...and Soul Asylum...used to make. I don't know. It's hard to tell with such an obvious novelty ruse as this song. There are plenty of great rock bands -- many examples aforementioned -- that should never be judged by their intensely lame failures at power ballad-dom. But as I don't know any of the PWT's other songs, I can only lambaste this execrable piece of rancid fluff with the glee of a tortured pit bull tearing his jaws into Michael Vick.
From the very name of the song's eponymous subject, this tune loses virtually all credibility. Delilah? I'm not buying it for a second. The PWT's singer/lyricist does not know any girl name Delilah. I'd put money on that -- at least a month's car insurance payment. I barely believe that Johnny Cash knew a Delia -- he had a song called “Delia's Gone” -- but it seems at least slightly plausible, as Cash was a big, mysterious, mythical man in black. But Delilah's such a pretentiously quasi-literary, dramatic and obscure name, the song immediately loses any currency and verisimilitude.
Maybe the PWT singer/lyricist actually knew a Michelle or a Cindy or a Gwendolyn, from his college dorm or the local coffee joint, but he doesn't know any Delilah. If he does, she is a hundred and seven and lives on an old plantation in rural Georgia and should not be written and sung about by a healthy young man as a love interest.
To my ears, picking Delilah as the girl's name is an attempt to add timeless, grandiose literary importance to the character and the song, to tap into the lore of mythical and ancient historical associations. If you're going to sing a love song to Delilah, why stop there? Why not write songs about other rad, cool chicks you've wanted to nail, like Bathsheeba, Antigone and Cleopatra? And how about some buddy songs about your old homies who've always had your back -- Samson, Agamemnon and Marcus Aurelius?
Putting the horrifically pretentious name behind us, let's get to the real meat of the matter -- the song itself. This folky, strummy acoustic ballad appears nice enough in theory. From far away, looking at its most basic outline, so to speak, it has commendable elements. It attempts a simple, stripped-down, barnyard-rock-casual chord progression and a slightly grizzled, earnest vocal melody, going into an even more reaching, weep-inducing chorus. The dynamics, per se, are fine. The music, lyrics and voice, however, come across as a thoroughly prefabricated, hollow facsimile of what an acoustic rock ballad actually IS, when executed naturally, organically and with genuine inspiration, grit and soul.
Listening to this overbearing, seemingly weekend-warrior version of touching ballad songwriting, I can practically hear the business meetings with managers and record company execs sketching out the upward trajectory and wonderful ancillary opportunities for such a piece of modern rock muzak. This song screams out for featured placement in the next Zach Braff cinematic masterpiece. If it was a hit several years ago, Brandon, Brenda, Dylan and the gang would have been getting simultaneously happy and melancholy to it as it played on the imaginary jukebox down at The Peach Pit. Today, it could quite likely find a home on The O.C., or as accompanying soundtrack during the “wistful, sad” parts of any number of quasi-tragic reality/contest shows.
This song is so astoundingly calculated, its musical chart would resemble something scrawled by good Will Hunting on the blackboard at M.I.T. The problem, of course, is that much of the general American public, after being relentlessly assaulted -- Josef-Goebbels-like -- by a song on its trusted, professional, major radio stations, will begin to think it's a good song simply through the brain's process of acceptance through familiarity. If it's on the radio, and I've heard it a hundred eighty times, it must be good, right? Wrong. And in the long run, most of the uninspired, forced faux-hits like “Delilah,” promoted voraciously by the recording industry that changes its musical flavor-du-jour every year or two, will drop away and never achieve truly timeless, legendary standing in rock's pantheon. I love a good nouveau rock ballad as much as -- probably more than -- the next guy. But when it comes to this supremely annoying hit by the Plain White T's, I say it's time to throw it in the wash.
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