first round game
(1) bon jovi, "livin' on a prayer"
(1) bon jovi, "wanted dead or alive"
& "livin' on a prayer" moves on
Read the essays, watch the videos, listen to the songs, feel free to argue below in the comments or tweet at us, and consider. Winner is the aggregate of the poll below and the @marchshredness twitter poll. Polls closed @ 9am Arizona time on 3/5.
anthem: lisa m. o'neill on bon jovi's "livin' on a prayer"
Jon Bon Jovi feels it. He wants you to feel it, too. He is unabashed in his enthusiasm, his energy, his giant halo of hair, his fringed leather jacket. Jon Bon Jovi is silhouetted in light, Jon Bon Jovi runs the length of the stage, Jon Bon Jovi flies over the crowd. Jon Bon Jovi holds the microphone with a vice-grip as if letting go, he might lose the song. Jon Bon Jovi sings into the microphone before extending it into the audience who responds in cascades of sound. And though it is Jon Bon Jovi’s voice on the record and streaming from the speakers onstage, “Livin’ on a Prayer” is not his anthem—it’s ours.
I was a child of the 80s, born into Trapper Keepers and neon and really, really poor fashion decisions. I cannot remember a time when I did not know the song “Livin’ on a Prayer.” I cannot remember a time when I did not know it by heart. When “Livin' on a Prayer” was released in 1986, I was seven years old growing up in Louisiana—thousands of cultural and physical miles from New Jersey. This was a land of blazers and crewcuts, pantyhose and high hair. Jon Bon Jovi both excited and confused me. Was this what rockers looked like? Bon Jovi’s music was one backdrop to my youth and adolescence and it was fitting—so much angst and yearning.
Recently, I was at a wedding when the DJ put on “Don’t Stop Believin’,” a song that pervaded the culture in new and exasperating ways after it was featured on the television show Glee. Bodies rushed the dancefloor. I looked around and saw people in every decade of life singing all the words at the top of their lungs. I, of course, was too. I couldn’t help it. “Livin’ on a Prayer” is that kind of song—that cross-continents, know-all-the-words, sing-til-you’re-hoarse kind of song. It has that quality of making everyone in the room feel momentarily united in struggle. We are all Tommy. We are all Gina. I mean, we’re not, but for a moment, coasting on the wails, we feel we are.
When Jon Bon Jovi sat down with Richie Sambora and legendary songwriter Desmond Child at Sambora’s childhood Jersey home—“on the edge of a marsh and in the shadow of an oil refinery”—they had a goal in mind. They didn’t just want to write a good song. They wanted to write a stadium song, a song built for the tours they saw in their minds. That first session, they wrote “You Give Love a Bad Name,” but during the second session in New York City, the trio composed what would become the band’s career-defining song. “Livin’ on a Prayer”’s plot was a patchwork of their lived experiences—Jon was still with his high-school sweetheart (and now wife of over 30 years) Dorothea, and Desmond worked on his songs while his girlfriend waited tables at the diner.
Tommy and Gina are hard-working, blue-collar folks. They are doing their best in a world rigged against them. The song was written in the 1980s when the overall unemployment in the U.S. was 10 percent, then the highest rate since the Great Depression. Unemployment was almost three times as bad for Black Americans as it was for White Americans. Tough times were not hard for folks to imagine.
The song centers the sacred. Jon Bon Jovi calls himself a recovering Catholic, a moniker I also claim, but you can’t un-embed the power of ritual from someone who has been inscribed in them since birth. Even if you absent yourself from the Church, you can’t un-remember what you’ve been told about the power of prayer. Prayer is not merely supplication, it is refuge, it is the statement of an undying desire for things to shift and be different than they are. We turn to prayer when we are most hopeless but if we had no hope, we wouldn’t pray at all. While I know many people pray when they are glad or grateful, when I think of prayer, I think of words that come out in spite of ourselves, some version of help me, help me, help me.
Bon Jovi begins in a whisper: Once upon a time, not so long ago, placing the song both in the realm of fairytale and in present times. Except for the central metaphor, the song is literal. The details of Gina and Tommy’s lives unfurl before us. Any good writing teacher will remind their students that specificity invites the reader into your story and allows them to connect. Readers and listeners don’t need to have the same exact experience to cast their story alongside yours, but they need to understand your experience to feel something. And isn’t one of a song’s primary goals to make you feel something?
Tommy used to work on the docks/the union’s been on strike/he’s down on his luck/it’s tough, so tough. Gina works the diner all day/working for her man, she brings home her pay/for love, for love.
Tommy hocks his guitar. Gina wants to run away. At night, they comfort one another. Theirs is a universal story: what happens when the life we imagined for ourselves juts up against hardness of reality. “Livin’ on a Prayer” is an anthem for the direness of living: regrets, restlessness, deferred dreams, working shit jobs, struggling to make a living while trying to keep relationships together. But alongside the frustration, the song carries the hope that dreams will come to fruition without knowing when or how that will happen.
When Jon Bon Jovi was 17, he got a job sweeping floors at his cousin’s music studio. After his song “Runaway” was put on an album featuring local talent, he was signed to a recording contract and formed Bon Jovi. Still, even after two albums, the band had only garnered moderate success. “Livin’ on a Prayer” was an aspirational song—produced with the vision of an entire stadium of people singing along, success that had not yet materialized.
In the black and white video, Bon Jovi stares at the camera through his mop of hair, tries on harnesses, and runs around in an empty theater. Then suddenly, the space of the theater transforms from black and white to full color, from empty to full—with Bon Jovi flying across a packed crowd to his place on stage.
Jon Bon Jovi didn’t like the first recorded version of the song. Lead guitarist Richie Sambora was the one who convinced him they should stick with it. They recorded a new bass line, added new drum fills. And they added a talk box.
I didn’t know until very recently what a talkbox was or what was helping to create that sound in the song. I figured it was some sort of pedal or sounds played through a keyboard. But if you watch videos of Bon Jovi performing live, you can see a tube in Richie Sambora’s mouth. A talkbox is a pedal with an airtight tube. You plug your guitar into the pedal, insert the tube in your mouth, and, standing in front of a vocal microphone, shape your mouth without singing. The resulting sound is neither produced by your voice or your guitar, but by both. The percussive background for the beginning of the song and the verses made by Richie Sambora completely alter the shape of the song. There is no “Livin' on a Prayer” without the rhythmicism and otherworldliness of the talkbox that moves the song forward, like a train: oowah oowah oo oo oowah, oowah oowah oo oo oowah.
The root of the word catharsis comes from the Greek katharsis “purging, cleansing” and from katharos “open, free; clear of shame or guilt; purified.” Catharsis means “a purging through vicarious experience.”
In many cultures, singing is embedded as part of life. There are no gatekeepers, no deciders of who is “allowed” to sing. If you have a body, you have vocal chords and you have breath. You sing. People sing as part of ceremony, for celebration and for mourning, as a way to honor individuals and as a way to pass time.
That is not the reality of our American culture. We have shows like American Idol, America’s Got Talent, and The Voice (definite article: “you” are “the” voice, not “you” have “a” voice); these shows perpetuate the idea that some bodies are made for singing and others are not. That some people will be our culture bearers while the rest of us cower—singing only alone in our showers or sitting in traffic. There are a few bastions where this damaging grip loosens a little—when we’re at public events like church, weddings, concerts, and karaoke.
In these moments, our songs come out from hymnals and across decades and Billboard charts. “Livin’ on a Prayer” is one of them. And it’s a fun song to sing. The verse cascades from high to low, high to low, as we tell Gina and Tommy’s story. We put language to the feeling of trying hard and still not getting by. We amp up. But it’s the chorus that really claims power. “We’ve got to hold on to what we’ve got” is a precursor, just a warm up for “Oh-Oh We’re halfway there” and “Whoa-Oh, livin’ on a prayer.” We wail.
I don’t usually like when people yell in songs. I don’t mind belting but that’s different than what Bon Jovi is doing and demanding of us. His voice becomes full-throttle insistent. And the insistence feels absolutely called for. Maybe if we believe hard enough, maybe if we put everything we have in, we can make it. There is urgency in these notes, urgency that makes it nearly impossible not to throw one or both hands up into the air to accompany the ascendant notes. The chorus is the kind of catharsis that turns strangers momentarily to kin. For the duration of the song and the moments after, we believe in each other. From the whispered intro to the epic guitar solo to the key change that pushes us towards resolution.
Have you ever heard someone say: Yeah, I really don’t like “Livin’ on a Prayer”? I have not. Not even from music snobs who might ordinarily say that the song and ones like it are too riddled with cliché.
There is no doubt about the commercial success of “Livin' on a Prayer.” The song spent two weeks at number one on Billboard’s Mainstream Rock chart and four weeks at number one on Billboard Hot 100. It hit number 4 on the UK singles chart. Billboard rated it 46 in all-time rock songs and in the time since going digital, the song has sold over 3.4 million copies.
Overall, Bon Jovi has sold more than 100 million records worldwide, making them one of the best-selling American rock bands of all-time, and this spring, they will be inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame along with Nina Simone, the Cars, Dire Straits, the Moody Blues, and Sister Rosetta Tharpe. Their 1989 acoustic performance at the VMAs is credited with inspiring MTV Unplugged. When Bon Jovi cut his hair in the early 90s, CNN covered it. Bon Jovi is an ubiquitous part of American culture. And so is “Livin’ on a Prayer.”
A search for “living on a prayer” on Youtube yields over 20 million results. “Living on a prayer cover" comes in at over 12 million. My favorite cover of “Livin’ on a Prayer” is one I’ve watched often enough that I often get “Whoa-Oh, Livin’ for the Free Gas” stuck in my head. In the video, a man filling his gas at a station is humming when a voice comes over the video screen. The newscaster tells the man if he sings karaoke, he will get his gas for free. He picks “Livin’ on a Prayer.” In the song, his enthusiasm is palpable. He is us. Before he begins, the newscaster asks if he wants the words. “No,” the man says. “I know them, baby.”
Bon Jovi alludes to Tommy and Gina in three other songs. In “It’s My Life,” Jon sings, “This is for the ones who stood their ground/for Tommy and Gina, who never backed down.” In “99 in the Shade,” Jon sings “somebody tells me even Tommy’s coming down tonight/if Gina says it’s alright.” Jon Bon Jovi has said in interviews that although their names are not mentioned, he wrote “Born to Be My Baby” for Tommy and Gina, to give them some closure and tell the audience these beloved characters were doing fine.
Tommy and Gina are older now. Maybe Tommy made it to the big time and Gina found her passion in life. Maybe they are nearing retirement from their 9 to 5s and tallying up their 401ks while they play by the lake with their grandkids. But for us, they are forever frozen in time—in a moment of striving, uncertainty, fear embedded with hope. They are naïvete shot through with desire. They are holding on to one another.
In a 2007 interview with Parade, Jon Bon Jovi says, “I pride myself on having [always] had the same band. I pride myself on having the same wife. I like progress but I hate change. And I think that counts for something in this day and age. I think it also has helped my career, because I didn’t do Grunge when Grunge got popular; I didn’t get a rapper when Rap became popular; I didn’t try to dance like a boy band when that got popular. You just stay the course, and do what it is that you do, and grow while you’re doing it. Eventually it will either come full circle, or at least you’ll go to bed at night happy.”
I have often wondered what it feels like to have a song that the whole world knows. I wonder what it would feel like to have that song be synonymous with you and to be called upon to sing it again and again. I know that in every video performance I have seen of Bon Jovi singing it—from 1986 to 2017—he radiates. Actually, he is downright giddy. He seems to thrill each time in the audience singing the chorus with and for him, as if it’s the first time. Maybe he’s a very talented performer. Maybe after all this time, the song still resonates for him. Maybe, in the song, he sees the fulfillment of dreams, prayers answered.
Lisa M. O'Neill is a writer, teacher, singer/songwriter, creativity usher, child of the 80s, and karaoke fan. She's glad that Bon Jovi is being inducted to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame but is more excited that foundress of Rock and Roll and innovator of guitar distortion Sister Rosetta Tharpe is finally getting her due. Find Lisa on twitter .
Singing It From the Hair: laura c. j. owen on "wanted dead or alive"
“Bon Jovi rocks!…On occasion.”
“They rock…on occasion” is a handy expression. It’s when the rock of it all can’t be denied, not matters how dudes like Dean Winchester feel about hair metal.
I think how Dean Winchester feels about Bon Jovi is interesting, regardless of how you feel about the seminal CW show Supernatural, because Dean Winchester is a strange Xennial fever-dream of American masculinity: born on the cusp of the eighties, raised on the road in the nineties, demon-fighting in the aughts, he clings to his dad’s leather jacket and his dad’s collection of cassette tapes, Classic Rock and Metal: Black Sabbath, Motorhead, Metallica, AC/DC (“The greatest hits of Mullet Rock,” as longer-haired Sam deems them).
Also: When you YouTube “Bon Jovi Wanted Dead or Alive”, the third result is “Sam & Dean Sing Dead or Alive”, meaning a whole generation has discovered Bon Jovi for the first time through Supernatural.
It’s interesting, watching Dean sing “Wanted Dead or Alive”, to reflect that the actor, Jensen Ackles, is possessed of a naturally strong, crooning voice, plays acoustic guitar, and is best friends with the kind of Indie Rockers whose music Dean extravagantly disdains.
Dean Winchester, Jensen Ackles decided, is the kind of guy who sings Bon Jovi loud and bad. Dean Winchester is pitchy.
Dean Winchester is haunted by literal demons but doesn’t like to talk about his feelings, enjoys burgers and disdains salads, and drives his steel horse, a ’67 Chevy Impala, through totemic symbols of Americana: motels and diners and roadside attractions, all filmed of course, CW-style, in Vancouver, Canada.
Dean Winchester is not the type you’d expect to like hair metal, unless it’s played at a strip club. Hence, “Bon Jovi?”
In a season two Supernatural episode, a character defends REO Speedwagon, insisting that “Kevin Cronin sings it from the heart!”
“He sings it from the hair,” Dean quips. “There’s a difference.”
Of course, REO Speedwagon is not hair metal, but “singing it from the hair” is basically the perfect thesis statement for hair metal. It rocks and also it’s glam. It’s intense but winking, deeply performative. It sings it from the hair.
Dean Winchester does not sing it from the hair. He’s preoccupied with a very specific set of standards for masculinity, signified as distinct from his more superficially “sensitive” brother by hair: Sam Winchester’s hair is long and shaggy and probably possessed. Dean Winchester’s is short and to the point; hair is one of the things Dean Winchester is not supposedly concerned with, like “socially awkward” or “chick flick” moments.
Dean Winchester likes metal, not hair metal. But certain things, like life, like death, find a way. They cannot be denied.
Bon Jovi sings it from the hair. The hair may be a little restrained in the “Dead or Alive” video; held back by a bandana, limp from a night in the tour bus, but it’s still glorious. Bon Jovi benefits from existing in the overlapping Venn Diagram of Hair Metal and Italian-American, two cultural categories in which it is socially acceptable, if not encouraged, to express your masculinity through extravagant attention to one’s ‘do. They are All Hair. Hair All The Way Down.
Bon Jovi, the lead singer as opposed to the band, is not pitchy. His voice, rocking out from his tiny, perfect body, is loud and pure. Unlike other hair metal front-persons, who create a sex appeal from a construction of guitars, swagger, and costume, his sequins and chest hair are almost beside the point. He transcends the trappings—he’s annoyingly beautiful. Like, so beautiful that part of you doesn’t want him to rock. You want to sneer, “Bon Jovi?” But yeah, hell yeah. Bon Jovi rocks!
As someone born in 1982, I first encountered Bon Jovi through their 2000 hit, “My Life.”
This song is catchy but it Does Not Rock. The only advantages of re-watching this video are:
- Check out what was High Tech in 2000! Also, I kind of want that ergonomic keyboard.
- OH MY GOD the lyric is: “As Frankie said, I did it my way”—like Frank Sinatra! That other famous Italian-American. I did not get that in 2000. Till JUST NOW, I thought the lyric was “I think I said I did it my way.” This misinterpretation speaks I feel, as much to the ambivalence of the whole cash-grab endeavor of a song as it does to my critical listening abilities.
It’s cruel, and arguably irrelevant, to contrast an artist’s inferior, later work to their iconic classics but contrasting “My Life” to “Dead or Alive” emphasizes the later’s brilliance only too pointedly.
“My Life” begs for a fist-pumping sing-along—it’s too easy. Compare that to the slow tease of “WANTED…” which Jon Bon croons and croons, letting the call-back be the work of the audience, empty air. It’s a song all about the blues of the road that, like a burnt-out rockstar, is still completely dependent on the audience to give it that hit of adrenaline and adoration. Listening at home, the song blue-balls you for that refrain till Richie Sambora finally, finally answers back with “Waaaanted” at the 2:15 mark.
A shock to remember this slow build, re-listening to the song outside of popular culture, outside of karaoke, in which primal-screaming the reply of “Waaaanted…” is the whole point. What a tease. “WE’D DIE FOR U JON” reads an audience sign. Yeah, yeah, you fucking would.
What’s awesome, ultimately, about “Wanted Dead or Alive” is that like most things I truly love, like rock music, like Supernatural, like America, like life itself, it manages to pull off both rocking out and being kind of a bummer at the same time.
“Wanted Dead or Alive” is singing loudly along, only to feel a little uneasy, your smile, like Dean’s, fading. If “Livin’ on a Prayer” celebrates the scrappiness of having nothing, and still being happy (“We got each other/and that’s a lot”), “Wanted Dead or Alive” is having a lot, rocking ALL THE FACES, and still feeling uneasy, empty, sad, i.e., the actual human condition.
“They” don’t care if you’re famous, if you’re a cool dude, if you rock the faces, if you try to out-run them across the length of America—they are still after you, and they will never, ever, stop, not even if you’re dead. Who are they? Who knows: fans, the cops, metaphorical demons, your crappy dad, literal demons, toxic masculinity, regrets, etc.
Who are you? You’re a cowboy, but you drive a car, and also you have a guitar? You’re Bon Jovi, you’re Dean Winchester, you’re a cowboy/rockstar/demon hunter, you ride a steel horse through all the totemic symbols of America, and you’re awesome, and really hot, and secretly sad, which makes you hotter. When you sing along with this song, you’re everything, as long as you have someone to howl “Waaaanted…” back at you.
“Wanted Dead or Alive” is a non-ironic wave of the lighter/cellphone in the air. It’s resisting, but giving in, to the glorious and also pant-shitting inevitability of death. “Wanted Dead or Alive” is not giving a fuck if you’re pitchy, which is about the most metal thing there is. “Wanted Dead or Alive” is hair metal, when you’re sweating into your hairspray with alcohol sweats from the night before.
“Wanted Dead or Alive” is Vinnie from Jersey Shore tweeting at the President about Climate Change and everyone is like, Oh My God Vinnie from Jersey Shore knows more about climate change than the President we are all gonna die, and then Vinnie from Jersey Shore is like, what? I can’t have a brain because I’m from New Jersey, also I GOT REALLY HOT and apparently I HAVE A DEGREE IN POLITICAL SCIENCE and you’re like MAYBE I MISJUDGED THIS BRAIN-SITUATION but also CLIMATE CHANGE, HOLY SHIT, WE ARE ALL GONNA DIE.
“Wanted Dead or Alive” is a cry of catchy despair from New Jersey and also all of America. It sings it from the hair, the heart, the brain, the groin.
Bon Jovi rocks. On occasion, Bon Jovi rocks.