Ruining Romance: The '80s Rock Power Ballad

The summer I was thirteen, Kerry Flanagan and I took turns sleeping over at each other's houses. We stayed up all night playing Rummy 500 and listening to Rock101, the local rock station. It was the late 1980s, the high holy days of hair metal, dudes in spandex, and girls in music videos wearing huge hair and not much else. I had graduated from reading about breast development in Judy Blume to feeling strangely hot and bothered by the pretty boys of Motley Crue and Poison. It was a confusing time, but also wildly romantic.

"Woke up to the sound of pouring rain/washed away a dream of you," keened Sebastian Bach of Skid Row.

"So lucky," I said to Kerry, reaching into the Doritos bag and pulling out a handful of nuclear orange snack chips.

"Wicked," she said, slapping a few more cards down. "To like, have that, you know, that, like kind of love?" I nodded. Though I didn't know. What Kerry and I didn't know about love and sex could have filled the Grand Canyon at that time, but the rock power ballads penned by the hottest metal bands of the decade were going a long way to fill in a lot of blanks.

The rock power ballad is more addictive and angst-ridden than the stickiest of telenovelas. It's shot through with epic themes -- love, death, fate, heartbreak, lust, rain, cars, chest hair -- and paints a portrait of love, which, at thirteen or maybe even at thirty, is a little hard to resist. We didn't know what happened to make these boys mad with desire and slightly, charmingly deranged with possessiveness. We only knew we wanted in on that action. To be the one pursued, obsessed over, to be the coveted thing that would make a man drive his motorcycle off a bridge or rob a liquor store for you was, like, so wicked sweet; it seemed to present a perfect circle of the only kind of self-worth you'd ever need: a man to relentlessly and totally devote himself to you until you broke his heart, ruined his life, and rode away with some other guy on the back of his motorcycle. There may have been some mixed messages.

I don't judge our thirteen-year-old naivete. We were little fish in a big, giant ocean of sexism, misogyny, bad lighting, and baffling sexual politics. But I judge the rock power ballad for ruining my ideas about dating and romance far more than the rom-coms that would shape my late teens and early twenties. Johnny and Baby might as well have been Mr. and Mrs. Mike Brady compared to whatever exquisite pain caused Def Leppard's Joe Elliot to wail, "Love bites, love bleeds, it's bringing me to my knees!" Awesome. Who would not want to know what that was about? To me, love was not bringing a blanket to the park on a Sunday, it was storming out of a club and walking on the side of a busy boulevard in the rain; it was rolling around ecstatically in nothing but white sheets and flickering candles in someone's city loft that appeared to have no roof and one, brick wall.

I don't think it's a coincidence that these songs also formed the soundtrack to my junior high years, both the rock power ballad and middle school steeped in so much drama. I heard "Every Rose Has Its Thorn" each time the boy I liked chose to sit with another girl at lunch; "Open Arms" might as well have followed me throughout every damn day of eighth grade as I went from having my first boyfriend, my first kiss, to my first epic dumping and my first taste of feverish obsession, which (spoiler alert) was not as glamorous and dramatic as they made it look in all those music videos. It was lonely and sad and kind of gross.

Feminism and a working brain saved me from buying into the twisted fairy tale of the power rock ballad in perpetuity. But every now and then when I hear one of these classics on the radio, I feel a bit nostalgic for days when, for better or for worse, dudes wore their cringey, borderline sociopathic feelings about love and heartbreak on their silky, fringey sleeves. I wonder at the guys who indulged in a kind of paid vulnerability, who fronted stories about longing and pain and trust and cars and rain, and who gave girls like Kerry and me an emotional GPS about a certain type of man who, it turns out, was just as clueless about love and sex and romance as we were.