On power ballads

20:08, Dec 10 2012

The inmates are running the asylum this week - once again. You'll remember I asked you to Right This Blog! With that in mind please welcome Nick Braae.

First, I would like to quickly offer my thanks to Simon for giving us guest-bloggers this opportunity. For the readers, I hope there is something below that may interest you.

Power ballads are the romantic comedies of popular music. Most listeners, I think, fall into one of two camps: those who dismiss the songs outright, and those who are susceptible to the songs' charms, but do not advertise this fact. Either way, there is an immediate perception that power ballads are artistically inferior to other genres. So, do they deserve this reputation? Possibly. But the job of any good music critic is to give a fair and decent appraisal of the music in question. And thus, the power ballad goes under the spotlight today.

I'm not going to set out exactly what is/isn't a power ballad. The artists I have in mind are Queen, Poison, R.E.O. Speedwagon, Meat Loaf, Bonnie Tyler, Journey, Eric Carmen - for want of a better label, 1970s and 1980s pop/rock. To this list, one could easily add Mariah Carey, Whitney Houston, or, even, Celine Dion. Though some of these artists aren't natural bedfellows, we can easily identify common traits of the power ballad.

In a recent article for the Popular Music journal, David Metzer talks of "emotional ramping up" and "continual escalation" in power ballads. This idea plays out primarily in texture changes - the first verse has an acoustic instrument; then some amplified instruments play in the chorus; then the drums are added in the second verse and so on. Basically, the pattern is soft-loud-less loud-more loud-loudest. The actual instruments change, but the song remains the same, so to speak.

Recently, I was asked what I thought the differences between rock ballads and rock anthems were. The answer, off the top of my head, was that the former exhibited much more in the way of vocal virtuosity. This is another key trait. I imagine it has something to do with the fact that vocal acrobatics, especially pushing the limits of one's range, convey an obvious sense of effort - the narrator is striving and putting him/herself through this pain for object of his/her affections. And of course, whenever we are feeling a bit sad, we are entirely capable of singing stunning melismas.


There are other common traits - a tendency towards harmonic progressions over riffs, for example - but that will do us for the moment. The key point is that power ballads, possibly more than other genres, rely on musical and thematic (i.e. love and heartbreak) formulae. They depend on artists ticking the right boxes.

And that is, I believe, the crux of the matter. Whatever postmodern philosophers might say to the contrary, originality, as opposed to derivation, is the name of the game. Furthermore, the distaste for power ballads stems from the distaste for sentimentality. By this, I refer to Oscar Wilde's definition: a desire "for the luxury of an emotion, without paying for it".

Because power ballads are based on formulae, their genuine authenticity is immediately questioned. They give the impression of emotional expression when the music ratchets up a level and some loud guitars enter, but are these features not just a clever ruse? Is the songwriter not just sitting back and thinking, "well, if I follow these musical rules, then the listeners should feel good here, here, and here"? And by extension, the listener who revels in the heartbreak, or who is uplifted, is merely getting the sensation of emotion. At no point does anyone in the process (songwriter-musician-listener) have to suffer through the pain or heartbreak. Rather, they get access to an artificial feeling for no cost.

That is why power ballads are much maligned, not that I necessarily agree with everything I've just said. For there are some power ballads from which I derive some emotional satisfaction - in other words, the sentiments of the song appear not sentimental. Is this a character flaw of mine? Perhaps. But I would claim to possess at least a modicum of good taste, and being aware of the musical tricks of the power ballad, I should also be cautious of surrendering any emotive potential to the singer.

This is where we need to distinguish between better and worse examples of power ballads. At heart, the power ballad may be an artistically weak genre, but that does not necessarily preclude some artists and songs elevating themselves above the pit of mediocrity. One such example is Heart's Alone. Driven by the soaring vocals of Ann Wilson, the song follows the power ballad style perfectly, except for in the second chorus. At the crucial moment of the instruments powering up, Wilson is nowhere to be heard. Only after the first phrase does she enter with the tortured wail (I mean that word in the nicest possible way). By leaving any lyrics out, Heart succeeds in conveying something real - so overcome by emotion is the narrator that she cannot find words for this expression.

To finish off, I will say that Queen also offer something more substantial to the power ballad genre. There are two main reasons for this. One is Freddie Mercury's ability to switch seamlessly between vocal styles. The second is Queen's command over harmony. Though the latter revolves around reasonably technical "rules" (which I won't bore readers with today), the harmonic style of a song has a significant impact on how the song sounds. A number of Queen's ballads (Teo Torriatte, Sail Away Sweet Sister) start in minor keys for the verse, before transitioning to major keys in the chorus. Who Wants to Live Forever cleverly hovers between keys, with the home key only arriving fully in the third chorus. Save Me (one of my favourites) has the chorus five notes higher than the verse.

We are the Champions, one of the finest ballads out there, uses the pretty standard trick of putting the chorus one or two keys higher than the verse. It's often called a "truck-driver" modulation because it revs the music up, but as anybody who has watched American Idol will tell you, the device is a horrible, artificial cliché. Yet Queen avoid that cliché here. Though I cannot offer any prizes, any commenter who can tell me how they do this can reward themselves with a high five and a pat on the back. (Hint: it's to do with the backing vocals...)

What Queen did, compared to other artists, is put the power in power ballad. They knew that there were key points to hit in each song; and the changes in instrumentation, particularly, are as standard as any other group. But to this, they knew how to shape vocal style and harmony, so that the knockout punches would be forceful on multiple musical levels. And this, to me, shows at least a degree of care and thought. Whether the emotions of Freddie Mercury and Brian May are any more genuine than Mariah Carey's, for instance, is hard to say. But the sheer musical weight of their songs conveys some of the lyrical strength and, well, power, as opposed to a singer or band simply going through the motions. If I may return to my opening statement, Queen's power ballads are a bit like About a Boy (both the book and film): they are, perhaps, not the pinnacles of artistic expression, but they knew how to capture and engage their audience. And that, surely, is the best we can ask for.

Thank you if you have made it this far. If anyone would like to read a few more of my offerings on music, then you can check out my blog at  www.nickbraae.blogspot.co.nz.

Otherwise, the topics for class discussion are: Do you think there are good power ballads? Who writes good power ballads? What makes a good power ballad?

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