When your editor says "Power Ballads!" and your mind doesn’t immediately start hearing Poison’s "Every Rose Has It’s Thorn", it means you may not have the same understanding of power ballads as everyone else. Hell, if you even heard Miley’s version of that track, you’d be okay - but if you didn’t, then you’d better explain just what you think power ballads are.
And by you, I mean me.
With that in mind, here are some songs that I consider power ballads. You may notice they are all big melodramatic numbers with power vocals and lyrics that are easy enough to remember. A solid chorus can take a power ballad a long way - even further if comes with a defiant rhythm that forces you to sit up and chair dance. Sometimes they go acoustic, sometimes they don’t. But there is always an element of great theatricality in them, sometimes verging on camp. (And they’re not all from the 80s.)
"I’d Do Anything for Love" - Meatloaf (1993)
To me, this is the defining power ballad. How could it not be? While it may be the perfect example of what defines a power ballad, it isn’t from the 80s and it isn’t cheesy. It is a big, stylish affair with a high end video, a gorgeous model and all the dramatics playing into a single heart-felt narrative. Classy, I tell you. It was also Meatloaf’s first number one hit and was one of the music videos on heavy rotation on MTV back when we first got satellite TV in Karachi. I wonder if Meatloaf knows how popular he was here and how we all spent quite some time debating what ‘that’ was.
(Incidentally, ‘that’ referred to the things he mentions earlier - he won’t forget how you feel, won’t forgive himself for not going all the way, won’t do it as well as he does it with you. I know this now, because Meatloaf made a little video and explained all this with diagrams on a chalkboard during VH1 Storytellers.)
"I’d Do Anything for Love" was originally almost a 12-minute epic written by writer/producer Jim Steinman (we’ll be seeing him again on this list), who began his career in musical theatre, so obviously he knew something about big emotions and theatricality. And Meatloaf wasn’t afraid to let it rip either. Sure he’s got these power house vocals but the pain… oh the pain! What no one expected at first was that this big song would break pattern and become a duet. The female vocals were provided by Lorraine Crosby, from England, who was brought in to lay down guide tracks. They ended up using Lorraine’s vocals, though crediting her as ‘Mrs Loud’ in the liner notes. Apparently she didn’t make any royalties from the sales of the song, since her vocals hadn’t been more than a guide. (I do think she should have sued them. Her parts were the best bit! She made you sing along to the line ‘would you hose me down with holy water if I get too hot’! This song went platinum!)
In the video, the female vocals are lip-synched by gorgeous model Dana Patrick, who did such a convincing job that she reportedly received offers of recording contracts after the video came out. The video was directed by Transformers' Michael Bay, so yes, there are large crashes and chase sequences but there is also some pretty cinematography. The latter was particularly striking - and dark - since the man in charge there was Daniel Pearl, who was mainly known for having shot the 1973 version of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. It’s a bit of a muddle of Beauty and the Beast, The Phantom of the Opera and maybe some bits from Dracula - who knows why, though. It had a massive budget and it looked it - what else do you want?
"Total Eclipse of the Heart" - Bonnie Tyler (1983)
This is already basically accepted as a power ballad. But how could I not write about this? Here comes our friend Jim Steinmen again, with Bonnie Tyler’s biggest hit and one of the best selling single of all time - that’s right: of all time. Steinmen once again wrote an epic (though this time at under 8 minutes), and admitted that he considered this to be a "vampire song" about "darkness, the power of darkness and love's place in dark". Tyler sang her heart out with this - "Eclipse" is raw emotions and fist-clenching frustration at its 80s best.
And the video! School boys with pigeons, throne-like chairs with wings, swimmers with goggles, ninjas! Football players, a choir of kids with glowing eyes, gymnasts! Is this some sort of erotic dream about young men that Tyler’s character is having? Is it - more likely - a nightmare?! Because it really creeps me out. Plus, it was shot in an asylum. Yeah, forever’s really gonna start tonight.
Seriously, I genuinely have no idea what’s going on in this video, so here’s some help from a literal version.
Incidentally, the director of the video is Russell Mulcahy, who is currently working on MTV’s Teen Wolf and has dozens of films and music videos to his name - Highlander, The Scorpion King 2, Resident Evil, and music videos for everyone from Duran Duran to Elton John to Fleetwood Mac to Kenny Loggins.
"We Don't Need Another Hero" - Tina Turner (1985)
This is perhaps the quietest track that I’d still venture counts as a power ballad. From the soundtrack of Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome and sung by Tina Turner who also plays the character Aunty Entity in the film, "We Don’t Need Another Hero" is a masterpiece of defiance. Who needs another hero when you know the life you want is beyond the Thunderdome? Honestly, it’s something I ask myself each week.
Tina’s done with waiting for a hero. Even all the children in her choir are done waiting for a hero, dammit. Time to be your own hero, says Tina, in her fantastic mohawk and chain mail outfit. This is Tina using her voice at it’s ‘quiet strength’ settings. There are none of the belts she lays down in say "Proud Mary" or "Steamy Windows", but the restraint and rebellion in these vocals gets me every time.
Hey, any idea where I can get those earrings?
"Hole Hearted" - Extreme (1991)
I know most would say the obvious Extreme power ballad is "More Than Words" - but is it?
That’s more a steady love song, I think, whereas "Hole Hearted" really lets it rip. Plus, it’s thought to be out god-love! Extra divinity points for the gang. "Hole Hearted" is gloriously upbeat, acoustic but with a rich sound and a single steady drum beat that carries the song through entirely. The vocals are shared between lead singer Gary Cherone and lead guitarist Nuno Bettencourt, both of whom don’t ever hold back.
While the song itself always sounds incredibly bright and fun, the lyrics are strangely sad. It’s all about not being satisfied - spiritually, I assume. I’m not sure what deep meaning lay behind the fairly obviously "a circle can’t fit in where a square should be" stuff, but I do know that it’s a brave, talented band that rhymes sea with see and makes it work. Even the video in all it’s simplicity somehow really works. Maybe it’s just because it gives us a sense of Extreme being a real band - no frills, no stage, no gadgets, just these guys and their instruments.
(Aside: try following this up with KT Tunstall’s "Black Horse & the Cherry Tree" - it really works).
"Rock You Like a Hurricane" - The Scorpions (1984)
My manager at the radio station where I worked for a decade groaned each time I pulled out this song. But then everyone in the office would be punching the air at "here I am!" so I felt it was justified to play it. I know it’s not really a power ballad - but can you blame me for sneaking it in here?
Honestly this video is just terrible. It’s awful. There’s nothing more to be said. The Scorpions are performing in a very weak-looking cage that’s being shaken and rocked like a hurricane by their fans. Some guys do synchronised guitar moves back and forth. The lead singer’s male pattern baldness seems to be increasing as we watch. The shots are often cut together just too quickly, often on some sort of handheld wonky madness. There are vampy emo-goth female fans dressed in strips of cloth stalking their way through foggy something to break into the cage. Oh, and there are some big cats involved, cheetahs and panthers or cougars or something. The band is panting dramatically. I don’t know, man. The 80s. You gotta love ‘em.
What are some of your favourite power ballads? I may have another couple of lists hidden away somewhere…