We’re all livin’ on a prayer: How a hair band anthem from the least cool '80s rockers became a classic

Bon Jovi's America is a country of hard times, with personal fortitude and ingenuity the only way to survive

Published February 18, 2017 12:00AM (EST)

Jon Bon Jovi, 1985    (AP/Gary Gershoff)
Jon Bon Jovi, 1985 (AP/Gary Gershoff)

Last August a Twitter user with the handle @peachesandscream posted a photo of an iguana perched atop a miniature beach lounger. The caption read, “Woah, we’re halfway there/ Woah-oah . . . ” You’re probably already singing it to yourself, “Lizard on a chair!” That post generated more than 3,000 retweets and more than 4,000 "likes." Soon readers were devising their own variations on the pun, none more successful than @Truett, who posted a photo of two pieces of fruit: “Woah-oah, lemon and a pear!” This giddy, cornball variation generated even more traffic than the original.

The joke presupposes a familiarity with Bon Jovi — in particular, its 1986 hit “Livin’ on a Prayer” — and given the popularity of the meme, in 2017 there are a lot of people familiar with both. Some of those people — OK, most of those people — likely weren’t even alive when the New Jersey band released its third album, “Slippery When Wet,” back when Jon Bon Jovi's chiseled mug and towering coif dominated MTV. And yet, “Livin’ on a Prayer” has become a remarkably persistent hit, something like an American standard. It might even be the new “Don’t Stop Believin,’” Journey's cheesy 1981 hit that improbably took on a life of its own decades later for a new generation.

How one song persists and others do not is one of the great mysteries of pop culture, but it's clear a new generation of listeners has salvaged what previous generations threw away. In its heyday, Bon Jovi was never the most credible band, even in pop-metal circles: It lacked the heaviness of Judas Priest and Iron Maiden, the cartoon debauchery of Mötley Crüe and Poison, the relentless thrash of Megadeth and Metallica. And yet, Bon Jovi was one of the most popular — and certainly among the most shameless — bands of the 1980s. A massive new career retrospective box set (17 albums remastered on 25 LPs) provides an opportunity to figure out how this prefab hair metal act outlasted a dubious youth trend to become one of the most reliable hard rock bands in America.

Runaway hits

The band that made “Livin’ on a Prayer” was the creation of a New Jersey kid named Jon Bongiovi, who in the early 1980s was interning at his cousin’s New York studio. The nature of his work there has been the subject of various lawsuits over the years, but the teenager recorded a few songs after hours with a small team of session musicians, mostly as demos to shop around to labels and local radio stations. One of those songs was “Runaway,” which sounds more like a heavier Cars than a light Priest.

It was a surprise hit, prompting the kid to put together a band that included regional musicians — perhaps most notably, Richie Sambora from Perth Amboy, New Jersey, who would become one of the most influential guitarists of the decade. It took a few tries to get its pop metal chops down. But the band’s first two albums — a self-titled debut in 1984 and “7800° Fahrenheit” in 1985 — are surprisingly solid bar rock efforts, with sharp hooks and riffs not too heavy for radio.

“Runaway” was a hit with listeners and (because it was easy to play) with cover bands in the mid-Atlantic region. The albums sold modestly, and Bon Jovi toured with Judas Priest, ZZ Top and .38 Special. To make it the biggest band in the world, Mercury Records then paired the group with Desmond Child, the man behind some of the biggest hard rock hits of the era, including “I Was Made for Loving You” by KISS, “Dude Looks Like a Lady” by Aerosmith and Joan Jett’s “I Hate Myself for Loving You.”

Child co-wrote four songs for Bon Jovi’s breakout album, “Slippery When Wet,” including two deep cuts and two singles. And those singles were — and still are — massive. At one time No. 1 hits in heavy rotation at radio stations and MTV, both “You Give Love a Bad Name” and “Livin’ on a Prayer” are supremely well-crafted pop-metal songs with distinctive production — in particular, the heavily manipulated a cappella opening of “Bad Name.” (You know how it goes: “SSSSShot through the heart, and you’re to blame!”)

Child didn’t reinvent the band's sound so much as he accentuated certain traits that were already present in its DNA, and “Slippery When Wet” became a self-fulfilling prophecy: Bon Jovi sounded so much like an arena act that it became one.

More than halfway there

“Livin’ on a Prayer” is a weird hit, extremely well crafted and immediately memorable from its open fade-in and what sounds like a gargantuan mouth shaping nonsense syllables into a chugging rhythm: Ooh wah ooh wah oo oo ooh wah. Odds are you’re singing along already. It’s pure ear candy. Once you hear that riff, you can’t shake it. The song refuses to be forgotten. And it just builds from there: The band's frontman and namesake, Jon Bon Jovi, sounds distressed during the first verse, yet somehow triumphant in that fatalistic pre-chorus: “We gotta hold on to what we got, doesn’t make a difference if we make it or not.” The chorus itself is a monster that eats the song alive. You know how it goes. I don’t even have to type the words.

It’s probably the biggest and most shameless hook to come out of the 1980s, which is saying a lot. When members of the band sing that first line, they really are halfway there because the next line jumps up what sounds like an octave or three. Woah-OAH! At the beginning of the song, it sounds impossibly huge. It makes “Baba O’Riley” sound like twee pop. Surely the song can’t go anywhere from here, right?

Bon Jovi finds a way to get even bigger. By the end of the song the band is singing in all caps: “TAKE MY HAND AND WE’LL MAKE IT, I SWEAR!”

The genius of the song, aside from its towering musical architecture, is that basic lyrical sentiment, a kind of pure pop poetry that lends intense drama to even the most mundane crisis. Fired from your job? Barely scraping by? Stuck in traffic? “We’re halfway th—“ Sorry. “WE’RE HALFWAY THERE!” And perhaps the greatest trick is that the song is in first-person plural, to let everyone know we’re all in it together. We’re all halfway to somewhere. You’re not alone in your struggle. Livin’ on a prayer is the human condition.

It’s incredibly bracing for a song about unemployment. The first line rips a page out of the Bruce Springsteen playbook: “Tommy used to work on the docks,” Jon Bon Jovi sings, his voice sounding perfectly desperate as he relates the story of two lovers just barely scraping by. He doesn’t need to tell you that the factories are closing down or that the jobs are being shipped elsewhere; he’s from New Jersey, you can fill in the blanks. A union strike has left him out of work, so Gina takes long shifts at the diner to make ends meet. They both worry and they both comfort each other, even as their dreams get further and further away. “But we got each other, and that’s a lot.” That’s as much resolution as “Livin’ on a Prayer” gives you, but it’s enough to imagine the couple enjoying a modestly happy life eventually, somewhere out in America.

Profiling the band in early 1987, Spin writer Glenn O’Brien called the song “working-class minstrelsy,” and he’s not wrong. “Livin’ on a Prayer” examines the woes of the working class without the insight of Springsteen brought to “The River” or the historical context that Bob Dylan brought to “Ballad of Hollis Brown.”

Instead, Bon Jovi doubles down on musical excess: the talk box guitars, the explosive hooks, the steep-grade build to that final chorus. And there is something damning about using the trappings of the ’80s to critique the politics of the era. A populist Joisey Democrat, Jon Bon Jovi stated at the time that “Livin’ on a Prayer” was inspired by the destructive effects that Reaganomics had on small-town America, bleeding jobs and businesses. Jon Bon Jovi would spend the next 30 years performing the song at rallies for nearly every Democrat presidential candidate, including Al Gore and both Clintons. (In fact, he and Bill Clinton shared the cover of Billboard's recent Music + Philanthropy issue.)

See a million faces, rock them all

By the time Bon Jovi sang its first “Woah-oah,” metal – or the hair sprayed and spandexed version of it — was growing out its misfit niche and into a mainstream force, thanks primarily to Van Halen pretty much owning the airwaves when MTV launched in the early 1980s. The scene around L.A.’s Sunset Strip was already bustling, with groups like Quiet Riot (led by the great Kevin Dubrow), Cinderella, Van Halen, and a new group called Guns N' Roses trashing up rock 'n' roll a bit. Bon Jovi hailed from about as far away from the Strip as you could get and still be in the continental United States, and the band's Jersey origins kept it at a distance from the decadence of the Southern California scene. The group's musicians sprayed their hair, but left the pancake makeup machismo to Poison and Mötley Crüe.

Critics were dismissive at first, then baffled. “Nobody listens to Bon Jovi’s brand of pop metal for its lyrics — they listen because they want to bang their heads lightly,” wrote Jimmy Guterman in Rolling Stone. “Bon Jovi sounds like bad fourth-generation metal, a smudgy Xerox of Quiet Riot.” That was in October 1986. By the next spring Jon Bon Jovi’s handsome mug was on the cover. Susan Orlean (yes, the author of “The Orchid Thief”) opened the story by measuring the frontman’s hair, and her angle is one of curious bemusement, as though trying to understand this mind-boggling phenomenon. “Bon Jovi’s ascendancy coincided with a political and cultural conservative retrenchment in which this kind of good, clean fun was right at home,” Orlean observed. “Even the band’s elementary patriotism . . . had its hook.”

That only puts Bon Jovi in good company. Almost every metal band has been dismissed by critics, including canonical acts like Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin, only to be reassessed by subsequent generations of listeners and writers. Popular opinion on Bon Jovi has been slower to reverse course, perhaps because the band made metal for people who weren’t metalheads. As Chuck Klosterman wrote in “Fargo Rock City,” his account of growing up in the era of hair metal:

Jon Bon Jovi is kind of the Robert Frost of heavy metal. The great thing about Frost was that his poems weren’t always about metaphorical bullshit; sometimes a poem about chopping wood was actually about chopping wood. Bon Jovi was the same way; he wrote literal lyrics and dulcet melodies, and they didn’t worry about credibility or attitude or the legacy of Tony Iommi. We may remember Bon Jovi as the safest of these metal bands and certainly the most stereotypically commercial, but they were real songwriters who tugged at heartstrings instead of brainstrings.

Keeping the faith

One of the weird joys of this new mammoth box set is that it allows us to revisit those early albums with new perspective. Bon Jovi’s reign was short-lived, as pop metal would soon fall like hair in humidity, its gregarious sound pushed aside by a new generation’s more introspective rock 'n' roll. “New Jersey,” released in 1988, was Bon Jovi’s last hurrah at that biggest-band-in-the-world level, and it’s a bloated album, slick and professional, obligatory and expensive — exactly the kind of excess that grunge was supposed to eradicate. Bon Jovi’s peers suddenly sounded like dinosaurs: Some folded, others struggled along on nostalgia tours and eventually on low-rent reality TV shows like “Rock of Love with Bret Michaels” and “Celebrity Apprentice.”

Bon Jovi never had to go that route. Instead, the band managed to navigate the '90s with its dignity intact, partly because it had never been aligned with the West Coast spandex contingent and partly because it managed to mature into a surprisingly solid hard rock act with just enough nostalgia currency to keep the records moving off the shelves. Released in 1992, “Keep the Faith” is the sound of dinosaurs meeting the kids halfway, incorporating new sounds and ideas into songs that didn’t just regurgitate platitudes about being there for you and wanting to be cowboys.

But that’s just a transitional album, a warm-up for “These Days,” released in 1995. It’s the one where the musicians look like the Gin Blossoms on the cover. It's not their best album (that is and forever will be “Slippery When Wet”), but it’s a good second: a blueprint for how a hard rock act can grow up and remain relevant. It's darker, even angry: On opener “Hey God,” Jon Bon Jovi shouts at the big man upstairs and turns the existential query “Are you even thinking about me?” into a fist-pumping hook. Pain and its assuagement are constant themes, especially on “Something for the Pain,” yet there’s something communal about that hurt, something that recalls “Livin’ on a Prayer.” Pain doesn’t make us special; it may be the only thing that unites all of us.

That became Bon Jovi’s unlikely subject for the next 20 years. Song after song and album after album depicted hard times in America, with personal fortitude and ingenuity the only way through them. The group's songs are political but not exactly partisan, which might sound noncommittal coming from another band but in the case of a song like “It’s My Life,” on 2000’s “Crush,” it sounds weirdly heroic: “This is for the ones who stood their ground,” Jon Bon Jovi sings, then gives a shout-out to everybody’s favorite working-class couple: “For Tommy and Gina who never backed down. Tomorrow’s getting harder, make no mistake.”

And that’s where the story essentially ends — or at least settles into something like an extended denouement. “These Days” firmly and finally established Bon Jovi as a career act and “Crush” cemented that status, giving the group some professional stability. It could — and certainly did — release lackluster albums without hurting sales or reputation. The band's 21st-century albums have all moved roughly the same numbers, prompting successful arena tours, music videos and late-night TV performances.

The group has been fairly prolific and, if not necessarily adventurous, then certainly savvy about staying current and borrowing from the right pop trends. The band never went nü-metal, thank God, but did record a Nashville album in 2005, making it one of several pop acts to go country during the Bush administration (see also Jewel, Hootie and the Blowfish's Darius Rucker, Sheryl Crow). The fact that Bon Jovi didn’t have to change its sound too much to go credibly country reveals the large debt that contemporary country owes the band.

Never say goodbye

More recently, Bon Jovi has been playing around with those big soaring wordless choruses that have been dominating pop music for the last 10 years, introduced by Coldplay and the Arcade Fire and perpetuated by Mumford & Sons and Edward Sharpe & the Magnetic Zeros — as well as other bands that probably won’t outlive their moment. Released in late 2016, “This House Is Not For Sale” shows the band’s considerable adaptability and unlikely influence (although it would have been even better if Sambora had not left the band and were still around to provide some heavier riffs). No one is naming Bon Jovi as an influence, but its impact, thrumming under the surface of pop culture, is considerable.

And yet, Bon Jovi is in an odd position in the public consciousness: too populist for the indie crowd, not heavy enough for the metal crowd. There’s no MTV or VH1 to play the band's videos, and radio listenership is dwindling. There won’t be a 33 1/3 book on “Slippery When Wet” — although who wouldn’t read that?

The group ought to be shoo-ins for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, but as of this writing it remains not inducted — which Jon Bon Jovi attributes to a cryptic beef between him and Jann Wenner, Rolling Stone mogul and chairman of the Rock Hall Foundation. “I had a big falling out with one of the guys that runs [the hall],” Jon Bon Jovi told Howard Stern in October. I called [the guy I had a falling out with] a few choice words, and I’m never shy, when I see him, to call him a few more choice words. And there’s other guys on that thing that have made it their personal mission to fuck with me. And that’s OK. I get it. I’ve sold more records than their artists.”

That’s pretty punk rock right there. The slight must sting, as Bon Jovi has sold 130 million records, toured for decades and influenced scores of bands — not the “right” bands, but still a considerable feat. Really the group is eligible based solely on “Livin’ on a Prayer,” which has taken on a life of its own over the years. It’s a song whose meaning shifts every few years: In the weeks and months following 9/11, Jon Bon Jovi and Richie Sambora performed an acoustic version at benefit concerts, and it wasn’t hard to imagine Tommy and Gina being directly affected by the attacks. Since then, the song has appeared in various editions of the video game “Guitar Hero,” too many soundtracks to count, and — most curiously — a 2013 viral video that sent it back in the “Billboard” Hot 100.

“Livin’ on a Prayer” is truly the key to understanding the band’s lasting appeal. The band's peers believed in rock 'n' roll as an excuse for excess, but Bon Jovi understands it as a unifying force. In Bon Jovi's world there’s nothing greater than tens of thousands of people singing along together with the same rousing chorus. For these musicians it’s a form of communal prayer, the kind we all need to live.

By Stephen Deusner

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Bon Jovi Hair Metal Jon Bon Jovi Livin On A Prayer Music Rolling Stone Slippery When Wet