When you hear the ballad, it drudges up all the raw feelings (sincerity, weakness, insecurity, love) that you rarely express in your emotionless daily life working at Hewlett-Packard, and microwaving yourself an Uncle Ben's rice bowl before you watch an episode of Elimidate. The rock ballad extracts the kinds of emotions that shrinks are after--all in less than five minutes.
In a recent period of sulky self-introspection, I was driving home from some bar, flipping stations and sighing unbearably with each commercial. It was a difficult time for me and my ego--I think I can safely say I was "close to the edge." With an "I don't give a fuck" twist of the radio dial, I landed on Richard Marx's less-than-rawk ballad, "Right Here Waiting." Let me preface the following anecdote by saying that "Right Here Waiting" was my anthem during seventh grade, when I hated my mom, was the target of intense ridicule at junior high school, and thought that weighing 98 pounds was fat. Anyway, about 30 seconds into Richard's tortured love song--"I hear your voice on the line/but it doesn't stop the pain/If I see you next to never/Then how can we say forever."--I was a bawling wreck. "Oh Richard, I understand perfectly!" I thought. "So distraught, so in love, but at the same time, your heart breaking into a thousand pieces!" It was as if every unhappy moment I had experienced since 1988 was purging out of my guts and onto my slobbery face. Five minutes later, I was laughing about how ridiculous the outburst was, but was still thankful to Richard that he had again helped me overcome an emotional hurdle.
What is it about the rock ballad formula that can so easily spark deep-seated emotions? Who doesn't turn it up and sing along when Journey's "Faithfully" comes on the radio, and why is it so successful at turning us into yelping cheeseballs? It's a sad, slow-paced story, culminating in the requisite three-quarters-of-the-way-through-the-song key change where the singer can barely stand it anymore. There's nothing they can do about their crappy situation but yell one octave higher or rock out on the guitar a little harder. It parallels the feeling that you can't do anything about your unfortunate life situation, except for cry and throw stuff. It's the ultimate in hopeless frustration--something we can all relate to.
Take the lyrics in Skid Row's famous rock ballad, "I Remember You." Hottie vocalist Sebastian Bach has reached such a point of feeling rejected by his ex-lover, that his final request to her is merely to remember him--a last pathetic grasp from the dust of their relationship. Or the poor guy from Foreigner, at his old age, not knowing "what love is," and begging a woman to show him. He faces the conflict (sadness, anxiety) of not knowing whether she'll love him back.
It's almost a requirement of any rock band--even soft rock like Air Supply and Richard M.--to have a ballad. Often, it becomes their most popular song. People recognize a ballad's sadness because everyone has been in love, fucked it up, gotten completely dissed, and can relate to that crappy feeling. On the other hand, because happiness means different things to different people, happy bands and songs are less universally understood. For example, I despise The Beatles and The Monkees, and especially cheerful songs like "Penny Lane," while news editor Phil Busse absolutely loves them, while also subscribing to the universal uncertainty of Damn Yankees' "High Enough," or the misery of Pearl Jam's "Black."
With so many bands these days masking their depression in monotonous talk-sing, the ballad more relevant and purposeful than ever before. Nowadays, unfortunately, the rock ballad seems almost extinct, which is why I pathetically cling onto songs like Staind's "It's Been a While." Because, while the song has no real heart-wrenching story like the "missing you" tour ballads of the '80s and early '90s, it's obviously cathartic for the dumb singer and, therefore, for the rest of us, too.