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Is this Love? That I’m Feeling? Or is it a Killer? The Power Ballad…

As some of you may know, I am finishing my master’s thesis on women in music. Specifically, I am looking at women in the music store culture. I’ve been doing a ton of researching, reading, citing, stressing,  and have come across many a topic, none of which surprise me about the sexism, misogyny, and general slammin’ of women in the music biz.

I have also thought of some topic ideas for future research and thought the following idea would be interesting: a research project about “Power Ballads.” You know, “Monster Ballads,” those lighter-waving, big, emotional, heartbreak songs of the hair band era. I’m listening to them right now on my favorite hair band internet radio station. Apparently, heaven isn’t too far away…

Ballads are not new by any means, but that rocking, big guitar solo, falling-to-the-floor-in-agony, power ballad is its own special creature. Which makes one wonder what purpose it serves, from a cultural/rhetorical/gender script standpoint.

Perhaps they were just a revision of the traveling troubadour singing songs about his lady-love. Perhaps they were a clever marketing ploy to get more women into hair/glam/metal music. Or, maybe from what I know about gender, power, and music, “power ballads” represent an attempt to woo and keep female listeners in the symbolically abusive relationship that is the masculine fantasy of “cock rock.”

Think about it. Every hair band worth their spandex had at least one power ballad on their albums, if not more. And these hair bands were aqua-net deep in performing white-heterosexual-macho-masculinity to the max. The thrusting on stage, the stroking of the microphone, and the masturbating guitar solos (just look at the faces of the lead guitar solo players and you’ll know what I’m talking about.) And the lyrics….oh the lyrics! Nothing but sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll, but mostly about sex. Women in these lyrics are typically objectified, simplified, and talked about as “nothing but a good time.”  The band goes from girl to girl, just like from town to town, notching their conquests on their black studded belts. Some songs that display this hypersexual masculinity include:

  • Seventeen – Winger 
  • Cherry Pie – Warrant
  • Lick It Up – KISS
  • Sticky Sweet – Motley Crue
  • Let Me Put My Love Into You – AC/DC
  • Hot For Teacher – Van Halen
  • Slide It In – Whitesnake
  • Talk Dirty to Me – Poison
  • Rag Doll – Aerosmith
  • Cat Scratch Fever – Ted Nugent
  • Rock You Like A Hurricane- Scorpions
  • Lay Your Hands On Me – Bon Jovi
  • Pour Some Sugar on Me – Def Leppard
  • Once Bitten, Twice Shy – Great White
  • Smooth Up In Ya – Bullet Boys
  • and I could keep going…

Ha, I’ve seen over half of these bands live. Now, nothing wrong with sexuality. Part of what makes rock & roll fun is sexuality, that connection and that force is musical poetry. But the sexuality depicted here is all about the man getting his jollys off at the expense of the disposable vagina (or mouth in some cases.) It is about only one person’s sexuality (the man’s.)  If not directly, or explicitly, the songs follow a standard narrative: man needs sex, women = fix. The woman wants it bad, the guys want it bad, and the dudes are all willing and able. Even if women are talked about as “wanting it” look at how it is referenced. It ends up not satisfying their needs, but the man’s ego that he’s a sex god.  Typical male fantasy, all women want you all the time and can never get enough.

This is what various scholars in music have described as “cock rock.”

The music is just straight sex. The rhythm drives, insisting you go along, the verse-chorus make up is the foreplay arousing you to the solo (climax), then release and prompt after-sex cigarette. The vocals are demanding and haughty. The lyrics are arrogant, assertive, and aggressive. Virtuosity here is key, by commanding your “instrument” be it the guitar or vocals. This display shows your virility, that you’re in control, that you’re “master of your domain,” hence a real man.  These things are all understood in our culture as masculine (Leonard, 2007; Bock, 2008; Tringali, 2005; Walser, 1993; Firth & McRobbie, 1990). This masculinity is at the expense of female participation in this scene as anything but groupies, fans, or wives (How convenient! Those who are sexually available.)

Being assertive, arrogant, sexually initiative, and sexually entitled to sexual gratification at any time, are all things that our culture associates with heterosexual masculinity. In a way, you could say that the women in these songs (symbolically, though I am sure in some cases literally) are in an abusive relationships with cock rockers. They don’t have their own needs and desires (outside of pleasing men 24/7 that is), let along, creativity, autonomy, and individuality to do what they want. So, my hypothesis, enter the “power ballad” the symbolic “box of chocolates and dozen roses” apology for being a rock & roll douchebag.

Think about it. You have all of these songs about womanizing, partying, and being a general player. At some point, a woman is going to get tired of that (even those imaginary ones.) So, insert power ballad, and boom! “I’m sorry baby for all the wrong I’ve done, I really love you not those other girls, please come back, I’m really not a bad guy…..” ect. Or “Baby, I’m hurting soo bad, I know things are tough, but I need you to fix it, you’re the only one who can save me…” ect. It’s the classic honeymoon phase of an abusive relationship cycle! As soon as the woman aqueissnes to your faux remorse, back to the strip joint!

As in real life abusive relationships, the abuse happens, they apologize, the honeymoon phase, then right back to abuse. It is this vicious cycle that many often do not realize they are in, because of those instances of the abusive partner being nice and “sorry.”

So, normally, cock rock’s status quo is: man has sex drive = woman fix it. In the power ballad: man done wrong/man hurt = woman fix it. Basically, in no matter what instance, women exist to fix man’s problems. A women’s place in this masculine rock culture remains a subordinate, second-class, and sexually degraded one.

That is why so many female rockers purposefully challenged this status quo. Women either turned the tables and made their sexual needs important, reversed the masculine gaze (ironic mimicry) on their bodies to show that they weren’t pieces of meat but in control, satirically sang about typical sex roles, and had a riot grrrl music movement demanding that they be taken seriously as musicians and not be seen as “nothing but a good time.”

But in Hair Band Land, the power ballad symbolically is a tool to control any female deviation from the norm. Thus, keeping women in their place to their soul’s demise.

Vixen was right…Love is a Killer.

Pat Benatar – Sex as a Weapon

 Tina Turner – Typical Male


Madonna – Express Yourself

Girlschool – Don’t Call It Love



Lighter photo by lordferguson via flickr.

For more info on “cock rock” and masculine rock culture:

Bock, J. (2008). Riot Grrrl: A Feminist Re-Interpretation of the Punk Narrative. Saaebrucken: VDM Verlag Dr. Muller Aktiengesekkschaft & Co. KG.

Firth, S., & McRobbie, A. (1990). Rock and Sexuality. In S. Firth, & A. Goodwin, On Record: Rock, Pop, and the Written Word (pp. 371-389). New York: Pantheon Books.

Leonard, M. (2007). Gender in the Music Industry: Rock, Discourse, and Girl Power. Aldershot: Ashgate.

Tringali, J. (2005). Love Guns, Tight Pants, and Big Sticks – Who Put The Cock in Rock? Retrieved February 24, 2010, from Bitch Magazine:

Walser, R. (1993) Running With The Devil: Power, Gender, and Madness in Heavy Metal Music. Hanover: Wesleyan University Press.

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