Bon Jovi’s legendary “Livin’ on a Prayer” turns 31

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In the 1980s, when it seemed like all the major genres of music were riding tidal waves of success, a band from New Jersey introduced a sound that married pop and hard rock. But behind the tight jeans and big hair, Bon Jovi told stories. And the stories weren’t just for New Jersey residents, they were for everyone. Thirty-one years ago, Bon Jovi scored their second No. 1 hit with “Livin’ On A Prayer.”

Bon Jovi and the 1980s

Bon Jovi’s self-titled album produced two singles that helped put the band in heavy rotation on Music Television – – “She Don’t Know Me,” and “Runaway” began to generate interest in the band due to their fashionable hard rock/glam metal sound, the band’s looks and the songs’ subjects.

“Runaway” was released in 1983 and was followed by “She Don’t Know Me” in 1984. The songs demonstrated Bon Jovi’s keyboard and guitar sound and Jon Bon Jovi’s no-frills tenor. The way the band presented themselves seemed down-to-earth, and perhaps the lack of pretense is another aspect that allowed Bon Jovi to develop the fan base it did. Or, maybe hordes of pre-teen and teen girls found the band members attractive. There is that, too. But for everyone else, and even those teen girls, the music that Bon Jovi created set them apart. There weren’t too many bands who were doing exactly what Bon Jovi was doing, and that made them interesting. When the band’s next album didn’t come out until 1986, fans were anxious for it.

The follow-up to Bon Jovi’s debut album was an anthemic rocker full of keyboards, guitars, and drums. Titled, “Slippery When Wet” the original album cover courted controversy because it featured a woman wearing a ripped t-shirt (and nothing else) with the album’s title on it. The woman appeared drenched. The revised cover found the title written on asphalt. The album’s title became less potentially naughty, but it contained at least one song that referenced “38 double D’s,” but that was beside the point. The point was Bon Jovi’s new album had arrived. All of a sudden, everyone knew about Tommy and Gina and their working-class struggles. People could relate.

“Livin’ On A Prayer” by Bon Jovi

The song’s distinctive opening with Talkbox effects, the quick drum tattoo that signals the start of the lyrics. The song literally begins with “Once upon a time, not so long ago.” While the line is delivered in an even, almost calm voice, the ones to follow are more agitated. That latter voice is the one that tells listeners about Tommy’s past life as a dock worker, and that he struggles because of a union strike. He has pawned his guitar when he used to be a good player – – these facts create half the tragedy of the song. Gina’ s story creates the other half. She works in a diner and attempts to support two people on a waitress’ salary. The two console themselves with the bridge and chorus, “We’ve got each other/and that’s a lot for love, we’ll give it a shot…”

The chorus offers hope: “…we’re halfway there…livin’ on a prayer.” At no time does the song offer an idea about where “there” is. The fabled idea of making it, or living the American dream, could be the goal to which the song refers. The chorus is delivered in a shout. Audiences can cheer for Tommy and Gina, and for themselves.

In 1986, most of the United States that had succeeded on certain industrial enterprises were still suffering from strikes and shutdowns. The shout-y chorus, including the line later in the song, “You live for the fight when that’s all that you got,” champions a scrappy American spirit that resonated with people.

“Livin’ On A Prayer” spent four weeks at No. 1. “Slippery When Wet” would remain popular for other hits, too. “Wanted Dead Or Alive,” “Never Say Goodbye,” and “You Give Love A Bad Name,” are also found on “Slippery When Wet.”

 

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Dodie Miller-Gould is a native of Fort Wayne, Indiana. She has BA and MA degrees in English from Indiana University-Purdue University, Fort Wayne, and an MFA in Fiction from Minnesota State University, Mankato. Her research interests include popular music and culture, 1920s jazz, and blues, confessional poetry, and the rhetoric of fiction. She has presented at numerous conferences in rhetoric and composition, and creative writing. Her creative works have appeared in Tenth Muse, Apostrophe, The Flying Island, Scavenger's Newsletter and elsewhere. She has won university-based awards for creative work and literary criticism.

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