How '80s rock taught me it’s OK to cry
All hail the swaggering spandex-clad antidote to toxic masculinity
I was 11 years old when I heard ‘Always’ for the first time, Bon Jovi’s career-defining power ballad, released in the winter of 1994. To my proto-adolescent brain, trying to navigate my burgeoning masculinity in a world where my feelings were frowned upon, ‘Always’ was the missing piece.
Part-love letter, part-apology, part-anthem, that song preached the kind of unconditional love I wanted to have when I grew up, and the kind of man I wanted to be; tough, honest, vulnerable. The kind of man who isn’t afraid to own up to his mistakes, to say sorry, to cry. It connected with me in a way music rarely had before then.
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‘Always’ was my gateway song to ‘80s rock. I bought every Bon Jovi album and found bands like Def Leppard, Poison, Skid Row, Scorpions, Guns ’n’ Roses, Meat Loaf, and Motley Crue. I was a decade late, and none of my friends were interested. But as I look at the man I’ve become, it was that music that made me. It gave me a license to be me.
In a world where masculinity is in crisis, where we are taught not to feel, to be strong but silent, to ‘man up’, ‘80s rock gives me permission to be emotional and proud, a fist pumping antidote to toxic masculinity.
Unafraid of embracing the feminine of the new romantic era, being strong without the macho posing of heavy metal. The genre preached fraternity without the misogyny of gangster rap, carried itself with confidence, minus the lager-swilling swagger of britpop and the indie landfill that followed. ‘80s rock was a blueprint for a masculinity that let us be men without putting boundaries on our feelings.
Yes, it came with posturing and theatrical pomp – the long hair, the make-up, the pouting. There was a good slice of delicious cheese layered on top of the radio friendly choruses. It was bombastic and overblown and shrouded in a somewhat archaic caricature of toughness only the fists of ‘80s rock were raised in celebration, in a shared embrace of male emotion, not in violence or anger towards women or confused male arrogance.
For all the hair spray and leather trousers, 80s Rock preached a simple but radical code: Live loud, love hard, and never be afraid to feel. There were songs about fighting and fucking and heartbreak and growing up, men talking publicly about what it meant to be men and all of the baggage and confusion that comes with it. You could care about the way you look and still be a badass. You could love someone without embarrassment or rage. You could own your mistakes, and you could do it triumphantly: with twiddly, ear-splitting guitar solos, chest rattling drums and key changes
“Say what you want about Jon Bon Jovi, but when he sings about his feelings, I believe him. He knows he fucked up”
It was imperfect, it was flawed, and some of those songs haven’t aged well, but the impact it had on masculinity was huge. We’ve lost some of that in the years since; yielding the fist-pumping euphoria to electronic dance music, the emotional honesty to introspective folk.
I lost it too, for a time. As I grew older, more conscious, less secure, I left ‘80s rock behind for new, more culturally acceptable pastures, grunge and emo among them. I always came back. There’s a purity to ‘80s rock that the world-weary defeatism of grunge can’t capture, and there’s an honesty – especially in the power ballads – that the often-misogynistic angst of emo fails to understand, twisting muscular, confident self-reflection into outward fury.
Though it has roots in the power ballad era, emo missed the point. A genre masquerading as the ‘nice guy’ of music – supposedly in touch with itself but more often than not being a display of male entitlement with little empathy outside of the straight white few. As much as I enjoy some of those songs, their message about masculinity is often toxic. For a genre that espouses emotional honesty - hey, it’s in the name – there’s very little authenticity about the emotion on display. At their worst, emo songs are MRA anthems, dripping with spite and threat with as much nuance as a teenager throwing a temper tantrum.
Say what you want about Jon Bon Jovi, but when he sings about his feelings, I believe him. He knows he fucked up. He’s apologetic, and he wants forgiveness. He isn’t threatening to choke his girlfriend for leaving him.
When I came to write my debut novel, Johnny Ruin, about a heartbroken, depressed man taking a road trip through his own memories, I wanted to tap into the vulnerability and honesty of ‘80s rock. I realised my narrator needed a spirit guide, someone to join him on his journey, to support him, to steer him through his worst instincts. As someone who has lived through major depression and wants to help other men do the same, I wanted to capture what I first learned at 11 years old, listening to Always for the first time; that not only is it okay to feel, it’s necessary.
So I wrote Jon Bon Jovi into the novel, as spirit guide, sage, best friend. The way Bon Jovi’s music helped me navigate my own ideas of masculinity, Jon in the novel helps the narrator rebuild his sense of self, atone for his mistakes, feel again. He does it with an arm around his shoulder, a fist raised in solidarity. He understands the pain. He was the perfect man for the job.
There’s something else about the power ballad that’s worth noting: Though those songs were male in nature, muscular, stubbled, using the syntax of hard rock; the guitars and drums and sing-along anthems, they were written as a way to tap into a female audience. Power ballads were inherently inclusive. Everyone can relate to their themes. As we move toward a new definition of masculinity, as we rebuild our vocabulary and fraternity, there’s much worse we could do than to make masculinity a safe space for women, too.
Maybe we don’t need the perms, or the pouts. We can leave behind the leather and torn t-shirts for new and as yet undiscovered sartorial mistakes. But we need access to the men that ‘80s rock allows us to be: Emotive, imperfect, open. Men comfortable in our emotions, and in our skins. When the world taught me to turn off my feelings, ‘80s rock taught me it was okay to cry. It’s a message I need as much as 35 as I did at 11, and one I’ll be thankful for, always.