Trends may change and empires may crumble, but at least one thing always seems to stay the same: Bon goddamn Jovi can’t take a dump without it coming out platinum.
During the great hair metal die-off of the early ’90s, Bon Jovi didn’t exactly seem like the first band that should have seen its career fade into an unpleasant, acid-washed memory — they were huger than huge at their peak, and unlike a lot of their peers, they were always more of a straight-ahead commercial rock band than a metal band toning down its act for the Top 40 — but neither did they seem like they had any real long-term commercial viability. When was the last time you watched the video for “Bad Medicine”? It featured dialogue, enough quick cuts to make you throw up before the one-minute mark, trendy saturated colors, and Sam Kinison. The ’80s should have clamped down on Bon Jovi like a bear trap:
But Bon Jovi didn’t tank in the ’90s. No, you know what they did? They released an album in 1992, just as grunge was building momentum and their name recognition was enough to sell two million copies of Keep the Faith. Then they smartly hid out for the rest of the decade, releasing a greatest-hits compilation (1994’s quadruple-platinum Cross Road) and one studio album (1995’s platinum These Days) before re-emerging in the broken musical landscape of the 21st century with 2000’s double-platinum Crush.
Jon Bon Jovi’s always been a nakedly craven opportunist, and I refuse to believe he’s approached the band’s career as anything other than a business plan. I think he realized that after five years away, Bon Jovi nostalgia would be high, and with rock radio mostly dead, he could afford to make what would have been a credibility-killing move in the ’80s — namely, hooking up with Max Martin for a lollipop of a leadoff single — and finally turn the band into what he’d always thought it should be: a tribe of musical mercenaries who didn’t have to feign allegiance to any particular genre, but could cop to whatever trend happened to be popular at the moment in an effort to stay on the charts, and do it without hurting sales enough to matter. Other bands had tried this before, but they’d all failed, possibly because they all still had credibility to squander; Bon Jovi made it work, because credibility had always been a meaningless abstract concept for them. Their music was never as important as how people responded to it — or to put it in more appropriately crass terms, how well it sold.
Watching Bon Jovi’s career unfold is like watching a physics professor play Jenga: What he’s doing shouldn’t work, and you keep waiting for the whole thing to collapse in a horrible mess, but he plots his moves so carefully that nothing — not gravity, not label mergers, not even the end of rock music as we know it — can stop him. Country music is popular right now? Fine, fuck it, Bon Jovi will release what they bill as a country record, which sounds pretty much like most other Bon Jovi records, only it’ll spin off a Number One country hit. People aren’t buying records anymore? Who cares? Bon Jovi will go on Extreme Makeover Home Edition. Bon Jovi will release a four-CD box of B-sides, and it’ll go gold. Bon Jovi will score Top 40 hits even after Top 40 ceases to exist in any meaningful way. If curing AIDS sold records, I’m pretty sure Bon Jovi would have done it by now.
Sadly, curing AIDS doesn’t sell records. But pinching out tubes of boneless, easy-to-digest rock & roll does, and that’s why the band’s 11th studio album, The Circle, is coming out today. Richie Sambora has described it by saying “It sounds like Bon Jovi, but it sounds fresh,” which is only half true; Bon Jovi has never sounded the least bit fresh, and this album — whose third track, “Work for the Working Man,” recycles “Livin’ on a Prayer” so obviously you’d notice it even if you were listening from the next room — is no different. But it probably won’t make a difference to the band’s bottom line, because The Circle is loaded for bear with the same stuff people have always responded to in their records: Huge, push-button choruses; plaintive, knucklheaded ballads; and clichés masquerading as lyrics that are supposed to signify something, but whose complete meaninglessness form a great Möbius strip of hoary platitudes and insultingly calculated populism.
The Circle is, at least nominally, a sort of song cycle about The State of America Right Now, or at least the way it feels for the band as they leaf through the Wall Street Journal on their gated estates. So you get songs like “Brokenpromiseland” and the aforementioned, terrible “Work for the Working Man” alongside your usual big ballads (“Live Before You Die,” “Love’s the Only Rule”), lab-formulated singles (“When We Were Beautiful”), and lab-formulated big ballad singles (“Superman Tonight”), all of them as immediately familiar as they are instantly forgettable. It sounds like Bon Jovi, all right.
With just about any other band, it would be necessary, or at least helpful, to place a new album somewhere in the context of its earlier work. That, however — like most rules — doesn’t apply to Bon Jovi, a band whose music is defined in commercial epochs, and whose cultural significance exists as a sort of condemnation of culture in general. Bon Jovi is Bon Jovi, what has been shall be, and attendance records shall be broken on the next tour, glory to Jon in the highest. It’s, like, The Circle or something.
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