Bon Jovi‘s forthcoming Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction will certainly come as a surprise to some. The New Jersey–repping band, who dominated MTV and served as the pop-friendly face of the Eighties hair-metal boom, were hardly beloved by critics. A 1986 Rolling Stone review of the band’s mega-selling Slippery When Wet LP began with the question “How many clichés can you squeeze into a pop song?” while in 2005, critic Robert Christgau referred to them as “hard rock so inoffensive it’s less Aerosmith than Air Supply.”
During the band’s heyday, critics weren’t too high on hard rock as a whole, and the success of Bon Jovi, who had camera-ready looks and a youthful fanbase to go along with their maximalist pop-rock anthems, especially rankled. Susan Orlean’s 1987 Rolling Stone profile opened with a loving description of frontman Jon Bon Jovi’s 14-inch shag (“it would be safe to say that Jon Bon Jovi has the most wonderful hair in rock & roll today,” she enthused) and mentioned the ad hoc focus-grouping that led to Slippery When Wet‘s track listing,
Fair enough – Bon Jovi always kept an eye on the bottom line. But their blending of arena-rock largesse, pyrotechnic riffing and good-time vibes – not to mention the occasional weepy ballad – led to some of the most pleasure-inducing rock hits of the Eighties and Nineties. “Livin’ on a Prayer” is amped-up Springsteen, a talkbox-assisted yarn about two hard-luck lovers clinging to each other in the wake of Reaganomics; Wild West–as-touring-life metaphor “Wanted Dead or Alive” has one of the most memorable backing-vocal turns in rock history (Richie Sambora’s “waaan-teeee-uuughhh-eed!“); and “Born to Be My Baby,” which was co-written by Bon Jovi, guitarist Richie Sambora and hired-gun songwriter Desmond Child, is peak synth-metal, an attempt to reach the grandiosity of their contemporaries Def Leppard that succeeds because of its audacity. Ballads like the nostalgia-tinged “Never Say Goodbye” and the pleading “I’ll Be There for You” are precision-grade tearjerkers that recall the weepiest moments of 2017 Rock Hall inductees Journey, only turned up to 11. And in later years, the band’s tilt toward twangier sounds (like the 2006 Jennifer Nettles collaboration “Who Says You Can’t Go Home”) gave a tacit blessing to Nashville’s full-on embrace of the melodic-arena-rock ideal.
Bon Jovi’s early success is a testament to the reach of radio. In 1982, Jon and a handful of session musicians recorded demos at the legendary New York studio the Power Station, which was co-owned by his cousin Tony Bongiovi. The urgent bad-girl chronicle “Runaway” was part of those sessions, and in 1983 Bon Jovi brought the song to the New York rock station WAPP, which was actively looking for locally sourced talent. It eventually landed on New York Rocks 1983, a compilation of then-unsigned artists that also featured the Long Island hard rockers Twisted Sister, which helped it circulate to stations around the country.
Jon Bon Jovi’s shaggy good looks also helped the band become a staple on MTV. The band gave a boost to upstarts like the bluesy Pennsylvania outfit Cinderella and the scuzz-glam outfit Skid Row (whose guitarist Dave “The Snake” Sabo grew up down the block from Jon), acted as a gateway to other artists from the Sunset Strip and beyond, and represented the States at the Moscow Music Peace Festival, the 1989 concert that brought a slew of those bands to the then-Soviet Union. Bon Jovi even got into a bit of hot water that same year with the clip for “Living in Sin,” thanks to some quick-cut imagery of its young protagonist receiving Communion before getting it on with her boyfriend – which MTV’s standards and practices department forced them to remove before airing.
The band also nudged forward the development of MTV Unplugged. In the MTV oral history I Want My MTV, producer Joel Gallen said that Jon Bon Jovi and Richie Sambora’s two-song acoustic performance at the 1989 MTV VMAs was “the jumping-off point” for the show, which quickly became the music-video network’s premier performance venue. Co-creator Jim Burns added that the medley of “Livin’ on a Prayer” and “Wanted Dead or Alive” “did help sell Unplugged to the network.” The Bon Jovi–Sambora duet, which showcased the pair’s harmonies and allowed Richie Sambora to flaunt a double-necked acoustic axe, set the template for tons of awards-show performances by bands hoping to add a little bit of down-home cred to their frothy images – and it also set the stage for the group’s later forays into country crossover music. (Nashville’s just a bit east of New Jersey, after all.)
While Bon Jovi might be sneered at by purists, their widespread appeal and hooky anthems helped them become one of the standard-bearers for Eighties hard rock – the yin to Guns N’ Roses’ gutter-punk yang, the American counterpart to the British rock fortress-builders Def Leppard. Their induction into the Rock Hall in April will help enshrine one of the biggest musical movements of the Eighties – not to mention one of the most iconic grins of the early MTV era.
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