An ode to ham-handed hair band opuses: Keep motoring Sister Christian!
This is the third in a series of stories celebrating the unforgettable songs (even if you thought you've forgotten them you haven't, trust us) from arguably the craziest music era of all time: The '80s. Whether this was the music of your youth or long before your time, a little bit of the '80s surely lives in you.
Ah, the power ballad. The '80s gave us a lot, but nothing quite as memorable as the bizarrely endearing spectacle of a bunch of lunkheaded longhairs vainly attempting to show their sensitive side.
Some will try to misinform you that the late '80s was the heyday for this phenomenon, but I would argue that the power ballad boom in that time period was just the byproduct of record companies forcing hair bands to belch out a namby-pamby tune to get the teenage girls to pay attention to their hard-rock-peddling minions. Yes, the strategy worked, but the cynicism of this whole process soured me on these songs almost as much as their overall clunkiness.
The Motley Crues and Poisons of the world cleaned up with their slow songs, but they lacked a certain innocence that the forefathers of the genre, groups like Styx and Journey and REO Speedwagon conveyed, an innocence that lent songs like “Don’t Let It End” or “Faithfully” or “Keep On Loving You” warmth that ham-handed hair-band opuses just don’t possess. (Maybe that’s because those hair bands would surround their power ballads with nine songs debasing women, so it was a tad hard to believe their nobler intentions.)
The power ballad peaked in 1984 with the song I’m honoring today, “Sister Christian” by Night Ranger, which topped out at No. 5 on the chart in one of music’s most memorable years. Night Ranger’s song served as a bridge between the heart-on-their-sleeve sentimentality of the arena rockers and the over-the-top bombast of the hair rockers, but all of the labels are really meaningless when discussing a song that just batters down all your better judgment and preconceived notions about music with its unrelenting appeal.
Even at 12, the budding music snob in me was begging me to resist, but the sap in me, which still wins out to this day, was telling me to get over it and wave my lighter along with everybody else. (Actually, as a pre-teen, lighters were off-limits, but I could wave my sparkler around on Independence Day. Oh yeah, I was badass.)
From that heart-tugging piano by Alan Fitzgerald to the thunderous buildup to the chorus and Brad Gillis’ fiery guitar solo, all the power ballad bases are touched.
I’m sure the casual fan might think that Jack Blades is doing the singing, but it’s actually drummer Kelly Keagy, who also wrote the song, on the mike, weaving a tale that was inspired by his own sister’s “growing up so fast” and doing some “motoring” with some questionable boys. (I’m sure Little Sis must have appreciated her brother’s trashing of her reputation reaching the Top 10.)
I had no idea what the hell the song was about when it came out. I actually thought he was singing “Motor-Ann,” as if Sister Christian had some chopper-riding alter-ego. Didn’t matter, really. The song was so air-tight, alternately moving and rocking my young soul, that it made complete sense.
This was the power ballad to end all power ballads.
Night Ranger kept trying to rewrite “Sister Christian,” but “Sentimental Street” and “Goodbye” were pale imitations, and the band was toast by the end of the decade. The song itself was resurrected by Boogie Nights, as part of Rahad Jackson’s “My Awesome Mix-Tape #6,” which played while Dirk Diggler and his buds attempted an ill-advised drug deal. What a perfect choice for the scene, the booming refrain representing the characters’ last-chance stab at glory, even as that sad piano evoked all of the decade’s squandered hopes.
The style of song itself fell out favor as the hair bands yielded to grunge, although I would posit that the quiet-loud dynamic on which genres from grunge to emo to today’s indie-rock hang their hat is directly related to the power ballad blueprint. I’d like to think that’s how the mini-genre that I loved so much lives on.
One of the great things about '80s music was how a relatively pedestrian group, a la Night Ranger, could pull it all together for one magic moment like “Sister Christian.” Is it melodramatic? Yep. A bit silly? I’ll give you that. Unsubtle? No doubt about that. But that’s what we all wanted from our power ballads anyway.
As Rahad Jackson said, “I love that song.” Amen, Rahad, you nut-job drug dealer, you. Amen.