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Prairie Pop: Power Ballads 101


Power Ballad time!
Power ballads: The most important art form of the 20th century. — illustration by Ben Mackey

Last year, Little Village turned over Kembrew McLeod’s “Prairie Pop” column to Umläut Nideldick—the legendary German song doctor and rock and roll life coach. Once again, we are proud to reprint Nideldick’s latest keynote address at the Eurovision Academy of Musical Arts (EAMA). 

Thank you, my fellow rockers! I am here to speak about what is surely the most important art form of the 20th century: power ballads. For those unfamiliar with this term, put simply, it is a ballad that packs a powerful punch—a ballad with balls, if you will.

At the dawn of the 1980s, most hard rock and metal concerts were basically one big wiener schnitzel party. The number of man-boobs often outnumbered actual breasts, which is why bad boy rockers embraced the power ballad: Most social scientific studies have shown a strong correlation between a power ballad’s chart position and the quantity of a band’s female fans.

Umläut Nideldick’s Top 30 Power Ballads

 

Over the past quarter century, this genre has been embraced by artists across the musical spectrum—from Bryan Adams and Celine Dion to Cheap Trick and Radiohead (the latter’s “Creep” is nothing more than a hipster power ballad). Whiny rockers like the Nirvana and Radiohead often get credit for popularizing the quiet/loud song dynamic, but I can assure you that Night Ranger and Richard Marx are the real innovators.

Unlike power pop, the subject of my 2012 EAMA keynote address, longer songs are not only encouraged, but required. Anywhere between four to six minutes is ideal (or longer, in the case of Guns N’ Roses’ “November Rain”). Just like when you make sweet love to your special lady, there is no way to achieve a satisfactory feeling of build-and-release in under four minutes. To put it crudely, a short power ballad is the anthemic equivalent of premature ejaculation.

I will now walk you through all the steps of Umläut Nideldick’s Patented Power Ballad Hitmaking Method®. Let’s start at the beginning, with the intro. You absolutely must begin with an acoustic guitar or piano. No exceptions! Nein! Nothing ruins a power ballad like a sitar. On rare occasions, a synth may be used during the introduction—such as Pat Benatar’s “We Belong” or Whitesnake’s “Here I Go Again”—but only highly advanced power balladeers should try that approach.

Now, repeat after me: intro-verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge-solo-verse-modulation-chorus-coda. DO NOT DEVIATE FROM THIS FORMULA! Power ballads are not a venue for being “arty.” Slight modifications are okay, but only if they enhance the song’s drama—such as when Bonnie Tyler’s “Total Eclipse of the Heart” grows bigger and bigger and BIGGER with every passing minute.

After two verses and choruses, you need a bridge, which should then be followed by a guitar solo or instrumental break. After one final verse, the song needs to be taken up a notch by introducing a modulation or key change in the final chorus. Done right, and you’ll see thousands of fists punching the air.

Oh yeah, and a whoooaaa-oooo-oooooooo sing-along coda (a la Journey’s “Faithfully” or Prince’s “Purple Rain”) is always encouraged. Speaking of vocals, male singers must do their best to sound like a lady. Baritone voices are power ballad kryptonite.

A modest amount of emoting is fine, but don’t go overboard—lightweight lyrics about love, loss or personal empowerment cannot support the slightest hint of emotional depth in one’s vocal delivery.

Backup singers? The more the merrier. Foreigner’s “I Want To Know What Love Is” just wouldn’t be the same without that sweet-ass choir, and the same is true of Air Supply’s “Making Love Out of Nothing At All” (arguably the best of the group’s love trilogy, which also includes “All Out of Love” and “Lost In Love”).

As for the quality of your recording, there is no such thing as a lo-fi power ballad. Nein! The production must sound big and expensive, and the drums should explode like a Lamborghini dropped into an empty oil tanker—especially when the chorus kicks in. It’s a guaranteed air-punch moment. Another common trick is to bring the song to a hush right before the concluding chorus erupts (like Eric Carmen’s melancholic, melodramatic “All By Myself”).

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What follows is my list of the all-time greatest power ballads of the 20th century, which you can carefully study when constructing your own lighter-waving classic. For now, I will leave you with the universally recognized power ballad battle cry … MOTORIN’!  
 


Early in his courtship with his wife, Kembrew McLeod wrote a power ballad titled “Oh, Lynne”—whose chorus goes, “Oh Lynne Nugent, you are so great, and I know that the word ‘great’ trivializes and doesn’t do justice to the awesomeness that is you.”  


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