Power ballads are guilty pleasures in the realm of rock & roll music. For many years, any hard rock band that wanted a hit had to include at least one ballad on their albums to be played by the radio. Even as recently as the past decade, hard rock bands sometimes lost credibility (think of Crazy Town’s one hit wonder status thanks to their success with “Butterfly,” a song far different than the rest of their body of work) because they pandered too much with power ballads. Sometimes, as in the case of LA Gun’s “The Ballad of Jayne,” power ballads are the only songs for a band to reach public consciousness.
It is easy to understand why power ballads proved to be popular. By showing the softer or more sentimental side of rock & roll artists, they showed an aspect of rock & roll that was less threatening to mainstream audiences who were at best ambivalent about harder rock sounds. Most commentary about power ballads seems to have focused on this angle, on power ballads as the ways that rock artists can get accepted by the masses, which meant that every rock band since the mid 70’s has tended to include at least one ballad on every “mainstream” album.
Wikipedia has a short history on the power ballad that adds another angle , but even its history is somewhat incomplete. By 1976 or so, FM radio had brought the first rock power ballads to prominence, such as Aerosmith’s “Dream On,” or Lynyrd Skynrd’s “Free Bird,” or Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway To Heaven,” among many others. These songs showed the sensitive sides of rock bands. The power ballad also springs from the emotive sounds of soul singers like Ray Charles and Joe Cocker who had songs that climaxed into a guitar or choir-backed endings. In addition to this, there was another angle ignored by the wikipedia entry (or Simon Frith). A third source of the power ballad, at the same time as the other two, was in the early 1970’s, when “easy listening” bands like the Carpenters wanted to capture some of the power of rock and roll in their own pop ballads by adding more rock improvisational elements, thus creating the power ballad, as the liner notes to one Carpenter’s compilation claims . The truth is probably that power ballads came from all three sources simultaneously, because it was a solution waiting to happen.
When the same solution is hit roughly simultaneously from three very different sources, the truth is probably that the solution was an obvious or powerful one, and that is the case with the power ballad. Specifically, the power ballad solved a lot of problems simultaneously. How to capture some of the freedom of rock and roll within the constraints of pop, how to tame the anarchic spirit of rock and roll in something that could be acceptable to the mainstream of Western culture, and how to provide a powerful and soulful emotional release to soul singers ended up being the same form of music. The power ballad solved all three of those problems simultaneously.
Once the solution was found, it became ubiquitous on radio, as obligatory ballads on cds, or even in compilation albums . But even though many of the songs that are power ballads might have been commercial “deals with the devil,” where artists claimed to sell their integrity for profit by producing sappy ballads they really didn’t feel, for many of their fans the power ballads were the songs that endured because of their emotional resonance. Life and history are both full of ironies, and this is one of them. The combination of soul, pop, and rock that is the power ballad remains enduringly popular today, because it strikes at a core of our own being, and even if that spiritual longing is exploited for commercial gain on the part of artists and radio programmers, the genuine need in the part of the listening audience remains. We are beings of great soulfulness as well as passion, and for that reason there are power ballads. Once rock and roll and soul sprang into the mainstream of music, it was probably inevitable that someone would hit upon the solution sooner or later–and it was hit upon in the early 1970’s from three different directions, and soon thereafter shared with the rest of the world. And so it remains today.