By Ann Powers.AANYONE WHO HAS STOOD ON A sticky sports-arena floor, watching flash pots explode as a band plays, will recognize the universal cue for a rock concert’s emotional peak. The guitarist begins a pensive cadence as the lights dim. Before the singer intones the words everyone anticipates, tiny flames burst forth, one by one, from the upheld hands of fans. The song fills the room. Flickers merge into a sea of light.
Call this scene the Zippo moment, after the brand of cigarette lighter wielded by many fans. It announces the heroic tales of struggle and revelation often called power ballads. From ”Stairway to Heaven,” the Led Zeppelin anthem that defined the form in the 1970’s, to ”Jeremy,” the Pearl Jam opus that epitomizes it in the 90’s, the power ballad has spoken for the masculine heart of hard rock, uniting artists and fans in mutual catharsis. Recently, though, the meaning of the power ballad has changed as the age of heroes gives way to more conflicted protagonists.
When the Zippo moment originated, bands like Led Zeppelin descended on the scene like instant deities, flaunting images of personal and artistic excess. Power ballads allowed them to demonstrate their humanity while staying huge. They shared certain characteristics: a solemn, slow beginning; an intense musical progression; inspirational lyrics. And any novice guitarist could learn to play them.
Epic but accessible, such songs not only dramatized the passions of the artists; they also offered a sense of profundity to fans who craved it (….)
THE PAST YEAR’S BIGGEST Zippo moment was generated by ”Push,” by , a sweetly frosted tirade against a lover. ”Push” found its audience on music television, through a video featuring the puppy-handsome singer emoting like mad. Female fans connected with the image and with the singer’s agony. When the band played the song live, young couples clutched and sang along with its lyrics about pent-up frustration.But what is the real message of ”Push”? ”I want to push you around, well, I will,” sings Mr. Thomas. In interviews, he has denied that the chorus describes physical violence, and a close readingsuggests that it may be the song’s female character doing the pushing. Yet in the song, these nuances are overwhelmed by the belligerence of the chorus. Most people who hear it will remember ”Push” for Mr. Thomas’s gruff male voice declaring his desire to physically menace someone, presumably female, who has driven him to the end of his rope.In ”Push,” as in many other alternative-rock ballads, a man’s feeling of being overwhelmed justifies his irresponsible behavior. The music blends prettiness with force, enhancing the passive-aggressive mood. ”I won’t be held responsible,” Brian Vander Ark sings in ”The Freshmen,” last year’s other hugely popular power ballad. The song mentions a failed romance that left the man guilt-stricken — after his girlfriend committed suicide.
All this male rage disguised as moping makes one long for Marilyn Manson, who at least admits his anger is ugly. Yet one group has tapped into the spirit of vulnerability without turning hateful. Ben Folds Five is a trio led by the short-haired, decidedly unheroic pianist Ben Folds. In ”Brick,” which his band mate, Darren Jesse, helped write, Mr. Folds risks real self-exposure. His piano picking out a mournful, simple line, he sings in a tone as plain as conversation about taking his girlfriend to get an abortion. She is the brick dragging him down, but the drift in his voice, its exhaustion, shows that he realizes he is the same to her.
It is hard to imagine holding up a Zippo for ”Brick”; by embracing the bewilderment that life can bring, it disqualifies itself from grandiose enactments. Instead, it expresses true vulnerability, by taking a risk that most new power balladeers don’t dare. Its gesture is so simple: to let ambivalence be. ”Brick” acknowledges that heroism is not always possible. Its quiet epiphany reveals nothing more than two people, struggling. It illuminates on its own.
Photo: PASSIVE-AGGRESSIVE ( Cook, left, , , Adam Gainor and Doucette) blends prettiness with force.
Original Source: The New York Times
Article appeared in print on Sunday, February 1, 1998, on section 2 page 46 of the New York edition.