On Soft Rock
By Rob Roensch
(Foreigner, “I Want To Know What Love Is”)
I wake into darkness. The morning is still night. The windows are black as black ice. I know outside there is snow on the ground. It is January in Massachusetts and I am a child. In the hour to come there will be a bowl of maple brown sugar oatmeal in a warm kitchen, then moon boots and a parka with a zipper that sticks, an hour on the bus to Swallow Union Elementary in Dunstable, Massachusetts. But not just yet. Blurry red numbers glow 5:50, the only light. And there is a sound, a low hum that could be the sound of a church organ underwater. Then a sprinkling down of chimes. I understand the clock radio has flipped on and pulled me awake. The song is “I Want to Know What Love Is,” by Foreigner. I breathe and come to full consciousness, come to a moment in my life I can enter even now, many years later. A choir is singing: “I want to know what love is. I want you to show me.” What did I know about love? What did I know about anything? It was like being haunted by the future.
(Phil Collins, “One More Night)
The phrase “soft rock” is an oxymoron that you can hold. “Rock” implies rebellion and freedom and ecstasy; “soft” suggests safety.
Soft rock is “The 80s.”
Soft rock is “Valerie” by Steve Winwood and “Right Here Waiting” by Richard Marx.
Soft rock is synthetic, but not robotic. Anguished, but controlled. Expensive but not high-class.
A man with long curly hair and a sparkling aquamarine blazer is playing a keyboard in the rain. A woman in sunglasses drives past in a gleaming black Corvette, a single tear trickling down her cheek. A flicker of lightning briefly illuminates a high school parking lot, but there is no thunder.
Soft rock is any song you can imagine being played on the radio after a song by Phil Collins.
Soft rock was the ambient music of my suburban childhood—it was the mall with its skylights and escalators, it was the dentist’s waiting room, it was in the car on the way to soccer practice, or to Donelan’s Grocery Store, or to Sacred Heart Church. I don’t mean to imply I was a prisoner of my surroundings. The truth is I didn’t merely tolerate soft rock, or even mildly hum along to the songs that happened to be on; I loved soft rock. I chose to listen to soft rock, and often. I picked the radio station my clock radio would flick on to in the morning; I laid in bed on weekend mornings listening to the Top 40 countdown and hoping favorite songs would get into the top ten; I resisted offers to get ice cream at Doc Davis’s Ice Cream Stand so I could stay home to watch the top ten on Solid Gold.
Survivor’s “The Search is Over,” and especially its video, is an illustrative example of the themes and implications of the soft rock genre. The song begins with piano and voice, confident melancholy. Gradually, keyboards swell, filling the empty spaces with a sympathetic hum. The drums, when they come in, are emphatic and simple; they exist to declare, every other beat, “I may be sad, but I also rock; in fact, I am so sad that I am rocking, gently and deliberately.” The video is a man wandering in a city at night, alone in pools of purple light and shadow, with his memories of a lost love: a beautiful woman in a white room in shiny white lingerie on shiny white satin sheets. The song and the video is the pleasure is of being a man as alone as a cowboy or an astronaut expressing your important longing and the whole world not only acknowledging and understanding that longing but amplifying it. You are the center of the world; the whole city vibrates to your song.
Of course there are any number of legitimate criticisms of soft rock as culture, as art. The (white) masculinity it offers is openly emotional, but also cliched and absurdly narcissistic. The smooth musical surfaces that allowed soft rock to exist in department store elevators so I could encounter it in the first place were not accidents of artist preference; soft rock was not merely the music of the suburbs—it was the music of the bland and insidious corporate consumer capitalism that sought to organize and direct life in those suburbs. The romantic loneliness, the treasuring of your own longing—this was the way to be an adult, to be a man. These luxurious layers of keyboards are the bed for you to rest your troubled head in. Soft rock offers an image of adulthood manfully disconnected from the world, an image of material wealth—shiny cars and expansive hairstyles--divorced from struggle and history. Soft rock was used to calm shoppers jittery from work and traffic into a dreamy state of mind, to prepare them to attempt to satisfy their lonely desires by splurging on a new set of never-to-be-used faux-leather luggage.
(Bon Iver, “I Can’t Make You Love Me.”)
(Bon Iver, “Beth/Rest”)
(Mike Masse and Jeff Hall, “Africa”)
Listening to 80s soft rock (and the music it inspired) in 2019 is complicated. By removing the songs from their cultural context, it’s much easier to contemplate the hidden speakers in the department store elevator, but it’s also possible to better appreciate the unfussy melodic lushness.
The most obvious example of a contemporary artist who appreciates the beauty in the songs is Bon Iver. Their versions of soft rock slice away the food court and transform the sound into something new.
The cover of Bonnie Raitt’s soft classic, too-good-to-be-lumped-in-with-Richard-Marx, “I Can’t Make You Love Me” is lovely. The singing is as confidently melancholy as in the original, yet with stylistic flourishes that anyone would notice if it was coming from the ceiling of a bathroom at an Applebee’s. But soft rock is music that you wouldn’t notice if it was coming from the ceiling in the bathroom of an Applebee’s if you weren’t listening to it.
The warm glowing keyboards on Bon Iver’s “Beth/Rest” are indebted to soft rock—the song is enveloping as a cloud—but the song also ultimately fails the Applebee’s bathroom test. The layers of sound are not designed to support the lyrics’ emotion—they are the point itself; it’s hard to understand the lyrics and what lyrics that can be made out are impressionistic and surreal, not greeting-card-clear sentiment. “Beth/Rest” is soft rock of a different species, for a different audience. It’s music you wouldn’t notice if it was coming from the ceiling of a hip fashion boutique selling 80-dollar T-shirts.
Weezer’s half-ass cover of Toto’s “Africa” comes from a different angle. The band is faithful enough to the melody, but the delivery of the lyrics is filtered through a useless irony. There is pleasure in guilty pleasures, their performance says, but only if you not only admit your guilt but wallow in it.
Much better is the viral whole-ass version of “Africa” by two dudes in a random pizza shop somewhere in Utah. They hunch over their instruments. They both seem to be wearing cargo shorts. They play the song straight, nailing the harmonies, convincing us that they believe every word. In this context, the song is not designed to make you wish or imagine you are living in a different, better world. It is not the performance of longing; it is longing itself. It’s going to take a lot to take you away from him. There's nothing that a thousand men or more could ever do.
The song doesn’t transform anything. It’s two dudes singing in a pizza shop. It gives the world as it is back to us. It’s foggy outside. Through the window you can see people are walking out to their cars in the parking lot, going on with their lives, and the song is a part of them.
I don’t believe that the only way to enjoy soft rock as an older and wiser listener means to insulate your ears and soul with irony. Though neither is it enough to treat the songs as free-floating sound-waves. Music can’t be removed from the world, but it can be moved through it, and it can be followed deeper in. Soft rock is forever the terrible awkward expensive false luxury of the suburban mall. And it is also the people moving through that mall, ordinary meaningful terrible beautiful human lives, not only my own. I’m a father at the kitchen table, watching YouTube videos on a laptop that’s on a stand to avoid neck strain; in a few minutes I’ll have to go upstairs to sing my daughter to sleep. I’m a second-grader waking up in the pure dark of winter; in a few minutes I’ll take my seat in the back of the school bus with my friends, other children warm in the cores of their marshmallow-soft parkas. I still want to know what love is.