“I gotta go, I gotta, I gotta go, I gotta… I got…I got…I gotta do it again. Wait a minute, hold on… I’m not done. One more time. WITH FEELING!”
— Bon Jovi, “Bad Medicine"
That line pretty much encapsulates the Bon Jovi formula for me. I’m talking about “Bad Medicine”, the smash hit off of 1988’s New Jersey, which was their album after their 1986 breakthrough, Slippery When Wet. Now, Slippery is probably acknowledged to be the ur-Bon Jovi record, the one that contains most of the monster hits that we all know and love to scream along to at karaoke (Ironically? Not ironically? I don't even know anymore). "Livin’ On a Prayer", "You Give Love a Bad Name", "Wanted Dead or Alive" — they're all on there, and they're all great. But New Jersey was the follow-up album that really delivered, polishing the pop-metal formula to a perfect sheen with just the right mix of everyman anthems about girls, cowboys, hangin’ out with your buddies, and loving your hometown. And Bad Medicine is the tune where all the crucial elements of Bon Jovi’s winning formula collide.
And hell, Bad Medicine is the direct thematic descendent of Slippery’s paean to sex-as-medicine, “Social Disease” (and they are both part of a long, proud tradition of songs linking medicine/drugs and sex). But instead of Social Disease’s tacky orgasm noises, cheesy fake hospital page for “Dr. Bon Jovi”, misplacedly jaunty horn stabs, and somehow simultaneously raunchy and corny guitar crunch (all elements which surely conspired to relegate the track to its unobtrusive resting place as the penultimate song on side one), Bad Medicine comes out swinging, trimming out the chaff that plagued Social Disease and leaving us only with that sweet, sweet Jersey wheat.
We join the band in media res, some time after the four-minute mark. The ‘Jovi has already unleashed upon us three choruses, a guitar solo, and then another chorus, this time a triumphant double chorus. Where can they possibly take it from here? We’ve already dusted the perfect three-minute pop song mark by a full minute, so what could possibly be left?
All of a sudden, the band breaks it down. Mimicking the spontaneity of a live performance — even though this is a piece of studio perfection glossed to a shine within an inch of its already shiny life — Jon Bon pulls a fake James Brown move. In the style of a bandleader waving his hands in the air and telling the band to cut it off because this shit is just getting too out of control, he starts shouting “I gotta go, I gotta, I gotta go, I gotta…I got…I got…I gotta do it again. Wait a minute, hold on…I’m not done.” Guitars ring out inconclusively; a keyboard drone drops in pitch like the Doppler Effect of a siren racing away, or a record slowly spinning to a halt when someone has abruptly pulled the plug.
Here, we see the first element of the Bon Jovi formula illustrated: the perfect balance between authenticity and artifice. We all know the “spontaneous” breakdown is fake as shit, but we don’t want to break that fourth wall, because that’s not why we listen to Bon Jovi. Poking holes in the suspension of disbelief that is a pop song and asking the hard questions is not what Bon Jovi is about. Bon Jovi is authentic, because they really are a bunch of blue collar dudes from Sayreville, New Jersey who love cars and girls and all the stuff they sing about; at the same time they are also artificial, because they are rich rock stars backed up by a huge pop machine, co-writing many of their biggest hits with Desmond Child, a pro songwriter who has had a hand in penning an alarming number of the largest pop hits in recent memory ("Livin’ La Vida Loca", "Thong Song", "Dude Looks Like a Lady", among many, many others). The magic of Bon Jovi is that they get us on their side of the authentic/artifice divide. We are not here to point out the continuity errors or to question Jovi’s cred. Like kids with Santa Claus, we want to believe. We know it’s a pop confection, but there’s just enough grit there to keep us interested and to satisfy our jones for the rebellion that we expect from rock and roll.
But I digress: when we left, Jon Bon had just broken it down. Presumably, the band is all staring at each other, incredulous and confused, wondering why-oh-why would Jon Bon ever grind the band to a halt when we were just kicking so much ass? A keyboard tentatively starts tapping away. Jon Bon makes his statement of intent: “I’m not done. One more time.”
ONE. MORE. TIME. The second key element of the Bon Jovi magic has just revealed itself: nostalgia. Sure, maybe it’s just nostalgia for the five choruses that you just heard, to prepare you for the one more chorus that you’re about to hear again. Maybe, as in “Blood on Blood”, it’s nostalgia for when you and your buddies were stealing cigarettes in New Jersey. Hell, maybe, as in “Never Say Goodbye”, a staple of middle school-awkward-sweatpants-boner-avoiding slow dances (and presumably non-boner-avoiding actual high school proms; I was too young to know), nostalgia for not only “days of skippin’ school, racing cars, and being cool” but also nostalgia for being at the prom when “you and me, we had a fight, but the band they played our favorite song, and I held you in my arms so strong”. Yeah, that’s right, Bon Jovi’s nostalgia game is so strong that they are making you nostalgic for dancing at your prom WHILE YOU ARE STILL ACTUALLY DANCING AT YOUR PROM. That’s some next-level shit.
So this brings us to the end of the breakdown, when it’s time to build it back up again to the final chorus. Jon Bon’s instruction to the band is, as we all know, “one more time…WITH FEELING!” They feel it; they mean it; Richie Sambora obliges Jon Bon’s request for “feeling” with a duo of pick slides so electrifyingly and unapologetically full of feeling that it sounds like a bunch of tigers being shot out of a cannon through a wall of flimsy paper while lasers and smoke shoot everywhere. This is because the final crucial tenet of the Bon Jovi formula is earnestness; they feel it, and they make you feel it. No intellectualism, over-analysis, or arch distance. Hell, no political analysis either, which was maybe a part of how New Jersey was the first US album to be available officially in the USSR after Glasnost (according to Wikipedia, which is peerless in its integrity). Bon Jovi is dangerous, yet safe at the same time: feel-good singalong music with just enough of an edge to satisfy the rock and roll quota of anti-establishment sentiment while at the same time not really being against any particular establishment that I can think of.
So, Sambora shreds his pick slides and then the chorus gallops back in and bombards us again. Sorry, what was it that I was saying about politics and Soviet Russia? I forgot, because I was too busy FEELING IT. Were you guys possibly thinking about NOT feeling
this? Because that’s not on the table anymore. If you’re not fucking feeling it, then you don’t have a pulse.
Epilogue: I stopped paying attention to Bon Jovi’s oeuvre after New Jersey, because I got into punk rock and was ashamed of my hair metal roots. So it’s possible that these elements bear no relation to anything Bon Jovi has done from Keep The Faith onward, which is all pretty much terra incognita to me. I understand in recent years they’ve collaborated with a lot of country artists, which makes sense as the next logical outpost of white, working-class music for them to conquer. The Bon Jovi formula is similar and easily transferable to the country genre; get just the right blend of authenticity, artifice, nostalgia, and earnestness, add some ace pop songwriting, guitar solos, and pretty boys who are just dangerous enough to be sexy but not so dangerous that they’re actually scary, and you’ve got a winner.
Now if you’ll pardon me, I’ll be over in the corner unabashedly feelin’ it.
— Aileen Brophy