ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.
MICHELE NORRIS, host:
And I'm Michele Norris.
The year's highest-grossing concert tour ends this evening at Madison Square Garden. Tonight's show caps a remarkable return to the top for Bon Jovi - yes, that Bon Jovi - the band responsible for such '80s pop-metal anthems as "Living on a Prayer" and "You Give Love a Bad Name." Bon Jovi has reinvented itself by turning to a new market, country music.
NPR's Nate DiMeo reports on the secret of Bon Jovi's new success and what it says about changes in the music industry over the band's 25-year career.
NATE DiMEO: It's 1983, Jon Bon Jovi is 21. He's already spent years toiling in a dying New Jersey music scene, fronting bar bands and playing high schools and vets halls. He's got a demo, but no one cares. Times are tough, but he's got dreams. It's like a Bon Jovi song.
Mr. JON BON JOVI (Vocalist, Bon Jovi): I went to a radio station.
DiMEO: WAPP, the Apple, in the appropriately named Success, New York.
Mr. BON JOVI: This station in particular was so new that it didn't even have a receptionist yet, and that was beneficial because I got to knock on the DJ's booth. And on a commercial break, he came out and we made some small talk and he took the tape and he listened to it.
(Soundbite of song "Runaway")
Mr. BON JOVI: (Singing) On the street where you live girls talk about their social lives. They're made of lipstick, plastic and paint, a touch of sable in their eyes. All your life all you've asked…
DiMEO: The song was "Runaway." Soon, it was in heavy rotation, and hard-working Jon Bon Jovi from New Jersey was on his way to mega mid-'80s success. His music had the big guitar hooks that rock radio loved, he had the big smile that teenage girls loved, and he had the big hair that, perhaps inexplicably, much of America loved.
Mr. BON JOVI: That's what every kid in the mall looked like in 1986. You know, Bono had the same haircut. Like it or not, that was the truth.
DiMEO: But Bon Jovi says that a lot of what got his band tagged with that pejorative hair-metal label - along with bands like Def Leppard and Whitesnake and Warrant and Ratt - stopped with the Aqua Net hairspray. He says that something that was distinctly Bon Jovi emerged on their 1986 album, "Slippery When Wet."
Mr. BON JOVI: But we stumbled upon something that created a sound. You know, you compounded the big rock chorus or the pop sensibility of that chorus' catchy sing-along kind of lyric with a story. And then, the folks in the audience became Tommy and Gina.
DiMEO: Tommy, the kid who used to work on the dock with his six-string in hock, and Gina, his girl, from the diner from the song called "Living on a Prayer."
(Soundbite of song "Living on a Prayer")
Mr. BON JOVI: (Singing) Gina works the diner all day. Working for her man, she brings home her pay for love.
DiMEO: Its huge, race-your-lighters chorus helped define what Jon Bon Jovi wanted his songs to be about.
Mr. BON JOVI: (Singing) We've got to hold on to what we've got, it doesn't make a difference if we make it or not. We've got each other and that's a lot for love. We'll give it a shot. Oh, we're halfway there. Oh, living on a prayer. Take my hand. We'll make it, I swear. Oh, living on a prayer.
Tales of optimism and hope, and those universal messages that are both timeless and classic have resonated with generations.
DiMEO: At that time, radio seemed to be filled with songs of struggle and striving in the white working class. Springsteen, John Mellencamp, even Journey and Poison had them. Bon Jovi's optimistic anthems virtually ruled the charts for several years there. But then a Nirvana song came and changed things. Grunge, with its more internal intimate scenes, swept out the bombastic pop-metal sound.
(Soundbite of song "Smells Like Teen Spirit")
Mr. KURT COBAIN (Vocalist, Nirvana): (Singing) Load up on guns. Bring your friends. It's fun to lose and to pretend. She's overborne and self-assured…
DiMEO: Jon Bon Jovi says that, suddenly, a lot of bands were falling all over themselves trying to fake their way into the new trend, but not his.
Mr. BON JOVI: Oh, it was a very conscious decision to not pretend to be something you were not.
DiMEO: And they didn't, and they couldn't very well pretend to be a boy band or do a hip-hop crossover either. And their fans rewarded them for it. And they were still selling millions of albums.
Mitchell Peters writes for Billboard Magazine. He says that the types of working-class anthems that define the '80s were still around, they just weren't on pop radio anymore.
Mr. MITCHELL PETERS (Touring Correspondent, Billboard Magazine): Country fans are sort of the dedicated, hardcore fan base. This sort of relates to who their fans are, you know, the sort of Middle America working class, and so it seemed like a national fit to sort of try and tap into that fan base.
DiMEO: Two years ago, Bon Jovi had its first hit on the country charts, a duet with Jennifer Nettles from the band Sugarland. They followed it up last year with an album called "Lost Highway" recorded in Nashville.
(Soundbite of song "Who Says You Can't Go Home?")
Mr. BON JOVI: (Singing) …the seeds I've sown, saving dimes, spending too much time on the telephone. Who says you can't go home? Who says you can't go home? There's only one place they call me one of their own. Just a hometown boy, born a rolling-stone…
DiMEO: Country stars like Keith Urban and Kenny Chesney already sounded a lot like Bon Jovi. John Rich is half of the band Big & Rich who joined Bon Jovi on a big, working-for-the-weekend stomper called "We Got It Going On."
(Soundbite of song "We Got It Going On")
Mr. BON JOVI and Mr. JOHN RICH (Vocalist, Big & Rich): (Singing) We got it going on. We'll be banging and singing just like the rolling stones. We're gonna shake up your sole, we're gonna rattle your bones 'cause we got it going on.
Mr. RICH: I think Bon Jovi is a great American musical act. They're obviously known for being a rock band, but I think as they have gotten up into their 40s and have gotten married and had kids, they have a different perspective on life, and they apply their energy towards a little bit different version of what they're known for, which is straight ahead hard rock and roll. They become country.
DiMEO: He points out that several songs in the current country Top 40 are from pop and rock artists who've crossed over, like Jessica Simpson and The Eagles, and that one guy from Hootie & the Blowfish.
For his part, Jon Bon Jovi says that he has made a slightly twanged-up Jon Bon Jovi record. He says he'll always be that guy from New Jersey writing about Tommy from the docks and Gina from the diner, whomever they might be now in 2008.
Mr. BON JOVI: When you sing a song like "Living on a Prayer" 21 years later, it marks memories in people's lives that come to see you. They think about where they were the first time they heard it or their first kiss or that they got married to it or they played it for their kids now that they're old enough. You see in the eyes of the public that are singing them back to you at the top of their lung sin those stadiums, you know that you touched somebody, and they, in turn, touched you.
DiMEO: Next year, Bon Jovi will be eligible for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. He admits that he'd like to get in, but he knows he's never been a critics' favorite. But 25 years into it, he's still selling records. He's never been a nostalgia act. He's got the biggest tour of the year. He'd like to think he has a shot.
Nate DiMeo, NPR News.
(Soundbite of song "Wanted Dead or Alive")
Mr. BON JOVI: (Singing) Dead or alive. And I'm wanted dead or alive.
NORRIS: You can hear songs from Bon Jovi's latest album, "Lost Highway," at the music section of our Web site, that's npr.org.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.