[Editor’s note: Liner Notes chronicles how Chelsea Schlievert Yates discovered music through the ’80s and ’90s while growing up in Norfolk, Neb. We hope to post a new installment every other week. Read more here.]
by Chelsea Schlievert Yates
“If you don’t hear this kind of music at the right time, can it ever make sense to you?”
— Lavinia Greenlaw, The Importance of Music to Girls
When I was in the seventh and eighth grades in the early 1990s, I thought that the forum in the middle of Norfolk High School must have been the most amazing place in all of Nebraska. Informal dances for junior high kids were occasionally held there on Friday and Saturday nights, and they were where I learned the proper way to pinch-roll the cuffs of my jeans, how to do popular dance moves like the Running Man and the Roger Rabbit, and about a Sebastian Bach different than the one whose minuets appeared in my piano lesson books.
Organized as fundraisers by high school student activities clubs, these dances were pretty incredible. At least that’s how I felt at the time. The chaperones were few — the teacher sponsors or coaches of whichever club had organized the dance. There were usually a few juniors and seniors milling about, though they generally seemed more interested in each other than in us junior high kids. The deejay, also a high school student, always seemed to know just the right songs to play. And the high school’s forum, a sunken, carpeted gathering space in the middle of the school, was the perfect environment. It was soft and intimate and, with the lights turned down low, it was where I learned the undeniable power of a really good rock ballad.
Musically speaking, junior high dances were a curious blend of early ‘90s hip-hop, dance and slow rock songs, better known as “power ballads.” It was not uncommon for Technotronic and Tone Loc to follow the final notes of White Lion, or for the synthesized beats of The KLF to be replaced by Slash’s signature guitar wails. Girls who knew the dance routine to Janet Jackson’s “Rhythm Nation” could show it off one minute, and then find themselves slow dancing with guys from class to songs by Warrant, Winger or Saigon Kick the next. These were bands that MTV told us were cool at the time and have since been dubbed with labels like pop metal, glam metal, or — my personal favorite — hair metal.
More commercially successful than their heavy metal cousins, hair metal musicians introduced mainstream audiences — including kids like me — to harder rock sounds and heavy metal elements: shredding guitars, power chords, thundering drums. For me, the power ballads many of these bands produced provided the entry point. They seemed like songs intended for singer-songwriter-types with acoustic guitars but somehow fell upon the instruments of guys who couldn’t help but rock and didn’t want to deny us of their masculinity and heterosexuality in the process. More fist-clenching than fist-pumping in nature, power ballads encouraged slow head banging, something that we 13-year-olds could attempt with ease. And with catchy hooks and riffs, they rocked their way into my early teenage heart.
Power ballads tended to follow a certain musical recipe. Often, they opened with an acoustic guitar (in some cases a piano), something soft and pretty to set the mood. Next entered the singer, attempting to match the guitar in tone and feeling and keep his usual screamy singing voice tame and controlled for as long as he could stand to do so. And then — just when he couldn’t take it anymore — drums and power chord-wielding electric guitars exploded onto the audioscape, reminding listeners that even though these guys were singing about love and loss, they weren’t total softies. About halfway through the song, the lead guitar would take center stage, breaking out in a lonely but killer solo. Once that solo had been properly shredded, guitars, bass, drums and singer united, collectively rocking out to the song’s end.
Nothing made me more ecstatic — and anxious — at the dances as the power ballads. Many of them were by bands who I knew only from the black T-shirts worn to school by the metalheads and hoods — Mötley Crüe, Cinderella, Guns N’ Roses, LA Guns, Skid Row — promoting albums with names like Theatre of Pain, Appetite for Destruction, Cocked and Loaded and Slave to the Grind. Many of the T-shirt designs made me uncomfortable, with their weapons and blood; skulls and demonic monsters; busty, leggy ladies and other sexual references I only partially understood. During the weekdays, I decided I didn’t like the music. But that all changed on dance nights.
My mother had instilled in me that, when it came to boys, “good girls” didn’t make the first move. That included calling boys, inviting them out on dates and asking them to dance. So I only danced with a boy when a friend had made arrangements for me, or when a boy asked me himself. This didn’t happen very often, and so usually I sat on the carpeted steps of the forum watching my classmates slowly pair up to songs like “Heaven” and “Every Rose Has its Thorn.” Girls would place their hands on their partners’ shoulders, guys’ hands found their way to girls’ waists. About an arm’s distance apart from each other, a couple would slowly rock from side to side. And observing from my sideline seat, I didn’t doubt for a second the words and emotions that singers like Jani Lane and Bret Michaels expressed.
Occasionally, I would be asked — and would accept — a dance. At first I was terrified. I’d barely touch my dance partner, my eyes looking everywhere but at him. As I became more comfortable with dancing, I’d allow myself to relax a little. I’d move in a little closer and start making observations about the smell of my partner’s cologne, the placement of his hands, the feeling of the skin on his neck.
Just like the lengthy guitar solo in the middle of Guns N’ Roses’ “November Rain,” the dance floor was full of unexpected occurrences. There was the boy I’d dream would ask me to dance, and then the boy who actually did. There were the surprise moments when a guy I’d never talked to at school suddenly asked for a dance, as well as my discoveries that the cocky class clown was actually a really nervous dancer, that the one of the popular kids had really sweaty palms, and that the boy I sat next to in math class had amazingly strong arms when embracing me on the dance floor. There were also those guitar solos or awkward tempo change moments in ballads like the Damn Yankees’ “High Enough” — those to which we had a hard time figuring out how to dance and so just broke apart, drifting away to talk to nearby acquaintances on the dance floor until the song slowed down again, then rejoining to finish the dance together.
What did I find in these songs? How could they possibly speak to me so deeply? How could they not? I encountered both power ballads and boy-girl dances around the same time, and that intersection was major. I experienced some of my first inklings of desire, jealousy and heartbreak on the forum’s makeshift dance floor — emotions that the hair metal musicians seemed to know all about. To 13-year-old me, they sounded grown up. And I wanted to be grown up. I was barely a teenager but was already struggling with existing somewhere between childhood and adulthood, straddling the divide between innocence and maturity.
The hair metal rockers seemed to reside in that liminal space, something I concluded after watching countless music videos on MTV. For every ballad like “I Remember You” or “Don’t Know What You Got Till It’s Gone,” there were numerous other songs attesting to these guys’ lifestyles of partying, reckless behavior and debauchery: “Nothin’ But a Good Time,” “Girls, Girls, Girls,” “Up All Night (Sleep All Day),” to name just a few. Though they may have experienced love and heartbreak, these guys were in no way responsible, mature adults.
And yet, they gave me their tales of love. I was fairly certain I’d never be rock-video-sexy like Tawny Kitaen or a supermodel like Stephanie Seymour — the sorts of women that, at least according to their music videos, hair metal musicians were into. Yet I still dreamed of the day when someone would promise me he’d never let me go (Steelheart), find in me the love of a lifetime (Firehouse) or tell me that all he needed was to see me smile and he could face the world (Bad English). I knew I wasn’t anywhere near those sorts of relationships at 13, but the thought that one day I could be gave me the hope I needed to wade through the confusing muckiness of my early teenage emotions.
My infatuation with the power ballad lasted only a year or two. As the rest of the world moved on to grunge, so did I. I would trade Mötley Crüe for Mudhoney, Slaughter for Soundgarden, Poison for Pearl Jam. There would come days that I’d deny ever owning an Extreme cassette tape, or when I’d feign I didn’t know who C.C. DeVille or Vince Neil were.
And just like the hair metal musician’s time in the spotlight was fleeting, so, too, were the junior high dances. Arguments frequently broke out, resulting in fights after the dance in the high school parking lot. One too many must have occurred, and I think that, in response, administrators banned student activities clubs from holding dances as fundraisers. There was no complaint from the junior high; parents — at least mine — never seemed too keen on the dances anyway. And in true adult fashion, no one bothered to ask us junior high kids what we wanted. So, just like that, gone were the Friday and Saturday nights of boy-girl dances, set in motion to the slow tempos, power chords, and crying guitar solos that only the rock ballads of the late 1980s and early 1990s could deliver.
Chelsea Schlievert Yates is a Hear Nebraska contributor. She grew up in northeast Nebraska and now lives in Seattle, Washington. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.