"TOMORROW'S GETTING HARDER": BON JOVI AND EXISTENTIAL DOOM
by Andy Nowicki
To properly engage with his subject requires both confidence and willing vulnerability on an artist's part. Thus, an artist’s best work is often accomplished when the ravages of age cause him to fear that he may have exceeded his arbitrarily-assigned—but no less real and ever-looming—expiration date. Cockiness born of the arrogance of youth is replaced by the easier, more graceful self-mastery which can only derive from, and consequently be tempered by, a sobering awareness of one’s undeniable limitations, itself a scarcely-avoidable by-product of aging.
Take the vintage Gen-X band,Bon Jovi. BoJo's most popular fare derives from their glory days in the 80s, when this lite-metal act soared to stadium-packing success, fueled by the singer's good looks and the band's generally formulaic but intermittently catchy brand of radio-friendly pop.
Like Loverboy—another "hard-rock with synthesizers and a flamboyant pretty-boy lead singer” act—the BJ-brigade owned the charts for a time with a series of power ballads and earnestly upbeat anthems. Chief among the latter was "Living on a Prayer," a paean to optimism in the midst of life’s struggles. In it, a young couple with the names of "Tommy" and "Gina" are praised for their devotion to one another, and for faithfully following their (somewhat ill-defined) dreams.
I know this song has its adherents, but to speak frankly in Jon Bon's own tough-guy Jersey argot, I ain't one of them. Guitarist Richie Sambora's eerie "talk box” intro aside, "Living on a Prayer" lacks grit, and the triumphant note sounded by the soaring chorus seems unearned. However, the characters of Tommy and Gina would be salvaged by their reappearance nearly a decade and a half later, in a far more poignant and powerful context: the angst-laden 1999 comeback hit "It's My Life."
Not to be confused with the identically-titled song by Talk Talk (and later covered by No Doubt), Bon Jovi’s "It’s My Life" is a haunting tune, though one suspects that its creators weren't attempting to achieve any such effect. In fact, "It's My Life" aspires to be yet another a "carpe diem" anthem, much like Frank Sinatra's supremely maudlin ballad "My Way," which it references. However, as Kurt Cobain observed, something gets in the way,preventing the optimism from properly taking hold, and giving rise to a disquieting—and far more aesthetically compelling—subtext.
The speaker in "It's My Life" would appear to be a washed-up, over-the-hill has-been (perhaps even a "never-was"), who nevertheless feels that he can still make his mark on the world, even though he knows that time is running out. Yet from the very start, he wishes to make clear that he is not desperate or pathetic in any way. "This ain’t a song for the broken-hearted/ No silent prayer for the faith-departed," he declares with manful resolution; yet one suspects that he protests too much, that he is indeed near despair and trying desperately to rally. In the same vein, he vainly asserts his wish not to be "just a face in the crowd," insisting, "You’re gonna hear my voice when I shout it out loud!"
These are admittedly rather vapid, hackneyed lyrics, yet the overall canvas on which this tapestry of clichés is woven proves surprisingly rich and alluring; it even gives off a whiff of the genuinely tragic. There is a delicious tension between the willful, cloying hopefulness of the speaker, and the ominous drone of the music, with Sambora's sinister-sounding "talk-box" employed to maximum effect; one gets the impression that the hapless speaker is being grounded into mincemeat by the cruel ruthlessness of fate, even as he's most insistently telling us of his indefatigable intention to emerge victorious.
After all, what he finally asserts during the song’s almost unbearably grim chorus amounts to more of a heartfelt plea than a defiant declaration. "It’s my life; it’s now or never," he cries, adding, rather plaintively, "I ain’t gonna live forever/ I just want to live while I'm alive."
The expressed desire to "live while I'm alive" has an undeniable resonance. Don't we all want more out of life than life can ultimately offer us? From where, exactly, do we derive such fancies? It is not a sort of built-in tragedy of our human consciousness, that we are in some sense set up to fail, built for desolation and woe?
And another quasi-paradox is expressed in the notable line, "Tomorrow's gettin' harder, make no mistake." "Tomorrow," of course, never really changes; it remains, as the plucky, frizzy-haired orphan Annie reflected, "always a day away." Yet our perspective of tomorrow irrevocably alters as we age. With fewer literal "tomorrows" actually in store, we find we have a greater urgency to make things happen today; at the same time, we can't comfort ourselves with the Scarlet O’Hara-ism, "Tomorrow is another day," since today (broadly speaking) may be all that we have. Still, the carpe dieminvocation rings hollow, since after all what is there really in this day to "seize" that is of value? Better than seizure of the day would be to "toss it yonder like a rind, and taste eternity."
But the speaker in "It's My Life" can't seem to detach himself from that which will ultimately make him miserable. He thinks of "Tommy and Gina, who never backed down," and pledges likewise to stay in the fight, futile though it might be. His situation has not improved; he doesn't even have a prayer to live on anymore. God help him, and God help us all.