Guilty pleasure: Jim Steinman

in Music

The greatest bad songwriter of all time
The greatest worst songwriter of all time

I like to think that I have impeccable, yet Catholic musical tastes. But there’s always been a certain collection of songs that I know violate every rule of good music. They do so without any pretension at subtlety, play on the cheapest human emotions and contain the cheapest of single entendres and bad puns. Treacle and bombast can. and do, coexist.
As a youth, I didn’t know that these songs had anything in common, although I should have:
Air Supply: “Making Love Out of Nothing at All”: I used to do melodramatic singalongs to this tape in my room, generally at the imaginary presence of whomever my teenage crush was at the time.
Bonnie Tyler: “Total Eclipse of the Heart”: The only time April has uttered the word “divorce” was when I performed this little ditty at a Karaoke night.
Bonnie Tyler: “Holding Out for a Hero”: The only song that could make a cinematic game of tractor chicken compelling.
MeatLoaf: “Two out of Three Ain’t Bad”: I didn’t even understand what this song was about, when I first heard it on the Muzak feed in my dentist’s office, but I intuited that it was simultaneously cynical and romantic, and therefore awesome.
Of course, as I learned later, all are the work of one Jim Steinman, best known as the writer behind the bulk of Meat Loaf’s oevure. I became aware of this in college, when a group of my friends used to gather on Tuesday nights to drink ourselves silly and listen to Bat Out of Hell. I got my own copy of the CD and noticing the “Songs by Jim Steinman” tagline did a little research and connected the dots to find him at the epicenter of  all my worst tastes.
If it sounds like I’m being hard on the guy, let me be clear: I LOVE Steinman’s songs — so much in fact that I can overlook what I intellectually recognize as ham-handed schlock to scream along, eyes clenched and gesturing like a leather-jacket-wearing tattooed opera singer.
The question is what it is that makes the sum so exponentially greater than its parts? Somehow ugly+shclocky+trite+bombastic = art. I’ve been mulling that lately because a recent viewing of the Steinman-scored 80’s film Streets of Fire put him me on a downloading frenzy into his back catalog, which includes lots of solo work and writer/producer stints for the likes of Barry Manilow, Celine Dion, Cher, Billy Squier and countless others.
This exploration took me, for the first time, beyond the hits and the MeatLoaf oevuere, teaching me two things:

  1. A Steinman song is a Steinman song no matter who sings it. It might as well have neon fingerprints.
  2. I actually like his stuff better when he sings it himself. Call it John Hiatt syndrome: More skilled vocalists may get the big hit, but I prefer the songwriter’s less-polished take.

Bad for Good
Bad for Good

Take Steinman’s 1981 album, Bad for Good, which would have been the proper followup to Bat Out of Hell had the lyrics book not gone missing and had Meat Loaf’s voice not crapped out by the time they were re-committed to paper. It’s produced with basically the same team of musicians and the same (if not heightened) sense of Wagnerian excess.
And, in a way, it became the Bat sequel, as much of Bat out of Hell II: Back into Hell was lifted from here. Unfortunately, record execs weren’t crazy about Steinman’s voice, so they used Steinman regular Rory Dodd as featured lead on the more salable songs, but there is one direct comparison to be made:
Jim Steinman: “Out of the Frying Pan (And into the Fire)”
Meat Loaf: “Out of the Frying Pan (And Into the Fire)”
The release of the final Bat out of Hell album (butchered by Desmond Child, sitting in for the legally estranged Steinman), provides another opportunity for comparison:
Jim Steinman: “Bad for Good”
Meat Loaf: “Bad for Good”
There’s an earnestness there in Steinman’s vocals that get lost in Meat Loaf’s theatricality. It’s not that I don’t enjoy the Loaf versions — I just find Steinman’s to be more resonant.
But this is quibbling, as the songs, defying all logic and taste, sound good no matter who performs them, or even in what language. Consider the German version of “Total Eclipse of the Heart,” from a Vampire musical made up of Steinman tunes:
“Totale Finsternis” from Tanz der Vampire
As I replay these songs, some common threads that add up to greatness become clear:

  • Unapologetic bombast. Sometime knowing what you are is a salve for schlock.
  • Even in the operatic strains, there is clear, unadulterated rock. Rawk, even.
  • Wry, whistling in the graveyard humor pervades, making even the puns palatable.
  • Great musicianship and production. Whether Steiman solo or the albums he produced for Meat Loaf, you get a crack team of musicians featuring the likes of Todd Rundgren and members of the E Street Band.
  • Eclecticism within a consistent theme: Sure, it’s all over the top, but sometimes you get a Wall of Sound or Beach Boys harmonies; sometimes a metal thrash; sometimes an American-Idol-worthy ballad. It all has common threads, but is impressive in its diversity.

I’m glad I dug deeper into the Steinman catalog — I’ve got a renewed appreciation for all of his work. I might even trek to see his upcoming “Cirque de Soleil on acid” musical slated to premiere in 2009.
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