Even though I can’t recall a world without them, I’ve never liked Journey. As a kid, I found them vaguely annoying, and as I grew into a rock fan, I was more than happy to go along with the critical line that fingered them as all that sucked in rock. That’s eroded over time–Journey simply isn’t worth getting worked up over, and besides, when Chuck Eddy said back in the early ’90s that Journey were far more effective than any critic of the time wanted to admit, I knew exactly what he meant. I look back at the music of my childhood with more fondness than it sometimes warrants, but the recent “revival” of “Don’t Stop Believin’”–from The Sopranos to its inclusion in The Pitchfork 500–still puzzles me some, if a little bit less now that I’ve seen the infomercial for Time Life’s The Ultimate Rock Ballads Collection.
Here’s the reason why: power ballads aren’t music. They’re television. They’re soap operas. They’re ham acting in ridiculous outfits on cheap sets, reciting lousy dialogue, and getting to us thanks to shameless stroking of basic-unto-atavistic impulses many people are convinced, at some point in their life, that only they have. And as a result, the people who make them, who never came alive on music journalism’s pages, do so much better on TV. The Journey episode of VH1’s Behind the Music? Total classic. And the Time-Life infomercial is even better.
Time-Life Music’s late-night CD-collection infomercial formula is now granite: has-been artist from the set’s genre plus spokesmodel as hosts; plenty of video snippets and performance clips (frequently from American Bandstand); testimonials from ordinary citizens; and sweeping shots of the CDs spread out on a kitchen table, like dinner, or, if you prefer, buttah. For 30 minutes at a time, this set-up teeters on the edge of self-parody, but never quite falls over; the results are compulsively watchable.
Ultimate Rock Ballads Collection might be the most watchable yet. The musician-host is Kevin Cronin, the lead singer of R.E.O. Speedwagon (“Keep on Lovin’ You,” etc.), and on this evidence a great guy; he talks with real enthusiasm about writing his band’s hits and with real affection for his arena-rock colleagues. For another, this music is completely suited to the medium. Time-Life’s other infomercials are for soft-rock and grown-folks’ R&B collections, anthem upon anthem. Power ballads, by their nature, are almost nothing but anthems. The killer line: “These songs will rock your heart!” I wouldn’t want to hear any of these songs voluntarily again unless I were experiencing them as someone else’s great night out at karaoke, but as television goes, they’re pretty foolproof.