Jim Steinman’s List Song Dramas

Jim SteinmanI’ve always had a great appreciation for Jim Steinman. He’s the only guy who was able to translate musical theater to rock music. This first hit me in 1983, when two of his songs made it to the top of the charts. He wasn’t the “artist,” of course. He wrote the songs and he produced them. And I would say that the artists in each case really don’t much matter. It was the writing and the production.

Both songs are basically just lists. They are pretentious as hell. But that’s what is great about Steinman. With his writing and his production, he can make you forget that what he is delivering is the same old trite rock-n-roll as you’ve always loved but never thought was “important.” And above all, he never lets the music fall into that anemic category of “pop.” Whenever I have the misfortune of hearing Top-40 radio (or whatever the hell they call it today), I’m struck by how much it has been influenced by Steinman, without being able to reproduce what he did.

The first song is “Total Eclipse of the Heart” sung by Bonnie Tyler. It annoys me that this song still works so well for me. It seems adult, even though its content is pure bubblegum — a 14-year-old’s idea of what love is like — the dark ending of the relationship that started with “I Want to Hold Your Hand.” Of course, it isn’t just the lyrics. The music and production are so powerful. I imagine Tyler in the middle of a big stage wearing a Viking helmet with horns, “We’re living in a powder keg and giving off sparks!” And I love the castanets for the exotic flourish that it adds:

The second song is “Making Love Out of Nothing at All” sung by Air Supply — one of the most slappable bands ever. And let’s face it: it isn’t nearly as good as “Total Eclipse of the Heart.” But it is pretty much the same song with the soft beginning that builds over time until I again imagine a big stage, but now Russell Hitchcock wears the horned Viking helmet. It is ultimately no less juvenile, but doesn’t hold up as well. Still, it works:

A decade later, Jim Steinman and Bonnie Tyler got back together to do two songs. One was a really annoying production of “Two Out of Three Ain’t Bad.” (But Tyler’s singing is rather good.) The other was “Making Love Out of Nothing at All.” The production is very similar to the Air Supply version with the addition of what sounds like a Theremin, but is probably a woman’s voice.

And before anyone says it, yes, I know, these songs are totally in keeping with “I’d Do Anything for Love (But I Won’t Do That).” It is what Jim Steinman does. It is the way of his people. I feel sure that he could create high drama out of a grocery list. Perhaps: “I’d Buy Anything for You (But I Won’t Buy That).” A typical refrain of wives past!

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