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September 23, 2005

Rock and Country, Partners in Marketing

On Monday night, the remarkably durable 1980's band Bon Jovi became the first group to play the Nokia Theater, a notably uncozy new rock club in Times Square. The concert was a masterpiece of cross-promotion, designed to advertise the club, the club's sponsors, the band, the band's new album ("Have a Nice Day," released by Island Def Jam Records) and also, finally, America Online, which broadcast the performance at aol.com.

While Jon Bon Jovi encouraged his fans (not that they needed much prodding) to "Raise Your Hands" and "Keep the Faith," it was easy to marvel at how well the singer and his band have preserved themselves. The group's keyboard-driven hard rock has aged relatively well, and some of the new songs inspired the same excitement as the old ones. But it was easy, too, to wonder what happened to the once-dominant sub-genre that Bon Jovi once ruled. What happened to old-fashioned, unapologetic arena rock?

Here's the short answer: It went South. These days, if you want slick rock 'n' roll sing-alongs and triumphal power ballads, your best bet is probably country music.

Maybe Bon Jovi has already figured that out. Because as aol.com broadcasts the Nokia Theater concert online, the country-music cable network CMT is running a different Bon Jovi concert. This week fans can watch Bon Jovi in the latest installment of the CMT concert series "Crossroads," which matches rock stars with like-minded country stars. "Crossroads" is one of CMT's cleverest shows, a smart way to acknowledge the increasing overlap between old-fashioned rock 'n' roll and new-fangled country.

For its "Crossroads," Bon Jovi has been paired with the country trio Sugarland, and the two acts perform onstage together, trading vocals on songs from two not-very-different repertories. In between songs, Mr. Bon Jovi and his guitarist, Richie Sambora, chat with Sugarland's lead singer, Jennifer Nettles. In one of the best and most risible scenes, the three earnestly discuss the lyrical parallels between "You Give Love a Bad Name" and the Sugarland hit "Baby Girl."

This alliance between Bon Jovi and CMT is a clever marketing idea. It's also an acknowledgement of the current rock 'n' roll reality. If you look at the handful of rock songs on the pop charts this week, you'll notice that many of them brood (like "Wake Me Up When September Ends," by Green Day) or sneer (like "Sugar, We're Goin' Down," by Fall Out Boy). Suffice it to say that those aren't Bon Jovi's strengths.

It's been almost 15 years since people first started talking - semi-accurately - about the rise of melancholy grunge and the fall of exuberant hair-metal. (In Bon Jovi's case, the tag "hair-metal" was only half accurate; any 80's picture of the band should tell you which half.) The latest chapter in this story involves the rise of emo, the sad-punk sensibility that you can hear all over the place, from the theatrical poses of the Killers to the hyper-earnest love songs of Lifehouse. In this world, Bon Jovi lives on mainly as kitsch. (In fact, the emo-metal band Atreyu does a tongue-in-cheek version of "You Give Love a Bad Name.")

Meanwhile, in Nashville, there has been an unexpected resurrection. Garth Brooks taught a generation of country stars how to rock arenas, and acts ranging from Toby Keith (he did a "Crossroads" show with Aerosmith's Steven Tyler and Joe Perry, plus others) to Brooks & Dunn ("Crossroads" with ZZ Top) have perfected their own bombastic, rock-influenced live shows. Kenny Chesney ("Crossroads" with John Mellencamp), he of the recently broken marriage to Renée Zellweger, is essentially a cowboy-hatted arena-rock star, unafraid of oversized gestures. And then there's Keith Urban ("Crossroads" with John Fogerty), the Australian country star who should appeal to Bon Jovi fans everywhere: He's got a pretty face, a guitar around his neck and a string of anthemic country-rock hits.

Some of this can be traced back to country-rock's leading power couple: the personal and professional union between Shania Twain and Robert (Mutt) Lange, the producer who in the 1980's helped to make Def Leppard one of the world's biggest bands. Starting a decade ago, Ms. Twain and Mr. Lange have found addictive ways to combine their two specialties. There's no reason, after all, why a pop song can't crunch and twang at the same time.

To watch Bon Jovi and Sugarland on CMT is to be reminded that the two worlds haven't totally merged. When Ms. Nettleman took her turn on "Who Says You Can't Go Home," a rootsy bit of nostalgia from the new Bon Jovi album, she couldn't match Mr. Bon Jovi's rasp, though she compensated with elegant phrasing. Similarly, during Sugarland's "Something More," Mr. Bon Jovi couldn't match her nimble melodic ad-libs, though he compensated by adding texture, sometimes delivering more breath than melody. Still, there was more than enough overlap to justify the conceit. In fact, an absent-minded viewer might have had a hard time distinguishing "If you can look me in my eyes/ And tell me we'll be alright" from "Take my hand and we'll make it I swear."

Needless to say, no fiddle players or steel guitarists joined Bon Jovi for the Nokia concert. Unlike, say, Brett Michaels, the countrified former lead singer of Poison, Mr. Bon Jovi hasn't rededicated himself to a new genre. A few of the songs, like the album's rather unpleasant eponymous lead single, helped explain why rock fans moved on in the first place. But then, a few of the songs helped explain why country singers found something worth borrowing.

At one point, a woman in the crowd offered Mr. Bon Jovi something he didn't really need: a cowboy hat. But he played along anyway. He put it on and cracked a smile. Then, just as quickly, he doffed, handed it back, retousled his famous mane and got on with the show.

Audio Clip: "Who Says You Can't Go Home," by Bon Jovi With Jennifer Nettles

Posted by riesambo at September 23, 2005 06:17 PM