By Jordan Reisman
Jersey’s other favorite son. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Pop Professor is a new column to BreakThru Radio, offering an alternative perspective for today’s mainstream pop hits wherever we deem fit.
For Craft Week on BTR, staff writer Jordan Reisman discusses the Jersey-centric musical trope of millionaire rock stars who appeal to the ‘everyman’ in their songs.
One of my favorite all-time pop music tropes is the “everyman” perspective employed most famously by Bruce Springsteen and the E-Street Band. The overall essence of this concept is that the musician is “just like you”, when in reality he/she lives in a plane of existence that most of us can’t even conceive of. As rock stars become less and less apparent, and a sustainable career as a musician becomes harder to achieve, the glamorization of the rock star lifestyle has waned.
A shining example of a song taking a page from the school of the everyman is Bon Jovi’s 2005 single, “Who Says You Can’t Go Home”, specifically the version with Jennifer Nettles of the country duo Sugarland. The song is has a simple four-or-so chord structure featuring the use of fiddle and slide guitar, to give some real country authenticity (interpret that how you will).
“Who Says You Can’t Go Home” is a tribute to each of Bon Jovi’s and Nettles’ hometowns (Sayreville, NJ and Douglas, Ga., respectively) without getting into the specifics about those actual towns, even though everyone and their mother knows that Bon Jovi is a Jersey boy. While the two singers don’t actually give shout outs to their places of origin, what they do in this song is present the idea of the hometown. If you’re from a small community, you’ll have no problem listing the things that makes it a “small town.” Common answers are: everyone knows everyone, small population, feelings of “wanting to get out of this place” (in fact, just calling the town ‘this place’ says something), and things being geographically close together.
Bon Jovi nails this sentiment on the head. The first verse includes the lines, “I spent 20 years trying to get out of this place/I was looking for something I couldn’t replace/I was running away from the only thing I’ve ever known.” He makes sure to open with the all too common feeling of, “This place is too small, I need something more!” that most of us have when we’re teenagers. However, he peppers in a bit of wisdom with, “the only thing I’ve ever known,” as if to say that the thing that he was running away from was that the thing that made him who he was.
This song is also just chock full of colloquialisms. Every line seems to contain a word that evokes some sort of suburban-to-rural familiarity, as though the owner of a “general store” could have written it. The chorus is what brings it all together with, “Just a hometown boy/Born a rolling stone.” It’s as if Bon Jovi sees himself as his town’s local hero without them even telling him that, which is kind of stuck up.
Which brings me to my next point: In Springsteen’s songs, he doesn’t really allude to the fact that he’s a mega-successful working musician and not a car mechanic. He plays up the “small town guy” thing because it creates a persona, and his music does not lend well to showing off your riches.
However, in ”Who Says You Can’t Go Home,” Bon Jovi is distinctly aware that he has traveled the world far and wide and accomplished super stardom. He makes no provisions in hiding the fact that he’s a successful musician. The chorus contains the lines, “Who says you can’t go back/ Been all around the world and as a matter of fact/There’s only one place left I want to go.”
Is it possible then, to be a musical celebrity and a “hometown boy” at the same time? Bon Jovi seems to think so. Whenever I hear the “everyman” narrative in a mainstream rock song, I think it’s 75 percent bullshit. The classic rock star defense though is that they were writing from a point of view independent of their own.
That defense couldn’t really be used for this track. A narrative works when there’s a storyline involved and concrete actions carried out by the protagonist, of which this song contains none. This song is built on proclamations of blue-collar consciousness mixed with a statement that says something like, “I may have sold millions of records and toured the world but I’m still just Johnny from down the street.”
The music video follows the same format of extremely vague imagery while brandishing a charitable appeal — it takes place on a Habitat for Humanity stint in Philadelphia where the band and Jennifer build houses for low-income families.
While the video doesn’t offer much in terms of symbolism or semiotics, neither does the song, which is why the coupling is perfect.
The band does try to pull off the blue-collar look with faded jeans and leather jackets, but of course it’s all carefully constructed. There aren’t too many union laborers wearing spandex pants. The end of the video shows people from all sects of the community, from firemen to Baptist church gospel singers, singing the chorus along with the band. You see, everyone likes Bon Jovi!
“Who Says You Can’t Go Home” succeeds at constructing an identity of Jon Bon Jovi that may or not be true. It juxtaposes a multi-millionaire musician with his alleged “humble beginnings.” Then again, ain’t nothing wrong with that. If a musician wants their songwriting to relate to thousands of people they may or may not have anything in common with, they’re going to have to stretch the truth a little…or at least create a truth on their own.