“Let’s face it, I’m the posterboy for white privilege,” says Jon Bon Jovi a few weeks before 2020 is ready to drop. Started long before COVID-19 shut down the nation, George Floyd galvanized Black Lives Matter and Breonna Taylor’s death and lack of reckoning further called into question certain police practices, the once-and-always heart throb to generations of arena rock fans realized that the album he was making with the band that wears his name, that was already leaning into a more cultural awareness than a lot of straight-up rock & roll, could be so much more.
Recognizing the epidemic levels of gun violence – especially mass shootings, the notion of kids without meaningful homes, food and opportunity, vets with PTSD, the state of fear, anxiety and anger, 2020 started out topical. Then it got real.
“Chances are with the police, they’re giving me an escort somewhere,” he continues. “I’ll never know what it’s like to have ‘the talk’ with my children (about what to do it if stopped by police). But this is a call to action. Watching (George Floyd’s death), I was so taken by this, it hit me so hard…”
His chagrin turned to songs.
“American Reckoning.” “Lower The Flag.” “Brothers In Arms.” “Unbroken.” “Let It Rain.” “Blood In The Water.” There’s a tension to them, a sense of a live electric wire down on a rain-covered street; dangerous, hard to handle, yet the sparking wire absolutely must be addressed.
If “Limitless” and “Do What You Can” took on “Livin’ On A Prayer” faith and positivity, while “Beautiful Drug” and “Story of Love” offered the realities of how all the different kinds of love unfold for classic Bon Jovi fans, the 58-year old rocker needed more from 2020. Not just more “hey, watch me be serious,” or “hey! let me be a big rock star!!!” more, but more helping people shake off the stupor induced by emotional-button-pushing so they could plug into their fellow humans.
“I set out to make a topical record,” concedes the earworm king of “It’s My Life,” and “You Give Love A Bad Name” on the phone from Jersey. “The first song was ‘Blood in the Water’ two years ago. The names have changed, but the story hasn’t…
“Because the song’s not just a moment in time, I wondered ‘Would it be dated?’ It starts with Storme Daniels and the line ‘a storm is coming…’ – and it’s not (dated).
“The immigration problem with kids in cages, Russian hacks, which we’re going to be seeing again. At one point, it’s Guiliani or Barr, Michael Cohen, all the people who’ve stood up for him…”
Not that he’s taking sides. Aware enough to know, he realizes preaching to the choir doesn’t help.
“I’m just the narrator. You know my position, there’s no need to go there. But ‘Lower the Flag,’ ‘American Reckoning,’ just the facts tell the story,” he pauses, thinking about the conflicting voices and confusion around all of us. Left, right, liberal, conservative, Republican, Demoncrat, Independent, Anarchist, Kanye: so many points of view, so little grounding.
“I don’t know where to tell you to view the unspun truth. Either side of the aisle, the news, social media, it’s hard to find the truth. We’re politically divided, and unable to have testing because no one wants to find the common ground.
“But what if this – any of these songs – happened to someone in your life?”
Empathy. Not a buzzword for ‘80s and ‘90s arena rockers, yet “Unbroken” found him working to understand the reality of PTSD, injured vets and the power of service animals. He admits, “I never served. This came from a phone call from my publisher, asking if I’d be interested in writing a song for a small documentary about soldiers with PTSD…”
Not even edited, the director shared a couple clips, sent over some facts, talked about the mission of both the film and the story being told. In a world often looking away from those who served, Bon Jovi – whose parents met in the Marines – knew the landmines would be in repeating the canon of post-military songs.
“I was very conscious of Billy Joel’s ‘Saigon,’ Bruce’s ‘Born in the USA,’ ‘Sam Stone,’ but the kids in this movie… they weren’t drafted, they signed up for a better way of life. When they put on that uniform, it was something they’re so identified by and with, when you take it away from them, it’s like Superman’s cape is gone.
“So in talking to some of the people, someone told me, ‘You’re either broken, or you’re put back together.’ That struck me, so I made it a hymn, or a prayer for all of us.”
A prayer for all of us. What could be more necessary in times like these?
Considering the delay, providence given the addition of “American Reckoning” as a reality check with urgency that doesn’t tell anyone how to think, 2020 somehow didn’t miss its moment. While so many people’s music has seen its meaning shift during the shutdowns, the waiting, the pause and the inability to tour, JBJ got lucky.
For him, the gap only made his new record more necessary, more of the moment and more urgent. If “You Do What You Can” is a fizzy rocker empowering whatever difference you can create, the rest of the album opens up perspectives for the state of America no matter what side you’re on.