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SIGNATURE MOMENT: POPULAR MUSIC

Discovering True Power In a Power Ballad

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Sunday, December 30, 2007

I have a negative visceral reaction to power ballads, which tend to be treacly, trite and overwrought -- the pop equivalent of a TV movie of the week. The country-pop power ballad "What Hurts the Most" was no exception: Last year the Rascal Flatts tear-jerker sat atop the country and adult-contemporary charts like a hunk of Stilton cheese; whenever I got too close, a gag reflex set in.

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But everything changed this past February when Jeffrey Steele, who co-wrote the song, came to the Key Club in Hollywood for a pre-Grammys panel discussion on songwriting. Steele said he wasn't sure he should have made the trip, given that his 13-year-old son had died two weeks earlier in an ATV accident near Nashville. But, he said, he needed to get out of the house. And so he talked about his Grammy-nominated hit, a bereft love song that suddenly meant something completely different to its co-author.

And then he sang it, sitting alone at the piano, all that emotion flooding out during a gut-wrenching, soul-stirring piece of performance therapy. It was so poignant that I still think about it regularly. Power ballad, indeed.

-- J. Freedom du Lac


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