Cover Genres takes a look at cover songs in a very specific musical style.
Yes, you read that right, Arena Rock. Okay, class, settle down.
The term “Arena Rock” is both a straightforward musical description and an insult. On the one hand, it is a genre name used to describe the radio-friendly, coliseum-filling rock sound that began infiltrating the pop charts in the mid-70s and ultimately came to dominate the next decades’ FM radio playlists. On the other, it is a pointed putdown, meant to suggest supreme bombast, disgusting commerciality, and the worst kind of mass appeal.
Of course, as the name implies, many, many people love Arena Rock. The play counts across the streaming services for legendary perpetrators like Boston, Journey, REO Speedwagon, and Foreigner are staggering. Songs like “More Than A Feeling” and “I Want To Know What Love Is” have racked up millions upon millions of plays, and in the case of Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’,” billions. And it’s not just your Dad or your Uncle Joey–or, okay, me sometimes–hitting play on songs like these. Based on these numbers, it appears it’s freakin’ everyone. Billions!
Before we go any further, let’s note that Arena Rock is not the only term for this particular genre. If you are a picky nerd like me, you might be more inclined to refer to them as “AOR,” the excellently memorable acronym for “Album-Oriented Rock.” Because while that term originally defined a particular radio format, by the early ’80s it had come to represent a very specific sound and style of music, i.e. the precise sort the aforementioned bands were making. I admit to preferring “AOR” over Arena Rock because it’s a little less broad and is marginally cooler. Also, it has an over-confident and ridiculous superhero quality to it, which is entirely appropriate given what it represents. But hell, call it whatever makes you comfortable: Arena Rock, AOR, Classic Rock, even Dad Rock, they all apply. Any way you want it, that’s the way you need it.
Arena Rock songs take place within a mythical universe where every living being is in high school and the only time that matters is “tonight.” It is not Arena Rock’s job to enlighten or serve up valuable life lessons. Its primary purpose is to celebrate being horny and/or high, bitch about how boring this town is, and ineloquently remind people that they need to rock every hour, of every day. Of course, like life itself, it’ll occasionally get sad ‘n’ dark and there will be expressions of doomed love (“you’re tearin’ me apart”). And sometimes it’ll brag about or blame its imaginary partner in crime, the devil. But no matter where it roams, it never loses sight of its primary goal, which is to rock you tonight Cleveland-Philly-NYC.
The Arena Rock sound is typified by fat, infectious guitar and/or synth riffs, king-size choruses, and colossal hooks, served up in the most over-the-top manner possible (especially when the song is a ballad). These songs are the kind of songs that exude enough melodic and emotional bigness that they can fill every corner of whatever space they happen to be playing in, no matter how cavernous or unglamorous. Neither coy nor intellectual (“You’re not shy, you’ve been around”), they are embarrassingly straightforward about how they feel (“I’ll show you sweet delight”) and are designed to attack and consume the dumbest, most defenseless, and least discerning musical nerve-receptors of the human brain (“Stroke me”). They are the sonic equivalent of sucking down a Big Gulp™ in a 7-11 parking lot on a hot day in 1981. Arena Rock songs are all about living in the moment and “feelin’ satisfied.”
Yes, I know–what about the clothes? When playing live back in the day, Arena Rock bands were not only expected to bring it musically but to raise the roof in a sartorial sense as well. Bearded guys in silk kimonos. Jumpsuits open to the navel. And hair, lots and lots of glorious hair. True confession: I spent more time as a kid pondering Boston drummer Sib Hashian’s afro in the band photo on the back cover of their 1976 debut album than I ever did admiring the front with its iconic upside-down guitar logo. That was just a painting. Sib’s ‘fro was real. (See pic above.)
From its absolute, unwavering earnestness and perpetual “heart-on” to its fashion sense and excessive light show, Arena Rock is unequivocally, and certifiably bonkers.
Seriously though, do you know what the number one craziest thing about Arena Rock is? It is the fact that its virtues and flaws are exactly the same. The pros and cons reside in a single column. What makes it ridiculous is also what makes it awesome.
If you dislike Arena Rock or AOR, I don’t expect any of the wickedly cool covers I am about to share to change your mind. But I do hope, at the very least, they trigger a bit of newfound respect for the original songs themselves. And who knows, maybe after hearing these covers you’ll be inspired to throw a friendly head bob Arena Rock’s way the next time you pass it in the high school hallway of your soul, just to say “hey, we’re cool,” even if you have no plans to hang out with it regularly.
And now in the words of Loverboy’s all-knowing singer-sage, Mike “it’s a bandana, not a headband” Reno, Come on baby, let’s go!