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The Power Ballad and the Power of Sentimentality


As is evident in their popularity and uses in television and film, power ballads have been prized for their emotional intensity. That intensity results from the ways in which the songs transform aspects of sentimentality developed in nineteenth- and twentieth-century repertoires, particularly parlor songs and torch songs. Power ballads energize sentimental topics and affects with rapturous feelings of uplift. Instead of concentrating on individual emotions like earlier sentimental songs do, power ballads create charged clouds of mixed emotions that produce feelings of euphoria. The emotional adrenaline rushes in power ballads are characteristic of larger experiences in popular culture in which emotions are to be grand, indiscriminate, and immediate.

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1 For a discussion of the history and musical features of the power ballad see Metzer, David, “The Power Ballad,” Popular Music, 31, 3 (Oct. 2012), 437–59. Two rich discussions offered by popular-music critics are Eddy, Chuck, The Accidental Revolution of Rock ‘n’ Roll: A Misguided Tour through Popular Music (New York: Da Capo Press, 1997), 5163 ; and Aaron, Charles, “Don't Fight the Power,” in Lethem, Jonathan, ed., Da Capo Best Music Writing 2002 (New York: Da Capo Press, 2003), 127–34.

2 The challenging issues raised by genre categories in popular music have received much attention. Notable studies include Frith, Simon, Performing Rites: On the Value of Popular Music (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1996), 7595 ; Negus, Keith, Music Genre and Corporate Cultures (London and New York: Routledge, 1999); Holt, Fabian, Genre in Popular Music (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2007).

3 The heading “ballad” has been used in different ways in popular music. The most common usage today is that of a slow-tempo love song. The term also refers to strophic songs that narrate a story. The latter were a mainstay of popular music in the nineteenth century and returned briefly with the folk revival movement of the 1950s and 1960s.

4 The ballad is also not a musical form. On the contrary, the songs typically use the verse–chorus forms common in popular music.

5 The earliest usage of the term that I have been able to find is that by radio DJ Gus Gossert in “Programmer Speaks Up,” Billboard, 21 Nov. 1970, 30.

6 For a discussion of Manilow's ballads and performances during the 1970s see Morris, Mitchell, The Persistence of Sentiment: Display and Feeling in Popular Music of the 1970s (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2013), 88117 .

7 Rock and heavy metal bands did play slow songs before the 1980s (Led Zeppelin's “Stairway to Heaven” is a classic example), but those songs typically did not employ the verse–chorus forms and romantic lyric topics used in ballads, nor did they stick to the formula of constant escalation established by pop power ballads in the 1970s. For more on the turn of rock and heavy metal bands to power ballads see Metzer, 446–50.

8 For a more detailed history of the power ballad see Metzer, 444–54.

9 There were songs before the 1970s that used parts of the power ballad musical formula, but the pattern did not become standardized until that decade. The songs of Manilow played an important role in setting the formula.

10 In a brief remark on power ballads, Simon Frith describes them as “songs of feeling bottled up and bursting out; musical, emotional, and sexual release somehow all equated.” Frith, Simon, “Pop Music,” in Frith, Simon, Straw, Will, and Street, John, eds., The Cambridge Companion to Pop and Rock (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001), 91108, 101.

11 Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky, Epistemology of the Closet (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990), 160.

12 Solomon, Robert C., In Defense of Sentimentality (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), 6.

13 The path from eighteenth-century conceptions of sentiment to later ones of sentimentality is expertly charted in Chandler, James, An Archeology of Sympathy: The Sentimental Mode in Literature and Cinema (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2013).

14 A discussion of such features can be found in key studies like Douglas, Ann, The Feminization of American Culture (New York: Anchor–Doubleday, 1977); Tompkins, Jane, Sensational Designs (New York: Oxford University Press, 1985); and Howard, June, “What Is Sentimentality?American Literary History, 11, 1 (Jan. 1999), 6381 .

15 Berlant, Lauren, The Female Complaint: The Unfinished Business of Sentimentality in American Culture (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2008).

16 See the discussion of films by Frank Capra in Chandler, 37–138.

17 Berlant tracks such a path in her discussion of novels and other works that refer to aspects of Uncle Tom's Cabin. She also follows sentimentality to a point of “postsentimentality,” a term that refers to works, like Toni Morrison's Beloved, that turn to scenarios favored by earlier sentimental works but that resist subsuming stories of personal suffering into conventional narratives and shun hollow rewards of redemption and transcendence. Berlant, 65–67.

18 Ibid., 23.

19 Ibid., 169–263.

20 On aspects of sentimentality in the parlor song repertoire see Tawa, Nicholas E., Sweet Songs for Gentle Americans: The Parlor Song in America, 1790–1860 (Bowling Green: Bowling Green University Popular Press, 1980), 46, 75; and Key, Susan, “Sound and Sentimentality: Nostalgia in the Songs of Stephen Foster,” American Music, 13, 2 (Summer 1995), 145–66.

21 Marks, Edward B., They All Sang: From Tony Pastor to Rudy Vallée (New York: Viking Press, 1934). 43.

22 Spaeth, Sigmund, The Facts of Life in Popular Song (New York: McGraw–Hill, 1934), 84.

23 Harris, Charles K., After the Ball: Forty Years of Melody. An Autobiography (New York: Frank–Maurice, 1926), 254.

24 Marks, 17.

25 Ibid., 126.

26 Quoted in Tawa, 75.

27 Harris, 62.

28 On the torch song see Moore, John, “‘The Hieroglyphics of Love’: The Torch Singer and Interpretation,” in Middleton, Richard, ed., Reading Pop: Approaches to Textual Analysis in Popular Music (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), 262–96.

29 Charles Collins, “Libby Holman's Brief, Brilliant Career as a Muse of Torch Songs,” Chicago Daily Tribune, 17 July 1932, F1. For another linkage with parlor songs see Spaeth, 39.

30 Collins.

31 Gilbert Seldes, “Torch Songs,” New Republic, 19 Nov. 1930, 20; and Collins.

32 For a discussion of aspects of sentimentality in the music and reception of Dion see Wilson, Carl, Let's Talk about Love: A Journey to the End of Taste (New York: Continuum, 2008), 127–34.

33 The song was composed by Dianne Warren, a master of the power ballad genre, for R & B star JoJo's 2006 CD The High Road. Charice, it should be mentioned, was an adolescent, not a child, when she performed the song; however, her presentation in the media has linked her with childhood, as she has appeared on several television programs devoted to talented children, like the Oprah Winfrey show mentioned below.

34 Drawing upon Schiller's distinction between “naive” and “sentimental” poetry, Chandler argues that works adhering to what he calls the “sentimental mode” feature “mixed emotions.” Chandler, though, never describes the charged clouds of different, and often conflicting, emotions characteristic of power ballads. Chandler, An Archeology of Sympathy, 152–53.

35 The show aired on 18 May 2009 and was the finale program in Oprah's “Search for the World's Most Talented Kids” series.

36 Music is, of course, far from emotionally precise, and listeners respond to pieces with a great deal of latitude. What stands out here, though, is the difference between older sentimental repertoires that used specific and highly conventional means to target particular emotions and the power ballad, which whips up euphoric blasts to offer sensations of emotionality.

37 There might be such a song: Josh Groban's 2003 recording of “You Raise Me Up.” It melodically paraphrases “Danny Boy,” a classic sentimental number. The weepy graveside vigil of the treasured song now gives way to praises of spiritual and emotional uplift, conveyed through two modulations in Groban's recording.

38 A comparison of the Parton and Houston recordings can be found in Rischar, Richard, “A Vision of Love: An Etiquette of Vocal Ornamentation in African-American Popular Ballads of the Early 1990s,” American Music, 22, 3 (Autumn 2004), 419–22.

39 Parton wrote the tune as a response to her parting with mentor Porter Wagoner. The song, though, can also be heard as a lover's farewell, as Parton used it in the 1982 film version of the musical The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas. After Houston's success with the number, Parton later recorded a new power ballad version of the song with Vince Gill in 1995.

40 Werner, Craig, A Change Is Gonna Come: Music, Race, & the Soul of America (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2006), 2831 .

41 Berlant, Lauren, “Poor Eliza,” in Davidson, Cathy N. and Hatcher, Jessamyn, eds., No More Separate Spheres! (Durham, NC and London: Duke University Press, 2002), 303.

42 Berlant, The Female Complaint, 34–37.

43 Berlant, “Poor Eliza,” 292.

44 Stearns, Peter N., American Cool: Constructing a Twentieth-Century Emotional Style (New York: New York University Press, 1994).

45 Ibid., 310.

46 Ibid., 264–84.

47 Ibid., 280–81.

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