Michael Bolton: Time, Love & Tenderness
Released: April 23, 1991
Mike Judge’s film Office Space features a character who is tormented by the fact that he shares his name with Michael Bolton, “that no-talent ass clown.” When it’s suggested he change his name he replies, “Why should I change? He’s the one who sucks.” By 1999, Michael Bolton was—at least to a young, culturally engaged segment of the population—a complete joke. He was not alone. When one wanted to mock all that was wrong with the music industry—its inability to take risks, its common, formulaic sensibilities—there was a list of approved targets, artists so milquetoast and boring that even the most hardened poptimist wouldn’t have argued with you that they sucked: Céline Dion, Rod Stewart, Michael Bolton, smooth jazz saxophonist Kenny G, new age figures like John Tesh and Yanni. Across different genres and styles, these artists are all crammed into the same tent, what may truly be the most maligned genre of them all: adult contemporary. The term implies a vague niche, but Michael Bolton was a star, only rivaled on that list by a few, producing multi-platinum albums and winning Grammy’s. People must have taken Michael Bolton seriously at some point.
Adult contemporary, like pop music, is nebulous, less a precise genre term and more a format that changes with public tastes. Think of it like the foggy mirror of pop itself, a hazy reflection of what’s popular, or what was popular in the last twenty years. There were many terms for this before adult contemporary, starting with the easy listening stations of the 60s, alternatives to the creeping triumph of rock ’n’ roll that offered refuge to older listeners in the form of big band music and old standards sung by beloved 50s crooners, with the occasional reinterpretation of lighter contemporary hits. Easy listening as a format was itself an outgrowth of what had been called ‘beautiful music,’ an instrumental radio format that focused on music that was soft, quiet and unobtrusive, the precursor to Muzak, smooth jazz and, in a strange way, ambient music. Both easy listening and beautiful music stations were deceptively crafty and manipulative. Radio executives and program directors scientifically developed strict broadcast standards and playlists that matched and encourage the tempo of the average workday.
In the 70s the term soft rock developed as a direct response to the popularity of hard rock. Easy listening stations shifted to a more current, rock-oriented brand of what had come before, playing artists like Carole King, Bread, the Carpenters, the Eagles. Once again, the content of the stations became a softened reflection of the previous generation’s tastes, and the appeal of that sound was broadening. Soft rock crossover hits were not uncommon, but young rock fans were quick to attack the likes of Anne Murray or John Denver as weak, wussified music. The format transformed again into adult contemporary at the turn of the decade and soon became bigger than ever.
Michael Bolton, originally Bolotin, didn’t start off intending to conquer adult contemporary. In the early 80s, Bolton struggled to find a venue for his blustery, gravelly voice, first recording blue-eyed soul covers and then trying his hand at heavy metal with a band called Blackjack. While Blackjack sounded like a nice fit, the band went nowhere and he soon changed directions again. In 1983, Bolotin became Bolton and along with the name change came a makeover as a contemplative, handsome, well-attired avatar of white soul and soft rock, with a distinctive lion’s mane of blonde hair. Despite his new look and major label deal, Bolton wouldn’t find true commercial success until 1987’s The Hunger, with the help of a cover of Otis Redding’s “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay.” Formula came to rule Michael Bolton’s career. His next album, Soul Provider, repeated many of the same tricks, incorporating a cover of “Georgia on My Mind” and featuring a number of collaborations with songwriting dynamo Diane Warren. Still, it produced three top ten singles.
Time, Love & Tenderness shamelessly digs into that formula even further, with a nearly identical sound, six of ten songs written with Warren and a cover of Percy Sledge’s hit “When a Man Loves a Woman” leading its pack of singles. The song became Bolton’s second number one and one of his most famous tracks. Bolton’s version generally smears over the elements that made Sledge’s a classic, replacing its minimal sound with a generic blues, turning its driving, fleet-footed rhythm into a lumbering crawl and sapping it of its resigned melancholy. He replaces that melancholy with a sense of sighing nostalgia, the true key to its success. No longer a work of genuine emotion, the song becomes more of a touchstone, a symbol of music’s good old days.
Though Bolton makes a direct appeal to nostalgia, Time, Love & Tenderness is immediately, hopelessly dated by its production. All the worst signifiers of the era are here, bubbly major key synths, gated drum thwack, gospel backing vocals. Every sound seems tuned towards mediocrity, except Bolton’s vocal. Michael Bolton’s artistic appeal is largely centered around that powerhouse voice, but it is something of an aural rorschach test, inspiring a range of reactions. To some Bolton’s voice is pure, majestic soul, to some it’s sonic wallpaper, to others it’s nails on a chalkboard. My own reaction often vacillates between all three. There is a technical impressiveness to his stony growl, occasionally hinting at the raw blues vocals he recorded early in his career, but it often slips into white noise amidst all the cheap sounds. And then sometimes he hits one of those nasally high notes, a kind of controlled crack, like something bending back on itself so hard that it’s about to snap, like he’s trying to choke his esophagus out through his mouth. Suddenly you’re jolted from apathy to annoyance. It doesn’t help that he’d also developed a taste for the worst kind of theatrics. “We’re Not Makin’ Love Anymore,” Bolton’s duet with Patti LaBelle, features some of the most truly absurd vocal histrionics I’ve ever heard. The second half of the song is an endless series of exhausting key changes and false endings, the eventual climax seeing LaBelle slide into a note so high and loud it sounds like she’s going to explode before the end of it.
Earlier in the album, Kenny G contributes a couple of fluttering, shapeless and hilariously short sax solos to the silky “Missing You,” one of the album’s more tolerable and memorable numbers, but a collaboration that must have been disappointing to AC diehards. That song and much of the album was co-written with Diane Warren, and the lyrics she has a hand in tend to be the most tepid and boring, plain statements of lasting love and reassuring grace. But there’s little personality or lyrical voice to Bolton’s music at all, no matter who he’s working with. While Warren and Kenny G might have seemed like natural partners for Bolton, Time, Love & Tenderness closes with a much stranger collaboration, “Steel Bars,” a song co-written by Bob Dylan. Yes, Bob Dylan. Apparently, it was Dylan’s idea, and the two united for a few sessions at his house. The resulting song is an odd mixture of both men’s styles, combining typically awful production choices (that post-bridge gospel choir breakdown) with some genuinely inspired lines (“What can all my living mean / When time itself is so obscene”) and a recognizably Dylanesque chorus. Though it would be unremarkable in most contexts, “Steel Bars” is a standout on this album.
The fact that Bob Dylan (even if not quite at his peak) would decide to work with Michael Bolton says a lot about his status in 1991. He had won a Grammy the year before and would win another the year after for “When a Man Loves a Woman,” his albums were platinum-sellers. But critical opinion was rapidly souring and later albums would debut with less and less fanfare. By the end of the decade, the idea that Michael Bolton had ever been a star became laughable and shameful, but for a moment he really was big, and the albums produced at the peak of his career continue to sell, their singles continue to appear in radio playlists. For those who can’t muster much enthusiasm for Michael Bolton and the music he purveys, his popularity really does feel like a conundrum.
Beautiful music stations provided a mostly utilitarian purpose, giving ambient sound to otherwise quiet space, and adult contemporary music often does the same thing. How easy is it right now to imagine the feeling of sitting in a waiting room in an uncomfortable chair, staring at sea foam wallpaper and landscape paintings, trying to read a rumpled magazine, hearing the low sound of Michael Bolton singing “How Am I Supposed to Live Without You” channelling out of overhead speakers? I’ve had that feeling many times listening to his music, it can be hard not to. But Time, Love & Tenderness alone sold 16 million copies, at least 16 million people wanted that sound in their homes and cars, on demand. What is it that attracts people to Bolton’s music but makes so many others automatically ignore it or cringe at the sound of it?
Adult contemporary and it’s various subgenres and offshoots all share in common a desperately unhip sincerity, a willingness to render the broadest sentiments and emotions as grandly and loudly as possible. Writer Carl Wilson identifies this concept as schmaltz and thoroughly examines its history in his book (and key inspiration for this blog) Let’s Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste. Wilson sees schmaltz as the combination of parlor music’s value-reinforcing populism and the outsized emotions of European musical traditions, particularly Italian opera. The rise of urban cultural centers and the American upper class slowly turned the tenets of schmaltz—naked sincerity, conservatism, devotion to ‘pure’ aesthetic beauty—into crude and inartistic qualities, and for most of the last century it has been a defining aspect of that which is ‘uncool.’
Céline Dion, the subject of Wilson’s book, lives and breathes schmaltz, so much so that it describes her music more accurately than any particular genre term. Michael Bolton’s music drips schmaltz while leaning heavily towards other forms, incorporating soul, blues and the power ballad, but it’s the sentiment that both sells the songs and makes them so uncool. In Bolton’s hands the rawness of the blues becomes comforting, placid nostalgia, the rich emotional palette of soul becomes Hallmark card branding. The American public’s relationship with schmaltz is fickle, but Bolton tapped into a very particular vein by combining it with baby boomer memories of a more emotionally authentic past. This might explain why even Dylan, arguably American music’s king of anti-schmaltz, would take interest in him. But as Wilson notes, schmaltz has a short shelf life: “Schmaltz is an unprivate portrait of how private feeling is currently conceived, which social change can pitilessly revise.”
Exposed to the light of mainstream success, all but the biggest AC stars tend to burn up, and the generational shift of the 90s made Bolton’s moment on top particularly short. Only a few years after Time, Love & Tenderness, his record sales flagged and the laughter began to drown out the praise. Meanwhile, despite radio’s slow collapse, adult contemporary has continued to evolve and flourish. Bolton has recently taken to capitalizing on his reputation, working with the Lonely Island and briefly plotting a self-deprecating, autobiographical sitcom, but his records continue to sell modestly. Adult contemporary may keep moving but its filtered nostalgia is something that takes a long time to die out. Even beautiful music, now a long-dead format, still has it’s devotees, who run internet radio stations dedicated to the sounds they grew up with. They’ve developed nostalgia for nostalgia. Hopefully Bolton won’t ever take these kinds of fans for granted. They are out there, and I’m sure they still take him very seriously.