Earnest emotion in music has rarely ever been in vogue.
In the 90s and early 00s, it was common to see critics sneer at anything in pop culture that expressed emotion at the highest level. Love songs – especially the power ballad – were corny, sentimental, and insincere. And yet, Whitney Houston, Michael Bolton, Céline Dion, Bryan Adams, Mariah Carey, and Boyz II Men, among others, dominated the pop charts and sold millions with songs of soul-consuming devotion. People filled arenas (and did up until the pandemic) to hear songs like “It’s All Coming Back to Me Now,” “End of the Road,” and “Everything I Do (I Do It For You).” Despite the cynicism, the songs and their major-key feelings resonated deeply with swathes of listeners. They offered irresistible vicarious expression in an era that was slowly breaking down stoicism.
There may not exist another song less stoic than “I’d Do Anything for Love (But I Won’t Do That).” Conceived by the legendary composer and producer Jim Steinman, the ballad is melodrama distilled to its purest form. It’s a storm of manic piano chords, thunderous guitar, and intensely emotional lyrics about one’s intense devotion to the concept and reality of love. The song is a bombastic clash of rock, opera, and pop that sweeps you up in its dramatic heights. At 12 minutes in its complete form, “I’d Do Anything for Love” is, by design, too much and not enough. You want to live in the fairytale castle tower Steinman constructs, even though it feels close to crumbling at any moment.
It takes a particular musician to keep a song like “I’d Do Anything for Love” from collapsing under its excess. It demands an appreciation for the grandiose. Theatricality and charisma are requirements; long hair is suggested.
Meat Loaf didn’t just fit the bill; he exceeded all expectations of what the song could achieve. His vocal performance was one for the ages. He cut through Steinman’s stormy, all-consuming production with towering confidence, a hallmark of their decades-long working relationship. His voice has always been a formidable instrument, but here it is sublime. He gasps, whispers, whimpers, and roars, wringing every drop of passion out of Steinman’s lyrics. He had searing vocal chemistry with Lorraine Crosby, who sang the song’s final verses with him. Another singer would’ve lost steam halfway through, but Meat Loaf persevered without skipping a breath, figuratively and literally.
Meat Loaf’s committed earnestness is what powered “I’d Do Anything for Love’s” unprecedented global success. He truly felt every word of the song, no matter how over-the-top or histrionic the sentiment. In fact, he didn’t treat the sentiment as over-the-top or histrionic but rather as immutable, relatable truth. Even when the song invited parody, there was no mocking Meat Loaf. His charisma, as overwhelming as the song itself, wouldn’t allow it. If you didn’t take him seriously, that said more about you than him.
“I’d Do Anything for Love” is a monument to the excessive earnest emotion that made adult contemporary one of the most popular and ridiculed music genres. It is the musical equivalent of Icarus flying too close to the sun. Meat Loaf, an outsized persona for an outsized composition, keeps the song grounded in reality and away from oblivion. The song has endured — and will continue to after Meat Loaf’s passing — because he didn’t shy away from the song’s emotional conviction. He dared anyone to challenge his belief that heart-on-the-sleeve romance could be sincere. It wasn’t a battle worth having. The alternative – lip-syncing to Meat Loaf’s passionate delivery in your car or your shower – will always be more satisfying.