An Existential Nihilistic Reading, Lee
I hate to end this study on a down note, but I can’t let it end without pointing out the sad truth: “Livin’ on a Prayer” is not an inspirational battle hymn. It’s an ode to existential nihilism. I am, of course, deriving this from one key line in the prechorus:
“It doesn’t make a difference if we make it or not.”
Wikipedia defines existential nihilism as the belief that “life is without meaning, purpose, or intrinsic value.” Tommy and Gina’s final outcome, the product of their struggle, doesn’t matter. It doesn’t make a difference. This is the exact opposite from the feeling of romantic, valiant struggle that one typically gets when hearing this song in a bar, stadium, or wedding reception. We fight, love, and struggle, because we care about the wellbeing of ourselves and those around us. In other words, it very much does make a difference if we make it or not. If no one–not my family, my neighbors, my nation, God, the universe–places any value in my actions and the final outcome of my life, then why would I bother striving towards a desirable outcome (making it) in life? Why bother doing good things for others? Perhaps life is best spent struggling simply for the sake of struggling (as Fenzel suggests) and in the pursuit of the hedonistic pleasure of the moment.
This leaves us with only one thing to do. I hereby add Bon Jovi to the pantheon of Heroes of Nihilism:
A Pedantic Lyrical Quibble, Wrather
How you read the pre-chorus of Livin’ on a Prayer depends a great deal on how you supply the missing punctuation. It’s either:
We’ve got each other, and that’s a lot!
For love? We’ll give it a shot!
We’ve got each other,
And that’s a lot for love.
We’ll give it a shot!
In the first instance, having each other is posited as “a lot” irrespective of context: it’s a lot for love or for any number of other things. By contrast, the second instance, having each other is only a lot “for love,” the implication being that love is a special case with requirements less strenuous than those of life’s other circumstances. In other words, having each other may be a lot for love, but it’s not a lot for, say, getting a bank loan.
Settling on a reading here turns out to be very important for understanding the relationship between having each other and giving it a shot. Heuristically, let us posit an unspoken interjection after the word “Love” to provide the deductive link in both of the examples, supra. In the first case, it would be something like: “We’ve got each other, and that’s a lot! For love? [Hell yeah!] We’ll give it a shot!” This gives the ensuing chorus a triumphalist, or at least an exultant, cast.
In the second case, we’d have to understand something like: “We’ve got each other, and that’s a lot for love. [What the hell!] We’ll give it a shot!” There is much less exultation and certainty here, and this, I think, comports more fully with a sense of “livin’ on a prayer” and not, say, on a bank loan.
The melody and rhythm, too, seem to support the second reading (though we’re not really talking about the music until next week). “For love” fulfills a descending melodic line, and the flow of the rhythm suggests it is connected to the preceding and not the following clause.
Ultimately I must support the second reading. And yet, the play between the two seems to generate poetical tension, an indeterminacy which must to some degree be responsible for the power of the lyric in this classic rock song.