Bad for Good: The Ballad of Jim Steinman

Jim Steinman with Meat Loaf courtesy of Getty Images

Like most figures in the music business who are mainly songwriters rather than performers, Jim Steinman isn’t really a household name. However, if you’ve listened to any strand of popular music over the past few decades, you almost certainly know his work. Steinman has written and/or produced songs for everyone from Barbra Streisand to goth group The Sisters of Mercy, including – most famously – Meat Loaf’s epic album Bat Out of Hell.

The latter work, which remains one of the best-selling albums of all time, also remains the prototypical example of Steinman’s work and what it brings to popular culture. While many of Steinman’s songs are clearly cut from the same cloth of yearning lyrics and contrasting dynamics, it would be facile to dismiss them as just empty bombast. Fittingly for someone with a background in musical theater who worked with the legendary Joseph Papp, Steinman approaches the pop song format like a dramatist.

Many of his songs are best enjoyed as miniature plays – moments of drama between two people, even when only one voice is heard. For example, “Left in the Dark,” a song recorded by both Meat Loaf and Barbra Streisand, is effectively a monologue addressed to an unfaithful lover.

“I should have known that it was coming to this, but I must have been blind.
I bet you still got a trace of her love in your eyes, and you’ve still got her eyes on your mind.”

…while the iconic “Total Eclipse of the Heart” can be imagined as an internalized conversation…

“(Turn around)
Every now and then I know you’ll never be the boy you always wanted to be.
(Turn around)
But every now and then I know you’ll always be the only boy who wanted me the way that I am.”

Even a relatively straightforward rocker like 1981’s “Dead Ringer for Love” – recorded as a duet between Meat Loaf and Cher — fits this mold, especially in a mid-song interlude:

“Boy: Oh! You got the kind of legs that do more than walk.
Girl: I don’t have to listen to your whimpering talk.
Boy: Listen you got the kind of eyes that do more than see.
Girl: You got a lotta’ nerve to come on to me.
Boy: You got the kind of lips that do more than drink.
Girl: You got the kind of mind that does less than think. But, since I’m feeling kinda lonely and my defenses are low, why don’t you give it a shot and get it ready to go? I’m looking for anonymous and fleeting satisfaction. I want to tell my daddy I’ll be missing in action.”

As the above example shows, Steinman the lyricist sometimes lets down Steinman the dramatist. Then again, it’s the nature of a guilty pleasure that they’re enjoyed in spite of one element as much as they are because of another. In a world full of technicians, even a flawed artist deserves some appreciation.

Don Klees

Photo Credit: American songwriter and producer Jim Steinman (left) posed together with singer Meat Loaf in USA, March 1978. Steinman and Meat Loaf collaborated with producer Todd Rundgren on the 1977 album Bat Out of Hell. (Photo by Michael Putland/Getty Images)

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2 comments on “Bad for Good: The Ballad of Jim Steinman

  1. Ike Carumba

    I do not understand why anyone can stand Meatloaf’s caterwauling and Steinman’s tuneless and tasteless songwriting. Bat Out Of Hell is a particularly irritating example with Meatloaf dramatizing all over the place full steam ahead, chewin’ that carpet for all he’s worth. Utter crap.

    • Ford Prefect

      I Love It! you just have to look at it from a theatre perspective. Don’t compare the album to other rock albums, think of it as one big bombastic, overdramatic, theatrical musical.

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