PHILADELPHIA — Between the remake of the 1984 film musical Footloose, and Rock of Ages, the Broadway smash scored with pop-rock hits from the time when MTV actually programmed music, only one question begs asking:
What in the name of Night Ranger is going on here?
Somehow, the music of Journey, REO Speedwagon, Kenny Loggins, and Extreme has become as much a part of the soundtrack of modern popular culture as anything by Jay-Z or Lady Gaga. It’s a surprising turn of events for a couple of reasons.
First, ‘80s pop appears to be hitting with an audience whose parents were dating when tunes like Journey’s ubiquitous “Don’t Stop Believin’” and Pat Benatar’s “Hit Me with Your Best Shot” (both in the Rock of Ages score) first rose up the charts.
Second, so much of that era’s most commercially successful works were scorned and dismissed as soulless “arena rock” by fans raised on the previous generation of classic rock such as the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, The Who, and Pink Floyd. That was especially true of many of the acts whose work was culled for Rock of Ages, among them Asia, Foreigner, and Whitesnake — all of whom have been critics’ whipping boys forever. According to these acts’ many detractors, their music was more about commerce than art, forged not in the depths of songwriters’ psyches but in corporate boardrooms and focus group meetings.
So why, three decades later, is much of that music resonating so strongly throughout the multimedia landscape?
Among the culpable parties are the writers and producers responsible for what we see on TV and in the movies. A perfect example was the creative brain trust of The Sopranos, which thrust Journey into the pop-culture spotlight when “Don’t Stop Believin’” was used in the most vexing series finale in television history. And look at how current hit TV programs such as Glee and American Idol have embraced music from the era of President Reagan and Spandex.
But as has been the case at least since Al Jolson crooned about his “Mammy,” nostalgia no doubt plays a huge role in our current wave of ‘80s music mania. That, at least, is the opinion of Darren Ledbetter, the musical director, conductor and keyboardist for the current Rock of Ages national tour. Watching audiences’ reactions when they hear certain songs has Ledbetter convinced that those who were youngsters when this music was originally released have a deep, emotional connection to it, just as their older siblings and parents embraced the pop music of their formative years.
“These songs really were the soundtrack of their lives  years ago,” offered Ledbetter, who has also supervised the music for such live productions as Grease, Footloose, and Dreamgirls.
“It really strikes a chord with people,” he continued, seemingly unaware of his pun. “You can play four bars of a song, or the piano riff [that opens] ‘Don’t Stop Believin’ and you literally see people’s faces light up.
“It’s not about, are these the greatest songs ever written? [It’s about] do they mean something to people?”
As leader of the New Jersey-based band Frankie & the Knockouts (“Sweetheart”) and co-composer of the Oscar-winning “(I’ve Had) The Time of My Life” from the film Dirty Dancing, Frankie Previte was smack-dab in the middle of the ‘80s pop scene. He agreed with Ledbetter about the music’s element of nostalgia and also suggested that, despite the critics, this so-called “rock of ages” played an important role in the evolution of pop music, bringing rock back to the forefront after the disco explosion of the mid and late-’70s.
At its essence, what made this music so big back then was the same thing that has enthralled youth for more than a half-century, said Previte, who had a second hit from Dirty Dancing as a co-writer of Eric Carmen’s Hungry Eyes. “When you look at ‘80s music, it’s still rock ‘n’ roll, and kids can relate. The ‘80s and today have a common thread ... rock ‘n’ roll.”
Ledbetter admitted he views Rock of Ages from the perspective of “the music business, not so much the music art,” and he conceded the tunes about love and ambition heard in the musical aren’t “the greatest songs ever written.”
But maybe that’s not the point, Ledbetter reasoned. It’s more important to ask whether these songs “do they do what they’re supposed to do.”
His answer: “Tenfold — and a hundred times more.”
Besides, performing songs like Twisted Sister’s “We’re Not Gonna Take It” and Poison’s “Every Rose Has Its Thorn” offers him more pure enjoyment than his previous gigs.
“I’ve done concerts. I’ve done musicals on Broadway,” he said. “I will say this is the most fun I’ve ever had. When I play the piano intro to [REO Speedwagon’s] ‘Can’t Fight This Feeling,’ people go crazy. You don’t get that in other musicals.”