A lot of the ire aimed at the ’80s can be traced back to the nakedly emotional nature of the decade’s media. The era is dotted with music and movies that appeal directly to the heart without a lot of worries about “sophistication,” a phenomenon that can incite a frightening degree of vulnerability for those not safely protected behind a screen of irony or camp. The best of it, though—like “Holding Out For A Hero,” a borderline-histrionic collaboration between singer Bonnie Tyler, writer Dean Pitchford, and Bat Out Of Hell composer Jim Steinman—is capable of blowing through the sneers, forcibly crossing that protective remove to achieve greatness by means of brute musical force.
Originally released on the Footloose soundtrack, Steinman’s song falls somewhere in between an epic paean and a closing-time come-on, as Tyler calls out for a champion to rescue her from some unnamed-but-disastrous malady. (Given that it’s left her “tossing and turning, dreaming of what [she] needs,” though, the details of her plight aren’t that difficult to parse.) As a collection of musical parts, “Hero” displays some of the worst of its decade’s (and composer’s) typical excesses: The lyrics are laughable, and the heavy-handed synths and piano riffs come dangerously close to cheese. But none of that matters, because the sum of those parts transcends their limitations, hooking directly into pure emotional need like only the greatest of torch songs can.
There simply isn’t room for irony here; between Steinman and Pitchford’s bombastic music and Tyler’s increasingly strident demands for salvation, the capacity for rational thought is bypassed in favor of unfiltered emotional reaction. Later covers of the song tend to iron out the vocals, but Tyler’s original sounds like she’s ripping herself apart, begging for a Superman or a “street-wise Hercules” to come sweep her off her feet. That sense of desperation contributes to the song’s ultimate effect, a heart-pounding thrill that short circuits everything but the most primal urge to shout along, begging for a steed-riding uber mensch to drive his sword through the heart of loneliness and carry the listener away.