In Hear This, A.V. Club writers sing the praises of songs they know well—some inspired by a weekly theme and some not, but always songs worth hearing. This week: Single song highlights from 1983.
As the old saying goes, a picture is worth a thousand words. There are some documented visages, however, that linger in the collective consciousness longer than others. Case in point: Marilyn Monroe, the subject of hundreds of songs, movies, and books about her short, tragic life. Def Leppard’s “Photograph” just might be one of those songs.
Despite the late actress’ photographic presence (as well as another actress emulating Monroe’s iconic skirt scene from The Seven Year Itch) in the video for the single, lead singer Joe Elliott has always insisted that the song was not about Monroe herself, contrary to apparent pop-culture legend. “I don’t want to break anybody's heart here, but Marilyn Monroe was just another average actress to me,” Elliott told VH1. “The song was about somebody that’s out of the picture. ‘All I’ve got is a photograph, but it’s not enough.’” Still, regardless of where the confusion about who properly inspired “Photograph” comes from, the song itself is open-ended enough to apply to any generation’s sex symbol.
Furthermore, the crunchy power chords of “Photograph,” combined with airy vocal melodies and an unstoppable, clean-toned guitar hook, make it heavy enough to appeal to metalheads weaned on the New Wave Of British Heavy Metal that came just before Def Leppard emerged, yet melodic enough to appeal to the ’80s-era pop fans Leppard wanted to court. (To do so, the band, which had made two records previous to Pyromania, the diamond-selling monster, spent more than a year making the album.) Pop metal would dip into garish bombast in later years, but the formula here is a mixture of lean, AC/DC-styled riffs and big choruses—keyboards, drum machines, and other heretical to metal augmentations at the time helped in a big way—that the genre never surpassed. A picture may indeed be worth a thousand words, but sometimes all you need is four minutes and charge of pure, pop-metal perfection to really get the job done.