Total Eclipse of the Heart: The most epic song ever written

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Bonnie Tyler
As Bonnie Tyler and Jim Steinman's creation turns 40, what made this melodramatic song about obsessive love a global smash hit that endures to this day, asks Fraser Morris.

One day in the summer of 1982, Canadian vocalist Rory Dodd was summoned to the Power Station recording studio in New York City to lend his vocals to a song, written and produced by his colleague and friend Jim Steinman for Welsh singer Bonnie Tyler. "Jesus! Where's the kitchen sink?" Dodd cried, when he heard the final, jaw-dropping mix of the track.

The song was Total Eclipse of the Heart. Released 40 years ago in February 1983, this gothic aria became an unprecedented international success that pushed the boundaries of melodrama in pop music. It topped the UK charts, unseating Michael Jackson's Billie Jean, was an even bigger hit in the US, and soared to number one in several countries. Tyler was an unlikely candidate for this level of chart dominance, her career having flatlined since her 1977 hit It's a Heartache. Impressed by his work composing and producing the Meat Loaf opus Bat Out of Hell (1977), Tyler asked CBS Records for Steinman to collaborate with her on her next album. "The record company at the time thought I was mad," she tells BBC Culture. "They never in a million years thought that this would come off." But Steinman agreed to work with Tyler, hearing untapped potential in her voice, which he compared in its rasping power to Janis Joplin. He has described Total Eclipse of the Heart as a "fever song" about the darker, obsessive side of love and as "an exorcism you can dance to."

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The song is considered one of history's most iconic "power ballads", often ranking highly in retrospective listings alongside such evergreens as Heart's Alone, Journey's Faithfully, and Foreigner's I Want to Know What Love Is. It is easy to understand why: the full-length album cut is seven minutes of unfettered bombast. Dodd, who delivers the haunting "turn around" vocal parts, describes the marriage of his plaintive tenor with Tyler's raspy howl as "Beauty and the Beast" but in reverse. "I don't know what to do / And I'm always in the dark / We're living in a powder keg and giving off sparks," Tyler laments, singing about a romantic infatuation that overwhelms her to the point of collapse. After the first chorus, a maelstrom of drums and explosions take the song to apocalyptic heights. "Together we can take it to the end of the line / Your love is like a shadow on me all of the time," Tyler roars. On the word "shadow" her voice cracks like a flash of lightning. As the dust settles, Dodd soothes the listener with falsetto repetitions of the "turn around bright eyes" refrain. It is inescapably epic.  

But is Total Eclipse of the Heart a "power ballad"? The term is commonly invoked to describe a subset of rock and hair metal popularised in the 1980s – slow-tempo songs that climb musical, vocal, and emotional heights, fuelled by guitar riffs and thunderous drums. However, the term has been assigned to non-rock songs too: The Telegraph's list of the 21 best power ballads includes Sinead O'Connor's Nothing Compares 2 U; Smooth Radio's list includes Whitney Houston's I Have Nothing; and in a recent piece for BBC Culture, Nick Levine described Houston's recording of I Will Always Love You as "the ultimate power ballad." Calling powerful ballads "power ballads" has occasionally attracted the ire of music and culture writers, but this is an inevitable result of unclear etymology. Power ballad expert and academic David Metzer identifies that the term was used as early as 1970 in Billboard Magazine – to describe the music of Tom Jones and Engelbert Humperdinck – and has never been exclusively applied to "rock" music.

"Power ballad" is better understood as a genre-agnostic term to describe songs that adhere to a particular formula. Key to this formula is "continual escalation", writes Metzer in the Popular Music journal, identifying Barry Manilow as an early adopter via his '70s pop output. Indeed, Manilow songs such as Weekend in New England and Looks Like We Made It are marked by humble openings that lead to orchestral crescendos and climactic key changes. Other '70s pop hits such as Eric Carmen's All By Myself and Leo Sayer's When I Need You also harness these conventions. Moving into the 1980s, this formula was more eagerly exploited and interpreted through the prism of (soft) rock and hair metal (a pop-influenced sub-genre of heavy metal).   

I don't know how to describe it… I just love to sing it! – Bonnie Tyler

Prior to the release of Total Eclipse of the Heart, these rock-orientated power ballads were present but not dominant in the UK charts. Only a few had cracked the top 10 in the early '80s, including Styx's Babe (1980, peaked at number six), REO Speedwagon's Keep On Loving You (1981, peaked at number seven), Phil Collins's In the Air Tonight (1981, peaked at number two), Chicago's Hard to Say I'm Sorry (1982, peaked at number four), and Toto's Africa (1983, peaked at number three). Barbra Streisand's chart-topping soft rock hit Woman in Love (1980) skirts on the edge of power ballad status, but lacks the sufficient escalation. This would make Total Eclipse of the Heart, which reached number one on 12 March 1983, the first chart-topping rock "power ballad" of '80s Britain.

Yet, categorising the song as a "power ballad" feels unsatisfactory. In execution, drama, and audaciousness, it trumps all the aforementioned songs floating around the charts before and after its release. Whereas power ballads tend to follow a linear path of escalation, Metzer notes the "sudden harmonic turns" in Total Eclipse of the Heart. "Epic in length, form and passion, [Steinman's compositions] create their own kind of musical and emotional grandeur… They exceed the category of the power ballad," he tells BBC Culture. Tom Breihan argued in Stereogum that "the term 'power ballad' doesn't adequately describe Total Eclipse of the Heart, if only because the word 'power' just doesn't have enough power."

'Inherent theatricality'

Those involved in the record also concede the limitations of the "power ballad" label. "It's one thing to make a big power ballad but there was something unique about the songs that Jim would write," bassist Steve Buslowe tells BBC Culture. Studio engineer John Jansen concurs, considering the song "more quirky" than the "corporate" power ballads of the era. "I don't know how to describe it," Tyler says. "I just love singing it!" According to the archive held by Newspapers.com, it seems the song was never described by contemporary press as a "power ballad" – unlike the music of Journey, Foreigner and Night Ranger. This label has been applied retrospectively, perhaps to make sense of the nonsensical.

It makes you feel like you're a Norseman in a blizzard – John Jansen

Maybe there is no better term, accepting that most musical categories are somewhat reductive. But there is a case to be made for the song's uniqueness. Dr Freya Jarman, from the University of Liverpool's department of music, tells BBC Culture that the song "clearly stood out from the general soundworld of early 1980s radio, but it wasn't completely out of the blue; rather, it's the culmination of a few lines of influence, all converging on a single song in a way that makes it particularly distinctive." Jarman identifies "prog rock", a genre known for its episodic song structures, as one of these influences. The song also owes to Steinman's fondness for the orchestral outpourings of Richard Wagner and the symphonic, reverb-laden production of Phil Spector. "It makes you feel like you're a Norseman in a blizzard," Jansen says about the song's headiness, remembering how he and fellow engineer Neil Dorfsman exploited the Power Station's echoey stairwells for optimum reverb. Steinman also drew upon his own background in musical theatre, repurposing the song's melody from an abandoned musical adaptation of Nosferatu he was scoring.

This inherent theatricality is what makes Total Eclipse of the Heart such a profound intervention in chart history. Other than Steinman's material for Meat Loaf, it is difficult to identify many high-charting songs of a similar ilk. Perhaps the closest is Queen's 1975 hit Bohemian Rhapsody, whose operatic intensity parallels the Wagnerian excesses of Total Eclipse of the Heart. Steinman's theatricality also made him a popular target for critics. In a review of Tyler's Faster than the Speed of Night album, released in April 1983 and produced by Steinman, rock critic Trevor Dann decried its lack of subtlety and wrote in the Sunday Telegraph that "Bonnie should be taken to see a Joni Mitchell concert." The Guardian deemed it an "amusing, mildly camp curiosity." But the album went to number one, its other highlights being the brilliantly manic title track and a thrilling cover of Creedence Clearwater Revival's Have You Ever Seen the Rain?.

Steinman's death on 19 April 2021 precipitated a flood of tributes acknowledging his impact. "Such great songs. Such a great songwriter," tweeted fellow songwriter Diane Warren, whose own power ballads for Cher, Céline Dion and Aerosmith would dominate the late '80s and '90s. Dion, who recorded his It's All Coming Back to Me Now, tweeted that Steinman was a "musical genius". Tyler remembers that, after her second album with Steinman (1986's Secret Dreams and Forbidden Fire), "people used to write songs for me, and you could tell they were trying to copy [Steinman's] style – but it just didn't work."

'Powerful emotionality'

Power ballads had a more visible presence in the UK charts after the success of Total Eclipse of the Heart, even if few would reach the dizzying heights of Steinman's melodrama. In the following years, songs such as Foreigner's I Want to Know What Love Is (1985), T'Pau's China in Your Hand (1987), Starship's Nothing's Gonna Stop Us Now (1987), and Robin Beck's First Time (1988) all reached number one. Perhaps Steinman and Tyler's smash whetted the appetite for similarly big and dramatic sounds? You can hear the influence of Steinman in the bombast of more contemporary power ballads, such as Jordin Sparks' Battlefield, Lady Gaga's Hold My Hand, and Olivia Rodrigo's Drivers Licence. "He also had a broader contribution in terms of helping to put powerful emotionality on the musical map," notes Jarman, identifying how Steinman even paved the way for tracks like Metallica's Nothing Else Matters, The Scorpions' Wind of Change, and Nickelback's How You Remind Me. "It's not a direct line, and he's not the only influence, but I do think he's a key figure in that fusion between emotionality and rock."

It's so cool that the song doesn't seem to want to go away. People keep using it! – Steve Buslowe

Whatever the label or categorisation, Total Eclipse of the Heart has endured through the years. In 1995, British singer and future Eurovision contestant Nicki French found success with a high-charting dance cover. She contends that it is possible to love both recordings, telling BBC Culture that "if you fancy a bop around the room, you put on mine; if you fancy just sitting there and wallowing in the great drama of it all, you go for Bonnie's."

The song has been covered in more recent times. Chloe mk performed the song on The Voice (US) in 2017, which she won. Speaking to BBC Culture, she explains that "the lyrics 'cause we'll never be wrong' capture perfectly what it means to desperately want and need someone... So much so that it can only be right." Total Eclipse of the Heart has also been performed on the hit television show Glee, used in advertisements, and a Welsh family went viral in 2021 with their lockdown-inspired re-write of the song (as "Totally Fixed Where We Are"). "It's so cool that the song doesn't seem to want to go away. People keep using it!" says Buslowe.

However, it is the original recording that remains etched in the public consciousness. This is partly because of the unintentional genius of Steinman's lyric in future-proofing the song: its streams soar whenever there is a solar eclipse. Tyler also credits the impact of the song's confounding and homoerotic music video, wherein Tyler runs frantically around a gothic boarding school surrounded by ninjas, bare-chested men and levitating choirboys. When asked if she still has no clue what all that was about, she says "I don't think anybody does!"

It is ultimately the pairing of Steinman's epic writing with Tyler's ferocious delivery that continues to enthral listeners. Total Eclipse of the Heart exceeded the category of the power ballad before the power ballad had even established itself as a dominant musical idiom. "I can't think of any other songs of that era that bit so much as that," Dodd tells BBC Culture. "It was a totally different concept of a song. It's a story, it's theatre, and it worked!"

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