On April 19, 2021, James Richard "Jim" Steinman departed the Earth, presumably bound for a gig in Valhalla. His absence leaves the world feeling a bit less epic.
Casual listeners and younger readers might not know the name, because Steinman spent most of his time behind the scenes as a composer, songwriter, and producer. You have, however, almost certainly heard his music. He wrote nearly all of Meatloaf's hits, including the entirety of Bat Out Of Hell I and II, as well as working with a surprisingly varied group of musicians including Bonnie Tyler, Celine Dion, Air Supply, Barry Manilow, Sisters Of Mercy, Barbara Streisand, and Andrew Lloyd Webber.
Despite the range of talent he worked with, his songwriting style was so distinctive that you could almost always spot a Steinman composition, no matter who's singing. What made a Jim Steinman song? His formula was simple, but no one could do it quite like him.
- Start with an overly-long title, probably based on a pun, such as "Making Love Out of Nothing At All" or "Loving You's A Dirty Job (But Someone's Gotta Do It)" or "Good Girls Go To Heaven, But Bad Girls Go Everywhere."
- Add in needlessly smart lyrics that constantly tread a fine line between clever, stupid, and twee. "I'm searching for the ultimate crime: infinite victims, infinitesimal time!" from "Original Sin" is a personal favorite.
- Make it long. Steinman's songs were almost always longer than typical pop songs, often with several movements that resembled mini-operas. Legend has it that he cried when told his twelve-minute version of "It's All Coming Back To Me Now" for Celine Dion wouldn't make it onto radio. (He was forced to compromise at 7:30.)
- Over the top is under-performing. Most bands stop at 10. Spinal Tap goes to 11. Jim Steinman starts at 11, laughs at its sad inadequacy, and just keeps climbing. He never met a song which he couldn't improve by adding a choir, orchestra, polyphonic counterpoint, multiple drum kits, and probably a hammy soliloquy if he thought he could get away with it.
- Be cheesier than a Wisconsin dairy. To paraphrase that great repository of modern wisdom, TVTropes, Jim Steinman's technique was to run at full speed at a mountain of cheese while hoping to break through to awesome on the other side. He pulled it off with surprising frequency.
The theatricality of Steinman's work is no surprise. He got his start in musical theater, working on a few small projects before meeting a young Meatloaf at an audition. This led him to write the original Bat Out Of Hell - easily one of the most theatrical albums in a highly theatrical decade - and his introduction to the world of pop and rock. He also penned a highly popular German musical, Tanz der Vampire, which is still performed to this day, as well as writing the book for Andrew Lloyd Webber's Whistle Down The Wind.
Yet, possibly the most interesting thing about Steinman is that despite his success as a hit-maker for other artists, most of his own pet projects went poorly. In 1981, he released his only solo album, "Good For Bad," which was universally praised for the songwriting, and universally panned for his weak vocals. In 1989, he attempted to form a girl band called Pandora's Box, but their only release - the gloriously melodramatic "Original Sin" - flopped hard. He even composed most of a Batman musical, to be directed by Tim Burton, until Warner Bros pulled out.
Steinman's life and career ultimately provides two important lessons. First, that you don't have to be a frontman to be a rock legend.
And second: GO BIG OR GO HOME.
That's how Jim would've wanted it.