Take It Off!: An Evening on the Jersey Shore with God and Michael Bolton
“Take it off, Michael!”
Twenty rows back and lit only by the bright stage up front, she could be seventy or she could be a sun-scorched fifty. Either way, she’s wearing a belly shirt and her shouts carry the slur of too many white zins.
“Take it off!” she screams against the human static of a half-filled but fully exuberant concert hall.
“Yeah, take it off!” Another baby boomer joins in and her husband’s gut thrashes against his white Tommy Bahama shirt as he laughs and shouts, “‘Time, Love and Tenderness,’ baby!”
The people want the hits. They want salty-voiced high notes and exposed chest hairs. They want peak Michael Bolton.
For my mother’s sixtieth birthday, I bought her and her boyfriend tickets to come see Michael Bolton with me in Ocean Grove, New Jersey, the next town over from where the two of them live in Asbury Park—the Jersey Shore’s current bleeding edge of cool and, thus, gentrification.
My mother became a lifelong Bolton fan when she went to see him play the Garden State Arts Center in the ’80s. My father stood her up and when Michael Bolton saw the disappointed woman next to the empty seat in the front row, he came down off the stage to sing to her throughout the performance.
When I told my friends what I was doing for my mom’s birthday, they remarked on what a good son I was to sit through the concert, but the truth is I’d always found it difficult to join the legion of Bolton-haters. For one—and maybe this is the hours and hours having to listen to him during family car trips as a kid—I don’t think he’s that bad when stacked up against a lot of what ’80s soft-rock adult-contemporary has to offer. Whatever you may think of him, the man can sing and he’s devoted to his craft. He’s not a hard partier; he goes to bed early, he rests his voice, and he keeps in shape.
And that’s also at the heart of the criticism as well—that his singing is studied, overproduced, and soulless in all its triumphant, big-haired seriousness.
But he’s also seemingly aware of how he’s perceived—or is at least good-natured enough to play along with his cheesy public image, whether it’s a Lonely Island collaboration or his Christmas commercials for Pizza Hut and Honda that play off his popularity with suburban moms. It all makes him, well, kind of likable. So, yeah, I’ll admit it: I was genuinely curious to see the man perform in person, almost as much as I was curious to catch a glimpse of his fans.
The show was at the Great Auditorium, basically right across the inlet from downtown Asbury Park.
“Wait till you see them,” my mom said, referring to Bolton’s fans, as we ambled across the pedestrian bridge to Ocean Grove in the heat. “They’re going to go nuts. Seriously. They love him.”
I had a hard time imagining this.
“You’ll see,” she said, reading my mind. “He was huge back in the day.” She says huge the way I thought it was pronounced for the first eighteen years of my life in New Jersey: without an h sound. “You know I think he’s great, but you should see some of his fans.”
But as typical as my mother’s accent is for New Jersey, Ocean Grove is atypical. The town is an anachronism, stuck in an era when God reigned over the dunes and boardwalks. It is the opposite of every modern, Jersey Shore stereotype people have. In 2016, there are still no liquor licenses in town. Cloying, Victorian gingerbread houses line the narrow streets. The community wind ensemble plays on the boardwalk gazebo in the summers. And on Sundays in the summer, one of the largest organs in America bellows from the Great Auditorium, the huge, timber hall where the town’s Camp Meeting Association packs congregants in for summer church service.
The Auditorium, which doubles as a concert venue, is the main landmark in town, facing the sea from across an open grass promenade. On its other sides, the building is surrounded by tightly packed plots of tent houses reserved years in advance through the Meeting Association. I don’t see the appeal myself, as the small structures afford little privacy and no air conditioning, but stroll through on a summer evening and you see people, young and old, sitting outside in their lawn chairs, sipping lemonade. Were it not for the clothing, it could just as easily be 1916. The effect is disorienting, especially since a five-minute walk north and you’re in Asbury Park, where people pack into bars and fight and vomit in the streets after shooting back too many vodka shots.
Added to this wrinkle is the fact that Ocean Grove has become in recent decades a haven for the gay community.
The town’s incongruities started in the late nineteenth century, when a group of Methodists established a permanent camp on the beach, deciding that this patch of sand was to be a new tent city of God. (The Methodists would later become a strong source of support for the 1920s KKK revival in the area. A lot of extremists, it seems, gravitated to the land that would one day be more famous for extreme dance floor frottage than ideological purity.) These Methodists were part of a then-popular evangelical movement called the camp revival, a form of worship in which people gathered during the warm months to camp out in tents and beach cottages and spend their time attending services, singing hymns, and otherwise engaging in godly pursuits.
And a town sprung up, as evidenced by the Victorian homes for which Ocean Grove is famous. However, Ocean Grove is still unincorporated. It’s technically the eastern beach appendage of the much larger Neptune Township. Over the years, there were attempts by Ocean Grove to incorporate under the banner of the church, but the state government never let it happen, mostly because a religious municipal government was—is still—highly unconstitutional.
Despite this, Ocean Grove has retained quite a bit of sovereignty, instituting its own local ordinances separate from Neptune. Aside from the lack of alcohol, religious blue laws were common until recently. As late as the ’80s, it was illegal to have your car out on the street on a Sunday, for instance. On Saturday nights, people without garages had to drive their vehicles outside town limits and walk back.
Righteousness, however, wasn’t able to save the community from the fate that so many other towns experienced during the years of white flight. Neptune, like nearby Long Branch and Asbury Park, is a town the neighboring communities refer to in thinly coded language as “urban.” While white flight from New York and Philly landed all over the surrounding Monmouth County, these “urban” towns experienced their own flight in the wake of riots in the ’60s. Being part of Neptune Township means that Ocean Grove shares municipal services like the police and, importantly, a school district. Few middle-class white families were willing to send their kids to a district that included a lot of lower-income minorities. As a result, the town’s population grew old and the Victorian homes fell into disrepair.
That changed when the gay community started to arrive in the ’90s. The housing prices were attractive and most of the new residents weren’t particularly concerned about the schools. They bought property and invested in local businesses; now Ocean Grove is a thriving place with a vibrant—albeit still dry—main street. This coexistence of conservative Christianity and homosexuality seems like a strange juxtaposition until you go there. For the most part, it even seemed to work, which speaks to the power of money to overcome our differences.
Lately, however, there’s a sense in the gay community that the prosperity of the past few decades has caused the Christians suddenly to remember their so-called principles. Most notably, the aforementioned Camp Association was told by the courts in 2012 that it had to allow gay weddings at its popular boardwalk pavilion if it allowed straight weddings. So the Association opted for no weddings. It seems they’ve conveniently forgotten what turned things around in Ocean Grove—and it wasn’t all the prayers. The tension in the town is emblematic of a common theme on the Shore in 2016: the clash between a state that is overall shifting blue as most of the Shore hangs red.
As Ocean Grove’s star has risen, Michael Bolton’s has faded a bit.
But my mother is right: he was a huge deal. He has seven platinum and multiplatinum albums in the US and, along with numerous US adult-contemporary number-one hits, he has two overall chart-toppers to go with several top-ten hits.
Hits aren’t everything, of course—the Billboard record books are filled with names like Herb Alpert, Nickelback, and Creed. And perhaps partially because of his success, Bolton’s become a punch line to Generation X and the millennials in a way that many of his less successful but equally cheesy contemporaries haven’t. This is at least partially a function of the fact that he’s (still) a sex symbol for a straight-laced, white audience, for the sort of people whose sexual aspirations are as un-hip as their minivans, right-wing politics, and Jell-O mold recipes dog-eared in their Martha Stewart cookbooks. In this sense, he helped pave the way for the Josh Grobans of the world: heartthrobs who seem like they’ll call you back the next day and remember to take out the trash after taking you missionary-style. Bolton gives his fans an excuse to be bad at his shows . . . but not too bad.
Similarly, Michael Bolton’s sonic appeal is his ability to translate Motown, rock ‘n’ roll, hair metal, and R&B into terms that don’t push even small envelopes or threaten mainstream aesthetic sensibilities. While his fans may not think to listen to Otis Redding, Ray Charles, or Marvin Gaye—or Black Sabbath and Rainbow, for that matter, the former of whom he actually auditioned for in the ’70s—, they’re perfectly happy to hear Bolton belt out a watered-down “Georgia on My Mind” and they’ll take in the toned-down power-ballad hooks in “How Can We Be Lovers?” They’ll purchase his album of Motown covers, but it’s less likely they’ll buy the remastered What’s Going On?
For this reason, the dislike of Michel Bolton is similar to that of the blue-eyed soul genre in the ’80s: he has a genius for taking the musical signifiers of livelier, more “authentic” genres and capitalizing on them by stripping the sound of its idiosyncrasy, transforming it into something marketable for the minivan crow, as he did most successfully with “When a Man Loves a Woman.” (The apotheosis of this phenomenon, however, has to be Phil Collins’s “You Can’t Hurry Love,” a cover so straightforward and inferior to the original Supremes version that one can hardly see a reason for it to exist—other than for the obvious monetary one.)
That said, this isn’t to say Bolton is without personality and idiosyncrasy. He’s at his best when singing his own tunes, not Motown or Songbook covers—when he’s playing on his home turf. In his covers and pastiches, there’s the sense of a piece missing, but when he hits the mark on some of his soft rock, he achieves something akin to yacht rock glory—not exactly yacht rock, but a similar, paradoxically melodramatic and dorky-cool spirit that has a lot in common with the likes of Michael McDonald, Christopher Cross, and Robbie Dupree.
The thing is this: a good cheesy song isn’t good in spite of its overly emotive and mawkish sensibilities; it’s good because of them. And when Michael Bolton tells you how to heal a broken heart, the lyrics are trite and only meaningful in the strictest linguistic sense that words do in fact have definitions, but damn it, you believe him because his iconic voice soars above a carefully crafted and emotionally manipulative chord that builds a house of pain and hope around you before you’ve noticed what the hell is happening. When he fucking goes after it, I’ve got a lot of time for those moments of pure, unadulterated musical brie.
It’s impossible to discuss Michael Bolton without mentioning the movie Office Space. If you ask someone in my generation about Michael Bolton, they likely wouldn’t be able to name any songs. Maybe they’ve heard of “How Can We Be Lovers?” but there’s a really good chance they know the scene in Office Space when the disgruntled office worker, also named Michael Bolton, bitterly refers to the singer as a “no-talent assclown” who’s turned their mutual name into a joke. Millennials probably also remember this same employee’s interview with the two consultants named Bob, one of whom, played by John C. McGinley, is an avowed Michael Bolton fan. Bob is a callous, contemptible paper-pusher who gets down by listening to Bolton’s rendition of “When a Man Loves a Woman.”
But while the humor of course derives from the fact that being a Michael Bolton fan immediately marks someone, especially a male fan, as tight-edged loser, in Ocean Grove I see that the truth is quite a bit more complicated. The male fans don’t look anything like the suspender- and comb-over-sporting Bobs. I hadn’t previously considered what a male Michael Bolton fan looks like, but it apparently looks a lot like the fathers in my Shore hometown: faces flush from too much summer sun, protruding thoraces, and Oakley sunglasses. They wear light-colored polos or Hawaiian button-ups or T-shirts bearing the names of places where they’ve vacationed—or would at least like you to think they‘ve vacationed. They’re your kids’ Little League coaches and they refer to hamburgers and hot dogs as barbecue and they get too drunk at bars next to marinas. They think they’re supposed to hold their hands over their hearts during the national anthem. They have retirement accounts of varying robustness. They’re, well, painfully normal suburbanites. They’re so close to the American Dream, they can almost reach out their sodium-bloated fingers to touch the glory. In other words, they’re New Jersey’s statistically likely, middle-class Trump voters, people who don’t see anything wrong with the way things were.
When the media describes Trumpians, male or female, I really don’t recognize the portrait. They’re painted as the rural and Rust Belt poor, victims of a global technocracy that not only has left them behind but that resents their existence. While that is undoubtedly one type of Trumpian, it’s far from a comprehensive description. As it turns out, the numbers show that the median income of a Trump household is over $70,000 a year, well above the national median. That’s the sort of Trump supporter I know and grew up with in Monmouth and Ocean Counties. This is not Cory Booker’s New Jersey. This is a place where your dentist may be throwing fundraisers in his McMansion for Chris Christie and your accountant spends her lunch break snickering at YouTube videos of teachers receiving gubernatorial tongue-lashings.
They may not be Bible Belters, but religion absolutely plays a central role in their lives. It’s integral at the very least to their cultural identity. Likely, they’re Catholics or at least non-fundamentalist protestants (Episcopalian, Presbyterian, etc.). They feel guilty enough to attend mass or service on Sundays or Saturday evenings—when they can. While they may not be outwardly pious à la the evangelicals, the word “atheist” still has a connotation only slightly milder than “Nazi,” “Obama,” or “tax hike.”
What they do have in common with the stereotype of the poor, white Trumpian is that they too feel they’re losing their grip on American life, and while you can explain how equality isn’t oppression, that Black Lives Matter isn’t an anti-cop terrorist movement, that refugees are people like them who are caught up in a kind of desperation they couldn’t possibly imagine, that line of thought holds zero currency here. Unlike the Bobs from Office Space, they are losers only in the literal sense that they are losing—or at least under the impression that they are losing—nothing short of their stake in America. Unlike the white working poor, however, they’re still doing alright, economically speaking, and so their understanding of loss here is more about perception than deprivation and abandonment.
So, while Michael Bolton, an acquaintance of the Clintons and a supporter of Barack Obama, may seem a strange choice for a Christian venue in Christie country, he really isn’t. Yes, he may be eye candy who made his mark singing subdued babymaking music, but it’s about whom he’s turning on, and once you see that, it starts to seem oddly appropriate that he came to Ocean Grove, God’s square mile on the Shore. Bolton won’t get political during his show and his art won’t force any problematizing confrontations with the self. But what he will do is show them a good time reminiscent of a relatively recent time and place in these fans’ lives when their cultural, musical, and sexual aesthetics weren’t a millennial punchline.
I suspect no one told Michael Bolton’s booking agent that the Great Auditorium has no air-conditioning. Despite the doors open around the perimeter of the hall, being inside feels like Jonah sitting among the steamy innards of the whale, with the beams hovering above like a cetaceous ribcage.
The stage is set up but the concert isn’t due to start yet, so I pop outside to buy some water from one of the church ladies under the adjacent gazebo.
Some of the surrounding campers have their lawn chairs angled so they can see inside the open doors. The geriatric security guards shuffle and eye the concertgoers disinterestedly. The paying customers mill about, trying to escape the heat and catch the stingy caress of a sea breeze.
I, meanwhile, am getting stares. On one hand, I’m used to them. Everyone I go, I’m the tall, redheaded guy with the constantly perplexed look on his face. On the other hand, I’m easily the youngest person here. At thirty-two, I’m the outlier dragging down the mean.
On my way to buy some water, one woman gives me a particularly quizzical stare. She teeters a bit as she adjusts her pants. “Here for the show?” I ask, stupidly.
Her eyes brighten up and clarity comes through the boozy stupor. “Oh, yes, I’ve seen him three times this summer already.”
“Oh, yeah?” I say. “You’re a big fan?”
“I’ve never seen him live. You mind telling me what it is you like about him so much?”
“I don’t know. I just love him. I just do.”
Over the course of the night, I casually ask some other people standing around—women and men both—if they’ve seen Michael Bolton before and, it turns out, most have. The reasons why they like him are remarkably unremarkable: they just do and have for years.
Still, I have a hard time understanding it from the straight, penis-having contingent.
And then I’m poleaxed by the realization that, yes, I came here too, yes, I’m a straight man, and, no, I didn’t have to attend. So why the fuck am I here? I could have given my mother any number of birthday presents, or I could have just bought tickets for her and her partner and I could have heard about it the next day via text. But I bought three tickets and not out of any sense of martyrdom or sacrifice. I wanted to go. Real talk. And I’d be lying if I claimed some form of (post-)ironic distance to my wanting to see Bolton live. I won’t claim to celebrate his entire catalog like the Bobs, but “How Can We Be Lovers?”, “Time, Love and Tenderness,” and “Said I Love You (But I Lied)” sometimes find their way to my playlists. They’re catchy (in their way) and provide a certain relief to the queue and, well, he’s got that one-of-kind voice that I’d recognize anywhere, ever since I was a kid. I suppose I have a weird fascination with him for someone my age, and I suppose his more age-appropriate male fans like him for the same reason I mentioned: memories and evocations of a place and time that for whatever reason resonate in the heart and the head.
Back inside, someone is hocking paper fans on the sly for ten bucks a pop until the crowd goes quiet, seeing a portly man in a baggy shirt walk out onto the stage.
Contrary to the normal function of an emcee, he doesn’t get the crowd warmed up; instead, he reads off a list of Camp Meeting Association rules. Most importantly, people should clean up after themselves so that the place looks nice for tomorrow’s Sunday service.
And then we pray. Most of the crowd bows their heads and folds their hands; some put their palms up, as if checking for rain. My mother elbows me. “Stop checking your phone,” she whispers, scolding me like an embarrassed mother at Mass.
When the band finally steps out on the stage, people are fidgeting and impatient, but they cheer and clap their hands, knowing the wait for Michael Bolton is almost over.
He emerges, overdressed in a blazer for the sweltering auditorium. Immediately women start yelling for him to shed some of his clothing, that it must, after all be so hot up on that stage.
“I don’t know why I love you but I just do!” a woman yells above the din of mild sexual menace. The old lady sitting behind us notes, “She’s seen him four times this year.” I look to see if it’s the same woman from the concession stand, though I can’t tell.
One thing I immediately notice is the lack of phones in the air. This is not the YouTube or selfie generation, for sure, which is something the Jersey Shore baby boomers at the Great Auditorium have on the millennials cramming into Bushwick warehouses.
The people here would rather yell PG-13-rated innuendo. Michael Bolton banters back calmly, feigning bashfulness when women tell him to strip. “It’s not that kind of show,” he says, playfully. When he questions if these fans are aware of where they are, a man yells, “This is Jersey!”
Indeed it is.
The set list is heavy on the Great American Songbook and it’s clear that he has a desire to be taken somewhat seriously within this tradition. He prefaces each song with a note about who wrote it and who made it famous. There is a prevailing sense of nostalgia and respect for songcraft that comes through when he talks about it. It’s apparent in his body of work, as well, which has always been peppered with covers. Perhaps his biggest hit was his cover of “When a Man Loves a Woman,” one of many aforementioned Motown covers he’s done.
Throughout the show as he introduces the cover songs, he invokes the idea of going back in time, before anyone knew what a Michael Bolton was, but eventually he throws the fans a bone. They know the song from the first bar: “Said I Loved You (But I Lied).” (There is a glorious straightforwardness to his song titles.)
“I didn’t lie when I said I love you, Michael!” someone yells.
The callouts persist, especially when he plays his hits. They go nuts when he starts “How Can We Be Lovers?” Even the men yell. There’s a sense of pent-up sexuality being released in, of all places, the evangelical Camp Meeting Association of Ocean Grove. (A cynical Freudian or a structuralist might say that’s a little on the nose.)
But it points to fundamental fact of the Michael Bolton experience: the show is fun. It’s schmaltzy. It’s for the most part tempered and low-energy compared to what I normally pay to go see, but Bolton continues to come off very well and, most importantly, the dude can still nail the high notes. And whatever energy he and his band lack, his fans make up for it with their deep enthusiasm and joy. They get racy and they yell and dance and swoon; it isn’t even really clear if some of them are drunk or just tipsy on the presence of Lord Bolton. They forget themselves, which is what live music is supposed to do.
When the band comes back out for the encore, the fans rush to the stage. A throng of the AARP-eligible now have their phones drawn while free hands grasp out toward the stage in the hopes he’ll reach back—literally and figuratively. The cheers echo back from the whale ribs as he shakes their hands.
The funny thing about his nostalgic, cover-heavy set list is that if he just played his own hits, that’d be nostalgic enough for the crowd. For as much as the Songbook represents for many people a better, simpler time, Michael Bolton may not realize that he is that a similar kind of trip down memory lane for the crowd.
I won’t say that alone is why they like him, but he is certainly a major part of a time they go back to when they see him, a time before trigger warnings and being told they’re privileged. They don’t really want to hear touching renditions of Cole Porter songs; they want him to sing “Can I Touch You . . . There?” And where he touches them is that a place that, as much as it is quaintly libidinal, is complicatedly nostalgic.