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Jon Bon Jovi on White Privilege, Colin Kaepernick, and His Band’s Challenging New Album

Why the singer took a hard turn toward social commentary on his band’s 15th record 2020

For his band's new album '2020,' Jon Bon Jovi wrote topical songs about racial injustice and the pandemic.

Ash Kelleher*

Jon Bon Jovi is seated in the office of his Manhattan home, the New York skyline visible over his shoulder in the window behind him. A framed Shepard Fairey silkscreen of a hand grenade spray-painting the word “POWER” in a pop-art font hangs on the wall. In the glass, you can see the reflection of One World Trade.

It’s September 11th and the 58-year-old has just made his daily run down to the Freedom Tower, not far from where people were waving flags ahead of visits by Mike Pence and Joe Biden to commemorate the 19th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. Bon Jovi, his hair defiantly gray, is in a faded black T-shirt, with a watch and fitness tracker sharing space on his left wrist. He leans into his computer monitor for a Zoom interview — a decidedly 2020 experience — to talk about his band’s 15th album, which is unlike anything the group has ever recorded.

The LP is titled 2020 and tackles current events head-on, from mass shootings (“Lower the Flag”) and disinformation (“Blood in the Water”) to police violence (“American Reckoning”) and the ongoing pandemic (“Do What You Can”). To some Bon Jovi fans, it will be a difficult listen, challenging their nostalgic image of a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame band once identified with party anthems, power ballads, and hairspray. Now they’re singing about the novel coronavirus, and the group’s namesake isn’t raising his hands onstage but washing dishes at his community restaurants for the needy, the JBJ Soul Kitchen.

“I don’t think anyone will forget what their lives were like between March and September of 2020,” Bon Jovi tells Rolling Stone of his decision to write a song about Covid, with on-the-nose lyrics about social distancing, PPE, and vaccinations. “I think this is the Spanish Flu all over again. But none of us, you and I or our parents, were alive 100 years ago. So this is that moment for us. This song won’t be about shoulder pads and having a hairstyle. This will mark a moment in time.”

Bon Jovi, that most blue-collar of bands, also dare to probe police brutality and racial injustice in the stark track “American Reckoning.” Originally titled “I Can’t Breathe,” the songwriter played it for his wife of 31 years, Dorothea, who warned him it wasn’t good enough to record. After a series of rewrites, he showed it to his band — and was surprised by their reaction.

Bon Jovi opens up about his white privilege, the misconstrued message of Colin Kaepernick, and what he thinks about fans of his band who bristle at him asking tough questions about social issues. “If you’re going to be that cruel to say, ‘I’m going to go burn their records because he opined,’” he says, “then you never liked us anyhow.”

You had 2020 all finished, but then two important events happened that compelled you to revisit the album: the Covid pandemic and the protests in the U.S. against racial injustice.
It was done and turned in. We recorded this record for the most part in Nashville, and I came up with the title of Bon Jovi 2020. There was a certain wryness in that title. It was going to be an election year. I thought it would make a hell of a bumper sticker, probably sell some T-shirts. But as the writing process had taken hold, I started to realize that the songs that were rising to the top were the more topical ones.

Why did you write the two new songs “Do What You Can” (also released as a country single) and “American Reckoning”?
The New Year came and we’re getting ready for a release and a tour, and the seriousness of Covid set in. Not only did it make sense to postpone the album, but for me to consider what else was going on… And if it’s Covid and you’re talking about a topical record, how could you not sit down to write a topical song? Then George Floyd’s death happens. And because the world had stopped and we were all home and couldn’t do anything else work-related, I personally found myself slowing down, reading the paper, watching the news, and taking care of myself mentally, physically, spiritually. I couldn’t help but write a song and see if those emotions could come out on paper. And so I wrote “American Reckoning.”

That is a heavy song. It includes lyrics like “I can’t breathe” and “when did a judge and a jury become a badge and a knee.” As a white man, how did you approach writing about racial injustice?
[Pause] When the world stopped and we were all watching television and hopefully reading the papers and forming our opinions of what was going on during that period in time, you saw this passing of an African-American differently. Is it because the world had stopped? Is it because it was such good pictures with audio? For whatever reason, it resonated, and it certainly resonated with me. When his buddy gets on the air and says to the morning-show host, “In his last breaths, he was calling out for his mom,” I welled up. The only way that I can capture those feelings was to talk about it with my wife and to sit down and write a song about it.

I worked hard on it. I called [my wife] in like I usually do, and she said, “The verse is great, the chorus isn’t good enough.” So I sat down and reworked it. Then I started the process to send it to John Shanks, who is my co-producer and guitar player in the band. He had reservations and gave me a hard time. And now [drummer Tico Torres] starts giving me a hard time about it too.

“If I’m not the poster boy for white privilege, then who would be?”

What did they say?
Tico was saying the same things John was. He’s saying, “I don’t feel comfortable. I want you to defend every line to me.” I said, “What’s the problem?” to both him and to Shanks, and they said, “I don’t feel comfortable about the words ‘I can’t breathe.’” … The band and I agreed that “American Reckoning” was a far superior title, and so we recorded it. I brought it home and played it for people whose opinions mattered, people from all different walks of life, including African-Americans. Every line was discussed.

I was willing to put it out as my way of saying I’m sorry to the community and that I’m learning like everyone else. Because if I’m not the poster boy for white privilege, then who would be? An older, white, affluent guy, who by happenstance, if a policeman is pulling him over, it’s probably to tell him to jump into the escort to the stadium. You know what I mean? I certainly will never know what it’s like to walk a mile in [a black man’s] shoes. The only African-Americans I knew were either at the Soul Kitchen or those who were the heads of my record company or athletes or affluent. If there was going to be a cancel culture moment [over this song], I was willing to risk my career on it because I was just so proud of the art, and so sorry for the [Floyd] incident and apologized for the incidents that have happened.

Did you ever have the desire earlier in your career to write songs about social issues? Or do you think that maybe the fans wanted a certain thing from you?
In truth, I’ve always been very aware of social issues. If you can be fair, “Runaway” was a socially conscious song. I would take the bus into Manhattan and the idea came from getting off the bus and walking uptown to the studio. Now, was that what my career was going to be? No. I was 21. I was single-mindedly focused on being the lead singer in a rock band. I was from the suburbs of New Jersey where there was never any strife. I came from a very blue-collar working class. None of us graduated college. I never even went. That’s who we are and where we came from. As the years went on, “Keep the Faith” was socially conscious. [The oilfield ballad] “Dry County” was certainly about what was going on in that part of the world at that time. So there were songs throughout the catalog that would touch on those things, but, no, there’s not a record that’s like [2020]. That record had to come from the 58-year-old guy, not the 21 or 25-year-old.

How do you think the songs on 2020 might challenge some of your more conservative fans?
I’m going to be criticized because they’re going to think it’s politicized. That’s inevitable. What can I do? Edit myself so that I’m out there just to be shilling a song? If I’m doing that at this point in my career, who am I? It was far more important to me to make a record that had something to say than it was for me to try to rewrite “Bad Name” 36 years later. I would have no interest in writing that song now. But God knows we wanted to write it then.

You’re a passionate football fan. In “Brothers in Arms” you sing, “Don’t rewrite or define what it means to see a man take a knee,” a clear allusion to Colin Kaepernick. How do you feel about his protest? Is there a place for it in the stadium?
Boy, I could really go out and tell my truth here. [Pause] My truth is that Colin Kaepernick did not take a knee against the Stars and Stripes — he took it against racial inequality and police reform. The league lost the narrative and never went back to recapture the narrative, so it became about disrespecting the flag. And if it were meant to disrespect the flag, I would completely understand the uproar, and, no, there is no place for that in the stadium. Colin Kaepernick was the spokesperson for that movement and he lost his livelihood as a result. Anyone who speaks up against our flag, I’m willing to fight with. I love the country for everything she’s worth, but I do believe the league lost the narrative. And that’s not what he took a knee over.

The reason behind what he was doing was misconstrued or co-opted as something else?
Yeah. You know, it really goes to those little bumper stickers, “Love It or Leave It.” If you don’t like the country, leave. I completely and clearly understand that and agree with it. If you’re standing up against my country, then go, but I don’t think that’s what he set out to do.

You’re adamant that this isn’t a political record, but I think it’s clear on what side of the aisle you stand. If people follow your life and career, they know your politics.
One thing Donald Trump said to be true when he got elected [in his 2016 victory speech] was that he will be the president of all Americans. That was what he was meant to do. I’m not politicizing the record, but I want to have those kinds of conversations. I don’t demonize the Republican agenda, I really don’t. They have firm beliefs that I’m open to listening to. I’m friends with some Republicans. I have no issue with the agenda. I am definitely not just entrenched in the Democratic beliefs. I would really vote for the best person. But honest to God, if you’re going to say, “I’m the president of America,” that means all America.

What hurts me the most now is when he says, “Those blue states, I don’t care about those Democratic governors and those Democratic mayors in those blue states.” I swear to God, there’s a Republican [in the blue states] that’s voting for you. Don’t turn your back on New York. I promise you that your constituents were down on the water today in front of the Freedom Tower with their flags out when I went for a run. Don’t turn your back on them and say, “Fuck New York. Fuck New Jersey.”

Sebastian Bach, one of your Eighties rock peers, has become very political on Twitter. Did you ever think you’d see a day where you and he were political voices of reason in this country?
Well, I don’t follow him [on Twitter], but God bless him for it. He’s Canadian, so here’s a guy that came to the country and now holds up our flag with pride. He cares.

What have you been listening to during quarantine?
I gravitate to the artists I know, but you do stumble onto someone and think the future of the music business is certainly in great hands. Generationally speaking, Harry Styles is the real deal. He’s really great. Taylor Swift is going to be here for as long as she chooses to be. She’s growing as a person. She’s growing as an artist. This thing she did with that guy from the National, bravo to her for taking a shot like that. The Chicks record! I’m so happy to see them back. They have gone to the depths of hell and made a really great record. As a rock band, I’m still always a fan of the Killers. There’s a lot of things, new and old, that are working for me.

You have a Superman tattoo on your bicep. What does it signify to you now, at 58?
It’s all worn to shit, but it’s still on my shoulder, yeah. When I got it in 1986, ’87, it was to signify Superman. But, really, it was for Slippery When Wet — I had achieved that superhero moment and if it’s all over after this, we’ve gone to that highest place. Now the “S” probably stands for “Survivor.” It’s faded, it’s beat-up, I don’t ever want to get it recolored or any of that kind of stuff. But Lord knows, we’ve really survived.

From Rolling Stone US