In the fall of 1979, a pummeling guitar riff sliced through the dance haze of disco and the reverberations of new wave – and so did the voice of Pat Benatar.
The native New Yorker grew up performing in school plays. She developed a powerful voice, one with the elegant control and stamina of a seasoned opera singer – just like her mother, Millie – through rigorous classical training. She had dreams of attending Juilliard, but those were put on hold when Benatar followed her high school sweetheart and first husband, Dennis Benatar, to Richmond, Virginia, where she cut her teeth singing with a local bar band, Coxon’s Army.
The couple eventually returned to New York, and Pat once more gravitated towards the club scene. Eventually, record executives caught wind of her magnetic talent, and Benatar landed a record deal with Chrysalis Records – then home to Blondie, Huey Lewis and the News, Billy Idol, and more. Her debut studio album, In the Heat of the Night, was released in 1979.
The album arrived in the final stretch of the 70s. But one song in particular, Pat Benatar’s cover of Jenny Deran’s “Heartbreaker,” reverberated throughout the 80s: few artists could fuse the deafening might of arena rock with impeccable pop songwriting sensibilities, and fewer could give such power to these songs with such pristine vocals. Several hits would follow “Heartbreaker,” but to this day, Benatar’s intensity has never wavered: she’s still the kid from New York with an ear for a killer melody and a voice ready to breathe fire into it.
The Kiss-Off Songs
(“Heartbreaker,” “Hit Me With Your Best Shot,” “Treat Me Right,” “Love Is A Battlefield”)
“Heartbreaker” was the song that launched Pat Benatar out of the club scene and into the national spotlight: In the Heat of the Night’s second single brought on Benatar’s chart debut when it rose to No. 23 on the Billboard Hot 100, and the album would eventually go on to be certified platinum by the RIAA. Exactly a year later, Benatar released Crimes of Passion in August 1980, which saw her perfect the art of the anti-ballad. Like “Heartbreaker,” “Hit Me With Your Best Shot,” and “Treat Me Right” both surged with blistering arrangements that were an ideal musical match for Benatar’s scorned-yet-smoldering belt.
A Grammy for best female rock performance followed in the wake of Crimes of Passion, a title she’d hold, consecutively, for the next four years. By the time Benatar released 1983’s Live From Earth and its lead single “Love Is A Battlefield,” she was deep into her reign as the queen of 80s pop-rock. “Love Is A Battlefield” remains one of Benatar’s best songs: it rose to No. 5 on the Hot 100, her highest place on the chart to date.
The Power Ballads
(“Don’t Let It Show,” “Shadows of the Night,” “We Belong Together”)
As full-throttle as Pat Benatar’s biggest songs can be, her power ballads are just as epic. “Don’t Let It Show,” the pensive, last-call lullaby off In the Heat of the Night, was penned by Alan Parsons and Eric Woolfson, but Benatar is the one who manages to imbue each phrase with loneliness and longing. The a cappella intro of her take on 1982’s “Shadows of the Night” and its blistering guitar solo immediately transports the listener back to the neon-bathed slow dances of the decade, as does “We Belong,” her swoon-worthy 1983 single and second to reach No. 5 on the Hot 100.
(“Promises in the Dark,” “Fire and Ice,” “Little Too Late,” “Invincible”)
You can hear Pat Benatar reach the stratosphere vocally throughout her career, but some songs stand out. 1981’s “Promises in the Dark” starts with elegant, restrained piano before galloping full-speed into rock opera territory. Benatar vaults her voice to the upper echelons of her range multiple times in the song’s four-and-a-half minutes. “Fire and Ice” could’ve soundtracked a million montages thanks to a fierce performance: the Precious Time single has Benatar venting her frustrations for a flip-flopping lover. Her intensity struck a chord (and earned her a second Grammy). “Invincible” has Benatar running up and down her vocal register with ease on the song’s empowering chorus, and 1988’s “All Fired Up” has Benatar leaning into her rock star status – and its Springsteen-esque refrains.
The 90s Curve Balls
(“True Love,” “Somebody’s Baby,” “Everybody Lay Down,” “Papa’s Roses”)
If the 80s songs were about Pat Benatar coming into her own as a powerhouse performer, the 90s were about experimenting with different textures and instrumentation. With 1991’s True Love, Benatar indulged in the blues, embracing a vintage sound and smoky sensibility that was a perfect fit for her vocal touch (especially on the title track). With 1993’s Gravity’s Rainbow, a grunge grit gave Benatar space to explore her harder side, with “Somebody’s Baby” and “Everybody Lay Down” planting her squarely in the new decade. “Papa’s Roses,” with its soft strumming, strings, and acoustic intimacy, showcases Benatar’s voice differently: yes, she kicks ass with a full band turned up to 11 behind her, but she’s transcendent in the quiet, too.
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