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On Billy Joel

November 7, 2020 Leave a comment

It’s time to talk about Billy Joel.

I have a hard time with Billy Joel. On the one hand, he’s had a long career of writing and singing a lot of catchy songs that I find pleasant to listen to. And, for a lot of those songs, I can enjoy them unambivalently: “Downeaster Alexa”, “For the Longest Time”, “Storm Front”, and especially “River of Dreams”… nice job. No notes.

And it’s true that a lot of his songs are very Boomer. This is not a quality that I look for in a song, but I can’t deny that he comes by it honestly. We all belong to one generation or another, and if it shows up in our art, then it does, and there’s no point complaining about it. So when he gives us “We Didn’t Start the Fire” or “I Go to Extremes” or “My Life” or “Goodnight Saigon”, that’s all right, I can take it as it comes.

My big problem with Billy Joel is the misogyny that often shows up in his lyrics. His songs, in aggregate, suggest to me a specific kind of whore-madonna dichotomy in his portrayals of women, where women can be callous, man-eating bad girls who it’s dangerous to get involved with, as in the songs “She’s Always a Woman” or “Big Shot”. Or they can be innocent good girls who need to be kept on a pedestal until they’re ready for the dangerous love of notorious streetwise tough guy Billy Joel, as in “Only the Good Die Young”, “That’s Not Her Style”, “You May Be Right”, and “Uptown Girl”. Even “Tell Her About It”, which isn’t actually all that bad, participates in this to some extent: “A nice girl wouldn’t tell you what you should do”.

But even those aren’t the worst of it. I didn’t mention “An Innocent Man”, the #notallmen of rock songs. And I didn’t mention “Just the Way You Are”, in which the singer says *the most horrible things* to a woman whom he claims to love and we’re supposed to hear it as romantic. It’s just gross.

So that’s where I was with Billy Joel for a long time. But recently I figured out something else about him: Billy Joel is no damn nostalgist.

My time as a Legion of Super-Heroes fan has taught me to distrust and disdain nostalgism. It’s not a positive force. It eats creativity and blocks necessary progress. (Note that when I talk about nostalgia, I don’t mean appreciating things about the past, or having affection for the cultural artifacts of the past. I mean thinking things were better Back Then and that we should go back to that.)

One of Billy Joel’s biggest hits was “It’s Still Rock’n’Roll to Me”, a song which takes the position, so far as I can parse it, that, while the current music scene may be shallow and crass, it isn’t actually any different from what it used to be. “Next phase, new wave, dance craze, anyways / It’s still rock’n’roll to me.” This is around the same time that Bob Seger’s reaction to the same conditions was, “Don’t try to take me to a disco / You’ll never even get me out on the floor / In ten minutes I’d be late for the door / I like that old time rock’n’ roll.” Of the two attitudes, I’ll take Joel’s.

Or look at “We Didn’t Start the Fire”, which is obviously an easily mockable song, and certainly one in which Joel indulges in a lot of old memories. It’s easy to look at what gets listed and what doesn’t and conclude that Joel thinks that about seven times as many things happened from ’46-’69 as happened in the ’70s and ’80s. But let’s not forget the basic point of the song: yeah, there are problems now, but there were problems Back Then too, and it sure looks like there are going to continue being problems, so we’d better deal with it. Again: that’s not nostalgia.

And, finally, we have “Keeping the Faith”, which ties it all together. First, it’s an *extremely* Boomer song, one that describes teenage experience in the ’50s/’60s in detail, and gives them religious significance. Second, it manages to *not* participate in the misogyny mentioned above: the lyric “I thought I was the Duke of Earl / When I made it with a red-haired girl / In a Chevrolet / Oh yeah / We were keeping the faith” may have a rite-of-passage element to it that isn’t great, but it does cast the girl as an equal participant in the enterprise at least. And, most of all, Joel gives us the concluding thought that, no matter how good a time he had Back Then and how much he likes to think about it, “the good old days weren’t always good / And tomorrow ain’t as bad as it seems.”

In short, Billy Joel is a land of contrasts. Thank you very much.