Posts Tagged ‘nostalgia’

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.

25 Greatest Christmas Songs Countdown: #1 Christmas Dream

December 25, 2011 2 comments

We have finally arrived at the greatest Christmas song ever. And I’m willing to bet it’s one you’ve never heard of.

In 1972, thriller writer Frederick Forsyth wrote a novel called The Odessa File, about the hunt for a former concentration-camp commander. It was turned into a movie in 1974 starring Jon Voight and Maximilian Schell; I haven’t seen it. (Very Christmassy story so far, right?) But they got Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice to do the soundtrack, and they got Perry Como to sing Webber and Rice’s theme song, “Christmas Dream”. I have heard Como’s version of the song, and it’s pretty bad.

Skip forward to the 1990s, when we find noted singer John McDermott assembling a bunch of colleagues together as the Mistletones and releasing a couple of albums, Hello Christmas and A Cappella Christmas, both recommended. The first track off of A Cappella Christmas was their cover of “Christmas Dream”. And I don’t know what they saw in it, or why they thought an Andrew Lloyd Webber song from a freaking spy movie was worth their time, but they made it amazing.

Here’s one other thing I like about it. It looks forward. Lots of Christmas stuff looks backward. “Just like the ones we used to know.” “Tales of the glories of Christmases long long ago.” “All the fun we had last year.” And never mind the preoccupation with some kid being born two thousand and change years ago.

Well, I have no problem with remembering or learning from the past; not at all. But I am not a nostalgist. If there’s one thing I’ve learned from my years of blogging about the Legion of Super-Heroes, it’s that nostalgia doesn’t get you anywhere. It just gets in the way of the future. And, as has often been said, the future is where we’re going to be living the rest of our lives, so we might as well get used to it now.

The point of “Christmas Dream” is that Christmas can make the world better, now and in the future. It’s not about how things were good; it’s about how things can be better, if we make it that way.

At this point I’d like to link you to a YouTube clip or something of the song, but they ain’t one. It is available on iTunes; I can do that much for you. You used to be able to buy the CD off of John McDermott’s website but now for some reason you can’t.

Merry Christmas to John McDermott and the Mistletones; their rendition of “Christmas Dream” is everything that is good about Christmas, and Merry Christmas to all of you as well.

I like this list format; I think I’ll stick with it, but for, you know, other stuff. (Probably not daily.) Watch this space.

#25: Sleigh Ride
#24: Huron Carol
#23: Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!/Count Your Blessings/We Wish You a Merry Christmas
#22: The Twelve Days of Christmas
#21: I Wish It Could Be Christmas Everyday
#20: Fuck Christmas
#19: Jingle Bell Rock
#18: What’s This? & Making Christmas
#17: Oi! To the World
#16: God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen
#15: Blue Christmas
#14: Christmas in Hollis
#13: We Need a Little Christmas
#12: Marshmallow World
#11: Hark! The Herald Angels Sing
#10: Step Into Christmas
#9: Jingle Bells
#8: Christmas Comes But Once a Year (Christmas in Carrick)
#7: Christmas Wrapping
#6: Silver Bells
#5: O Holy Night
#4: Carol of the Bells
#3: All I Want for Christmas Is You
#2: Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)