jan 25

The Worst Pop Singer Ever

Why, exactly, is Billy Joel so bad? "I think I've identified the qualities in B.J.'s work that distinguish his badness from other kinds of badness: It exhibits unearned contempt. Both a self-righteous contempt for others and the self-approbation and self-congratulation that is contempt's backside, so to speak. Most frequently a contempt for the supposed phoniness or inauthenticity of other people as opposed to the rock-solid authenticity of our B.J."


And this bit is funny:

Plus, there's always the chance we'll see another of those "career re-evaluation" essays that places like the New York Times Sunday "Arts & Leisure" section are fond of running about the Barry Manilows of the world. The kind of piece in which we'd discover that Billy's actually "gritty," "unfairly marginalized" by hipsters; that his work is profoundly expressive of late-20th-century alienation ("Captain Jack"); that his hackneyed, misogynist hymns to love are actually filled with sophisticated erotic angst; that his "distillations of disillusion," to use the patois of such pieces, over the artist's role ("Piano Man," "The Entertainer," "Say Goodbye to Hollywood," etc.) are in fact "preternaturally self-conscious," not just shallow, Holden Caulfield-esque denunciations of "phonies," but mentionable in the same breath as works by great artists.

See also: Chuck's NYT Mag profile of Billy Joel from 2002.

posted by Rex at 4:28 PM on January 25, 2009

"Worst?" But it's so damned good for karaoke!

posted by Caroline McCarthy at 4:32 PM on January 25, 2009

This article pissed me off. Ron Rosenbaum is cranky and completely unfair here. Billy Joel has done some wonderful work, from fun pop songs to those "message" songs that Rosenbaum turns his nose up to (sorry, I like "Allentown." And "Downeaster Alexa." And "Goodnight, Saigon"). The hipster derision for Billy Joel took me by surprise when I first encountered it and I haven't understood it since. Maybe it's because I grew up with Billy in the same breath as Bruce - and got 'em both from my beloved older brother, who also gave me the gift of AC/DC and Rocky Horror as a very precocious 8-year-old - but for me, Billy Joel has held up over the years in which I have presumably become far more sophisticated.

Also, he's REALLY holding up protestations from Catholic girls about "Only The Good Die Young?" Jesus. That's a great song lyrically, tonally, and tune-fully. (Also, as a lyricist I have to say that Billy Joel songs are great to write to - the meter is always easily matched with the tune and the structure is clear and unforced. What Ron Rosenbaum sneers at as muzak is actually the effortless artistry of construction so as not to distract from the whole. So there.)

Furthermore, I see no evidence that Rosenbaum really DID spend time with an extended BJ oeuvre. (Dude is RIDICULOUSLY prolific.) I'm sorry, "Summer, Highland Falls" is just flat-out lovely. So, too, from that album is "I've Loved These Days" (and never mind "Angry Young Man" - come on, like angsty bloggers can't get behind that?). I would add "Vienna Waits For You" which has been included on more mix tapes and CDs for more boys than I could possibly recall; "Honesty" (such a lonely word!); "Big Shot" which inspired the 8-year-old me to stick a spoon up her nose, but that's another story; "Don't Ask Me Why" (just always liked it); "My Life" (blared for parental benefit many times from the kids' rooms in our house - suburban Jewish rebels!); "You're My Home" (LOVELY); "Falling of the Rain" (also lovely); "Half A Mile Away" (about the tension between ambition and obligation, but not whinily so)(also in that vein: "Zanzibar" and others on "52nd Street"); "A Matter of Trust" (well, isnt' it?); yes, "Italian Restaurant" (screw you, Rosenbaum, I'm still rooting for Brenda and Eddie to get back together); and "For The Longest Time" - this is a guy who liked to experiment with different forms, and it rarely felt awkward. (And yes, this includes "We Didn't Start The Fire." Which I happen to LIKE. So you can all bite me.)

Upshot: His stuff is incredibly hooky, tuneful, and ENJOYABLE. Dare I say, fun (Caroline, you may be right - I may love doing BJ at karaoke). And the piano is terrific. He's just a damn good musician and songwriter, and deserves much, much better than what Rosenbaum serves up. Even if he did marry a 22-year old.

Oh and also: "She's Got A Way." I declared as a teenager that I would marry whoever played that for me. Alas, no one has. But it's a damn fine love song.

Now if you'll excuse me, I'm going to go open a bottle of red or a bottle of white, because now I really feel like listening to some Billy Joel.

posted by Rachel Sklar at 5:17 PM on January 25, 2009

People who hate Billy Joel hate America.

It's also worth saying that if a singer is gritty, authentic, erotic, self-conscious, and exceptionally poetic, he/she can also be terribly uninteresting, depressing, non-entertaining and/or obnoxious. I think Billy Joel has a firm, undeniable and respectable place in the spectrum of significant musical artists. He isn't meant to appeal to pretentious tastes, and really, thank God for that.

posted by Brian Van at 5:37 PM on January 25, 2009

You didn't really address his criticism though. "Lovely" isn't really a response to his mawkish faux-sentimentality. There really is a problem about the box from which he speaks from.

Conversely, contra Rosenbaum, I'll add that I'm not sure what makes it all that different from Springsteen or Mellencamp. There's the same kind of working class posturing going on, and as soon we try to claim that Springsteen seems more "authentic," the entire argument seems to crumble.

So I'm not sure if Rosenbaum completely pulled this one off, but he's onto something. (Chuck's pieces was actually a little better at getting to the tension of BJ, but Chuck ultimately comes down as a fan, even though BJ supposedly hated the profile.)

posted by Rex at 5:53 PM on January 25, 2009

Well, in a long list of songs I wasn't going to deconstruct all of them ad nauseum, though I certainly can. "Lovely" just means that "You're My Home" communicates a lovely sentiment - and I have no problem with the sentimentality because I don't find it "faux" in the least. (I will say I have never loved "Just The Way You Are" because of this line: "I don't want clever conversation" - that's very different than trying "some new fashion" or changing the color of her hair - that goes to her intellect and substance and so I never liked that). But the flip side of "lovely" is "poignant" and he gets that in spades on a lot of the songs mentioned ("I've Loved These Days" - which was the song that leapt to mind reading Caroline's Dodgeball eulogy, and I believe I twittered accordingly). I also think that what Rosenbaum sees as contemptuous I see as the work of someone rising in fame and fortune and working through that - I like the recurring theme of ambition, and the tensions that it can cause in the rest of your life. I've always contextualized it as happening during/after the fall of his marriage to his first wife, Elizabeth (who I think was also his manager) - you can see issues of trust and obligation and ambition and the struggle for asserting identity and independence in a lot of these (I hear that in "52nd Street" especially.)

In some sense there is more of an authenticity in Billy Joel because he's willing to acknowledge the presence of limos and parties and wealth and the good and bad trappings that come with it all, as opposed to Bruce whom I adore, but who has not really incoporated that stuff into his work even though he's obviously incorporated it into his life. (Mellencamp married a supermodel too - whatever - the guy who starred in "Falling From Grace" obviously doesn't have the same issues as the guy in "The Authority Song" but that's cool, I can still get his point in "Pink Houses.") For me, authenticity is in the message, and in the intent - I'm not going to judge them for their success, especially when they use it to continue publishing message songs.

(Also, let's not forget that it was BJ who went to Russia, and BJ who paused in the middle of his Grammy performance to take a stand against the corporate ratings-meisters. What's more authentic than standing up to the Man on live TV?)

I didn't read Chuck's piece, but as someone who is just realizing she knows WAY more about Billy Joel than she thougth, I can say with confidence that Rosenbaum doesn't have the goods.

posted by Rachel Sklar at 5:59 PM on January 25, 2009

I first encountered hatred of Billy Joel while reading "Red Lobster, White Trash and the Blue Lagoon" by Joe Queenan.

One of the snarkiest, funniest books ever written.

Billy Joel is a perfect representative of the time in which he was writing. Hipsters hate him because that time has passed.

The people defending him now are the people who grew up listening to Billy Joel songs at important ceremonial events during high school.

People who had fun, learned something, or got laid during those events remember Billy fondly.

Those who didn't became bitter, holier than thou critic types, using their hatred of mainstream pop culture to vent their hatred of everybody who actually enjoyed prom.

Hipsters hate him because to them, Billy is the perfect representative of a context that has passed.

Billy Joel represents an army of GenX kids who grew up listening to him in the 80's and an army of Boomer parents who rocked out to him in the 70's.

Billy Joel appeals to Boomers AND GenXers, so by hating him, hipsters can declare their hatred of both generations at once.

Anyone who looks at music objectively can find reasons to hate people like Billy Joel and Barry Manilow, but for most people, music is not consumed in a sterile critical context.

Music is consumed at awkward high school parties and in the back of substandard hand-me-down cars.

If you grew up in the 80's, odds are your early contact with the opposite sex happened while Billy Joel was playing on the radio.

The advent of your first crush or first breakup almost certainly had Billy Joel mixed in there somewhere, simply by virtue of him being played on the radio every 15 minutes while we were growing up.

Most can't separate the quality of the music from the power of those events.

Those who can are critic personalities like Joe Queenan, and probably Rex, who adopt an elitist set of cultural values to put themselves eternally above the banality and frustration of their upbringing.

I can look back now and admit that Garth Brooks was a terrible artist, but some of my happiest memories happened at a middlebrow pool hall listening to Garth and screwing around with my friends in the early 90s.

Hipsters rightfully turn their noses up at artists like Billy and Garth, but they can't feel the power of the memories that go along with that music.

And I defy anyone with a soul to deny the power of performances like this.

posted by Michael Duff at 6:32 PM on January 25, 2009

I don't love Joel the way I do Springsteen, but I think Ron is wrong.

A long time ago I was in Ireland and loved how people would wander into pubs, start singing, and everyone would join in. There are very few American songs that wide swathes of Americans know by heart like that and Joel's are amongst those. Who doesn't know Piano Man? You might not download it on your ipod, but you'll hum along in the bar or at a party.

Look how people at the Obama concert liked Shout, American Pie. People of all color and class enjoy the togetherness of common song.

posted by teresa at 6:42 PM on January 25, 2009

Thanks Michael - huge smile after reading that. You're right - Billy Joel was part of way too many awesome memories for me to ever let meanie bullies like Rex and Ron Rosenbaum gang up on him! I am now currently rocking out to "Miami 2017."

But separately I really do want to emphasize my point on song structure and listenability - there is nothing WRONG with being GOOD at that. And Billy Joel is.

And btw, I also love Barry Manilow! But that's because "Copacabana" is AWESOME. Poor Lola. She lost her love...

posted by Rachel Sklar at 7:04 PM on January 25, 2009

why does this all seem so familiar.

posted by mark lamster at 7:53 PM on January 25, 2009

I am loving this thread. I have to say that about 25% through Rachel's first comment I had already made the assumption that it was Brian Van. 30% through, however, I scrolled down and practically clapped when I saw the author.

When I was oh, four/five years old, my dad's favorite song was New York State of Mind and we used to sit in the living room and listen to it (on tape, obvs).

Years later I found some notecards in a drawer with my dad's scrawl on them - he had, it turned out, been painstakingly writing down the lyrics during our repeat listens. These were the days before Google solved everything.

Years later I got us BJ tickets to MSG for Christmas. It was, and still is, the best concert I've ever been to.

posted by katiebakes at 8:24 PM on January 25, 2009

Billy Joel is an easy target for critics. He writes catchy pop tunes and he's been wildly successful mining the blue-coller life that he hasn't lived since his high-school years.

But nearly all songwriters continue to mine the memories that are the strongest, and that tends to be their younger, formative years. Besides, who wants to hear a ballad bemoaning how difficult it is to find a good nanny?

On the downside, Joel and Elton John are going on tour together, apparently as some kind of "singer/songwriters who can't hit the high notes anymore" tour.

The interesting thing about many of the musicians that are so valued by the hipsters also have a soft spot for the great singer/songwriters.

For proof of that, watch some episodes of the Sundance talk show "Spectacle: Elvis Costello with..." in which he interviews people like James Taylor.

posted by Rick Ellis at 9:26 PM on January 25, 2009

Tony Award-winning lyricist David Zippel (City of Angels) names BJ and Joni Mitchell among his favorite lyricists of all time. I don't normally take my cues from Broadway types, and you could argue what that says considering the source/genre, but that's no small praise.

posted by krucoff at 9:28 PM on January 25, 2009

Forget what I said. Micheal is right. I thought back to my earliest memory of BJ. It was driving on a school trip in junior high. I got to sit in the front seat next to my dreamy, male English teacher, the object of my intense desire. On the way he had a BJ tape on in the deck. What could be more romantic to a 13 year old girl than sitting next to her first love for an hour listening to Billy sing, "She's always a woman to me?"

posted by Teresa at 9:40 PM on January 25, 2009

I love it - Jody is the original, and Rosenbaum's the poseur. Read those two reviews side by side and you know, at the very least, which one's Dylan. (I am still a stubborn BJ fan, but Jody is a hella lot more convincing.) He's so good with his stiletto, I don't really mind the pain.

posted by Rachel Sklar at 9:41 PM on January 25, 2009

There is only one good Billy Joel song and it is omitted by both the defenders and detractors. It is called "You May Be Right."

posted by Peter Feld at 11:47 PM on January 25, 2009

There is only one good Billy Joel song and it is omitted by both the defenders and detractors. It is called "You May Be Right."

posted by Peter Feld at 11:47 PM on January 25, 2009

It was not omitted, Peter, it was just a subtle ref - I ref'd Caroline's karaoke point and wrote "Caroline, you may be right - I may love doing BJ at karaoke." So there you go - and I just may be the lunatic you're looking for.

posted by Rachel Sklar at 11:58 PM on January 25, 2009

I think he's on to something - Billy Joel does have an unfortunate propensity for calling bullshit on people and posing as authentic that detracts from his merits. Songs like "Still Rock and Roll" or "Uptown Girl" exhibit this to their detriment. "We Didn't Start the Fire" is probably the worst of these.

It can work, though - I've always loved "Angry Young Man," and it's sorta the same thing. Ditto for "Allentown."

But he's really at his best when he drops this. "Honesty" is beautiful and perfect, but I think that's why it stands apart from so much of his work.

Billy's other unfortunate trait is that he's lumped in with the Boss and Elton, both of whom are light years better than him.

One other thought re: hipsters. I think they hate Billy precisely BECAUSE he's a bit fake, mining his blue collar roots for too long, bitching about everyone, etc. They can't like it, because they fear that his inauthentic-ness will rub off on them. The rest of us don't really care.

posted by Rick Webb at 2:39 AM on January 26, 2009

Color me oblivious.

I had no idea there was so much derision for Billy Joel. I had no idea people considered him saccharine or otherwise artificial. Or that as their fallback to that, they argue that his "honest" opinions are shallow, so they actually dislike the man.

Disclaimer: outside of Lady in Red, I actually think Chris de Burgh wrote some fine stuff, too. I envy the passion for life that Bob Seger's songs reflect. So maybe I'm just an appreciator of the non-genuine.

posted by David at 8:22 AM on January 26, 2009

The thing that is so annoying about the hipster aesthetic, and pretty much anyone who derides music based on its "authenticity" is that they're so busy concerning themselves about being authentic that they're contrived. Billy Joel doesn't give a shit if you think he's authentic or not while the almost singular concern of the hipster molding their image so precisely that they're everything they hate about everyone else.

I'm not a huge Billy Joel fan, but I wouldn't for a second waste my time trying to hate him for being inauthentic. Some here have made excellent points where Melloncamp and Springsteen (more Springsteen I think, i think Melloncamp is loathed by hipsters as well.) are somehow above Joel in terms of credibility even though they're cut from the same cloth. Springsteen is far more wrapped up and conscious of his aesthetic, and rarely deviates from that path.

At the end of the day, "And So It Goes" can still hit me where it hurts at given the right moment, and that's all that matters.

posted by Soup at 10:38 AM on January 26, 2009

Speaking (by proxy) for the Catholic Girl contingent, the six girls who comprised the 'cool clique' used that verse in their year book quote, excerpting it in segments because it was considered too racy.

I'm surprised this argument is even happening. Why isn't anyone taking Rosenbaum to task for writing columns that are 20 years out of date? Isn't that just making him the Billy Joel of opinionists.

posted by Ninety Nine at 10:52 AM on January 26, 2009

Ick. Billy Joel is just bad music, people. He's tacky, and cheesy, and not in that Bryan Adams/Journey way. As Chuck Klosterman put it, he's just woefully uncool, and not in that uncool cool way. He's just like your dad who made a few okay tunes in the day. Also, I don't like being told it's myfault and that there's something wrong with me because I don't like some crappy music.

And I am kind of shocked that any place that has comments hasn't devolved into a flame war by now.

posted by Natasha at 11:13 AM on January 26, 2009

Oh, and this: someone should play Rosenbaum some Animal Collective and Girl Talk and see how he likes that.

posted by Ninety Nine at 11:22 AM on January 26, 2009

Rachel, I love you. Maybe it's the reds or the whites, but Monday mornings just aren't any fun anymore without a little nostalgia, and you bring it in dumptrucks.

posted by Ratman at 11:34 AM on January 26, 2009

There are way too many people here who seem to think that their nostalgia is somehow musically relavent. It seems to me that BJ's core audience is middle schoolers and drunk karaoke singers. Nothing wrong with that, but don't confuse it with good music.

posted by Jared at 12:37 PM on January 26, 2009

I don't doubt that Billy Joel has tons of talent. The thing is, he is also cheesy. No way around that, either it's a problem for you or it's not. My tastes run to sixties anthems, ironic indie rock, intellectually nuanced wordsmiths, and alt-country. I tend to avoid most music that celebrates the LI/North Jersey suburban mindset, call me elitist, go ahead. And while it's fine to defend music on the principle that it's indelibly etched in your treasured childhood memories, I could make a similar case on behalf of The Archies.

posted by Peter Feld at 12:40 PM on January 26, 2009

calling Billy inauthentic is like calling Elton straight.

so why is he a "fake"?
what does it mean to be authentic anyway?

for one, artists are allowed some lattitude in self-expression, no? songs are not always "the world as I know it," they can be the world....as I want it to be, through another's eyes, the way i see it when i'm hungover, or angry, or nostalgic..... Billy excels at telling stories, whether they are his own, his dreams, his nightmares, or someone elses.

in regards to his fakeness/inauthenticity/hypocrisy: perhaps we are also overly sensitive to so-called "hypocrites" (the faked, the inauthentic)d because of our own insecurities. Truthfully, hypocrisy is irrelevant: the fact that someone is a hypocrite does not mean that his or her thoughts or positions are false. Just because a person does not have the fortitude to live up to his or her own standards does not mean that such standards are not laudable and worth trying to meet.

you can hear the self-criticism and the acknowledgment of his "hypocrisy" in Billy's lyrics. he's said that "uptown girl" is about him more than anyone else.

and finally, as anyone on the internets knows, writing is an experiment. Try on your hipster-derision in a blog comments section, then twitter about the fantastic MGMT show, and check-in on the LES. It's all self-formation people. Billy's music is just ineluctably human.

posted by Alli Mooney at 12:45 PM on January 26, 2009

I have had this debate with friends before. I'm 41, and grew up as Billy Joel became less and less interesting to me every year.

I'm not a big fan or defender of the guy, but he I do think he wrote a bunch of great pop songs that didn't suck, regardless of whether you think he's had an authentic creative voice in his prime or is an aging pompous boob today.

You might disagree about his music. That's fine. You turn him off when you hear him, perhaps. Sometimes I might not. No big deal.

Mostly, I wanted an excuse to circulate this ridiculous video from one of those dueling pianos tour he did with Elton John.

posted by Chuck Tomlinson at 12:50 PM on January 26, 2009

Yeah, what Peter said. Except Rosenbaum's point is that BJ and his fans claim that he's something more than the Archies.

posted by Jared at 12:52 PM on January 26, 2009

What I really want to know is: What does Stephin Merritt think of Billy Joel?

posted by Kois at 12:53 PM on January 26, 2009

Can't you all find something that is currently happening to care about at each other?

posted by Ash at 12:56 PM on January 26, 2009

Listen to his early early stuff. Some of it has a nice country twang - if you like that sort of thing.

posted by Don Sticksel at 1:06 PM on January 26, 2009

I fully cop to the nostalgia. But if you revisit my first two entries, you'll see that the analysis is mainly about song quality - lyrics, melody, tone, structure, musicianship - as well as the so-called "authenticity" issue. I also think that his body of work is way too broad to write off as "cheesy" - though I do think both Chuck and Jody address the "uncool" question (in Chuck's case, so damn poignantly). But as hackneyed as singing Piano Man drunkenly in a bar may seem, there's also plenty more to his music. I think if I had to I would boil it all down to "Goodnight Saigon" which surprised me in being the song I couldn't shake last night. That's just a flat-out excellent song, in both form and purpose and effect.

Upshot, for me: The fact that people still feel the need to write about him - and that others feel an equal need to defend him - is indicative of the kind of impact his music has had.

posted by Rachel Sklar at 1:18 PM on January 26, 2009

@Jared: It's probably not hard to find a few fanatics who think BJ is the best pop singer ever. But the entire purpose of this thread is to discuss an article where he's called the worst pop singer ever. I believe his music has more value than that. We are not comparing him to Dylan or McCartney, now. But do understand that he needs a bit of defending here. RR comes off extremely annoyed and bitter, as if his nostalgic moment for Billy Joel involved getting an atomic wedgie in Massapequa.

posted by Brian Van at 1:23 PM on January 26, 2009

and peter feld, you are a cheesy elitist

posted by Alli Mooney at 1:29 PM on January 26, 2009

Also, it is not just remarkable how civil this comment thread has been (knock on wood), it is funny how the original article, and not anything in the comments, has the most vitriol of anything here.

Maybe we've proved our point by making Ron Rosenbaum look like Comic Book Guy.

No, wait. Carry on.

posted by Brian Van at 1:36 PM on January 26, 2009

If you get upset about Billy Joel and his talent or lack of, there is little you wouldn't get flamed about. That bit of glass breakin' on the beginning of Glass Houses is about as aggressive as the guy got. His stuff just isn't very angsty. Look to the early Clash albums, the Cure, Kraftwerk, David Bowie, and Iggy for the sort of lovers/haters to get bent about. Not the whiskey whiners in the Piano Man's fan club. OK, maybe not Kraftwerk...

posted by ratman at 1:47 PM on January 26, 2009

I just read the Ron Rosenbaum piece and it is one of the most gratuitously harsh pieces of writing I've ever seen, even for the genre of Billy Joel hatred, which is huge. That said, I do have to agree with much of Ron's criticisms, as over the top as they are. My girlfriend has made these points to me -- very convincingly over the past years, and much more gently (whew!). So I will concede that in some songs, Billy can come across as a self-pitying, egocentricist, misogynist crank. As much as i deplore those tendencies in his work, I don't think that sums him completely and remain an unabashed fan.

For one thing, you either love melody or you don't. And more than any other contemporary pop artist since the Beatles, Billy Joel's melodies have an unshakable warmth.

Secondly, the attitude which is so often dismissed for being so superficial, is actually much fuller than his detractors would ever give him credit for. Ultimately, Billy Joel, whether singing about Captain Jack or Catholic girls or what Rock n Roll is to him, is always a worthy conversationalist. You walk away thinking, "This guy doesn't know what he's talking about, but I like the way he says it."

Billy Joel, like Woody Allen (who is also often the subject of over-the-top hate from critics), is very self-depracating. And often, the depracating is directed outward, but usually in a gently mocking, not mean-spirited way.

I have to concede that my girlfriend -- who would keel over if I ever played "Just The Way You Are" for her -- has a great point about Billy falling into the category of "Noodge-Rock." From Bigshot to You May Be Right to Honesty (that one in particular "sends shivers of disgust up my spine," she says), the singer is a hectoring character, complaining, complaining, complaining.

But to me, the vocal performances are so strong, the production so perfectly layered, and melodies so irresistible, I just have to forgive his lapses they way I would a friend who's always talking nonsense, but is nonetheless, fun to have around.

I could go on about why Billy Joel arouses such bile in critics, but in the cases of Rosenbaum, Christgau and others, I think it's that they recognize their own worst tendencies toward pretentiousness and self-righteousness and instead of flagellating themselves, they see a much more attractive target in someone who's gained success, riches and fame off it. Most importantly, because Bill Joel maintains his "I'm just a regular guy from Hicksville" stance, it invalidates their vain attempts to rise to a more elite position. That Billy celebrates and sees himself as a schlub infuriates the sense that they had to leave that part of them behind.

posted by davidakaplan at 1:47 PM on January 26, 2009

@ratman: There's a lot of angst in "Allentown".

posted by Brian Van at 2:13 PM on January 26, 2009

Just two quick things, then I'm done:

-- First, Rachel Sklar is a hero!

-- Two, On the ridiculous Bruce vs. Billy thing (talk about nostalgia for battles never even waged): between the years 1973 and 1983, did Billy ever sing anything as goofily pretentious as this: "Just wrap your legs 'round these velvet rims, and strap your hands across my engines" (Born to Run, in case you didn't know....)

posted by davidakaplan at 3:20 PM on January 26, 2009

I love this thread so, so much.

posted by Rachel Sklar at 3:30 PM on January 26, 2009

I added something for you, Rach.

posted by Rex at 3:38 PM on January 26, 2009


Totally agree there is angst there, just not at the same level of rebellion/disenfranchisement of other groups over the same time. I think you'd be hard pressed to find someone who defined BJ's music as being an angry/frustrated catalog. I saw him play the year he and his wife got divorced, and he mentioned "After this tour, we're going back to our families, those of us that have them."

Just seems like a sad dude who made some music that didn't change the direction of popular music. He is so not offensive that people had to wait 30 years before they were comfortable writing an article about his failings (if they are, indeed failings).

posted by ratman at 4:20 PM on January 26, 2009

@Brian Van and Davidakaplan:

Can we hold off on the hipster-bashing and the questioning of other critic's motives? I realize Rosenbaum's piece isn't the most generous, but still.

Rachel is the only one (including Rosenbaum) who's brought up any musical qualities, and even those are pretty vague: song structure and likeability. I've got nothing against simple catchy songs--"Yesterday" or "Pale Blue Eyes" or whatever--but that's not what BJ is doing. Those songs have melodies that take the whole verse to resolve, Anthony's Song (sorry, no BJ in the house so I have to use that as an example) pauses after each phrase, and you know instantly where the melody is going. It takes absolutely no attention span to follow.

If that were all, then he'd just be a catchy songwriter. But on top of that he adds unearned bombast without the aggressiveness that would make it at all challenging. Seriously: "Iiiiiiiiii'm --- MO-VING OUT!" I think this is what Rosenbaum was getting at, although he did it on a lyrical level, which is kind of cheap.

posted by Jared at 4:44 PM on January 26, 2009

Oh gawd, that quote is so much like his Eeyore alter-ego.

Anyway, well, if we're saying that rebellion = quality music, then we're basically taking the hipster side of the argument. And I could find you a couple of million essays on why hipsters are the Worst Demographic Ever. But that said, I do think that angst is at the heart of a lot of soulful music, and that it's not a guarantee of quality but it sure does add flavor. And Billy Joel has an adult-level angst in his lyrics (the rebelliousness in acts like the Sex Pistols and Nirvana is ultimately juvenile) that, for many people, connects with them personally and/or professionally. Also, his composing abilities are very good, which is something that he gets little credit for from his lyrical detractors in these sorts of discussions. You know, because the 4-minutes-straight of distortion and four-chord progressions in punk rock is really the summit of musical accomplishment.

But then again, if you're a fanatic for anarchy, sophomoric tendencies, and cacophony, there's very little there for you in the Billy Joel canon. Personally, I do like the Ramones and the Sex Pistols, they're all in the Hall of Fame, we don't have to tear anyone down for their shortcomings like RR is curiously doing.

posted by Brian Van at 4:47 PM on January 26, 2009

> And I could find you a couple of million essays on why hipsters are the Worst Demographic Ever.

My god, bind those up in a book and you've got at least one guy who'll buy it.

posted by David at 5:14 PM on January 26, 2009

@Brian Van:

I don't necessarily need anarchy, but some level of anticipation and delayed melodic resolution would be nice.

posted by Jared at 5:15 PM on January 26, 2009

I hear you, Jared - Billy Joel's music isn't typically challenging, or even surprising - though I would argue that the sudden shifts in "Scenes from an Italian Restaurant" are pretty out of left field (three separate parts, four if you count the bridge in the Brenda and Eddie narrative). But - Billy Joel isn't Radiohead. My feeling about his stuff is that it just works - that's what I was getting at regarding structure and how easily the lyrics find the melody line - that's not as easy to manage as he makes it look. He's also excellent at accents - the whistle in "Allentown," the rotors in "Goognight Saigon," even that breaking glass in "You May Be Right" - I feel like he just makes things fit. It's not music to throw you up against a wall and ravish you, true. But I've got Barry Manilow for that.

posted by Rachel Sklar at 5:39 PM on January 26, 2009

Sophomoric angst aside, he sold a lot more records...
BJ: 150 million albums worldwide

Sex Pistols: Under 500,000 (surprising to me)

Nevermind "only" sold: 7,918,000

He's fun, in the safe kind of way your mom wants you to have fun, but sometimes you want to be taken somewhere by a rock song you wouldn't ever want anyone to find out about.

Scenes from an Italian Restaurant ain't no Darlin' Nikki, catchy and multi-thematic though it is.

I've spent several Saturday nights drunker than a pig singing Piano Man with a bunch of friends, so it's not like I don't appreciate Billy's time and place...

posted by ratman at 5:52 PM on January 26, 2009

And now that Rachel has mentioned being thrown up against a wall and ravished, I think it's time to admit to ourselves why this thread is so fun: BJ.

posted by Jared at 6:05 PM on January 26, 2009

I always found him too boomer-ish. However, that song "New York State of Mind" is a classic.

posted by Brian P at 10:04 PM on January 26, 2009

Hey Jared, I think you make some great points. I've pretty much avoided this argument since about 1982, so I'm pretty rusty at being defensive about Billy Joel.

I'm not making the case for Billy Joel as better than Bruce Springsteen or even "He is the greatest pop singer ever!" My point is that the opprobrium and vitriol that is hurled at him by critics over the years has been out of proportion.

For example, I have never seen any impassioned screeds inveighing against the likes of REO Speedwagon or Journey or Styx.

I bring up those bands to offer a contrast. Billy Joel's music, all of itl, has a much more personal, visceral quality than the run of the mill pop song.

Even a song so vilified like Just The Way You Are or Honesty is so unusual on so many levels. Typically, love songs are either all hearts and flowers or Wagnerian pleas of "I can't live, if living is without you!" Billy Joel's song lyrics are mundane and direct and conversational and natural. The tend to evince a deep well of self-doubt and self-deprecation, which is either deep or cloying depending on how you want to see it.

As for the music, again, those two songs are pretty standard ballads, the first a by-the-numbers bossa nova and the second, a kind of old world tin pan alley tune. But to me, because of their familiarity -- sure, throw the word derivative at them, as if everything the Rolling Stones and even the ground-breaking Velvet Underground didn't have some precedent before them -- it works, as Rachel said. And I take that to mean, it just sounds good to your ears and your heart. (Jeez, I'm kind of sounding like Billy Joel here).

Or to stand up for Still Rock N Roll To Me, I am not ashamed to say that it has an infectious bass lines and updates '50s chord progressions in way I couldn't really point to anywhere else. Secondly, the images and references are vivid, while his complaint that categorizing rock music -- I know, he should have said "pop music" -- is irrelevant. Just listen and enjoy and forget about genre games.

I actually gave up on Billy Joel for a long time and gravitated toward more sophisticated music like Elvis Costello (who once mocked Just The Way You Are -- a song now being covered by his wife, Diana Krall) and became more interested in other indie tastes and thought that Billy Joel's brand of populism was tired and dry. But a few years ago, maybe it is nostalgia the bred by carrying around an iPod with thousands of songs in it, I just started listening again. And it just worked (and yes, again, this line is derivative of an earlier comment by Rachel).

posted by davidakaplan at 10:43 PM on January 26, 2009

I hope this really is Billy, and I hope hope hope he shows up here, too. Either way, I still love this thread.

posted by Rachel Sklar at 1:40 AM on January 27, 2009

Awesome RS!

"I was actually trying to sing like Robert Palmer"
And Kurt was
"just trying to rip off the Pixies."

posted by ratman at 1:53 AM on January 27, 2009

Not to bring another 80s legend into the mix here, but this discussion reminded me of the article about Huey Lewis mentally handicapped fan base. (Wait! Dont be offended yet!). Klosterman talks about how he loved Billy Joel as a child in Sex, Drugs and Cocoa Puffs, and Jody Rosens article mines a similar vein. I think the key is that BJ appeals to young, precocious kids because he acts like a young, precocious kid. Or rather, if a young, precocious kid had access to copious amounts of red wine and a boat, thats how they would act. Damn it, Mom! (or Bob Christgau), hes saying, Im smarter than I look! So just as Huey Lewis appeals to a certain set of fans because his lyrics tap into their feelings more one would expect, Billy Joel speaks to the Max Fishers of the world. And, as we all know, thats whos running the Internet now, right?

posted by Alexander Basek at 7:24 AM on January 27, 2009

Unbelievable, the amount of thought expended on this issue! We should put you people to work on that Israel/Palestine thing.

posted by Eric at 12:01 PM on January 27, 2009

I think the problem people like Rosenblaum have with Billy Joel is that he's not artificial enough for them. He's a guy from the working class talking directly and naturally to the working class (or if you prefer, a "regular guy" talking to other regular guys/girls) in their own language, on their own terms. They see something duplicitous in him that isn't there because they can't imagine being that direct without being ironic.

They invariably prefer frauds like Bruce Springsteen, who has made a career out of condescending to those same people, but does it in a way that critics can imagine themselves doing (by constructing exaggerated stories about them that could not possibly be true, speaking for them in a voice they could not possibly use, etc). The Piano Man actually happened, something people who have ben fucked in the ass by irony either don't get or can't stand. I don't want to seem to run artificiality down, but the reaction is a bit childish.

So let's dispose of the moral argument there.

More importantly, Springsteen can't write a tune to save his goddamn life. Billy Joel may be guilty of schlock, but he's never guilty of not being fun, and seems incapable of writing something you can't hum. Occasionally hokey and sentimental? Sure, but with a wink, and joyfully so. I lok at Billy Joel and see a guy who's part of a songwriting tradition going back through Vaudeville all the way back to Ireland. I look at Springsteen and don't just wonder why people put bread in his jar, but think "man, what are you doing here?"

posted by Ciaran Daly at 1:52 PM on January 27, 2009

Watching Billy tear into that blogger was like watching the best part of Rocky 4.

I know it's customary to assume anything written under a celebrity's byline is fake, but the Internet has a weird effect on people who are accustomed to a filtered universe.

People who would otherwise rise above it lose their minds when they see people talking shit about them on the net.

I'd bet $100 that's the real Billy, and that the stuff he says about TV producers is absolutely true.

And while I'm here, quick hipster cred check, please. Did Springsteen redeem himself in the past 20 years and become artsy and/or cool?

He's gotten some good critical reviews lately and I'm wondering how much cover that provides.

posted by Michael Duff at 2:35 PM on January 27, 2009

i've said it before and i'll say it again....billy joel gave a drunk commencement speech at my graduation and it was wonderful. how could i hate him after that? i can't. i love billy joel. gosh, that feels good to say.

posted by Brian Ries at 10:10 PM on January 27, 2009

Mr. Rosenbaum appears to be under the impression that Joel wrote all one hundred and eighteen of his (album-released) songs simultaneously, and all of them after becoming one of the most successful musicians/performers in American music history.

My response, including the history behind some of the songs he so wrongly criticizes is here:


posted by Brian Greenberg at 10:34 AM on January 29, 2009

Billy Joel? Why? Just, just why? Shall we pile on James Taylor or Jimmy Buffet or other easy targets?

How did they fit in their times? It's like the argument over Baseball Hall of Famers. What was their impact then? How did they impact others, and over a substantial period?

Cripes. How about a Celine evisceration while he's at it?

posted by Safran at 12:27 AM on January 30, 2009

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