Saturday, 6 March 2010

'You May Be Right, I May Be Crazy': The Works of Billy Joel

I was born on November 22nd 1983. The number one single on the Australian charts that week was Uptown Girl by Billy Joel, possibly one of the greatest and cheesiest pop songs every written. In some ways my childhood was always connected to the music of Billy Joel even though my parents only own one of his albums (The River of Dreams, hardly representative of his work). One of my earliest memories of music was listening to Uptown Girl in 1987, as the car headed down the Old Belair Road: a terrifyingly winding road in my three year old mind. I have absolutely no idea why this memory sticks out, but for some reason every time I think of Uptown Girl, I think not of Christie Brinkley, but that trip down those steep curves.

Some six years after, I used to catch the bus to school with this gentle, kind boy who was an old soul. He never said anything mean to anyone. And yet I wasn’t as nice as I could have been to him. Every time he got on the bus he used to request Adelaide AM (then) radio station 5AD because that was the only station that would play Billy Joel. The rest of us liked the mainstream station SAFM. My friends and I used to give him all sorts of shit when he did this ‘Only old people listen to Billy Joel, maybe we should drop you off at an nursing home on the way to school’. Well I’m using this blog to prove that he was right and I was wrong.

Billy Joel was always the kind of artist who was everywhere in my formative years. As the majority of my time away from home was spent with adults: other groups of parents, or pediatric specialists, or staff at the special school. My life was unintentionally filled with a Billy Joel soundtrack. The only other thing these groups of people had in common besides me, was that they all listened to 5AD, a radio station which only played three types of music: the Motown songbook, ‘current’ ballads (think Mariah Carey and Michael Bolton) and Billy Joel’s back catalogue. Thus Billy Joel came to represent the part that I hated the most about my childhood; being poked, prodded and studied which all of the above three groups specialised in.

A period of Joel revisionism emerged within me about five years ago. I watched a 2 hour special on Inside the Actors Studio where the interview concentrated on how he came to write his many hits, and a few album tracks I had never even heard of. It was at this point that I realised that Joel writes great songs, and he is a great storyteller. Sure, he tries too hard with his lyrics, but in one of the many contradictions of his career the melodies just flow in a deceptively easy fashion.

There is also another side to the genius of his songwriting craft. Behind the shiny hooks and pop song structures lies the heart of a lonely soul. I did not understand this myself until a few weeks ago when I read a profile on Joel in the New York Times by Chuck Klosterman. Klosterman first advanced this theory in his book of essays Sex, Drugs and Cocoa Puffs and his argument is quite compelling:

Being depressed was the most normal anyone could be. In fact being depressed sort of meant you were smart. And in a larger sense, Joel’s music was documenting the idea from the very beginning. A song like Honesty (off of 52nd Street) implies that the only way you can tell whether someone really cares about you is if they tell you you’re bad… Scenes From an Italian Restaurant (off of The Stranger) is about how the most perfect relationships are almost inevitably doomed. Joel’s music always has an undercurrent of railing against the desire for perfection. Another song off The Stranger, Just The Way You Are proves that sentiment.

To this day women are touched by the words of Just The Way You Are, a musical love letter that says everything everybody wants to hear. You’re not flawless, but you’re still what I want. It was written about Joel’s wife and manager Elizabeth Weber. The sad irony, of course, is that Joel divorced Elizabeth four years after Just The Way You Are won a Grammy for Song of the Year

It makes me think about the drunken emails I have written over the past twelve years and about all the various women who received them. I think about how I told them they changed the way I thought about the universe, and that made every other woman on earth unattractive, and that I would love them unconditionally even if we were never together. I hate that those letters still exist. But I don’t hate them because what I said was false; I hate them because what I said was completely true. My convictions couldn’t have been stronger when I wrote those words and for whatever reason they still faded into nothingness. Three times I have been certain that I could never love anyone else, and I was wrong every single time. Those old love letters remind me of my emotional failure and my accidental lies, and for whatever reason they still faded into nothingness. Just The Way You Are reminds Joel of his.

Perhaps that’s why I can’t see Billy Joel as cool. Perhaps because all he makes me see is me.

Modern pop culture has cast Billy Joel as the ultimate dag: representing most of what is wrong with the music taste of the traditional baby boomer: the saccharine sentiments and their tendency to gravitate towards the mediocre mainstream (see also Fleetwood Mac). An episode of The Simpsons where Homer becomes a hippy and uses Uptown Girl as an protest song, written in ironic fashion may be the best illustration of this point. However as time goes by revisionists such as myself regard the opposite to be true, and now see Billy Joel as a kind of musical antihero. Despite selling millions of albums, Joel craved critical approval that his contemporaries (Carole King, James Taylor, and of course Elton John) always received at his expense.

Of course I was not around for the majority of Joel's sixteen year musical prime (1973-1989) but I have the sneaking suspicion that he lacked critical praise for the exact same reason I rejected him in the first place. His omnipresence in everyday life during this period and the years immediately after was so overbearing that any decent critical evaluation of his music served as an afterthought.

To me the Joel mystique is best represented in My Life (also featured on 52nd Street), which is a song suggesting that he does not need love. He is better off being independent and free. He does not need sex because ‘...either way its okay to wake up with yourself.’ Superficially the arrangement is light, easy and the song has a great hook. However, on closer inspection the lyrics seem to represent a rejection of his popularity, both with the ladies and with the record buying public. Joel is once again taking on the role of the outsider in what one could argue is one of the most popular songs about arrogance in music. It is a piece that was never critically lauded. Perhaps the degree of aloofness in My Life might explain the disconnect between the record buying public and the music press. It might also be one of the reasons why Joel stopped making pop records after 1993, explaining that he ran out of things to say, but was never fully satisfied creatively.

This is why I love Joel and his music these days. In an age where I am utterly captivated by music criticism and its ability to analyse its own role within pop culture Billy Joel plays against type. Just when you think you have him sorted, another untapped explanation into his psyche emerges. His music I’ve only just figured out has as many twists and turns as that Old Belair Road.

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