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“Effectively, all of us have a face / That we conceal away endlessly / And we take them out / And present ourselves when everybody has gone,” Billy Joel sings on the title observe of his 1977 album, The Stranger. Round my 26th birthday, I found a face that I had hidden away. After everybody had gone, I took it out, tried it on, and understood myself for who I actually am, one thing unusual and unfamiliar: a Billy Joel fan.
There isn’t a logical motive I needs to be so enamored with Billy Joel: I used to be born in 1993, the 12 months he launched his closing pop album. (Billy Joel stopped making pop music when his profession was nonetheless thriving, as a result of Billy Joel is aware of when to name it quits, which is without doubt one of the many issues I like about Billy Joel.) In the meantime, my mother and father—who moved to the East Village within the mid-1970s and have been No Wave musicians, enjoying at CBGB and Max’s Kansas Metropolis alongside musicians like Speaking Heads and Patti Smith—rejected most of their technology’s well-liked music. They all the time hated Billy Joel, however it’s not like they informed me simply how a lot they hated Billy Joel till I confirmed as much as Thanksgiving 2019 clad in a Billy Joel shirt and insisted on enjoying his songs all night time. By the way, my mother and father have been such large hipsters that even the commercially and critically beloved Bruce Springsteen was too mainstream for them. “It didn’t appear edgy sufficient,” my mom stated of each Springsteen and Joel, earlier than happening a particularly boomeresque tangent about how she appreciates Springsteen’s dedication to liberal politics. (Springsteen and Joel, in fact, are yin and yang: New Jersey and New York, the guitar man and the piano man, and so forth.)
My father was born 4 years after Billy Joel and grew up in a Jewish family lower than 10 miles away from Joel’s hometown of Hicksville, however has by no means been a fan, as a result of Billy Joel is every part he by no means wished to be. Billy Joel is quintessential Lengthy Island—he nonetheless lives there—whereas my dad wished to get out of there as quick as he may. (He actually lives in Sweden now.) “Perhaps it’s his Lengthy Island Jew-ness,” my dad stated on his distaste for Billy Joel. “A mirrored image of my self-loathing.”
We inherit our mother and father’ anxieties, so, naturally, I spent my teenage years obsessive about being various, fretting about my perceived coolness, utilizing my countercultural style in music and artwork to domesticate my sense of self. Between after I graduated faculty (2014) and now (2020), i.e., after I became an grownup, I noticed that the ideology that middle-class child boomers and Gen Xers had offered to my technology—that having refined and various tastes in tradition makes you virtuous—was a complete rip-off. I fell in love with Billy Joel as an act of semi-adolescent insurrection towards my snobby mother and father, and diametrically, as a result of I’m mature sufficient to know that it doesn’t actually matter whether or not different folks assume the music you want is nice—not slightly, by no means.
However make no mistake, Billy Joel is good! In the event you’re a music snob, you’re most likely pondering, That’s silly, and to that I say, hear me out.
There are numerous Billy Joel lyrics I take into consideration continually, like in “Scenes From an Italian Restaurant,” how he simply begins naming each kind of wine—“A bottle of white, a bottle of crimson / Maybe a bottle of rosé as a substitute”—or in “Piano Man,” his most iconic and derided tune, when he sings, “Now Paul is an actual property novelist / Who by no means had time for a spouse,” which makes you marvel, What the fuck is an actual property novelist?
I don’t love Billy Joel as a result of he’s silly, however somewhat as a result of he is aware of how one can promote even essentially the most banal lyrics. His songs are imbued with an underlying, acquainted pathos, and he focuses on essentially the most mundane tragedies of existence. His songs acknowledge that life kinda sucks, and likewise, it’s kinda OK. “Piano Man” is all about his simultaneous contempt and affection for his viewers. He wrote it within the mid-70s, when he was enjoying piano at golf equipment round Los Angeles, and the tune principally features as a grievance. “There’s an outdated man sitting subsequent to me,” Joel sings. “Making like to his tonic and gin / He says, ‘Son, are you able to play me a reminiscence / I’m not likely certain the way it goes / However it’s unhappy and it’s candy and I knew it full / After I wore a youthful man’s garments.’” That seems like an annoying request, and but his description invokes a kind of compassion for the outdated man. “Sing us a tune / You’re the piano man”? How demanding. His music conjures a way of exhaustion, as a result of hey, being alive is tough, even should you’re a multimillionaire rock legend, or simply some Brooklyn author woman listening alongside.
Billy Joel’s contempt has gotten him in hassle. In a 2009 anti-Joel diatribe printed on Slate, Ron Rosenbaum identifies his “unearned contempt” as the basic motive that Billy Joel is so horrible, figuring out varied lyrics that present the worst of Billy Joel, like when he sings about “all of the film stars of their fancy vehicles and their limousines” in “New York State of Thoughts.” (“You assume Billy Joel has actually by no means ridden in a limo?” Rosenbaum writes.) Positive, Billy Joel usually postures as an everyman (see “The Downeaster ‘Alexa,’” which adopts the attitude of a working-class fisherman), however a part of the attraction of Billy Joel is that regardless of being wealthy and well-known, he has rather a lot to be mad about. (I gained’t even get into the varied managers and report labels who swindled him out of his earnings throughout his early profession!)
For all his industrial success—he’s offered greater than 150 million information—Billy Joel will get no fucking respect. In 1980, the New York Instances music critic Robert Palmer fucking destroyed him in a evaluation of the primary of 5 sold-out Madison Sq. Backyard exhibits, writing, “He has gained an enormous following by making vacancy appear substantial… He’s the kind of well-liked artist who makes elitism appear not simply defensible however obligatory.” Throughout considered one of his subsequent exhibits on the Backyard, Joel responded by ripping up the article onstage. Whereas different (pre-internet) superstars may need ignored the hate, his important failure actually will get to him. What’s extra relatable than that?
Billy Joel isn’t horny. (What’s extra relatable than that?) Billy Joel is gloomy. (What’s extra relatable than that?) Typically, Billy Joel will get mad. (What’s extra relatable than that?) Billy Joel isn’t cool. (What’s extra relatable than that?) “Have a look at me, do I seem like a rock star? No,” he stated in a single interview. “I seem like a man who makes pizza.”
Billy Joel is accessible and unpretentious. Billy Joel is a bumpkin of a rock star.
And nonetheless, there may be persistent tenderness to Billy Joel, beneath the contempt. “Vienna” is his greatest tune, and I implore you to hearken to it, even should you assume you hate Billy Joel, as a result of it’s stunning and catchy and after I hear him sing, “The place’s the hearth, what’s the hurry about? / You’d higher cool it off earlier than you burn it out,” I really feel that, and I don’t care if it’s tacky!
It’s not simply his music that I like, it’s the entire bundle. One biography of Billy Joel exists, which was initially slated to be an autobiography, however was printed beneath his ghostwriter’s byline as a result of Joel chickened out on the final minute after the writer requested too many juicy particulars about his love life. (He’s presently on his fourth marriage; notable exes embrace the supermodel Christie Brinkley, with whom he shares a daughter, Alexa Ray, and the Meals Community’s Katie Lee, who’s 32 years his junior. His most fascinating marriage, nevertheless, was positively together with his first spouse–slash–supervisor, Elizabeth Weber, whom he met when he was in a short-lived metallic duo, Attila, as a result of she was married to his bandmate. Gasp!)
Quotes from his interviews through the years linger in my thoughts, like when he stated, “I don’t assume there’s something extra pathetic than a person on a weight-reduction plan,” and, “To me, a musician going to rehab is sort of a regular particular person going to get his enamel cleaned,” and the time he responded to a reporter’s query about Donald Trump by explaining that the majority of his household was killed at Auschwitz and the way involved he’s with the rise of Nazi-adjacent ideology in america as we speak, ending the sentiment with, “However I’m a libtard. What do I do know?”
Effectively, Billy Joel, I feel you recognize rather a lot. I don’t assume it’s going too far to say that, in truth, Billy Joel is a genius. On the very least, Billy Joel deserves extra reverence than he will get. “There aren’t any situations for appreciating Billy Joel,” Chuck Klosterman wrote in his best-selling e book Intercourse, Medicine, and Cocoa Puffs. “As a result of Billy isn’t ‘cool’ like Elvis Costello—and since he isn’t ‘anticool’ like Randy Newman… he’s one of many solely hyper-mainstream pop artists who’s sensible for causes (and for songs) that nearly nobody is conscious of.”
Klosterman informed me that Billy Joel is a part of a bunch of artists who’re involved with “populist virtuosity,” together with Garth Brooks and “essentially the most proficient however least cool member of the Beatles,” Paul McCartney. “Their talent is to not create music that’s spectacular to different musicians or to the important group. It’s to create music for the one who doesn’t actually take into consideration music till they hear it.”
The whole lot that individuals inform me is unhealthy about Billy Joel—his contempt for his viewers, his apparent uncoolness—simply makes me love him extra. I like Billy Joel virtually in the identical manner I like McDonald’s. McDonald’s, very similar to Billy Joel, is engineered for mass audiences to take pleasure in. (The first distinction between my relationship to McDonald’s and to Billy Joel is that consuming Billy Joel’s music doesn’t negatively have an effect on my well being.) However one thing that persistently irks me about the way in which I see elitists like my mother and father—sorry guys, I like you!—strategy McDonald’s is that they fake it doesn’t style good. McDonald’s tastes nice. The meals is actually engineered to be scrumptious; that’s why it’s so well-liked. Billy Joel is identical manner. His music is catchy and nice, and it was designed to be that manner. It doesn’t problem you until and till you actually give it some thought, and you recognize what? That’s OK.
Typically you desire a steak. Different instances, you’re actually jonesing for a hamburger. There may be solely one thing incorrect with a hamburger should you’re anticipating it to be a steak. However should you settle for the hamburger for what it’s, you study to adore it, to understand the genius of layering a meat patty atop pickles with ketchup and mustard, the perfection of the sesame seed bun. Billy Joel is the hamburger of pop musicians. It’s about time we respect him for it.