A week or so ago I spotted an amusing and insightful article by Jay Rosen on why Billy Joel is so bad. This is not kneejerk rock-snobbism; the writer is a sympathiser and a former fan. As he points out, Joel doesn't lack for ability -- he's a strong singer, excellent pianist, and a talented songwriter in the Bacharach mould.
His downfall is a desperate need to be taken seriously. Rosen writes:
"The truth is that Joel was born at the wrong time. Were he a decade older, he might have wound up in the Brill Building crafting perfect little pop songs and gone down in history with Burt Bacharach, Carole King, and company. But Joel came of age in the post-Beatles era, when songwriters grew self-conscious about rock's aesthetic and social significance, and felt compelled to make statements "
Some of the results have been dire. I still remember watching on TV a concert Joel gave in Moscow around about 1988 or 1989, when Western rock stars were still a novelty behind the Iron Curtain. One of the songs he played was "Allentown", an attempt at a Springsteen-style, New Jersey working class ballad. Joel introduced it by saying: "this song is about......the workers!" (you know, because it was the Soviet Union and all) .
The crowd cheered wildly, mostly because they didn't understand a word and were cheering wildly at everything. I was only fifteen or so at the time - but not too young to cringe with embarassment.
"Piano Man", the song Rosen describes as Joel's attempt to be a "Dylan-style poet-troubadour", also has its clunky moments. It's a catchy melody, but the lyrics are made of concrete. As the song crescendos, Joel puffs out hs chest and hollers:
Now the piano it sounds like a carnival (an ok line)
and the microphone smells like a beer (now that is just an unpleasant image)
and they sit at the bar and put bread in my jaw (again, an unintentionally comic image)
and say "man, what are you doing here"
He then goes off into some la-de-das, to remind us that it's, you know, a folk song. The real problem is that it's not clear what the point is. Is the song about how tough it is to earn your living as a house musician? Not really. A story about one or more of the characters in the bar? The hopes and dreams of the singer? No, none of the above. The only candidate for a theme comes in the line:
They're sharing a drink they call loneliness - but it's better than drinking alone.
Which just makes it sound like the theme song from Cheers.
But the real nadir has to be "We Didn't Start the Fire", in my book a candidate for the worst song ever written. The verses have Joel reeling off a list of twentieth-century events, icons and individuals. Quite apart from blatantly stealing the idea ("a list of persons and things, sung rapidly") from REM's "It's the End of the World As We Know It", this has no apparent point.
Maybe we find enlightenment in the chorus?
We didn't start the fire; it was always burning, since the world's been turning
This still leaves us a bit confused. Who are "we"? And what is "the fire"? Perhaps we could paraphrase it thus: "History has always seen instances of conflict, oustanding individuals and groundbreaking events". In other words, shit happens.
What makes this so unutterably bad? I think it's something to do with the telegraphed, hamfisted attempt to be deep and meaningful, while actually being completely fatuous. One of the verses reaches its pre-chorus climax with Joel spiritedly declaiming: "Belgians in the Congo!". I rest my case.