Scenes from an Italian Internet: A Billy Joel Debate
by Mike Grasso and Libby Cudmore
Editor's note: This conversation pairs nicely with our Nu-Wop podcast (ep. 52.) Also, while his status as a good or bad artist is up for debate, Billy Joel is never, ever Yacht Rock.
MIKE: When you reveal an unironic love of Billy Joel to the world, you expose yourself to all kinds of reactions: from ridicule, to pity, to outright shock. Over time, you learn how to cope with people who don't understand Long Island's native son and most famed bard.
I'm not quite sure why I agreed to do this point/counterpoint with Libby Cudmore, the vinyl-hearted vixen behind the #RecordSaturday live-tweet and author of The Big Rewind, knowing I'd be facing not only her impressive verbal dexterity but also her deep, profound distaste for Mr. Joel. Over the last few months on Twitter I've learned a lot about Libby, but probably first and foremost I have learned that she has no time in her life for anything related to William Martin Joel. So I wanted to stick up for the guy! In public, no less!
So in the tradition of Beyond Yacht Rock battle episodes like Van Halen vs. Van Hagar and Neil Diamond vs. Punk, we present our own back-and-forth battle: BILLY JOEL: YEA OR NAY? Libby?
LIBBY: Billy Joel is terrible garbage. Fight me.
MIKE: Wow, essentially ceding the opening argument to me, Libby? I'll take it!
Okay, "Is Billy Joel good?" It's a question we've all grappled with. I'm not going to sit here and insult anyone's intelligence and say this statement is a foregone conclusion or a slam dunk. Let's start with some basics: I concede that Billy Joel is not for everyone. Personal taste is not something you can quantify or convince people out of. That's fine. What I'm here to convince Libby and our audience here of is that Billy Joel is worthy of artistic respect and not, you know, "terrible garbage."
First things first. Anyone who talks about the quality of Billy Joel's work has to acknowledge the scholar par excellence of Billy Joel-ology, Chuck Klosterman. If you've never read any of his Billy Joel essays, get out there and pick up his collection Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs. In his essay "Every Dog Must Have His Every Day, Every Drunk Must Have His Drink," Klosterman perfectly encapsulates the paradox of Billy Joel. I'm not sure I can put this paradox in a pithy one-sentence summary, but essentially Klosterman argues that while most great artists of the rock and roll era somehow integrate their coolness (or even lack thereof, i.e. "they're so uncool, they're cool") into their image, Billy Joel's greatness as an artist is completely independent of his (lack of) coolness. I think this is a great way to explain what Billy Joel's appeal is to me. He exists outside of rock's continuum of cool. And in my book, that is okay. It's more than okay, it's actually kind of subversive.
It's meant that Joel, who Klosterman concedes is not immune to wanting to look cool, has made some very, er, interesting musical and style decisions in his career. Yes, his "New Wave" album Glass Houses (1980), which is packed with hits and probably is my personal favorite of his, is also an example of a painfully dorky 31-year-old artist trying to sound young and relevant. But somehow, he pulls it off! The songs on Glass Houses aren't good New Wave songs at all, but they're great Billy Joel songs. Somehow, this stunt accomplishes exactly what was intended: it takes Billy Joel out of the MOR purgatory he was heading for after "Just The Way You Are" (1977).
What do you make of Klosterman's argument, Libby? And is Billy Joel's being uncool a big part of why you hate him?
LIBBY: I hate Billy Joel because Billy Joel is a hack.
Obviously, all bands and artists have their specific set of influences, but the good ones bring something to their genre, rather than simply water it down with half-assed noise. Tom Waits never sounds like a watered-down Captain Beefheart. Somehow Donald Fagen can pull off Isaac Hayes' "Out of The Ghetto" with a wink and a crooked smirk and it doesn't make him sound like a complete tool. Hell, even Huey Lewis can pull off doo-wop with more panache than Billy Joel, and there is no greater rock and roll punchline than Huey Lewis.
But the seams in Billy Joel's songwriting are as visible as an H&M sweater after two washings. There's his Springsteen Phase, His Ray Charles Phase, the Doo-Wop, the condescending New Wave Phase ("It's Still Rock & Roll To Me," get bent, you tubby fuck) hell, even a half-assed foray into classical music.
And thus, he is not true to himself because there's no himself to be true to. He's just chasing the next trend like a butterfly with ADD. The only "Billy Joel sound" is the hyper-slick sound of money, flopsweat and other people's musical charisma, wrung out into a rocks glass and watered down with a splash of lukewarm tonic. It's one thing to pay homage to your heroes, it's another thing entirely to rip off their sound and make it palatable for boring suburbanites.
Since you brought up Glass Houses, let's talk about it for a minute. Specifically, "Sometimes a Fantasy." Now, I'll admit, the live version of this song on Концерт has a lot of energy (and some unfortunate scatting) but it's about phone sex. Phone sex with Billy Joel. I cannot think of anything more unappealing than picturing Billy Joel jerking off, and I once had a nightmare about having sex with Vic Mackey.
Oh, I'm sorry, did that put you off your breakfast? Too fucking bad, Michael. All bets are off. You brought up Glass Houses.
It's not subversive to be a 31-year-old yelling "get off my lawn!" at punks, or worse, gathering them all together under some #AllGenresMatter umbrella. Punk is traditionally a working-class genre. Funk is a traditionally black genre. So for Billy Joel to be sneering at these genres reeks of spoiled white kid brattiness, a complete cluelessness of how anyone else might live or interpret sound outside of his clean white cul de sac. Sorry it's not the Beatles, you twat.
Billy Joel isn't cool because he's uncool. Billy Joel is uncool because he shows up at Musician Thanksgiving empty-handed, loads up a big plate of everything, drinks all the expensive stuff first, hits on your wife, then backs into your car as he's leaving. And for some reason, we keep saying "Come back next year!" He doesn't bring anything new or exciting to his genre the way his contemporaries did.
I don't think Billy Joel is a soulless machine. I think he wrote from his bloated, half-beating heart, utilizing influences that meant something to him. He just lacks the grace to pull it off in a way that doesn't sound like a simulacrum of better musicians. That's not his fault, but just like we don't give out National Book Awards to Harry Potter fanfiction, I don't think we should be celebrating Billy Joel as a songwriting genius.
MIKE: Wow. Tell us how you really feel, Libby!
In all seriousness, I think you've inadvertently hit upon one of the things that makes Billy Joel at the very least fascinating and at best quite compelling as an artist for me. He truly does not give one bit of a fuck. Yes, he wears his often-obvious influences on his sleeve; yes, he doesn't seem to have any kind of baseline aesthetic from album to album; yes, he doesn't approach his art with anything close to an ironic wink or nod. He follows his muse wherever it might take him. Look, "good artists borrow, great artists steal," we all know that old saw. Billy Joel's thefts seem rote and uninspiring on the surface. But in fact I find them oddly and heartwarmingly authentic and sincere. Billy Joel comes across less as a musical pioneer and more as a fan. He can admit that a song like "Laura" off The Nylon Curtain owes pretty much its entire substance to the Beatles and it doesn't anger me. I find it endearing.
But underneath the surface blandness you cite is, I feel, emotion: a raw, pounding emotional heart that Joel almost always wears on his sleeve. Sometimes ugly ("Laura," "Big Shot"), sometimes possessive ("Just the Way You Are"), sometimes schmaltzy (most of An Innocent Man), sometimes adolescent ("All For Leyna"), sometimes paranoid ("Pressure") sometimes, er, questionably TMI ("Sometimes A Fantasy"), but always urgently authentic. When he's speaking about the people he grew up amongst in the working class ethnic enclaves of Long Island (Irish, Italian, Jewish), he's downright poetic. If you're not Italian-American, maybe you can't appreciate what it was like to hear your family's story spoken of in songs like "Movin' Out" and "Scenes From an Italian Restaurant." But then again, despite his best efforts, we know Joel's not Italian-American either.
And I think that's partly the point. Billy Joel is a chameleonic storyteller who speaks of people that were absent in large part from the narratives of pop music in the 1970s and early 1980s, and unlike his contemporary Bruce Springsteen, he doesn't mythologize these people and their struggle to get out of their shitty little town. Sometimes the story doesn't end on the back of a motorcycle, getting out while you're young, poetry and metaphors everywhere. Sometimes you just end up back at The Village Green, meeting an old flame over a bottle of red or a bottle of white. And isn't that, when you get right down to it, more true, more realistic? The quotidian affairs of working class life; that is the province of Billy Joel. The musical modes and styles he sloughs off like a snakeskin? They're the songs on his childhood and adolescent jukebox.
I want to take as a case study the song "Allentown," off of 1983's The Nylon Curtain because I think it seems to encapsulate all of this. It's Joel's paean to the lost American dream, of doing right by the law, paying your taxes, working your fingers to the bone in a blue-collar factory job, and then watching the jobs leave, your kids' generation unable to "[have] a pretty good shot/To get at least as far as their old man got." It's an unsophisticated but powerful statement of solidarity with the working class, a blue-collar working class Billy Joel may never have been a part of, but whose concerns he is able to expertly (and catchily) articulate. And then Billy Joel makes the video for "Allentown," and it's a mawkish, bizarre spectacle of stagy American patriotism. Billy Joel is literally dressed like a hobo, for Christ's sake, complete with "authentic" five o'clock shadow. It's hokey, and dumb, and honestly laughable. I still love the song and the video. Does Joel's tone-deafness destroy the important message of "Allentown" for other people? I don't know. I don't feel like I need to grade Billy Joel on a curve, and I don't feel like I have to apologize for him, but, well, here I am.
LIBBY: Oh. It's fucking ON now.
I'm starting to think Billy Joel isn't even real, but rather, a renegade robotic Johnny Rockets employee from the future who went rogue and came back in time via Skynet to start a professional singing career. And we let it happen. WE LET IT HAPPEN.
We've been talking about authenticity and Billy Joel has NONE. Like, not even the self-awareness that his music is the McDonald's Cheeseburger of rock & roll. Yes, it is technically a cheeseburger. Yes, they have sold billions of them. But that doesn't mean that it's authentic. The video for "Keepin' the Faith" has it all – poodle skirts, THE MAN, iridescent socks with the same colored shirt, big ol' American cars... but instead of giving us the sense that Billy Joel is a person who spent his adolescence in the 1950s, it tells us that Billy Joel watched reruns of Happy Days in his underwear while other people were going to college.
BECAUSE HE WAS BORN IN 1949 AND WOULDN'T BE A TEENAGER UNTIL THE JFK ASSASSINATION. He had, in essence, the same East Coast adolescence as Donald Fagen and Bruce Springsteen, but instead of embracing that, he ties himself to this Disneyworld version of the rock & roll music that the kids used to love back in the good old days, before the CBGBs and the big hair and the Duran Durans and the I-don't-know-whats... he's not just writing about experiences that aren't his, but that aren't even real.
...like the fact that there have never been steel mills in Allentown. They're all in Bethlehem.
A musician can and should write about people whose experiences aren't theirs. But there's a fine line to walk, and, like a field sobriety test, Billy Joel repeatedly fails to walk it. His embrace of the "working class" is about as authentic as a politician putting on a baseball cap and pointing to tires at a Detroit factory. Billy Joel doesn't give a shit about the working class unless he can romanticize them. And romanticizing people, making a monolithic appropriation of their lives, denies them their own humanity and their own stories.
I'm sure Billy Joel has been rejected for phone sex, though. It's probably the only authentic song in the whole lot.
You need a hero, Grasso. But Billy Joel just ain't it.
MIKE: Yeah, but "Allentown" sounds better.
Okay, sure, a lot of An Innocent Man can come off as too derivative of 1950s and early '60s rock and R&B. But that was literally the point of the album! The 1980s were littered with self-indulgent tributes to Boomers' childhoods and teenage years: The Big Chill, Janis Joplin songs in car commercials, even the goddamned California Raisins. But Billy Joel was one of the FIRST to do it in the 1980s. An Innocent Man came out in 1983, well before the wave of Boomer nostalgia media really took over the country. He also chose to honor early R&B, rock, and doo-wop influences that were, well, kind of forgotten to a mainstream audience in '83: Wilson Pickett, Ben E. King, Frankie Valli. (I also won't harp on the fact that "Allentown" came out a full two years before Bruce's blue-collar opus Born in the U.S.A., because every time I do, Bruce Springsteen fans get mad at me.) Billy Joel is a cutting-edge artist, and yes, I believe he's often well ahead of cultural trends.
It might be time for me to put together the mini-playlist of songs that, to me, speak of Billy Joel's essential indispensability. I've grouped these fifteen tracks, a mix of deep cuts and singles, into categories that explain why I love them so much.
The TV soundtracks: "C'était Toi (You Were The One)," "Rosalinda's Eyes," "Vienna": Television writers have long-known the power of a Billy Joel track. It's not for nothing that the immortal Tom Hanks/Peter Scolari comedy Bosom Buddies chose 1978's "My Life" (or a close approximation/cover of it) as their theme song. Writers for the sitcom Taxi were so inspired by Joel in 1981 that they based an entire episode ("Vienna Waits") around Joel's song "Vienna." And in the late '90s, Paul Feig's early-'80s throwback high school sitcom Freaks and Geeks used three of Joel's songs in an episode where the Geeks fall in love with a new student who's as weird as they are. "C'était Toi" is Joel's try at a take on the Beatles' "Michelle," complete with high school-level French. And yes, "Rosalinda's Eyes" swings from cheesiness to profundity in evoking the life of a down-on-his-luck gigging musician who dreams of better things. These songs really peg the magic of Billy Joel's music: awkwardness, sincerity, romance, and hope.
The rousing crowd-pleasers: "Say Goodbye to Hollywood," "Sleeping With The Television On," "Only the Good Die Young." Not "Piano Man." Never "Piano Man." It's overplayed, clunky, early Joel. The three songs I outline here, though, are crowd-pleasers made for an arena or a stadium. "Say Goodbye to Hollywood" wears its Phil and Ronnie Spector influence proudly but makes it new, with another tale of a down-on-his-luck entertainer. "Sleeping With The Television On" is a deep cut off of Glass Houses, but I think it fits well here. If you've never sung along to that insanely catchy "Your eyes are sayin' TAAAAALK to me" bit in the car, I don't know what to say to you. And "Only the Good Die Young" is immortal, a true classic of adolescent longing which, for those of us who grew up Catholic, made us both chuckle and groan.
The blue collar anthems: "Scenes From An Italian Restaurant," "Movin' Out," "Easy Money." Everyone was doing the symphonic pop song thing in the 1970s and Joel was no exception. "Scenes from an Italian Restaurant" doesn't go the "Bohemian Rhapsody" route and operatically tell the epic story of a man about to be executed. No, it's just another story of two ordinary kids who got married too soon, ordered their decor from the Sears catalog, and found themselves on the outs. No one's fault, nothing dramatic, it's just that... well, these things happen sometimes. "He's trading in his Chevy for a Cadillac-ac-ac-ac-ac-ac" in "Movin' Out"? You can't get a much better encapsulation of the aspirational working class than that. And "Easy Money," well, I just love this song for personal reasons. It was a great family favorite when my folks and their siblings and cousins would get wasted at family gatherings in the '80s. It was also the beginning of the seminal Billy Joel/Rodney Dangerfield collaborations, culminating in the video for "Tell Her About It."
The Beatles ripoffs: "Don't Ask Me Why," "Laura," "A Room of Our Own." It is impossible for an artist in Billy Joel's age cohort to not bear some influence of the Beatles. But even if these are bald-faced homages, Joel always does something interesting with them. "Don't Ask Me Why" is a mid-tempo Rubber Soul-era jangle, while "Laura," as I discussed earlier, is a vituperative take on Joel's own mother drenched in Lennon-esque Magical Mystery Tour-era orchestral psychedelia. "A Room of Our Own" is an interesting deep cut off The Nylon Curtain with echoes of "I've Got A Feeling" and other late Beatles.
The surprisingly deep: "Pressure," "Miami 2017 (Seen the Lights Go Out On Broadway)," "Goodnight Saigon." "Pressure" might be my favorite Billy Joel song. The story is that this is one of his many early '80s "divorce songs," as he was going through his legendarily epic separation battle with his wife/manager. But I feel it's better interpreted as detailing the assault that Joel saw Americans enduring under the constant bombardment of mass media. Here, again, television looms large as a way to escape the pressures of the world, but unlike "Sleeping With the Television On," here Joel's narrator is edgy, possibly coked up and paranoid, and flipping channels in his mind between television, magazines, and his own fears, screaming "What does it mean?" "Miami 2017" posits a dystopia where New York is evacuated and all the familiar landmarks are shut down and destroyed, which was timely commentary considering the dire straits that New York City was in in 1976. And what can be said about "Goodnight Saigon," Joel's contribution to the revisionist Vietnam media that started with The Deer Hunter and Apocalypse Now in the late '70s. Joel manages to thread the very tricky needle of honoring the veterans who went over there and questioning the sanity of the war itself.
On a personal note, I probably wouldn't love Billy Joel so much if my much-loved, dearly-departed grandmother hadn't loved him so much. She lived through the entire rock and roll era; loved classic R&B, saw Ray Charles live multiple times stretching back to the '60s, and she absolutely loved Billy Joel. Again, his songs spoke so much to her own working class life, raising kids in an Irish-American suburb of Boston. She recognized in Joel the hopes and dreams of a certain segment of America's rich tapestry, his encyclopedic pop music knowledge, and his undeniable ability to write catchy pop songs. My grandmother died in 1988, on my 13th birthday, and to this day I still remember all the Billy Joel album covers and clippings on her living room wall whenever she'd babysit me. I'd sit in front of her hi-fi, pore through her vinyl, and listen to fantastic albums.
I realize I'm going for the ultimate emotional gut-punch trump card there by evoking my dear dead sainted Irish grandmother, Libby, but playing fair is for CHUMPS.
LIBBY: Since we're getting personal, I probably wouldn't hate Billy Joel as much as I do if it weren't for my ex. In fact, Billy Joel was my first concert. I used to love him. Then I discovered The Smiths and wised the fuck up. But the ex still claimed Billy Joel as his favorite, and it revealed for me the fact that my ex was not especially deep or intellectual, just wore the facade of such. Billy Joel, to me, is the Patron Saint of guys who take you to Ruby Tuesdays for special occasions, who buy fancy chocolates on Valentine's Day when you actually prefer the heart-shaped Russell Stovers, who thinks the Prequels are "Just as good" as the original Star Wars trilogy.
In other words, the cliches of life and romance. So when I hear Billy Joel, it's not that I think of my ex with any sort of bitterness. It's that I hear someone who didn't ever experience life, just accepted the casual suburban trappings as all that there was out there. Why make burgers out on the grill when you could go to Burger King? Why toss a football around in the backyard when there was a perfectly good Playstation 2 with Madden 2004?
(Our song was "And So It Goes." I am not making this the fuck up.)
Also, I realized I have more to say on this issue – namely, Billy Joel's relationship to women, since you brought up "Only The Good Die Young."
It's a neg of the highest order. Like, for fuck's sake, Billy Joel, here in AMERICA, we have this thing called "Freedom of Religion." We also have (despite what Our Dear Leader might think) the choice to sleep with whoever we want to sleep with. So her being a practicing Catholic is a) 100% within her rights as an AMERICAN CITIZEN, as is her choice not to sleep with you, FOR WHATEVER REASON SHE CHOOSES. So stop nagging her, stop shaming her for her choices in faith and find some 23 year old with low self-esteem/daddy issues to bone you.
Similarly, he negs on the woman he's singing about in "Uptown Girl," despite the fact that by this point, he is an insanely rich singer-man, not an auto mechanic, as the video would like us to believe. "Oh, the only reason she doesn't date me is because I'm just a hard-workin' blue collar man!" he whines (in what can only be called don't-wop) No, maybe she doesn't date you because you're a misogynistic jerk, or because you have bug eyes, or because you're Billy Joel. All of those – and many more! – are perfectly valid reasons not to date someone.
Look, not every song has to be "Desperadoes Under the Eaves." I like fun music as much as the next person.* But Billy Joel doesn't want to be fun. He wants to be seen as VERY DEEP and VERY INTELLECTUAL. That's why he writes shit like "Goodnight Saigon." He wants all of the praise with none of the work or the songwriting depth. He knows no one is going to call him a soulless, smarmy bastard for writing about the VETERANS who DIED FOR THIS COUNTRY and got NO RESPECT. It's a shrewd move, but I see right into your black heart, William.
(For your consideration, I submit Warren Zevon's Sentimental Hygiene, which has many of the same themes as Billy Joel's catalog, but is a thousand times better, all of the heart, none of the back-patting: "The Factory" > "Allentown" "Even The Dog Can Shake Hands" > "The Entertainer" "Detox Mansion" > "Pressure.")
Billy Joel wanted to be a rock star. And he is, in the sense that he still sells out his monthly Madison Square Garden show to midwestern Weekend Warrior Dads while over-tanned Wife #2 goes window-shopping on 5th Avenue. But deep down, I think he knows he doesn't have the talent of The Beatles. He knows he lacks the authenticity of Bruce Springsteen or Bob Dylan, that he doesn't even have the cheeky swing of his "Face to Face" tour bestie Elton John**. He can't let go of this very narrow (and, I believe I have demonstrated, patently false) definition of the rock and roll music because it's, frankly, all he has. So he clings to a raft made of TGI Friday's wall-swag and Milwaukee's Best cans, adrift in a world that redefined his beloved rock and roll sound all around him.
Why else do you think he hasn't released an album since 1993's River of Dreams? Because he knows he is, in the words of the great Steve Porcaro (in the greatest webseries of all time)... an irrelevant joke. When you think about Zevon, releasing The Wind just months before he left us in 2003, far too fucking early, or Gordon Downie recording Man Machine Poem with The Tragically Hip and playing a three-hour show for all of Canada as he's dying from brain cancer, thinking about Billy Joel croaking out "don't take any shit from anybody" after he plays "I Go To Extremes" with his butt, the same way he has night after night after goddamn night is near-infuriating.
We aren't taking any shit, Billy Joel. Not from you.
So he plays the same songs to the same bougie assholes he once scorned in "Movin' Out," (the only ones who can afford $107 cheap-seat tickets) his disdain for the audience as visible as the sweat on his booze-bloated face. And one day in our lifetimes, he'll go to the grave as a man who just couldn't reach beyond his mind's gated community. He was safe, for a time. But I imagine at night, when his child-bride is dreaming of the pool boy on a cocktail of valium and chardonnay, he looks out the window over the Long Island Sound, glass in hand, and wonders what might have been if he'd been a little more raw, a little more honest, a little more open to the world.
But I like to imagine that one day, Warren Zevon will kick his ass in heaven, then pick him up and buy him a beer with no hard feelings. I really don't wish any ill will on Billy Joel... I just hate him.
*This is a lie. My idea of fun music is a Siouxsie & The Banshees dance party, followed by turning off all the lights and listening to Aja.
**I had tickets to see this show too, but I was in our school's production of Anything Goes, so my ex took his friend Mike. Meanwhile, my music teacher came into the dressing room when I was alone & tried to get me to undress in front of him.
Libby Cudmore's debut novel The Big Rewind (William Morrow 2016) received a starred Kirkus review and praise from Booklist, Publisher's Weekly and USA Today. She has written about music for The Collapsar, the Classic Albums blog and the RS 500, and her short stories have been published in PANK, The Stoneslide Corrective, The Big Click, Beat to a Pulp and the Locus Award-nominated anthology Hanzai Japan, where her story "Rough Night In Little Toke" was singled out as a "polished gem" by the Japan Times. She tweets at @libbycudmore, where she hosts the weekly live-tweet #RecordSaturday.
Michael Grasso is a museum professional and Bostonian. He has a podcast on the Yacht Rock-era TV show WKRP In Cincinnati called Hold My Order, Terrible Dresser, and he’s a Contributing Editor at We Are The Mutants, an online magazine about Cold War-era pop and outsider culture. He tweets at @MuseumMichael.