Billy Joel by Jimmy Tagliaferri
Entertainment

A Defense of Billy Joel

For all his commercial success, Billy Joel gets no respect, but his distinctly simple music about the angst of being a Long Island piano man resonates with me, a millennial.
March 9, 2020, 11:57am

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“Well, we all have a face / That we hide away forever / And we take them out / And show ourselves when everyone has gone,” Billy Joel sings on the title track of his 1977 album, The Stranger. Around my 26th birthday, I discovered a face that I had hidden away. After everyone had gone, I took it out, tried it on, and understood myself for who I really am, something strange and unfamiliar: a Billy Joel fan.

There is no logical reason I should be so enamored with Billy Joel: I was born in 1993, the year he released his final pop album. (Billy Joel stopped making pop music when his career was still thriving, because Billy Joel knows when to call it quits, which is one of the many things I love about Billy Joel.) Meanwhile, my parents—who moved to the East Village in the mid-1970s and were No Wave musicians, playing at CBGB and Max’s Kansas City alongside musicians like Talking Heads and Patti Smith—rejected most of their generation’s popular music. They always hated Billy Joel, but it’s not like they told me just how much they hated Billy Joel until I showed up to Thanksgiving 2019 clad in a Billy Joel shirt and insisted on playing his songs all night. Incidentally, my parents were such big hipsters that even the commercially and critically beloved Bruce Springsteen was too mainstream for them. “It didn’t seem edgy enough,” my mother said of both Springsteen and Joel, before going on an extremely boomeresque tangent about how she appreciates Springsteen’s commitment to liberal politics. (Springsteen and Joel, of course, are yin and yang: New Jersey and New York, the guitar guy and the piano man, etc.)

My father was born four years after Billy Joel and grew up in a Jewish household less than 10 miles away from Joel’s hometown of Hicksville, but has never been a fan, because Billy Joel is everything he never wanted to be. Billy Joel is quintessential Long Island—he still lives there—while my dad wanted to get out of there as fast as he could. (He literally lives in Sweden now.) “Maybe it’s his Long Island Jew-ness,” my dad said on his distaste for Billy Joel. “A reflection of my self-loathing.”

We inherit our parents’ anxieties, so, naturally, I spent my teenage years obsessed with being alternative, fretting about my perceived coolness, using my countercultural taste in music and art to cultivate my sense of self. Between when I graduated college (2014) and now (2020), i.e., when I turned into an adult, I realized that the ideology that middle-class baby boomers and Gen Xers had sold to my generation—that having refined and alternative tastes in culture makes you virtuous—was a total scam. I fell in love with Billy Joel as an act of semi-adolescent rebellion against my snobby parents, and diametrically, because I’m mature enough to understand that it doesn’t really matter whether other people think the music you like is good—not a little, not at all.

But make no mistake, Billy Joel is good! If you’re a music snob, you’re probably thinking, That’s stupid, and to that I say, hear me out.

There are various Billy Joel lyrics I think about constantly, like in “Scenes From an Italian Restaurant,” how he just starts naming every type of wine—“A bottle of white, a bottle of red / Perhaps a bottle of rosé instead”—or in “Piano Man,” his most iconic and derided song, when he sings, “Now Paul is a real estate novelist / Who never had time for a wife,” which makes you wonder, What the fuck is a real estate novelist?

I don’t love Billy Joel because he’s stupid, but rather because he knows how to sell even the most banal lyrics. His songs are imbued with an underlying, familiar pathos, and he focuses on the most mundane tragedies of existence. His songs acknowledge that life kinda sucks, and also, it’s kinda OK. “Piano Man” is all about his simultaneous contempt and affection for his audience. He wrote it in the mid-70s, when he was playing piano at clubs around Los Angeles, and the song basically functions as a complaint. “There’s an old man sitting next to me,” Joel sings. “Making love to his tonic and gin / He says, ‘Son, can you play me a memory / I’m not really sure how it goes / But it’s sad and it’s sweet and I knew it complete / When I wore a younger man’s clothes.’” That sounds like an annoying request, and yet his description invokes a sort of compassion for the old man. “Sing us a song / You’re the piano man”? How demanding. His music conjures a sense of exhaustion, because hey, being alive is hard, even if you’re a multimillionaire rock legend, or just some Brooklyn writer girl listening along.

Billy Joel’s contempt has gotten him in trouble. In a 2009 anti-Joel diatribe published on Slate, Ron Rosenbaum identifies his “unearned contempt” as the fundamental reason that Billy Joel is so terrible, identifying various lyrics that show the worst of Billy Joel, like when he sings about “all the movie stars in their fancy cars and their limousines” in “New York State of Mind.” (“You think Billy Joel has really never ridden in a limo?” Rosenbaum writes.) Sure, Billy Joel often postures as an everyman (see “The Downeaster ‘Alexa,’” which adopts the perspective of a working-class fisherman), but part of the charm of Billy Joel is that despite being rich and famous, he has a lot to be mad about. (I won’t even get into the various managers and record labels who swindled him out of his earnings during his early career!)

For all his commercial success—he’s sold more than 150 million records—Billy Joel gets no fucking respect. In 1980, the New York Times music critic Robert Palmer fucking destroyed him in a review of the first of five sold-out Madison Square Garden shows, writing, “He has won a huge following by making emptiness seem substantial… He’s the sort of popular artist who makes elitism seem not just defensible but necessary.” During one of his subsequent shows at the Garden, Joel responded by ripping up the article onstage. While other (pre-internet) superstars might have ignored the hate, his critical failure really gets to him. What’s more relatable than that?

Billy Joel is not sexy. (What’s more relatable than that?) Billy Joel is sad. (What’s more relatable than that?) Sometimes, Billy Joel gets mad. (What’s more relatable than that?) Billy Joel is not cool. (What’s more relatable than that?) “Look at me, do I look like a rock star? No,” he said in one interview. “I look like a guy who makes pizza.”

Billy Joel is accessible and unpretentious. Billy Joel is a bumpkin of a rock star.

And still, there is persistent tenderness to Billy Joel, underneath the contempt. “Vienna” is his best song, and I implore you to listen to it, even if you think you hate Billy Joel, because it’s beautiful and catchy and when I hear him sing, “Where’s the fire, what’s the hurry about? / You’d better cool it off before you burn it out,” I feel that, and I don’t care if it’s cheesy!

It’s not just his music that I adore, it’s the whole package. One biography of Billy Joel exists, which was originally slated to be an autobiography, but was published under his ghostwriter’s byline because Joel chickened out at the last minute after the publisher requested too many juicy details about his love life. (He’s currently on his fourth marriage; notable exes include the supermodel Christie Brinkley, with whom he shares a daughter, Alexa Ray, and the Food Network’s Katie Lee, who is 32 years his junior. His most interesting marriage, however, was definitely with his first wife–slash–manager, Elizabeth Weber, whom he met when he was in a short-lived metal duo, Attila, because she was married to his bandmate. Gasp!)

Quotes from his interviews over the years linger in my mind, like when he said, “I don’t think there’s anything more pathetic than a man on a diet,” and, “To me, a musician going to rehab is like a normal person going to get his teeth cleaned,” and the time he responded to a reporter’s question about Donald Trump by explaining that most of his family was killed at Auschwitz and how concerned he is with the rise of Nazi-adjacent ideology in the United States today, ending the sentiment with, “But I’m a libtard. What do I know?”

Well, Billy Joel, I think you know a lot. I don’t think it is going too far to say that, in fact, Billy Joel is a genius. At the very least, Billy Joel deserves more reverence than he gets. “There are no conditions for appreciating Billy Joel,” Chuck Klosterman wrote in his best-selling book Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs. “Because Billy is not ‘cool’ like Elvis Costello—and because he's not ‘anticool’ like Randy Newman… he’s one of the only hyper-mainstream pop artists who’s brilliant for reasons (and for songs) that almost no one is aware of.”

Klosterman told me that Billy Joel is part of a group of artists who are concerned with “populist virtuosity,” along with Garth Brooks and “the most talented but least cool member of the Beatles,” Paul McCartney. “Their skill is not to create music that is impressive to other musicians or to the critical community. It is to create music for the person who doesn’t really think about music until they hear it.”

Everything that people tell me is bad about Billy Joel—his contempt for his audience, his obvious uncoolness—just makes me love him more. I like Billy Joel almost in the same way I like McDonald’s. McDonald’s, much like Billy Joel, is engineered for mass audiences to enjoy. (The primary difference between my relationship to McDonald’s and to Billy Joel is that consuming Billy Joel’s music does not negatively affect my health.) But something that persistently irks me about the way I see elitists like my parents—sorry guys, I love you!—approach McDonald’s is that they pretend it doesn’t taste good. McDonald’s tastes great. The food is literally engineered to be delicious; that’s why it’s so popular. Billy Joel is the same way. His music is catchy and pleasant, and it was designed to be that way. It doesn’t challenge you unless and until you really think about it, and you know what? That’s OK.

Sometimes you want a steak. Other times, you’re really jonesing for a hamburger. There is only something wrong with a hamburger if you’re expecting it to be a steak. But if you accept the hamburger for what it is, you learn to love it, to appreciate 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.