In Defense Of: Billy Joel

In defending these various targets of musical scorn and derision, the author of the series realizes the inherent danger of coming off as defensive 🙂

Some will read this title and wonder, “what’s to defend?” Others will read it, cross their arms, and think “go ahead and try.” I’m a Billy Joel fan and yet, I think some of his stuff is frankly, indefensible. So, I’m in the middle. I can see both sides and I’d like to try to share what insights I can on how he writes and why the results are somewhat polarizing. I’m a songwriter myself — these are my opinions and you know what they say about opinions…  so feel free to post yours in the comments.

Billy Joel is one of the single most accomplished songwriters of our time. That part is not in dispute. He has sold 150 million albums worldwide and is the third best-selling solo artist in the United States. He’s had three number one hits singles, 13 songs in the top 10, and 39 in the top 40. Double albums are too small to contain his greatest hits. He had a recording career that spanned 22 years and then he packed it up and swore off songwriting. He has not put out an album of original material since 1993 but continues to tour, which is mystifying to most people, but I understand it based on how he writes songs.

Beyond his successes in selling records, Billy Joel is just a great songwriter. Sometimes.

“Only the Good Die Young”

Let’s break it down. First of all, I don’t hear anyone complaining that the man can’t write a hook or that his melodies aren’t strong and memorable. Even at his most grating moments, it’s not the melodies that are weak, and those vocal melodies have that essential quality that every singer appreciates — they are singable. Very. Plus, the guy has an Olympic-level voice with a big range and he knows how to use it.

His sense of form is also strong — the verses lead to choruses that pay off (although sometimes his songs are constructed as verses that end with a title hook, as in “She’s Always a Woman” or “Just the Way You Are”). The instrumental passages that constitute his intros and interludes are bulletproof, and since they are usually led by his piano, it should be noted that these passages are wonderfully “pianistic” (they take advantage of the richness of the instrument — Elton John has this quality too in his songwriting). It should be noted too that through the majority of his recording career, Joel used the same band of musicians in the studio and on tour. In his book Making Records: The Scenes Behind the Music, Phil Ramone tells the story of how he replaced a label-appointed producer for The Stranger album who wanted to record with all session musicians (in pursuit of better sales). Billy rejected the idea, Ramone agreed. Led by the insightful forcefulness of Liberty Devitto’s drumming, just listen to the cohesion of Billy’s stalwart band playing together with one musical point of view:

“Movin’ Out (Anthony’s Song)”

That cohesion would provide Billy Joel with a musical spine through the bulk of his recording career. Though the technology and production style shifted and evolved from the mid-70s through the 80s, there is a constant in the music and that can be attributed in large part to using the same core band through it all.

I don’t hear anyone complaining that the man can’t write a hook

I don’t think that any of this is in much dispute. Billy could crank ‘em out and he could keep the quality higher than almost anyone in terms of memorable melodies, hooks, and top-notch record making. I think where people start to diverge is in the area of lyrics.

Now, some people maintain that lyrics are not that important in rock music, that no one listens to the words anyway. You can’t even tell what they are saying sometimes and it doesn’t matter as long as the music rocks (sometimes you don’t even wanna know what they are saying). Yeah, that’s all true in some cases, but in the genre of rock where Billy Joel writes songs  (usually referred to as “singer-songwriter”), the lyrics are right up front and they have a huge effect on the song and the listener. It’s unavoidable. So let’s look at lyric writing in rock music.

There are many ways of looking at anything and the analytical mind is not always the best tool in the toolkit. At the risk of overintellectualizing an artform (always a danger), I want to share one of the ways I look at lyric writing, which is to think about the continuum that exists between abstract and concrete. It’s not the only one at play (there’s formal vs. colloquial, figurative vs. literal, and more) but I find this continuum to be the most informing. I took a few poetry classes in college and, in looking at imagery, “abstract vs. concrete” is a question that has helped me to analyze and enjoy all sorts of different lyrics, to appreciate a wide range of songwriters, and has helped me to become a better songwriter over the years. Here’s how it was explained to me…

If the essence of imagery is the image, something to be seen, then it follows that an image must be able to exist in the concrete world or it cannot be visualized. In workshopping our poems, my favorite professor would repeatedly reference an untenable image, “the fields of sorrow” to criticize our use of imagery when it got too poetic, too abstract, too, in his words, “juvenile” (that’s a good motivator for college students). He maintained, rightly, that the essence of imagery is that the reader (or in the songwriter’s case, the listener) be able to actually see the image. He taught us that it’s okay to keep the meaning of our poems more abstract, but that our images must be able to exist in the concrete world or the imagery fails. That’s one teacher’s opinion that has helped me. You can take it with a grain of salt, but let’s look at some songwriters and apply the criteria, and bear in mind, rules are made to be broken, especially in rock and roll.

In the genre of rock… (usually referred to as “singer-songwriter”), the lyrics are right up front and they have a huge effect on the song and the listener

I’m gonna start with Steely Dan’s Walter Becker and Donald Fagan (both lyricists) because I’ve already thought about and described their lyrical style earlier in this series. The hallmark of a Steely Dan lyric is that it’s something from the real world that is actually happening or has happened, but we, the listener, can’t make out precisely what is going on. In this case, in almost every Steely Dan song, the imagery is rooted firmly in the concrete world even though the meaning is obscured. It’s a songwriting method that works incredibly well for their “informed hipster” point of view and we listeners get to enjoy the resonances of all of the imagery even though the meanings are kept abstract — we are not in on all of the jokes.

Joni Mitchell, whom I consider a genius, sits at almost the same place on the continuum. Though she is an absolute master of figurative language, her imagery is so visual and effective because it’s rooted in the concrete world. Her songs are about actual occurrences, real people, things that happened to her. We are not privy to who she is talking about (even when she names names), but we don’t doubt for a second that these are real emotions triggered by real events. Once in a while, those real events are constructs, but they sit on the same place on the continuum — concrete images with sometimes abstract meanings.

Now let’s look at Neil Young, certainly one of rock’s greatest poets. Young is a master of abstraction. A song like “Cowgirl in the Sand” is a good example of his skill at crafting a lyric that borders on total abstraction yet carries real emotion. It suits his more simple music to have images that resonate more abstractly — I can’t explain it better than that. He breaks the rule but he does it with such deftness and grace that all I can do is marvel. Not all of his songs are abstract but most of the ones that slay me, “Cinnamon Girl,” “After the Goldrush,” “Helpless,” “Look Out For My Love,” “Cortez the Killer,” are triumphs of abstraction in one way or another.

Are you with me so far? Finally, let’s look at Bob Dylan because he’s the heavyweight champion of riding the line between abstract and concrete. He can do both so well and it’s part of what makes him so compelling and helps his songs stand up to repeated listenings. 

Beyond his successes in selling records, Billy Joel is just a great songwriter. Sometimes.

Now, is there any doubt as to where Billy Joel sits on the continuum? He is rooted entirely in the concrete realm and the level of abstraction is essentially non-existent. This is not meant to be a criticism. He’s a storyteller, a filmmaker, even. His songs are almost all mini-movies. Each song is about one thing, about one idea. They are high-concept and they rise or fall based on the quality of the idea and how he tells the story. There’s very little room for interpretation (although there seems to be some room for confusion, which I’ll get too). As such, like any songwriter, Billy Joel’s output is hit and miss. It’s just that, because of his near-total lack of abstraction, the misses are less forgivable. In basketball, they would be called “bricks.”

Just an aside, but my current favorite Billy Joel song is “Vienna,” one rare song that is built around an abstraction. Are we to believe that a visit to the Austrian city is really the answer to this “crazy child’s” problems, or is it some sort of unrevealed metaphor? I don’t know but it’s a beaut of a song. But back to the hit and miss concrete world of the Billy Joel song…

Let’s look at “Movin’ Out (Anthony’s Song)” from Billy’s stellar album, The Stranger. Here’s a mini-movie about characters who are working too hard to keep up with the Joneses, and the main character, the narrator, rejecting the whole idea. Simple idea. Nothing abstract about it. Every line feeds the narrative, it’s hooky as hell, and the song works like gangbusters. Great opening song for a killer album.

Piano Man” is another song that is a series of vignettes. We meet a whole cast of characters and all of their regrets, their unfulfilled dreams, drowning their sorrows, looking to the piano man to lift their spirits. Not much room for interpretation there.

New York State of Mind” is simply a love song to his favorite city. “Big Shot” is about a social climber out on the town who makes a fool of herself and has to bear the narrator’s wrath the next morning. “Allentown” is about the abandoned workers in a dying steel town in Pennsylvania. With very few exceptions, these are superbly crafted songs about specific subjects with nothing left to the imagination or open to interpretation. That’s well and fine when the songs work but it can be grating when they don’t, and of course, everyone has a different opinion of which songs are which.

So, that’s my first defense of Billy Joel, that he’s hit and miss (like every other songwriter), so cut him some slack. Find the songs you like and ignore the rest would be good advice. Here’s a few that slay me — your playlist will undoubtedly differ from mine, as it should:

The other defense is harder to construct. Seems that some people have abiding “personality problems” with Billy’s point of view in his songs, and I want to come to his defense. I’ve heard people complain of a certain level of smugness, animosity, and having contempt for the characters within his songs. There are other issues. I’m gonna try to defend these one by one.

I don’t mean to come off as an expert on interpreting Billy Joel songs. I just think that with his lyrics being rooted so deeply in the concrete world, it’s easy to misread what he’s going on about so pointedly and with so much intention.

“It’s Still Rock and Roll To Me”

Smugness: A friend I deeply respect takes deep exception to Billy’s attitude in his massive hit song from 1980, “It’s Still Rock and Roll to Me.” She always heard this as Billy being defensive about the changing times, how the punk and new wave artists were trying to steal his crown. Others in the discussion agreed — I think this is a simple misread. In my take, the narrator, who seems to be Billy himself and not a character, is dubious of the fashion police and the hype machine, not the artists or the new music itself, which he actually defends in the song’s title hook. I’ll admit there is some difficulty in the way Billy has constructed the lyric, which is set up as a short dialogue between two parties, an innocent questioner and a sarcastic answerer, after which the narrator’s voice takes over until the next verse. Is the narrator one of the previous voices, or is it a third point of view? It’s not very clear who is who in the song and it leads to misinterpretation. Anyway, I think the song is about ignoring the hype machine and enjoying the music. You very possibly may have a different view.

Contempt for characters: The song most sighted in this area is “Piano Man.” This view that Billy is putting down the lonely people in the bar who put bread in his jar is so widespread that a recent comedy piece was published in McSweeney’s from the point of view of his miffed patrons. It’s easy to see why this long, wordy song too is misread because the punchline is buried so deep in the verses. After sketching out each of the bar denizens from his point of view behind the piano, chronicling each of their unfulfilled dreams, he finally gets to the biggest disappointment in the whole place, the piano man himself. In this way, I let him off the hook for poking at the patrons; he saves the biggest punch for himself. Anyway, I get the feeling that he’s projecting a lot of his own desperation onto these people, that his interpretation of them is an aspect of his own self-criticism. Again, just my interpretation of what’s going on.

The characters of “Movin’ Out” are also targets but they are treated with a touch more compassion and it helps the tone of the song immeasurably. Which brings me to another disputed song, the somewhat ambivalent love song to Elizabeth, Billy Joel’s first wife, “Just the Way You Are.”

“Just the Way You Are”

Misogyny: More than a few people have told me that this song is a “misogynist love song” and I think that’s a pretty unfair characterization. First of all, the song is very pointed about a specific person and not all women, the same complex person he tells us about in the other ambivalent love song to Elizabeth on The Stranger, “She’s Always a Woman.” In that song, he praises her deeply (“She can wait if she wants, she’s ahead of her time”) while also warning you of the careless ways she can wound you. It’s a deep character study, a tender, revealing song but it’s also a truthful one (that marriage ultimately did not survive, by the way).

In “Just the Way You Are,” we are in that concrete miniature world of Billy Joel talking directly to his wife about their relationship. He opens by saying that she doesn’t need to change her appearance to get his attention; he sees her and he loves her the way she is. Then he poignantly tells her that he would never abandon her in times of trouble, recommitting himself to their marriage, for better or for worse. The second verse opens with a restatement of the opening sentiment, this time acknowledging his own shortcoming, that he is aloof to her (“… although I might not seem to care”).

Then we get to the tricky part, where he tells her that he doesn’t want “clever conversation.” This is taken by some to be a slight at Elizabeth, that her natural, unchanged state is something less than clever, which is certainly one interpretation. I don’t want to defend misogyny, I just don’t see this song as anything more than, “don’t remake your looks, don’t remake your personality, I might not seem to care but I love you with unspoken passion just the way you are.” Problem is that it doesn’t read that way for everyone, and I think that responsibility falls on Billy, especially since it’s the part of the song that he repeats at the end.

Antagonism: This one is probably true. Billy Joel does have a huge chip on his shoulder and just seems to have a bad attitude in more than a few of his songs. It doesn’t bother us when it’s a beleaguered Bob Dylan, whose misanthropy can reach rhapsodic levels (see “Idiot Wind” or “Positively Fourth Street”). It’s another thing coming from Billy Joel who just seems to be in a bad mood sometimes.

“New York State of Mind”

I have made my peace with Billy Joel. He’s a constant. His songs remain with us, the good ones and the horrible ones too (don’t get me started). I wouldn’t say he’s a genius but his songs endure, and he’s written two songs that are modern standards (“New York State of Mind,” and “Just the Way You Are”), which is two more than most songwriters, as well as one near-perfect album in The Stranger. A lot of people I know dismiss Billy Joel or denigrate his talent and, while I understand that impulse, I think it’s a mistake.

In 1993 Billy Joel put down his pen and has not released an original pop song ever since. I chalk that up to his total reliance on his high-concept short film approach to songwriting. It’s just a guess but I think he decided that he didn’t have any more movies in him that he himself would want to see. That’s reasonable and it’s commendable that he still tours and entertains his many fans around the world. Recently Billy Joel fearlessly donned a yellow star onstage at Madison Square Garden to protest and raise awareness around the anti-semitic march that occurred in Charlottesville in the summer of 2017. No need to defend any of that.

Photo Credits:
Piano Photo by Karyme França from Pexels