The Anthropology of Billy Joel

Alex Joffe

Somewhere far away at the height of that fraught summer of 2016, politicians were making speeches, but at Madison Square Garden Billy Joel was playing his monthly show to a packed house. Who were these people and what was their experience?

For over 40 years Joel has been playing his hits and packing them in. He is an American institution of a curious and perhaps unique sort. His songs are canonical in a way that Irving Berlin’s are, or were; they are an indelible part of the American soundscape. Get in the car: there they are. Get in an elevator: there they are. Lie on the beach under your umbrella: there they are.

But who ever went to see Irving Berlin perform month after month? Who even remembers one of the Berlin’s songs? Still, and God Bless America, they are part of an indelible American reality. Time flies like an arrow, but the puncture wounds heal as proud scars; their sources are forgotten but the meaning tightly held.

A Billy Joel song is by definition a crowd pleaser and at least 80% of the crowd knew all the words and sung along, loudly. This was the most salient observation of the night; that over 20,000 people of all ages came to see a world-class performance of songs they had internalized so completely that at time the evening was almost a sing-a-long. Never mind that Joel himself looked tired. We’re all tired. Songs they had heard a thousand times brought them to their feet; the more familiar, the louder the cheering. Piano Man raised the roof; the mere appearance of the harmonica was enough to set the crowd off. Why?

The best Billy Joel songs are small operatic constructions that tell a personal story, which either progress in a standard rock manner or have discrete mini-movements that create completely different moods before returning to the theme. Scenes from an Italian Restaurant is paradigmatic; looking around, everyone was Brenda and Eddie, married too young, divorced too late, with a “couple of paintings from Sears” that decorate drab lives, but which returns at the end, in a rising, sax-led crescendo that we have all heard at least 60,000 times, to the exact place it started, the Italian restaurant — that is, a regular life, lived within these walls. Dismiss that instinct, to return to home, at your peril.

But on that hot night it was the unfamiliar elements that brought the loudest cheers. A rendition of AC/DC’s Highway to Hell, with Joel on the guitar and a badly worn looking roadie on vocals rocked the house. The piano coda to Layla, which Joel commented that he had wished he had written, was sensitive and unexpected.

These highlighted the fundamental mystery of Billy Joel. Why no new material? After 23 Grammies and no new studio albums since 2001, why do people still come out? The performance was a hit parade but the crowd would have lapped up a few covers of someone else’s songs. But some of the assembled would have been perplexed by a new song, of which there are reportedly many. The performance was entirely risk-free. Only living performances, at around a million bucks a pop, matter.

The answer is simply that in a sense Joel no longer exists, he is now a pure reflection of his fans’ memories and desires. Not ‘nostalgia,’ in the way that PBS crams endless doo-wop from the latest iteration of the Temptations down our throats every Saturday night to raise MORE MONEY in order to provide more episodes of Downton Abbey or whatever its latest fetishized guilt ridden trip is, but in the sense that his songs still act as a mirror of the East Coast American lower middle class, even as the 20th century continues to haul its sorry ass into the 21st. The aspiration to upward mobility, stymied, that he represents has not yet gone out of style. Indeed, it may be more apropos than anyone thought.

Certainly, that night, Tony Bennett’s appearance for New York State of Mind and then Happy Birthday on his 90th was completely unexpected and unique. It was hard to recall that 40 years ago when Joel was starting out Bennett was recording some of the most sensitive jazz albums ever construed with the sublime pianist Bill Evans. But Bennett, too, has long since broadened his perspectives, or sold out, becoming an institution rather than a singer per se. The same could be said for Joel himself. But ‘going through the paces’ is a matter of perspective. You try getting up there and banging the piano for a couple of hours.

There are other fundamental mysteries surrounding Joel’s music. The bulk of the crowd, if the rows surrounding Section D were any indication, had a median age in the early to mid 40s. What do they hear in his music? How do they even hear it? Those of us in our 50s have every reason to know his music: it was part of the essential soundtrack to the 1970s and 1980s.

Every car radio played his music continually, on an irritating, endless loop, from the mid-1970s until we were old enough to get our own cars with cassette players and construct our own soundtracks. But his music’s popularity today, when music is equally pushed and pulled, through radio, commercials, Pandora and iTunes, may in fact represent consumer preferences more purely than it did 30 or 40 years ago. Fact: people like it, they seek it out. Why?

There has always been a distinct Outer Borough sensibility to Joel’s music. An arc around New York from north Jersey to Long Island is represented in his music as in no other. Movin’ Out, for all its pretentious block chords and motorcycle sounds, bluntly captures something about ethnic urban kids wanting to get the hell out of places like Nassau County for Manhattan. Uptown Girl — a wholly improbable recasting of Joel as a doo-wop-ish downtown mechanic pursuing an uptown uber-shiska Christie Brinkley works if only because, he really did marry Christie Brinkley. As much as The Eagles may have sought to represent a perpetually baked, yacht rock California sensibility of the 1970s — call it sundrenched disenchantment — Joel’s songs remain grounded in the fading Tri-state realities of commuting, Communion, and limited upward mobility.

Comparisons with other composers are apt. Joel and his music have always demanded to be taken seriously but the question is whether his two halves, the Holland-Dozier-Holland, meticulous pop song construction side, and the sweeping story-telling mock rock Verdi-esque side, represent an unresolved tension or a unique synthesis.

In this sense only one contemporary artist is similar to Joel, Bruce Springsteen. Similar tensions are evident: Springsteen’s Dylanesque lyrical “madman drummers bummers Indians in the summer with a teenage diplomat” side clashes with the crowd-pleasing Born in the USA arena rocker, all stitched together by the cultivated leather-clad Jersey Shore persona, but he inspires a similar devotion from fans. Springsteen’s Everyman persona is as much a put-on as Joel’s — his daughter is a nationally ranked equestrian after all — but these inconsistencies are just as easily put aside. When he sings about Nebraska, it seems as though he’s from there, when he’s really from Freehold. And for a 67 year old, he brings it.

In some kind of genetically programmed throwback to Tin Pan Alley Americans still like artfully arranged songs that are little stories, relatable to their lives, which have catchy lyrics and anthem-ic hooks. But the ability of such songs to be remembered and sung as social events, not merely appreciated for their technique or insight, is key. We still wish to come together. A Billy Joel show is a rite of American social reaffirmation. E pluribus unum and all that.

Songs understood within the context of an individual’s life — where you first heard it or other associations, a warm summer night cruising aimlessly with friends, or the degree to which the lyrics speak weirdly of your own life and fears — are also key. Joel’s music fulfills these needs like few other American artists. Go ahead, try to remember where you heard even one of Rihanna’s songs, autotuned, like the careful artifice that it is. And, musical qualities notwithstanding, empathic storytelling helps lifts Joel above the level of a mere nostalgia act, like the Beach Boys, now reduced to playing the Westchester County Center. Empathy is important. The people at the Garden that night had empathy and offered it to others.

The show’s finale, We Didn’t Start the Fire, captures this. No one remembers the album, Storm Front, on which the song appeared, and few listeners could explain who Georgy Malenkov or Syngman Rhee were, much less why they are cited in the song. But the song is about a world that has been spinning out of control, at least out of our control, since the 1950s. This frustration, the sense of having tried to fight while retaining some diminished sense of dignity, is what Billy Joel fans share. If nothing else, this may be why he remains relevant.

Alex Joffe is an archaeologist and historian.