In Defense Of: Billy Joel, and music that makes us happy


Back in January, Ron Rosenbaum wrote a piece for Slate in which he basically declared Billy Joel to be the nadir of modern American music, and although the essay was obviously the most low hanging of traffic-baiting fruit, I could not stop it from enraging me on a number of levels. First, I can’t believe anyone would waste time taking a random swing at Joel when the Pussycat Dolls are still skanking about somewhere. Second, Rosenbaum’s central arguments — that Joel has “contempt” for the characters who inhabit his songs, that he has no business writing about the common man because he is now a big rich rock star — hold less water than the Downeaster Alexa after running aground, in my opinion. Third, I like Billy Joel. I always have. And I am determined to stick up for him.The Billy Joel/Elton John Face2Face tour has been running in one form or another since the mid-Nineties, and the version that hit Anaheim last night was a well-oiled money-printing machine, the only apparent overhead going to the hydraulic fluid powering the risers that glide pianos and drum kits up and down. Otherwise, the show is simply as billed: Joel and John sit at their keyboards, face each other, and play songs. They could be doing this at any piano bar in the world. Dual takes of “Your Song,” “Just The Way You Are,” and a tragically George Michael-free version of “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down On Me” kicked off the night; John then performed a solo set that included “Levon” and the longest version of “Rocketman” in history, and led us in an arena-wide squawk of the “Crocodile Rock” na-na-na-na-nas so aggressively white it would have made David Duke cringe.But where Elton seemed content to stay on his stool and swallow his consonants, Joel at one point wriggled across the tops of both pianos like a gleeful manatee. Once he’s on stage alone, his piano rotates on a turntable so he can wag his pop-eyed grin at every section; he also tells dirty jokes, plays guitar, and flings the mic stand around during “It’s Still Rock and Roll to Me” with Axl Rose-esque fervor. None of this is new — I saw him do it all at Madison Square Garden a couple years ago (and the former New Yorker in me actually felt a little dirty seeing him outside of the tri-state area). But when placed in direct opposition to those of Elton John on this tour, Joel’s songs suddenly leap out, reveal themselves as dynamic, even epic. They’re full of syllables and imagery, alive with the energy of the same idealized metropolis Springsteen is trying to reach in “Jungleland,” strung through with jazz and soul and barroom blues that have been watered down, yes, but never quite washed out. And despite all of Rosenbaum’s bluster about “contempt,” I watched Joel’s lyrics genuinely resonate across the mostly middle-class crowd, from the laid-off grind of “Allentown” to the compulsory singalong of “Piano Man” that sent us home: “He knows that it’s me they’ve been comin’ to see/to forget about life for a while,” sang Billy and Elton, and the fans — who’d spent the past three-plus hours dancing like recession was just something that happened to hairlines — let out a mighty, grateful scream.

Most of all, the night was fun. Which I thought was the point.

I’m stopping before this spins off into oblivion, and opening up the floor to you, Mixers. Anybody want to jump on Team Billy with me? Or should my music critic credentials be revoked forever more because I still know almost every word to “We Didn’t Start the Fire,” and refuse to apologize for that?

addCredit(“Bob Levey/”)

Comments (49 total) Add your comment
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  • manual

    I was there too and agree that Billy was really so vibrant. Great show.

  • SpikesPrincessJ

    I know every word to “We Didn’t Start the Fire” too! I saw the Face2Face tour in Boston a few years ago. Hands down, the best show I’ve ever seen.

  • Mike Novak

    FIRST! I’m a Billy Joel fanatic, and I’m 25 years old. My little brother, 20 years old, has joined me in my fanaticism. I’ve seen him live twice, once by himself and once with Elton John and they were both amazing shows. When Billy is by himself, the show takes on extra energy as if there’s three or four people on stage performing, when really it’s only him. At the recent Face to Face Concert in Tampa, people yelled and screamed for Sir Elton, but they went positively nuts for Billy. After the show, an older woman in her 60’s stopped me and thanked me for my own energy during the show, and expressed amazement that someone so young could know the words to every single individual song Billy sang that night. That alone should preach to the abilities and extent of Billy’s appeal and musical talents.

  • Colleen

    I am 29 and I love Billy Joel, too. I think he writes really fun pop songs. I love his “piano bar” style. I was at Face2Face recently, too, in a different city. Elton John is the primary draw for me there, but I loved Billy Joel too. He put on a great show and the audience loved him.

  • frd

    Why Billy Joel? There is so much worse out there! And I’m not even that much of a fan. But why even bother going on about him, he hasn’t even released a (pop)record in what, 16 years? And saying he has “contempt” is complete BS.

  • Sall

    Music that makes me happy… that’s also ridiculously good…
    Bobby Long – Left to Lie

  • Jen

    i love billy joel

  • Nix

    Aw, Aunt Whittlz, you know Slate is all low-hanging fruit anyway. It’s not like it’s a worthwhile conversation.

  • beastrabban

    Billy Joel may not be radiohead but he’s good solid entertainment. He was a superstar in his day and helped shape the sound of pop music in the doldrums during the late 70s and into the 80s. I only wish he’d put out new material!

  • Mike S

    Billy was my first concert ever, and his college tour was great, as well. The Piano Man reigns supreme!

  • Marisa

    I grew up listening to Billy Joel (I’m twenty) and although I’ve never seen him live, I’ve always wanted to. I think Billy is a far more talented musician than people give him credit for, I love his album of “classical” piano music. I also love his response to the argument that he can’t write about the middle class and unemployment because he’s a rockstar: “I’m a musician. Musicians practically invented unemployment”. Billy forever!!!

  • joel

    Billy is flat-out one of the most brilliant songwriters of the 20th Century. Who cares how he feels about the characters in his songs? They’re CHARACTERS! And Whitney, “a gleeful manatee” — best description I’ve heard of Joel in a decade!

  • Joe C

    I’m with ya, Whit. Nice to see you write a straight-ahead column without your trademark humor, which I usually like, but change is good. Anyway, I saw the Billy/Elton tour in Tampa, and it was great. Almost all the fans were my age or older, no surprise there. I’m a bigger fan of Elton than Billy, but Mr. Joel brought more energy. Still, what a great show! And you’re right, Whit, we left the recession behind. One quibble: I never liked ‘We didn’t Start the fire'; I would have liked one of the songs from ‘An Innocent Man.’
    You rock, Whitster!!!!!!!!!!!!

  • Joe C

    Actually, Whitney, you did get off a couple of good one-liners there. Recession is just something that happens to hairlines? So white it would have made David Duke cringe?!?!? LOL. You are funny, Whitney; gotta hand it to y….

  • Jonna

    I’m turning 38 next month and have been going to Billy Joel shows for 25 years now, usually with the same best friends. We always have a wonderful, comfortable time and leave happy and content. People like that chump on Slate bust on Billy because they think it makes them look deeper or smarter than Billy Joel fans. All it does is make them look mean-spirited and not very bright. Anyone who denies that Billy is a force to be reckoned with musically and lyrically and a big part of popular culture is an idiot. Period, end of story.

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