Thursday, September 9, 2010

My Daughter Likes "We Didn't Start The Fire" By Billy Joel And I Don't

Shortly before returning to college for the fall one of my daughters was telling me how she enjoyed the Billy Joel song "We Didn't Start The Fire." She was having fun listening for historical references she didn't get and then looking them up on-line. If you are familiar with the song you know that is all the verses are, lists of historical figures and events.

We chatted pleasantly about her Joel inspired trips to Wikipedia until she said something I couldn't let pass.

"Plus," she said, "it's a good song."

I'm not one of those alternative/avant-garde/experimental people who hates pop music or is ashamed of liking it. Billy Joel is one of the best rock/pop songwriters, singers and pianists of the entire rock era. He's also recorded some severe crap. Knowing he's capable of greatness makes it hard for me to hear second rate song like "We Didn't Start The Fire." Such things are beneath him.

"You only think that because you haven't heard the good stuff," I told my daughter. "Come over here," I said, leading her to the computer with our family's central music library on it.

I played her three Billy Joel songs. She had heard one or two of them before but I asked her to really listen. The songs were "Laura," the B-side of "Pressure" and from The Nylon Curtain; "You May Be Right," the opening track of his more rock oriented Glass Houses album, and "The Longest Time," his do-wop single from An Innocent Man.

I would have played her the live version of "Summer, Highland Falls" from Songs In The Attic but I couldn't find it.

All of these songs bury "...Fire" and all for different reasons.

"The Longest Time" buries it musically. It features harmonies that are both beautiful and fun. It also shows off Joel's voice which is, by most any standard, very, very good.

"You May Be Right" out rocks "...Fire," which plays at being a rock song but lacks emotional energy. "You May Be Right" has power and dynamics. It is one of the best rockers in the Joel catalog in part because it totally fits the lyrics, which depict a relationship filled with desire, conflict, confusion and ambivalence. Joel sings this story right from his gut and the whole band is there to back him up. It all works.

"Laura," is probably my favorite Billy Joel song. I can't think of a better song about a dysfunctional friendship. That, and he says "fucking," which is way more effective coming from him than from somebody who's records are plastered with Tipper stickers. Here Joel delivers an impassioned song that isn't arranged as a straight ahead rocker. The production frames the distress that takes over Joel's voice. Joel probably doesn't see it this way, but to me this humble B-side is his masterwork. It tears at my heart every time I hear it.

"So, now do you see why I'm not impressed?"

My daughter said "Yes, I get it...but I still like the song."

1 comment:

yrmama said...

There's no accounting for taste.