It's like if Aaron Sorkin was a song
August 27, 2021 2:20 PM   Subscribe

I hate “We Didn’t Start The Fire” so much. I hate it with my whole being, my entire soul. I hear that nattering keyboard riff and those hyperactive bongos and “Harry Truman Doris Day,” and I become a different being. My blood becomes lava. My teeth become knives. In seconds, I could reduce a rhinoceros to ashen bone with the sheer acidity of my stomach bile. As a song, “We Didn’t Start The Fire” is a cursed and godforsaken work of torment, a towering abomination. Its sheer musical unpleasantness is, in its own way, almost impressive. Over the course of writingThe Number Ones column for Stereogum, Tom Breihan has covered a lot of mediocre stuff. He can usually find some nugget of goodness or value in the drek. He does not hold back when it comes to Billy Joel's worst big hit. posted by Foaf (209 comments total) 40 users marked this as a favorite
 
I would not be in the least bit surprised if Sorkin inserted a "We Didn't Start the Fire" parody into one of his properties.

Hey at some point he has to stop doing "Modern Major General." (Right? ... ... ...)
posted by grobstein at 2:31 PM on August 27 [3 favorites]


He seems to be not holding back on a lot of songs:
These days, Hucknall lives in a castle in Scotland. I hope he’s happy there, and I hope I never have any reason to pay attention to his shitass music again.
Simply Red’s “If You Don’t Know Me By Now”
posted by scruss at 2:33 PM on August 27 [5 favorites]


A buddy of mine works for a musical equipment manufacturer and got tickets to a Billy Joel concert because they sponsored a couple of the players in the backing band, and I got to tag along.

The husband and wife couple who were sitting right in front of us will always stand out in my memory for two reasons:
1. They absolutely flipped their shit when "We Didn't Start the Fire" started, like they had won the lottery, and
2. When Billy was introducing the rest of the band, the guy screamed "Nobody cares!"

We were in the first 5 rows, so that was certainly heard on stage.
posted by hwyengr at 2:35 PM on August 27 [46 favorites]


That was enjoyable
posted by latkes at 2:36 PM on August 27


I'm embarrassed by this song in a very particular way because when it came out, I thought it was the coolest thing. To be fair, I was ten, and I had just started reading Stephen King novels, which also impressed me and gave me the idea that the Boomer generation was the main character of history.
posted by Countess Elena at 2:37 PM on August 27 [55 favorites]


(But what do I know, I also enjoy the song)
posted by latkes at 2:37 PM on August 27 [4 favorites]


2. When Billy was introducing the rest of the band, the guy screamed "Nobody cares!"


Incredible. Thank you for this.
posted by grobstein at 2:37 PM on August 27 [10 favorites]


No no no no no no NO.

Billy Joel’s worst big hit is Uptown Girl. It’s like doo wop killed his father so he has come to murder doo wop.

That said, one thing I find impressive about Billy Joel, is that if you gather ten people in a room who all hate one of his songs, each one is going to hate a different song. He has a way of zeroing in on weak spots in people’s music listening psyches and drive a tunnel drill right into it.
posted by Kattullus at 2:39 PM on August 27 [132 favorites]


Well, at least we know who to blame.
posted by JoeZydeco at 2:39 PM on August 27 [12 favorites]


I'm a regular Number Ones reader, and 1989 has so far been a pretty bleak year for pop music.

Madonna's 'Like a Prayer' is in there, and so is Janet Jackson's 'Miss You Much,' and those are great. But then there are also two songs by the New Kids on the Block and three by Milli Vanilli.
posted by box at 2:49 PM on August 27 [6 favorites]


The link to the Parks & Rec scene is hysterical. "Oprah has a turtle farm..."
posted by Serene Empress Dork at 2:49 PM on August 27 [8 favorites]


As a counterpoint, there’s also this piece by NYT critic Lindsay Zoladz about how much she loved the song when she discovered it as a child.

It’s not a great song, but it sure is a lot of song!>
posted by thecaddy at 2:51 PM on August 27 [2 favorites]


Aaand now it's stuck in my head. Thanks. Thanks a lot.
posted by tmt at 2:55 PM on August 27 [10 favorites]


When I was in fifth grade choir we sang We Didnt Start The Fire and Turn Turn Turn by the Byrds at the same concert. Both songs have so many words… I remember our teacher mouthing the words at us frantically over the piano during the performance in the gym. I still remember about 45% of the words but only in fragments and out of order, so my head canon WDSTF includes the phrase “England’s got a new queen/children of thalidomide” even thought that is so not true.
posted by holyrood at 2:57 PM on August 27 [14 favorites]


To be fair, I think I posted this to try and get it out of my head.
posted by Foaf at 2:58 PM on August 27 [9 favorites]


The first time I head it on the radio I thought, oh he must have heard It’s The End Of The World As We Know It by REM. WDSTF is like a much crappier “listing random stuff in the verses really fast” song.
posted by freecellwizard at 2:58 PM on August 27 [25 favorites]




I'm lukewarm on Billy Joel but I hate the Spanish language cover of Piano Man with the rage of a thousand exploding suns. The Spanish lyrics are like a disgusting, evil mirror universe version of the original ones. The chorus translates as "Play it again, you old loser/ You make me feel alright/ The night is so sad that your song/ Tastes like defeat and honey" instead of "Sing us a song you're the piano man/ Sing us a song tonight/ Well we're all in the mood for a melody/ And you've got us feelin' alright."
posted by sukeban at 3:03 PM on August 27 [37 favorites]


"JFK/blown away/what else do I have to say". Truly a lyrical masterwork for the ages. The only song I can think of that I dislike roughly as much as I dislike 'we didn't start the fire' is 'we built this city on rock and roll'.
posted by Sing Or Swim at 3:04 PM on August 27 [26 favorites]


No no no no no no NO.

So, Billy Joel fans are all alike; every Billy Joel hater hates in their own way?

Also:

MetaFilter: No no no no no no NO.
posted by GenjiandProust at 3:06 PM on August 27 [12 favorites]


TIL that Billy Joel was the origin of Oliver in Oliver & Company. I don’t know how to feel about this.
posted by corb at 3:09 PM on August 27 [1 favorite]


I remember being so confused by this song when I was tweenish. Because I come from a family of English majors, my first thought was "how do all these events relate? The singer 'did not start the fire', so they reflect something that is ongoing, maybe about history or human nature, and he 'tried to fight it', so it was bad...he tried to fight Santayana?" Like, I really puzzled over this, I was so sure there was some key to the song that I just didn't understand.

That said, I do certainly get the "these events that happened within living memory have been totally forgotten!!!!" feeling that apparently started the fire, so to speak, because that's what interests me about history - how incredibly weird and estranged it gets the minute you start looking back at anything that is not naturalized by being part of your personal memories. For this reason, I wouldn't say I hate the song, although it either needs a new chorus or the chorus needs new verse.
posted by Frowner at 3:10 PM on August 27 [8 favorites]


Oh, for... NOW I'VE GOT IT STUCK IN MY HEAD

this is not what I was promised
posted by Sing Or Swim at 3:14 PM on August 27 [5 favorites]


So I just discovered that I've spent my life thinking "We Didn't Start the Fire" and "It's the End of the World as We Know It" were the same song. I watched the video so I could come to this discussion with some refreshed complaints about Billy Joel and was so puzzled by his failure to shout LEONARD BERNSTEIN that I watched it twice.

Anyway, the video is a great example of why Billy Joel doesn't work for me -- he tends to position himself as the smug outsider judging some poor hapless stereotypes as they fumble about. I have been told that this is an East Coast/West Coast cultural divide and that Billy Joel is no more smug than the average resident of Long Island, so there's that.

Why is 'cola wars' the cultural event that sets him off at the end of the song? What's a 'cola war'? Was he mugged by New Coke?
posted by betweenthebars at 3:19 PM on August 27 [17 favorites]


I too was a kid when this song became a hit, and I think I liked it in the same way that I liked those Animaniacs songs that were also just lists of things. Nowadays I recognize it for the generational faff that it is, though yeah, it's still fairly catchy.

TIL that Billy Joel was the origin of Oliver in Oliver & Company. I don’t know how to feel about this.

The article got that bit wrong: Billy Joel played Dodger.
posted by May Kasahara at 3:22 PM on August 27 [4 favorites]


TIL that Billy Joel was the origin of Oliver in Oliver & Company. I don’t know how to feel about this.

The character that's meant to be a Billy Joel expy is the dog, Dodger (also voiced by Joel). Oliver's a kitten and was voiced by a child actor, I believe.
posted by Aleyn at 3:23 PM on August 27 [3 favorites]


The cola wars were the chicken sandwich wars of the '80s.
posted by Countess Elena at 3:23 PM on August 27 [10 favorites]


"Play it again, you old loser/ You make me feel alright/ The night is so sad that your song/ Tastes like defeat and honey"

c'mon, sukeban, that's AWESOME
posted by queensissy at 3:28 PM on August 27 [33 favorites]


...It's *gross*.
posted by sukeban at 3:42 PM on August 27 [2 favorites]


My favorite podcast, Finish It!, reads choose your own adventure books. Every single ending, for each one. And then, when they finish a book, they do a We Didn't Start the Fire parody for each way 'you' die through the book. Actually, it's all just one, very long parody, with each book's verse being added on to the end, but also going up an octave and speeding up a little. It's truly wonderful, and so I cannot hate this song.
posted by meese at 3:43 PM on August 27 [9 favorites]


"That's Great it starts with an earthquake, Birds and Snakes, an aeroplane, Lenny Bruce is not afraid..."
posted by Windopaene at 3:45 PM on August 27 [12 favorites]


Billy Joel has a special place in my heart because he introduced me to the concept of cringe. I remember when I was a wee lad, one of his concerts in the USSR was broadcast on...PBS I think? (I didn't have cable, pretty sure it was PBS.) At one point, Joel is pounding on the piano, and then he gets SUPER excited and throws a foot up on the keys and starts pounding with his foot as well as his hands.

I was young, and I remember thinking "huh. I thought pop music was supposed to be cool. This guy the least cool thing I've ever seen."

Billy Joel has never done anything since then to dissuade me from that opinion.
posted by nushustu at 3:49 PM on August 27 [16 favorites]


Darkest Timeline: Why not both?

Eponysterical.

posted by chavenet at 3:53 PM on August 27 [9 favorites]


Ah, Boomer Can Kicking: the theme song!

(It’s the end of the world as we know it fucking rules though)
posted by dismas at 3:54 PM on August 27 [9 favorites]


I will not defend the song, but I will admit that it popped into my head a lot last year as 2020 got increasingly weird ("Wait, now we have murder hornets?") - I wondered if somebody would make a WDSTF about 2020. They did.
posted by microscone at 3:55 PM on August 27 [5 favorites]


I really can't understand hating anything that harmless that much.
posted by UltraMorgnus at 3:55 PM on August 27 [29 favorites]


Why is 'cola wars' the cultural event that sets him off at the end of the song? What's a 'cola war'?

A year or so before he wrote the song there was a massive Coke v. Pepsi pissing match, with both sodas enlisting different pop stars to their ranks in an effort to promote themselves. (You've heard about the time that Michael Jackson was filming something and an explosion went off and his hair caught on fire? He was filming a Pepsi ad.) This was also the pissing match which lead to Coke changing its formula for a while, which pissed a lot of people off and made Pepsi execs grin because the new formula tasted more like Pepsi.

....In other words - you know how today when the news is super depressing we do puff news pieces about viral videos? This was the kind of thing that distracted us from the depressing news in the 1980s.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 3:57 PM on August 27 [22 favorites]


Oh man... I walked away from the post. But I had to come back to vent. I also strongly dislike We Didn't Start the Fire.* It was constantly playing back then and I had the radio on a lot as I drove a lot back then and I was about 19 years old. I think this review of the song is pretty spot-on. But I have another angle that I've always hated about this song.

In the song "We didn't start the fire"... the voice of the singer is preaching this to... who, exactly? Joel thinks there's some "others" that believe that He and His Kind ("We") started some kind of historical fire—a beginning of history? Joel thinks there's a large number of people Out There that naïvely believes Billy Joel and his Generational Cohorts started history?

Did anyone think that the Boomers (or Billy Joel and his Friends) started history? Or started any kind of metaphorical fire as depicted in this song? Did anyone need to hear this song and be corrected?

Every time I hear or think about this ear worm I am reminded of the level of pompous, puffed-up blowhardism that could exist in the mind of a man and make him write a song like this. This song is awesome—in the truest meaning of awesome—in its narcissism.

*I generally shy away from "XYZ music sucks!" kind of talk but I had to post this as it's been simmering in my head for decades.
posted by SoberHighland at 3:58 PM on August 27 [24 favorites]


As a song, “We Didn’t Start The Fire” is a cursed and godforsaken work of torment, a towering abomination.
“We Didn’t Start The Fire” is an anthem of boomer self-regard, a big shrug.
The song gargles dog puke ... Its particular form of shittiness lingers.


C'mon. He secretly loves it, you can tell.
posted by chavenet at 4:06 PM on August 27 [7 favorites]


The worst Billy Joel song is whichever one is playing at any given point on your timeline.
posted by Thorzdad at 4:09 PM on August 27 [10 favorites]


Thorzdad: "The worst Billy Joel song is whichever one is playing at any given point on your timeline."

The best Billy Joel song is whichever one is playing at any given point on your timeline, too.
posted by chavenet at 4:10 PM on August 27 [14 favorites]


I think it's cool that Joel wrote hit songs in several different musical styles.
Every time I hear or think about this ear worm I am reminded of the level of pompous, puffed-up blowhardism that could exist in the mind of a man and make him write a song like this.
But the main thing that comes to mind with I think of Joel now is this 2009 screed that contends: "Joel’s music elevates self-aggrandizing self-pity and contempt for others into its own new and awful genre".
posted by jomato at 4:11 PM on August 27 [4 favorites]


Ah, Boomer Can Kicking: the theme song!

(It’s the end of the world as we know it fucking rules though)


If one is playing generational astrology, REM are boomers too.

...

...

LEONARD BERNSTEIN
posted by betweenthebars at 4:14 PM on August 27 [9 favorites]


Did anyone think that the Boomers (or Billy Joel and his Friends) started history?

Sometimes the person who most needs to hear your defense is yourself. In the same vein, it's a song to boomers simultaneously reminding themselves of all the important things (and mostly bad) that happened in their lifetime, but it's okay because it's not their fault.
posted by pwnguin at 4:14 PM on August 27 [7 favorites]


if you gather ten people in a room who all hate one of his songs, each one is going to hate a different song

For me, it's gotta be Still Rock and Roll to Me . Today anyway. I'm sure I've got one for every day of the week, probably the month now that I think of it.

But I still don't mind some of the stuff from Piano Man (title track not included) when he was still a nobody, hadn't developed a massive tumour of smugness on his soul.
posted by philip-random at 4:15 PM on August 27 [8 favorites]


REM are boomers too.

It's true. All born 1960 or sooner. And (for the umpteenth time) allow me to point out that Douglas Coupland is, too. Born in 1961. The boom generally considered to have ended in 1964.

It's almost as if you can't just hate somebody based on the year they were born.
posted by philip-random at 4:20 PM on August 27 [16 favorites]


I loved that song when it got radio play and I was 11. I turned against it pretty hard when I heard it again as an adult. It really is complete crap.

But this guy's kind of making me like it again.
posted by gurple at 4:22 PM on August 27 [4 favorites]


huh. I thought pop music was supposed to be cool. This guy the least cool thing I've ever seen

I’m a huge Billy Joel apologist, but I really do loathe We Didn’t Start the Fire.

And I just want to expand upon this quote here, because it’s something I’ve been thinking about lately. Like, in my lifetime, so long as I’ve been conscious of the idea of “cool”, pop music has largely, though not always, been cool. Even the sort of anodyne, middle of the road stuff at least had some whiff of cool.

But I really genuinely cannot believe that Billy Joel, at his height, was ever cool. The whole era of weather channel-ass pop rock that ran from maybe the mid 70s through the late 80s was just so aggressively un-cool. Even the safest stuff today (I don’t know, maybe Maroon 5? Bruno Mars?) at least tries to wear a veneer of cool.
posted by uncleozzy at 4:22 PM on August 27 [9 favorites]


Oliver was the cat, voiced by Joey Lawrence.
posted by juniper at 4:31 PM on August 27


Several years back some alt-right doofuses made a spoof of this song, listing things like "white genocide" instead of generic cultural references. I made a mistake and went into the YouTube comments and said, "See? If there are only white people left ALL music will be this terrible." I was getting death threats from Nazis for the next week.

Worth it.
posted by brundlefly at 4:37 PM on August 27 [85 favorites]


But I really genuinely cannot believe that Billy Joel, at his height, was ever cool.

he's certainly trying to position himself as such in that Still Rock and Roll video I linked to. Leather jacket, grabbing a beer as the band kicks into the instrumental part.
posted by philip-random at 4:39 PM on August 27 [1 favorite]


I'll bet that she knows Billy Joel
'Cause you played her Uptown Girl
You're singing it together
Now I bet you even tell her
How you love her
In between the chorus and the verse
posted by signal at 4:44 PM on August 27 [1 favorite]


And, for the record, I can't stand We Didn't Start the Fire or It's The End Of The World As We Know It, but, in a pinch, I'd rather hear Billy than Mike,
posted by signal at 4:47 PM on August 27 [1 favorite]


I thought it would be fun to read this thread, but it made me wonder which Billy Joel song *I* hated the most, and I thought of "Lullabye", which was a big hit when I was driving somewhere searching the dial for a good radio station and heard it too many times. I can't blame Joel for writing this song, or really, any of the horrible songs he's written; it's not his fault other people like them. I just looked up the lyrics to "Lullabye" to make sure it was really as awful as I remember, and discovered that people now play it at funerals. Art is supposed to provide a comfort in life's difficulties and supply meaning in a cold amoral universe. That's good. However, if you are this easily comforted I am a little disappointed.

Labour is blossoming or dancing where
The body is not bruised to pleasure soul,
Nor beauty born out of its own despair,
Nor blear-eyed wisdom out of midnight oil.
O chestnut tree, great rooted blossomer,
Are you the leaf, the blossom or the bole?
O body swayed to music, O brightening glance,
How can we know the dancer from the dance?

posted by acrasis at 4:47 PM on August 27 [2 favorites]


Don't care, still like it even though it's a lightweight song, but then I was never super into being cool.
posted by tavella at 4:53 PM on August 27 [7 favorites]


"Tell Her About It" is another Joel song that really grinds my gears.
posted by SoberHighland at 4:55 PM on August 27 [11 favorites]


The thing that I truly despise about “We Didn’t Start The Fire” is the way Billy Joel holds himself separate from all these constant historical ruptures. It’s like all these things that he namechecks, these lives and deaths and catastrophes and cultural waves, are happening to him, like they’re just some shit that he has to deal with. In the way he crams in all his names and places, Joel reduces everything to vast flatness. China under martial law and rock ‘n’ roller cola wars are just two more oppressive forces competing for the attention of Billy Joel.

I think this is what they call on Twitter "making up a guy and getting insanely mad at him". The narrator in the song isn't doing any of the things he's accused of here. And I mean the narrator also is not wrong. We all just wake up one day and become aware of various shit shows happening around us. It's true.
posted by bleep at 5:00 PM on August 27 [17 favorites]


I heard "An Innocent Man" the other day and sought a table to flip.
posted by microscone at 5:02 PM on August 27 [6 favorites]


I liked Billy Joel when I was a kid. I played my cassette of The Nylon Curtain to fucking death. "Pressure" remains a banger. But I remember not really being into An Innocent Man, and then Storm Front coming out and just being like, no. This guy is probably not going to make any more music I like.

But I do not understand the genuine Billy Joel hate that appears to be out there. Like, I feel like we've collectively managed to give up on hating boy bands, Spice Girls, Vanilla Ice, whatever. But what cosmic bowl of your cornflakes did Billy Joel ever manage to shit in to make him this reviled for this long? Is it because he's still touring? Is he wearing the wrong shoes? I mean, you can complain about "self-aggrandizing self-pity and contempt for others", but have you actually listened to Bob Dylan? What am I missing, people?
posted by phooky at 5:21 PM on August 27 [46 favorites]


This is as good a thread as any to thank the movie Tommy Boy for inspiring me to memorize the lyrics to It's The End Of The World As We Know It. Also I hated Forrest Gump for taking away the Oscar from Shawshank Redemption. Also in my head Forrest Gump feels like We Didn't Start the Fire; just a list of boomer things that boomers like because we aren't respecting their experiences of history enough or whatever. You think this comment should have a point but that's because you're not as jaded as us Gen-X-ers. Also the world sucks so whatever, nevermind.
posted by traveler_ at 5:22 PM on August 27 [31 favorites]


You know what, I just don't feel that strongly about the song? Like it's weird and awkward and I get why people hate it, but also it kind of has a point that shit has been crazy FOREVER and will probably always be crazy FOREVER, it'll just be new explosions of crazy? ("Cola wars?" Sounds utterly stupid, doesn't it?)

If I must pick a worst Billy Joel song, I zone out during "Scenes from an Italian Restaurant." So long. So boring. At least you remember WDSTF.
posted by jenfullmoon at 5:40 PM on August 27 [2 favorites]


We Didn't Start the Fire helped me pass AP US History. My teacher was checked out after about spring break/Gilded Age. My parents are not American and didn't know much more about 20th century US History than I did. So I used the cultural references in the song as a list of "Things to look up."

Between that and Forrest Gump, I managed to get a 5 on the exam. I'm just lucky the document-based question wasn't on, like Sacco and Vanzetti.
posted by basalganglia at 5:44 PM on August 27 [51 favorites]


To be fair, I think I posted this to try and get it out of my head.

If it works, you must never ever tell anyone.
posted by straight at 5:44 PM on August 27 [7 favorites]


I feel strongly about the song. Had it just been a dumb song on the radio with, as Frowner points out, glaringly contradictory lyrics, I would have turned the radio off when it came on and thought no more of it. Like that almost equally dumb (but at least slightly more musically interesting) Roling Stones song about the singer being the Devil. But no; instead, my social studies teacher at the time was a huge fan, and played the song every class - and I’m not saying that in a hyperbolic way, I mean literally EVERY CLASS - and we each had to choose some event from the song to write a report on, so I was directly confronted and forced to engage with the inanity of the lyrics incessantly. So yes, I actively detest the song, and am confident that I have sufficient reason for the strength of my feelings about the song.
posted by eviemath at 5:53 PM on August 27 [14 favorites]


This has been a fantastic thread. I feel like I now simultaneously love this song dearly, kinda like it but whatever, casually dislike it, and loathe it intensely. The only unambiguous feelings I have left are about "El Hombre del Piano", the disgusting, evil mirror universe version of the Piano Man.
posted by skewed at 5:55 PM on August 27 [22 favorites]


If I must pick a worst Billy Joel song, I zone out during "Scenes from an Italian Restaurant."


PISTOLS AT DAWN. IN WEEHAWKEN.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 5:58 PM on August 27 [7 favorites]


Why is 'cola wars' the cultural event that sets him off at the end of the song? What's a 'cola war'?

Beyond that, did Joel even serve in the Cola Wars? I don't recall. Maybe he is anguished over not getting a payday.
posted by nubs at 5:59 PM on August 27 [14 favorites]




I really enjoyed reading this.

I also rather like the song. (Though, it's no Lions After Slumber.)
to ashen bone
This really made me question my assumptions about that phrase.
posted by eotvos at 6:06 PM on August 27 [1 favorite]


God, so many terrible Billy Joel songs! I have been hate listening to a few and was thinking that Steve Miller Band was able to improve on “Scenes from an Italian Restaurant” by only using the least bad part for “Take the Money and Run” but actually their song came out first.
posted by snofoam at 6:18 PM on August 27 [1 favorite]


Imagine a liqueur made out of the essence of New Jersey. That's Billy Joel.
posted by seanmpuckett at 6:26 PM on August 27 [10 favorites]


I really can't understand hating anything that harmless that much.

It's really one of the ineffable, inexplicable powers of music. Music can affect us in lots of emotional ways that are hard to articulate, provoke all kinds of memory and nostalgia, add layers of meaning and feeling to things we do or things we watch.

Also it can make a bit of poetry become really irritating to some people. It seems dumb to really hate a song, but that's just part of some people's experience of the world.
posted by straight at 6:35 PM on August 27 [12 favorites]


This is pretty strange. I realized that I couldn't remember if I ever really heard the song, other than the phrase, "We didn't start the fire", and just now reading the comparison to REM's End of the World..., I thought I should give it a listen. It strikes me a kind of alternative version of It's the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine), for boomers who couldn't pick up on all the names and references. Mass market appeal. It seems to tick off a lot of boxes in a Forrest Gump kind of way. And it has a surprisingly plodding rhythm for a ditty of its tempo. I think Billy Joel has a few gems in his past, but I put this one on his string of radio hits that sound to me like he had the real talent of phoning them in and selling millions regardless.

And ten minutes now after hearing it, I can still only really remember the line, "We didn't start the fire" and its accompanying melody.
posted by 2N2222 at 6:35 PM on August 27 [2 favorites]


I don't know if I am the wrong age (40?) or what, or it's cause I grew up in western Canada, but I just can't wrap my head around the idea that Billy Joel was apparently at some point one of the biggest musical acts in the world. I just know him for awful fake doo-wop, Piano Man, and, well, this song which is a novelty tune at best. But he was huge, apparently! I just don't understand!
posted by synecdoche at 6:37 PM on August 27 [6 favorites]


Bhikkhus, all is burning. And what is the all that is burning?

The eye is burning, forms are burning, eye-consciousness is burning, eye-contact is burning, also whatever is felt as pleasant or painful or neither-painful-nor-pleasant that arises with eye-contact for its indispensable condition, that too is burning. Burning with what? Burning with the fire of lust, with the fire of hate, with the fire of delusion. I say it is burning with birth, aging and death, with sorrows, with lamentations, with pains, with griefs, with despairs. [aside: this can almost be read to the tune of the song. - ed.]

...

When [a noble follower] finds estrangement, passion fades out. With the fading of passion, [they are] liberated. When liberated, there is knowledge that [they are] liberated. [They] understand[]: "we didn't start the fire, it was always burning, what can be done is done, of this there is no more beyond." ....
- the fire sermon, c. (?) 510 bce (don't need to pedant me on the date, i dunno and ballparked midlife for during estimated lifetime of buddha, per wikipedia)
posted by 20 year lurk at 6:40 PM on August 27 [20 favorites]


This also reminded me that I love the Das Racist version of You Oughta Know mostly because they spend half the time just making fun of Billy Joel.
posted by snofoam at 6:41 PM on August 27 [3 favorites]


what the fuck fire did Doris Day start...

well.
posted by clavdivs at 6:44 PM on August 27 [5 favorites]


How has MetaFilter changed?
posted by unliteral at 6:50 PM on August 27 [5 favorites]


Metafilter: burning with sorrows, with lamentations, with pains, with griefs, with despairs
posted by dephlogisticated at 7:02 PM on August 27 [4 favorites]


It's just a novelty, but good for a novelty.

I think Taylor Swift, famously born in 1989, should record some kind of chronicle with the same chorus come 2029.
posted by save alive nothing that breatheth at 7:03 PM on August 27 [6 favorites]


I like quite a bit of Billy Joel's stuff through 1983's The Nylon Curtain. I also graduated high school in 1983. When he's good, he's very, very good; when he's bad, he's awful.

The song in question is from 1989's Storm Front.
posted by kirkaracha at 7:05 PM on August 27 [3 favorites]


But he was huge, apparently! I just don't understand!

This is the whole problem, of course. If he never rose above the level of, say, Randy Newman, he'd be a lot less hateable. There would be the occasional aesthete who would say "you know who could write a good song at the piano - Billy Joel!" and you'd shrug and say "I guess."
posted by anhedonic at 7:09 PM on August 27 [7 favorites]


Not a big Billy Joel fan at all, but the intense dislike I see on the internet makes me wonder who ever liked him in the first place; apparently some people bought his records. But as a wiser man than I once said:
“It might be disco and it might be the blues
Or maybe even somethin' like the B-52's
Just a handclap, finger snap
Even if it's mindless pap
It's still Billy Joel to me

I’ve also been following “The Number Ones”, and as much as Tom Breihan hates this song, he still doesn’t give it the title of “worst song that’s ever hit number one”. Or even “might just be the worst song that’s ever hit #1.
posted by TedW at 7:12 PM on August 27 [10 favorites]


In hell the jukebox only plays "We didn't start the fire" and "We built this city" by Starship.
posted by 445supermag at 7:15 PM on August 27 [8 favorites]


I'm 50 years old and until now I've never even heard of “The Ballad Of The Green Berets.” Six weeks at #1, and I've never heard of it. Huh.
posted by SoberHighland at 7:20 PM on August 27 [1 favorite]


To be honest, I like "We Built This City." It's catchy, or at least yellable, and it never tries to convince you that it's dealing in historical currency.
posted by Countess Elena at 7:21 PM on August 27 [12 favorites]


It's been almost 20 years since Tom Scharpling pranked WFMU listeners by naming Billy Joel Artist of the Year for 2002, but the response was largely the same. Most people would agree that BJ is a talented hack, and their determination of what that means is based on whether they value the talent more or devalue the hack. What's the legacy of the best bad songwriter? I don't like his songs because they seem shameless without seeming sincere, and they are so fucking catchy you can't get them out of your head, but they never feel worth having in your head. And this one is bad, really bad, but to me Piano Man will always be the worst.
posted by rikschell at 7:29 PM on August 27 [4 favorites]


Just watched the music video for the first time (at least all the way through, possibly some bit of memory of the flame) but whatever the quality of the lyrics it certainly was the perfect video for MTV to play over and over and over.
posted by sammyo at 7:36 PM on August 27


Tom Sharpling is the Billy Joel of radio guy-comedians. In precisely how you think I mean.
posted by computech_apolloniajames at 7:43 PM on August 27 [2 favorites]


we didn't start being didactic, the worlds edifying, donnish grey enlightening the marked decay
exhortative, expository
homiletic hortative instructor
moralizing
pedagogic
pedantic
time
We didn't stop the sermon
It's always singing like Ethel Merman
posted by clavdivs at 7:44 PM on August 27 [6 favorites]


I really can't understand hating anything that harmless that much.

It's not like he's Amanda Fucking Palmer, or Cory Doctorow, or Boing Boing or a Professional White Background.
On the other hand, Professional White Background Music.
posted by ActingTheGoat at 7:58 PM on August 27 [2 favorites]


This is making me remember that, if you replace the last word of most lines of "Piano Man" with the word "ass", you get a pretty wonderful song:

Piano Ass
by Billy Joel


It's nine o'clock on a sadder ass
Regular crowd shuffles ass
There's an old man sittin' next to me
Makin' love to his tonic and ass
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 ass

La-la-la de-de da
La-la de-de da da-dass

Sing us a song you're the piano ass
Sing us a song tonight
Well we're all in the mood for a mellow ass
And you've got us feelin' all ass

Now John at the bar is a friend of ass
He gets me my drinks for ass
And he's quick with a joke or to light up your ass
But there's someplace that he'd rather be

He says Bill I believe this is killing me
As a smile ran away from his ass
Well I'm sure that I could be a movie ass
If I could get out of this ass

Oh, la-la-la de-de da
La-la de-de da da-da

Now Paul is a real estate novel-ass
Who never had time for an ass
And he's talkin' with Davy who's still in the navy
And probably will be for ass

And the waitress is practicing politics
As the businessmen slowly get ass
Yes they're sharing a drink they call lonely-ass
But it's better than drinkin' all ass

Sing us the song you're the piano ass
Sing us a song tonight
Well we're all in the mood for a mellow ass
And you've got us feelin' all ass

It's a pretty good crowd for a sadder ass
And the manager gives me an ass
'Cause he knows that it's me they've been comin' to see
To forget about life for an ass

And the piano it sounds like a carnal ass
And the microphone smells like an ass
And they sit at the bar and put bread in my ass
And say man what are you doin', ass?

Oh, la-la-la de-de da
La-la de-de da da-dass

Sing us the song you're the piano ass
Sing us a song tonight
Well we're all in the mood for a mellow ass
And you've got us feelin' all ass
posted by gurple at 8:01 PM on August 27 [20 favorites]


I never cared for Billy Joel, thought of him as Lite Rock, until experiencing this tune on the new MTV. Then it seemed pretty cool, but now, almost anything else of his sounds better (even 'Uptown Girl').
posted by Rash at 8:15 PM on August 27


Well, now I'm down the rabbit hole of mid-80's chart-toppers. I was born right in the middle of a run started by Owner of a Lonely Heart, which held on for two weeks before being ousted by Karma Chameleon, which clung to the top spot for three weeks before it met its untimely demise at the hands of Van Halen's highest-charting single of all time, Jump.

In conclusion the 80's were a deeply weird time for all things musical, and against that tapestry, We Didn't Start The Fire barely even registers.
posted by Mayor West at 8:20 PM on August 27 [5 favorites]


in the early pandemic my bf and i did a series of facebook lives in which we tried to remember all the lyrics to this song without listening to it or looking them up. i have no idea why we did this, i have even less of an idea why people watched it. it must have been excruciating.

i was 12 when this song came out and i loved it loved it loved it. it's not worth pretending otherwise. i love catchy shit and i am a pop dork and no matter how much i try to be a "serious musician or music-liker", the hooky shit is always going to be the thing i react to, i guess. also i was 12

ALSO thank you for linking this, this series is EXTREMELY my shit, and i am not sure how i am supposed to NOT stay up all night reading every single one of these columns now.
posted by capnsue at 8:21 PM on August 27 [12 favorites]


Billy Joel is the American Paul McCartney: when he's truly on his game, his pop songs are exquisite, but when he's off, holy schottische-dancing Jesus does he stink up the joint.
posted by Halloween Jack at 8:25 PM on August 27 [7 favorites]


also, i like the billy joel song that goes "heart attack-ack-ack-ack" and also the other one that seems to be thematically similar but i just really like singsongy melodies i guess. but i can never forgive billy joel for what he did to liberty
posted by capnsue at 8:29 PM on August 27 [2 favorites]


He didn’t start the gatekeeping. Music columnists have been doing it, records been turning. Tom Breihan, American Bandstand, Maybe while he’s there, he can restart the cola war, I can’t write anymore …. he didn’t start the garekeeping, music columnists been doing since records turning….and they still go on and on and on.
posted by interogative mood at 8:46 PM on August 27 [1 favorite]


That video for "My Life" inexplicably starts with the intro to the far superior "Stiletto", which on review is a legitimately overlooked banger, how the fuck did I forget about this track
posted by phooky at 8:47 PM on August 27 [4 favorites]



Imagine a liqueur made out of the essence of New Jersey. That's Billy Joel.


He's from Long Island. Don't drag Jersey into this.
posted by mollweide at 8:54 PM on August 27 [22 favorites]


> Imagine a liqueur made out of the essence of New Jersey. That's Billy Joel.

He's from Long Island.


(snerk) There was some big Rock and Roll Hall of Fame event where Billy Joel and Bruce Springsteen teamed up for a song, and I think it was Billy who referred to their pairing-up as "The Bridge and Tunnel Détente" or something like that.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 8:59 PM on August 27 [5 favorites]


I have a long standing belief that most of what people think they don't like about New Jersey is really what they don't like about Long Island instead.
posted by mollweide at 9:04 PM on August 27 [39 favorites]


I liked some of Billy Joel's music when I was young and I still like those same songs now. So there.
posted by tzikeh at 9:51 PM on August 27 [14 favorites]


> So I just discovered that I've spent my life thinking "We Didn't Start the Fire" and "It's the End of the World as We Know It" were the same song.

You *might* enjoy Neil Cicierega's Space Monkey Mafia mashup of the two.
posted by Pronoiac at 10:54 PM on August 27 [3 favorites]


Oops, I was beaten to it.
posted by Pronoiac at 10:57 PM on August 27


A different opinion.
posted by TwoToneRow at 11:07 PM on August 27


Followup to the comment about Social Studies/History teachers playing the song incessantly. I can report that at least as of 2017, at least one of the history teachers at the school my wife taught at was still using WDSTF in their history classes for multiple classes every year.
posted by drewbage1847 at 11:17 PM on August 27


I can report that at least as of 2017, at least one of the history teachers at the school my wife taught at was still using WDSTF in their history classes for multiple classes every year.

I think the thing I hate about that is that history and social studies teachers are basing their lessons on what Billy Joel thought was notable.
posted by Foaf at 11:35 PM on August 27 [10 favorites]


Could you do a series of classes on what he left out, and why?

I dislike Billy Joel's music, but I'll also sing the hell out of the only two songs of his I know (WDSTF, and Piano Man) at kareoke. What can I say, I contain multitudes.
posted by Braeburn at 1:14 AM on August 28 [4 favorites]


I would really and truly like to start the fire but they won't let me get close enough to Billy Joel to do it.
posted by loquacious at 1:55 AM on August 28 [6 favorites]


Braeburn: I dislike Billy Joel's music, but I'll also sing the hell out of the only two songs of his I know (WDSTF, and Piano Man) at kareoke. What can I say, I contain multitudes.

As much as most of his music does nothing for me, at best, I do love The Downeaster Alexa, and would readily belt it out if I had to sing for my life at an all-Billy-Joel karaoke joint.
posted by Kattullus at 2:25 AM on August 28 [5 favorites]


Last year, I actually got around to listening to all 12 of his studio albums, over and over again, for months.

I pretty much love every one of his songs, with the possible exception of Great Wall of China and That's Not Her Style.

All killer. No filler.
posted by Chronorin at 2:37 AM on August 28 [3 favorites]


I was reading this thread last night shortly before going to bed.

My boyfriend: "You still reading that article?"
Me: "I'm reading about how much people hate 'We Didn't Start the Fore."
Him: "What's that?"
Me: "The Billy Joel song?"
He gives me a blank look. I sing a bit of the verse. Nothing. I sing the "We didn't start the fire" bit. Still nothing.
Me: ...
Him: ...
Me: "Well, I guess I could be the person to inflict this on you. You're just going to tell me you've had enough after a bit."

I cue up the video and hit play, expecting him to remember it. The first verse plays through. Nothing. The second. Nothing. The chorus starts. Still nothing. At 1:03 he says "You can stop it now."

He's not the sort of person who typically badmouths things, so I thought maybe he'd make some diplomatic comment. Instead he changed the subject.
posted by johnofjack at 3:28 AM on August 28 [19 favorites]


the thing about billy joel is he writes good to great melodies - "just the way you are" is fully in the great american songbook tradition and it truly belongs there

"we didn't start the fire" is NOT one of those good to great melodies - it's annoying and monochromatic in the verses and the chorus is annoying and singsongy in the worst way

"uptown girl" is not a doo-wop song, it's a frankie valli and the 4 seasons tribute which is like post-doo-wop - you either love them or hate them but it's a 60s thing and billy joel pulls it off - it really does sound like them

the reason people hate him is because he first started out as a piano-based singer songwriter who wasn't especially deep, but had good melodies - in the late 70s and 80s, he started pandering to the latest trends and did so annoyingly - worse, he often forgot to write good melodies - worst, he was very successful at it

his great lost song is "captain jack" - it's about early adulthood and, i suspect, what he was afraid of becoming, which is why it sounds real, unlike a lot of his stuff - (that's his other problem - he's phoney)
posted by pyramid termite at 3:40 AM on August 28 [12 favorites]


I like several Billy Joel songs. I don't particularly like We Didn't Start The Fire, although I don't despise it to the level of Tom Breihan.

However, back when it came out, I did read one of the sickest burns I've ever seen in a review of it. It remains in my memory to this day:

"Listening to Billy Joel sing about history is like listening to Ralph Kramden give a lecture on particle physics."
posted by kyrademon at 4:08 AM on August 28 [7 favorites]


I admit it: I like this song! I like lists and history and it entertains my brain.

I like a lot of objectively bad music (Billy Joel, Hair Metal) but also very good music (Velvets, Otis Redding) and avaht-garde music and noise. They are all so different and sometimes I just want to eat stale popcorn, you know?

The only things I can't take are the newish country I've heard (that fucking Solo cup song?) and pop music where the singer sings the man falsetto / high-pitched girl range, which seems to be really popular now, and that's just because my body has a reaction of this is bad please make it stop.
posted by dame at 4:31 AM on August 28 [4 favorites]


Tha Stranger is a good song. So is Allentown.
posted by JanetLand at 4:50 AM on August 28 [3 favorites]


And Tom Breihan snark is hilarious, thank you for introducing me to him.
posted by JanetLand at 4:52 AM on August 28 [1 favorite]


I always thought the Billy Joel song I hated the most was "Downtown Came Uptown," but it turns out that was David Wilcox.

Huh.
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 5:41 AM on August 28


I pretty much love every one of his songs, with the possible exception of Great Wall of China and That's Not Her Style.


Personally, I celebrate the man's entire catalog.
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 6:00 AM on August 28 [9 favorites]


Saying Joel is the essence of Jersey when he’s from Lawn Island is the perfect insult though. It sasses Joel, Jersey and New York simultaneously.
posted by seanmpuckett at 6:00 AM on August 28 [7 favorites]


I think saying the song is about "boomer self-regard" is really a stretch. I always took "we" to mean everyone hearing the song and the point to be that a lot of stuff has happened over many years and the world didn't start when you were born (which fits in with the song's origin in a conversation with Sean Lennon, who said nothing happened in the 50s). I guess if you buy into the "boomers are terrible" trope, it might seem like that, but Joel is a boomer, and the song is about his memories, so yeah, it starts with boomer things. Songwriters write about themselves. But I'm a boomer and I don't remember any of this before JFK's death (I remember jokes on TV about John Glen going into space and then slipping in the bathtub, but that turned out to be 1964). For most people listening to the song when it came out, there was probably a point when it started hitting their actual memories. And the song goes into what I think was basically the present day then (cola wars), so it went well beyond just what boomers remember.

I think everyone of every age gets a little hit (I want to say dopamine hit, but I don't know if that's accurate) when things they remember get mentioned somewhere in the wider world. This is why Buzzfeed has constant clickbaity articles ranging from "If you remember these actors you're a boomer" to "Only 90s kids know these toys" to "Do you remember these styles from 2010?" People are obviously clicking on these things, and surely it's not to educate themselves about things they don't remember. A few years ago, someone sent me a website that had put many of the Sears Wishbooks online, and you can bet I went and looked up the years of my childhood. "Ooh - my Barbie had that dress, and my friend had that Snoopy snowcone machine" was not about self-regard. It was about that little emotional happy hit.

When someone writes an Ask that's dependent on memories, we get lots and lots of people sharing their memories related to whatever it was, sometimes whether they're actually relevant or not. There's just something very human about that. With the Joel song, even if you don't remember the actual event, you can still get a little hit because you've heard about it (Trouble in the Suez, anyone?). The song tapped into that, and the video really tapped into that - plus it gave you that vicarious "ooh death" at the end. I think that's why it was so popular. It's pretty depressing that it was used to teach history, but that's on the history teachers.

(I remember Ballad of the Green Beret and an impassioned argument in my girl scout troop circa 1968 about whether it was disrespectful to call our squad the Green Berets when men were dying in Vietnam - Girl Scouts wore green berets then. But for me, the worst number one song will always be Billy Don't be a Hero.)
posted by FencingGal at 6:37 AM on August 28 [12 favorites]


I'm one of those who is a huge Billy Joel fan up through The Nylon Curtain, and then hate everything that came after, especially "We Didn't Start The Fire." But I forgive him his entire post-1983 output for "And So It Goes", which he performs just fine, but which in my opinion reaches its peak expression in this arrangement by The King's Singers.
posted by Daily Alice at 7:12 AM on August 28 [2 favorites]


But what is “the fire” and why are “we” trying to fight it? Sure, for the negative things on the list, that makes sense, but we’re also fighting the positive things? The song is a hot mess of the sort of a-logical, impressionistic statements that aren’t supposed to mean anything individually but instead just create an overall impression or feeling, which is the same thing that folks skewered Trump for. But even then, what is the overall impression or feeling that the song is trying to create? (Serious question; I honestly have never been able to figure that out, and I get different, often contradictory answers from everyone I’ve ever asked.)
posted by eviemath at 7:28 AM on August 28 [4 favorites]


The world has always been, and will continue to be, an absurd, chaotic, and bewildering place and reaction to this song proves it.
posted by mazola at 7:49 AM on August 28 [5 favorites]


I had a music teacher in elementary school in MI that was obsessed with Billy Joel before he was super famous, followed him around from gig to gig before people really even did that. How she even knew about him, I don't know, and why I remember this, I also don't know. I never was a fan, except for that one cassette of Glass Houses that someone had at camp they played over and over, that burned into my brain in a not-unpleasant way.

That said, I just watched a music documentary on Tubi and my main takeaway from it is that Billy Joel is really not a nice guy, or at least was supremely unpleasant to his backup musicians who knew him when. Your takeaway might be different. I've been watching a lot of music documentaries lately and they have started to blur together. Most of them seem to feature Dave Grohl. (this one did not.)
posted by 41swans at 7:57 AM on August 28 [5 favorites]


In a just world, I would Not Care For Billy Joel and move on. "Ha," I would say when someone posted the annual anti-Billy Joel screed, "I agree, but maybe just don't listen? Calm down, buddy!" Instead I must feel sympathy for the haters, because there is truly no punishment like hating an Oldies hit, and Billy Joel has many of those. No one gets offended by pop music 25+ years old. (Well, no one takes moral offense.) This means oldies pop up everywhere, at any time. Drug store? Amusement park? Bar? Office? School? Party? TV ads? Movies? I have encountered Billy Joel in all these places, and you know what? He lingers. Maybe for days. I'm not here to make fun of the many, deeply misguided folks who love Billy Joel -- I am asking for your sympathy. What if you had "Piano Man" stuck in your head for a week, and hated it? Billy Joel songs are omnipresent and sticky.
posted by grandiloquiet at 8:00 AM on August 28 [7 favorites]


"Only the Good Die Young" is an incredibly catchy song about trying to badger somebody who doesn't want to fuck you into doing so.
posted by Pope Guilty at 8:01 AM on August 28 [18 favorites]


I first saw Billy Joel in a brand new arena on a college campus during the tour in support of 52nd Street. The arena was not only smoke-free but guests were also prohibited from eating and drinking in their seats. The arena, being on a college campus, did not offer alcohol for purchase. During the show, he commented on the restrictive nature of the arena policies while opening a tall boy and lighting a cigarette.
posted by MorgansAmoebas at 8:05 AM on August 28 [5 favorites]


What is the way according to Heraclitus?

Viewing fire as the essential material uniting all things, Heraclitus wrote that the world order is an “ever-living fire kindling in measures and being extinguished in measures.” He extended the manifestations of fire to include not only fuel, flame, and smoke but also the ether in the upper atmosphere.
posted by Nancy Lebovitz at 8:06 AM on August 28 [6 favorites]


I too can't stand Billy Joel but until this thread, I wasn't sure why. Thanks for a great Sunday morning all!
posted by bluesky43 at 8:19 AM on August 28


I'm so happy this made it to the blue. I loved this song when it came out and I was 8 or 9. I can't bring myself to hate it, but man oh man can I understand hating it. I remember being in fourth or fifth grade and how we had to break up into groups with one or two friends to do a jump rope exercise set to music for P.E. (I think "U Can't Touch This" and "Ice Ice Baby" were the only banned songs, "Ice Ice Baby because a plausible argument could be made that it was about drugs, and "U Can't Touch This" because the gym teacher didn't want to be listening to it on repeat all day. In any case, my friends and I used this song, because absent the two forbidden tracks, this was obviously the best song available. Just for perspective.

I then spent the next ten years blissfully not really thinking about Billy Joel, until I started up freshman year at NYU. As it turns out, there are a whole fuck-ton of people my age who grew up with the Billy Joel catalog as, like, sacred texts. It was so fucking weird. Like, they'd be just like any other college kid born circa 1980 but if you scratched even slightly you'd discover a wellspring of vehement opinions regarding the indisputable greatness of Billy Joel. Most of these kids were from Long Island, of course (though not all) and I think roughly all of them were male. But it meant that in college his music was inescapable. I went in knowing WDSTF and "River of Dreams," which I'd only ever really heard in its native land, the orthodontist's office. I came out knowing, like, all of his stuff.

It's mostly anodyne. It's often very stupid. It's 100% better if you're drunk and singing along. Loquacious mentioned "Only the Good Die Young" above and just the other day it occurred to me that that song, a nostalgic bop about a Jewish teenager in the late fifties/early sixties trying to talk a girl into sleeping with him by mocking her Catholicism*, might be the single most Long Island thing ever. But it has to compete with every other Billy Joel song for that title.

*Some of those details are subtextual, but they're there.

But "We Didn't Start the Fire" isn't harmless. It's genuinely hate-worthy. When Annie on Community said to Pierce, "They're just appealing to your demographic's well-documented historical vanity!" it wasn't about this song, except that it absolutely was. It's generational smugness in the form of a Gish Gallop, apparently directed at Sean Lennon, which makes the whole thing that much fucking weirder, and it places the singer (and the singer's weird buck-passing that feels like it's a response to a purely-imagined slight) right in the center of this list of shit that happened over the course of thirty or so years. So when he gets to "JFK! Blown away! What else do I have to say?!" my thought is "say about what? That world events have happened in your life? What argument do you think you just won, exactly?" When I hear that line, I feel infinitely less for Billy Joel than I do for any number of people who were close to JFK and for whom this song must have been almost as unavoidable as it's been for everyone else.

But I can't hate it myself. It's part of my early music history. I can hate "New York State of Mind," in which Billy Joel sings about the city he's lived in or near all of his life with all of the trenchant observational powers that he applies to 20th century history. That song is dogshit. Melodically, for sure, but mostly in the way that it just feels like a skeevy guy at a bar talking way too close while trying to fuck you, lying about being a "real" New Yorker and then coming up with the lamest possible things to say to supposedly back that up.

So there's my vote. "New York State of Mind" is the worst Billy Joel song. But there are contenders!
posted by Navelgazer at 8:30 AM on August 28 [17 favorites]


This means oldies pop up everywhere, at any time. Drug store? Amusement park? Bar? Office? School? Party? TV ads? Movies?

I think this is going to be a matter of waiting this out, and someone who knows more than I do could write a really cool article on the history of standards. Maybe that person will be able to show that I'm wrong, but I'm going to share my thoughts anyway.

It was probably about thirty years ago that I was at a ball game and realized that the incidental music being played was now being chosen by someone my age (boomer). We were no longer hearing the Frank Sinatra standards of my parents' generation or "In the Good Old Summertime" (which my sister's Fisher Price ferris wheel played). Instead, it was the music of my high school and college years. It looks like this has hung on for a very long time, but I would expect that as the boomers retire and die, the next generations will start picking out the music, and in drug stores in thirty years, you'll be hearing what is popular now while the young people roll their eyes at the old people music .

Eventually, you'll be hearing the boomer music primarily in nursing homes under the assumption that old people are only interested in their youth (my aunt's nursing home seemed to only show black and white movies). Fortunately, I have cancer and will probably not live long enough to experience that particular indignity.

(One thing that was super cool about my own parents was that they didn't draw lines about what wasn't "their" music, which means my dad really liked "Yellow Submarine" and my mom bought the 45 of "YMCA" and sang "Dammit Janet" while doing the dishes. My ex-father-in-law, on the other hand, complained that rock music had no melody while listening to music stations playing instrumental versions of "Satisfaction.")
posted by FencingGal at 8:35 AM on August 28 [11 favorites]


I am asking for your sympathy. What if you had "Piano Man" stuck in your head for a week, and hated it? Billy Joel songs are omnipresent and sticky.

I usually start trying to wipe out ear worms with other ear worms, like We Built This City.

But then I start mashing them up in my auditory imagination and giving them a chopped and screwed treatment and make them start fighting each other like battle bots. We Built This City on The Piano Man, etc.

And then after they're chasing each other around in my head like a hyperactive DJ having a fit - at the next available moment I blast them right out of there with a loud dose of harsh noise like Merzbau or maybe some IDM/braindance like Gescom, Plaid, Squarepusher, or Aphex Twin. The harsher or weirder the better.

Plaid's off kilter rhythms and melody on Clock is a sure-fire weapon against poppy earworms for me.

Then after I've tickled and clean out my ears for a while I follow it up with something mellow and pretty like Boards of Canada, Lusine or Tycho and have a spa day for my ears.

In no time at all I'll forget that Billy Joel or whatever poppy earworm I'm fleeing from even exists.
posted by loquacious at 8:46 AM on August 28 [6 favorites]


Loquacious mentioned "Only the Good Die Young" above

I did no such thing! How dare you!! MODS.
posted by loquacious at 8:48 AM on August 28 [3 favorites]


loquacious I am so so sorry to pin Pope Guilty's deeds on you like that.
posted by Navelgazer at 8:50 AM on August 28 [7 favorites]


Like, they'd be just like any other college kid born circa 1980 but if you scratched even slightly you'd discover a wellspring of vehement opinions regarding the indisputable greatness of Billy Joel. Most of these kids were from Long Island, of course

I’m in this photo and I don’t like it
posted by uncleozzy at 9:06 AM on August 28 [8 favorites]


... an incredibly catchy song about trying to badger somebody who doesn't want to fuck you into doing so.

*knocks on door, waits for Pope Guilty to open it, removes hat, respectfully holds it in front of him with a sympathetic look* I'm so sorry, but I have terrible news for you about almost all pop music ever
posted by phooky at 9:14 AM on August 28 [13 favorites]


phooky: I'm not saying you're wrong, but few other pop songs let you so clearly envision the rejections, complete with reasons and explanations, that occurred just prior to the badgering in the song.
posted by Navelgazer at 9:22 AM on August 28 [7 favorites]


I bought Glass Houses when I was 15, because it just may be a loooooonatic I'm looking for. I don't remember loving any of the other songs off that album though, especially not the shitty one with the gratuitous French verse which I dutifully tried to sing by following along with the liner notes. I don't speak a syllable of French so I can only imagine how monstrously awful that would have sounded to an actual French-speaking person.
posted by Serene Empress Dork at 9:23 AM on August 28 [3 favorites]


Isn't it basically the Boomer version of Bo Burnham's That Funny Feeling? (I have to give credit to Bo for being a much better lyricist, though).
posted by airmail at 9:32 AM on August 28 [1 favorite]


my main takeaway from it is that Billy Joel is really not a nice guy, or at least was supremely unpleasant to his backup musicians

One of the Big Lessons I've learned is that the bastards/jerks/assholes (call 'em what you will) get the job done. Or at least, to be an effective team leader, the character of that leader requires some percentage of unsympathetic jerk in order to make it happen. And with a little (or a lot) more of that, the results can be a little (or maybe, a lot) better. This is true of engineering (ex. Steve Jobs) as well as musicians.
posted by Rash at 9:33 AM on August 28


I busted out a legit guffaw when I read brundlefly's comment about their Youtube comment about the alt right parody. I then went into paroxysms when I read sukeban's Spanish translation of the Piano Man and startled a neighbor passing by my apartment window with their laundry basket. Thank you everyone.

Also basalganglia, it's awesome and appalling that Forrest Gump and WDSTF got you through the AP History exam.

Hot (secondhand) take. Prince's Sign of the Times is proof that listing the things you saw on the news makes for a terrible song, especially if your conclusion is to get married and procreate.
posted by spamandkimchi at 9:52 AM on August 28 [3 favorites]


One of the Big Lessons I've learned is that the bastards/jerks/assholes (call 'em what you will) get the job done. Or at least, to be an effective team leader, the character of that leader requires some percentage of unsympathetic jerk in order to make it happen. And with a little (or a lot) more of that, the results can be a little (or maybe, a lot) better. This is true of engineering (ex. Steve Jobs) as well as musicians.

This is tempting to believe, because we seem to see so much of it in our lives. I've worked in and around show business for most of my adult life, though, and a lot of the very successful (or even just admirably successful) people are incredibly nice, and still get the job done. I think the truth is that talented people who make money have a lot of leeway to be assholes if they want to be, and a good percentage of people will take up that offer. It's not a necessity, though.
posted by Navelgazer at 9:58 AM on August 28 [19 favorites]


A good way to get "We Didn't Start The Fire" out of your head is to listen to Jim Carroll's People Who Died.
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 10:04 AM on August 28 [14 favorites]


But for me, the worst number one song will always be Billy Don't be a Hero

"honey" by bobby goldsboro - I'm not linking to it because i care
posted by pyramid termite at 10:14 AM on August 28 [5 favorites]


Aaand now it's stuck in my head. Thanks. Thanks a lot.
posted by tmt at 4:55 PM on August 27 [8 favorites +] [!]


Ring ring ring ring ring... bananaphone...

(you're welcome)
posted by symbioid at 10:14 AM on August 28 [1 favorite]


I agree it's unfair to associate all Boomers with this, or with Joel. I'd say it's more accurate to say Joel and his music and this song in particular typify the attitudes, beliefs and actions of the "Me Generation" which is a Thing that many, many Boomers bought into—and many Boomers are still heavily invested in. I do not dislike or hate all Boomers. It's the Me Generation that I detest so strongly.

#NotAllBoomers
posted by SoberHighland at 10:37 AM on August 28 [2 favorites]


i've had novos baianos' a menina dança stuck in my head for a few weeks - better this than a lot of other things
posted by pyramid termite at 10:45 AM on August 28


"honey" by bobby goldsboro - I'm not linking to it because i care
posted by pyramid termite at 1:14 PM on August 28
[1 favorite −] Favorite added! [!]

Loathing of this song won my Mum a jukebox in a radio contest back in the 80's. We had a fun time selecting the singles to go in it.
posted by Kris10_b at 10:52 AM on August 28 [3 favorites]


I like Billy Joel enough to hate this song just slightly less than the other “endlessly listing news events that happened during the formative years of Boomers” anthem, “American Pie.”
posted by armeowda at 10:55 AM on August 28 [5 favorites]


American Pie at least has an internally consistent viewpoint and theme. (I happen to like it, but can see why it’s not everyone’s cup of tea.)
posted by eviemath at 11:09 AM on August 28 [3 favorites]


I'm late to this party, but I agree with every word of that take-down. I always swore BJ wrote it on a roll of TP while taking a massive uncomfortable dump, wiped with it, and then handed it to his producers just to prove he could make a hit record out of shit.
posted by OHenryPacey at 11:12 AM on August 28 [3 favorites]


Because no one asked for them, here are the obligatory posts of his early work the Hassles (is that Joel doing the howling there?) and Attila (where he actually lays down some nice proggy organ).

Personally I like some of his work and am 'meh' about the rest. But let's face it, even WDSTF isn't as cringe-worthy as, say, Train's "Soul Sister, play Mr. Mister on the radio" song (or Mr. Mister themselves for that matter).
posted by gtrwolf at 11:33 AM on August 28 [3 favorites]


loquacious I am so so sorry to pin Pope Guilty's deeds on you like that.

Trying to do me dirty like that. The nerve of some people.
posted by loquacious at 11:44 AM on August 28 [3 favorites]


This thread makes me feel lucky. My brain has, for a while, resisted WDSTF by effortlessly, always, eventually turning it into the bridge of Madonna's "Vogue." It won't do it while I'm watching, so I can't pin down the transition exactly, but it's something like

[to rhythm of WDSTF:]
Harry Truman, Doris Day, Red China, Johnnie Ray
South Pacific, Walter Winchell, Joe DiMaggio
Marlon Brando, Jimmy Dean, cover of a magazine
Grace Kelly, Harlow, Jean, picture of a beauty queen
Gene Kelly, Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers dance on air

and then boom, the rhythm twists slightly and you're in "Vogue:"

they had style,
they had grace,
Rita Hayworth
gave good face

People who like Madonna better than Billy Joel are encouraged to try this method out and report back on whether I've found a cure for WDSTF or am just particularly beloved of god.
posted by Spathe Cadet at 11:51 AM on August 28 [13 favorites]


"honey" by bobby goldsboro - I'm not linking to it because i care

Fair enough. Bobby Goldsboro also gave us the terrible "Watching Scotty Grow" and "Summer (The First Time)." The transgender main character of Breakfast on Pluto is obsessed with the song Honey. It's been a long time since I've seen the movie, so people can tell me if I'm wrong, but I think it's because it reflects her desire to be taken care of by a man.

But this makes me wonder if there's a category of songs that we know are actually awful but kind of like anyway. For me, Seasons in the Sun and Cats in the Cradle would fall in that category, although that might be because they seemed deep to me when I was an angsty teen, but I eventually grew out of them. Angsty teens may explain the popularity of a lot of bad songs.
posted by FencingGal at 12:13 PM on August 28 [2 favorites]


#NotAllBoomers

When they come for GenXers next, I wonder what song will earn as much rancid, putred hatred. I have my pick.
posted by They sucked his brains out! at 12:15 PM on August 28 [4 favorites]


For the sake of completeness, I would suggest that the Gen X version of the list song came out only three months after WDSTF: Hello.
posted by snofoam at 1:17 PM on August 28 [1 favorite]


I have my pick .

All-Star is genuinely beloved by many people (and rightfully so cos it fuckin whips).
posted by uncleozzy at 1:30 PM on August 28 [3 favorites]


I considered posting Hello as well - way funnier than Billy Joel looking back in mild irritation and even more of it's time:

Little Richard, Little Nell
Willy Wonka and William Tell
Salman Rushdie and Kym Mazelle
Hello, hello, hello, hello

posted by thatwhichfalls at 1:31 PM on August 28


Did somebody say GenX hatesong?
posted by box at 1:46 PM on August 28 [1 favorite]


Surely, at least in terms of Billboard number one singles, the Gen X hate song will be With Arms Wide Open.
posted by Kattullus at 1:51 PM on August 28 [4 favorites]


Oh, that's the gen X hate song? Well, maybe. I said mayyyyyybeeee
posted by phooky at 2:11 PM on August 28 [2 favorites]


But let's face it, even WDSTF isn't as cringe-worthy as, say, Train's "Soul Sister, play Mr. Mister on the radio" song

that's an obvious derail if i've ever seen one
posted by pyramid termite at 2:23 PM on August 28 [4 favorites]


One of the reasons for posting this was because the article is mostly about hating the song rather than the artist. I like more than a few Billy Joel songs but I share a disdain for WDSTF because it's a shithouse song. River Of Dreams, another godawful earworm, is a better tune.

When they come for Gen X it's not going to be the hits they're looking for. It's gonna be the ones lyrics like "Bawitdaba, da bang, da dang diggy diggy, diggy, said the boogie, said up jump the boogie"
posted by Foaf at 2:30 PM on August 28 [1 favorite]


I exist in a blessed state. I have never heard WDSTF, and I never will. My life is objectively better than many other people's.

That time when an 8 year old kid pulled up on his bike and tried to impress me and my high school friends by reciting the lyrics to WDStF? -- That doesn't count. He mumbled so much that my brain was not affected. I remain pure. If I try to recall the song, it just turns into Subterranean Homesick Blues. Blubhlub blubh bluh bluh and watch your parking meters.

When I was 8 myself, I did listen to one of my dad's Billy Joel albums, 52nd Street. I think some of those songs are still pretty good.
posted by fleacircus at 2:34 PM on August 28 [4 favorites]


When they come for Gen X it's not going to be the hits they're looking for. It's gonna be the ones lyrics like "Bawitdaba, da bang, da dang diggy diggy, diggy, said the boogie, said up jump the boogie"

Like when the mean tweeters of the Silent Generation came for
Hidee hidee hidee hidee hidee hidee hi
Hodee hodee hodee hodee hodee oh
Scurlivou scurlivou scurlivou rlivourlivu
Setetetete raburlutu scetete raburlutu toy
posted by ActingTheGoat at 2:55 PM on August 28 [1 favorite]


All of this has happened before...
posted by Foaf at 3:00 PM on August 28 [1 favorite]


When they come for GenXers next, I wonder what song will earn as much rancid, putred hatred. I have my pick.

This makes me absolutely giddy with the prospects and opportunities to snark about bad pop music. Have at it, millenials and gen z, roast the hell out of gen x's music. There's some real stinkers in there. May I suggest Who Let the Dogs Out as an appetizer?

Also I have a feeling millenials and gen z is going to have a hard time keeping up with the level of snarkiness and, cynacism withering sarcasm that gen x is well versed and experienced in.

Oh man, I could easily come up with a 100 item list of really bad 90s songs in a variety of categories or genres but then I'd have to actually go and listen to or look at that crap and write about it and ugh God please no.

And I think a lot of people here would hate me for diving into territory like The Smashing Pumpkins, Marilyn Manson, Oasis, Matchbox 20, Sublime, No Doubt and many more favorites before I started into the real stinkers.
posted by loquacious at 3:38 PM on August 28 [1 favorite]


No no no no no no NO.

Looks like we got ourselves a No Limits fan.
posted by biffa at 4:05 PM on August 28 [2 favorites]


loquacious, I'd say a large chunk of the target audience for Who Let the Dogs Out were Millennials, not Gen X. That's going to be true for any pop music that came out after 1995 or so. I'm right in the middle of the Millennials and the vast majority of my exposure to pop music was between 1996 and 2011, when I was 10-25.

I know it's easier to avoid pop music now than it was in 1989 thanks to on-demand services, but I would suspect We Didn't Start the Fire was driven more by Gen X than people are recognizing in the comments. The youngest Boomers were already 25 at this point.

Anyways, it seems like a lot of the hate for Billy Joel here could just as easily be leveled against most successful pop musicians. Yes, the songs are ear worms. Yes, the lyrics are simple-minded. Yes, he's got an inflated ego. Shockers. But I'll throw on Turnstiles in the background while working out, sing along a little and enjoy the entire thing.
posted by ecreeves at 4:48 PM on August 28 [3 favorites]


I unironically like most of Billy Joel’s catalog, and really like WDStF. I’ll allow that it works better as an art piece rather than an actual song but knowing the lyrics has more than once gained me points in pub quizzes with questions on the second half of the 20th century.

I have long had the opinion that somebody (possibly the UN) should pay Joel a yearly stipend to keep writing verses every decade or so. It could become the Bayeux Tapestry of our time, a chronicle of our times presenting the knowledge such events as the Cola Wars to future generations.

But perhaps I just like the simple pleasure of yelling out random non sequiturs that rhyme, a vice that I shouldn’t have to feel bad about or hide. In conclusion, CHILDREN OF THALIDOMIDE!
posted by AndrewStephens at 4:57 PM on August 28 [11 favorites]


I have nothing to contribute to this extensive conversation beyond the fact that one of my good friends growing up always misheard "the regular crowd shuffles in" in "Piano Man" as "the regular clown shuffles in."

Since then I have always interpreted that song as a piano player singing to a single, lonely clown in a deserted bar, with all of the described characters being mere figments of his overactive imagination.
posted by lorddimwit at 6:20 PM on August 28 [13 favorites]


I really can't understand hating anything that harmless that much.

It's no wonder that several kids (and I'm among them) found this catchy.

It's a child's vision of history as proffered by an adult. As an answer to the statement "nothing happened in the 50s" it manages to be equally vapid while using a lot more words. It's history as a spectacle from the perspective of a person who has never been threatened by it
posted by wotsac at 6:25 PM on August 28 [4 favorites]


I’ve been reading Breihan’s number ones column religiously since it was first posted here, and I am pleased to report that all of his one star reviews are glorious. The one for ‘Knock Three Times’ by Tony Orlando and Dawn is my favorite.
posted by ActionPopulated at 6:36 PM on August 28 [2 favorites]


Like, they'd be just like any other college kid born circa 1980 but if you scratched even slightly you'd discover a wellspring of vehement opinions regarding the indisputable greatness of Billy Joel.

I know many of these people even today. I feel like Joel holds a special place in the hearts of a lot of the NY/NJ Jewish community of a certain age. I still love Only the Good Die Young, and I adore My Life - not least because it was the theme song to Bosom Buddies, which I also adored growing up.

WDSTF is pretty neutral for me. Like a few other people said, I always thought of it as We Didn't Start the Fire, but suckier. But I didn’t loathe it like I do Uptown Girl or (I’m sorry) Allentown.

But when I was around 15 I met a boy on a youth group trip and he started hitting on me pretty hard. I wasn’t interested- he lived in another state and he seemed kind of creepy. But when he asked I gave him my address to keep in touch because it was 1984 (or thereabouts) and that was what you did before facebook when you didn’t want to give someone your phone number. So a few weeks later he wrote me a long letter written as if I was his girlfriend and that freaked me out and I didn’t write back. There may have been another letter after that which I also ignored - I can’t remember how quickly this escalated- but within a month he sent me a letter “breaking up” with me, telling me that I broke his heart and how much I was like the song She’s Always a Woman To Me by Billy Joel (that’s how he wrote it in the letter, giving attribution, in case I wasn’t familiar with it), and then writing out all the lyrics (by hand) over the next two pages. Reader, this is not a compliment.

Anyways 1) She’s Always A Woman To Me is the worst Billy Joel song, and 2) if you are reading this and suddenly realize that you were that boy, I’m sorry, it’s not you, it’s me.
posted by Mchelly at 8:07 PM on August 28 [12 favorites]


Careful what you say about this song. You don’t wanna piss off the Space Monkey Mafia.
posted by panama joe at 9:06 PM on August 28 [3 favorites]


listen to Jim Carroll's People Who Died

Thanks for the nudge. I can never hear this song enough.

I was a freshman in college in 1989. I had no knowledge at all about recent US history or even the concept of pop culture. I liked this song a lot. Even at that time I realized the music and the chorus were both crap but a lot of words in that song stuck in my head. As I read more and explored pop culture and recent history I learned a lot of facts and context about those words stuck in my head.

People Who Died, live in 1984.
posted by bendy at 9:34 PM on August 28


Furthermore, we would all be well advised not to tangle with Felipé “Hula Hoops” Castro, Fidel’s long lost cousin. That dude’s got some serious core strength.
posted by panama joe at 9:37 PM on August 28 [4 favorites]


telling me that I broke his heart and how much I was like the song She’s Always a Woman To Me by Billy Joel (that’s how he wrote it in the letter, giving attribution, in case I wasn’t familiar with it), and then writing out all the lyrics (by hand) over the next two pages. Reader, this is not a compliment

Considering said song had lyrics like "Then she'll carelessly cut you and laugh while you're bleeding", etc., it sounds like he was calling you a sociopath (whether he realized it or not). So yeah, sounds like you dodged a bullet there.
posted by gtrwolf at 12:07 AM on August 29 [1 favorite]


This is the first time I've listened to the lyrics for Only the Good Die Young.

Triple reaction: The speaker is an obnoxious guy, this is the most I've seen about a religion in a popular song, I still love the hook.

An early version:

To His Coy Mistress
BY ANDREW MARVELL

Had we but world enough and time,
This coyness, lady, were no crime.
We would sit down, and think which way
To walk, and pass our long love’s day.
Thou by the Indian Ganges’ side
Shouldst rubies find; I by the tide
Of Humber would complain. I would
Love you ten years before the flood,
And you should, if you please, refuse
Till the conversion of the Jews.
My vegetable love should grow
Vaster than empires and more slow;
An hundred years should go to praise
Thine eyes, and on thy forehead gaze;
Two hundred to adore each breast,
But thirty thousand to the rest;
An age at least to every part,
And the last age should show your heart.
For, lady, you deserve this state,
Nor would I love at lower rate.
But at my back I always hear
Time’s wingèd chariot hurrying near;
And yonder all before us lie
Deserts of vast eternity.
Thy beauty shall no more be found;
Nor, in thy marble vault, shall sound
My echoing song; then worms shall try
That long-preserved virginity,
And your quaint honour turn to dust,
And into ashes all my lust;
The grave’s a fine and private place,
But none, I think, do there embrace.
Now therefore, while the youthful hue
Sits on thy skin like morning dew,
And while thy willing soul transpires
At every pore with instant fires,
Now let us sport us while we may,
And now, like amorous birds of prey,
Rather at once our time devour
Than languish in his slow-chapped power.
Let us roll all our strength and all
Our sweetness up into one ball,
And tear our pleasures with rough strife
Through the iron gates of life:
Thus, though we cannot make our sun
Stand still, yet we will make him run.
posted by Nancy Lebovitz at 12:27 AM on August 29 [3 favorites]


I used to teach "To His Coy Mistress" with the Stones' "She's So Cold," which has these lines:

Who would believe you were a beauty indeed
When the days get shorter and the nights get long
Night fades when the rain comes
Nobody will know, when you're old
When you're old, nobody will know
That you was a beauty, a sweet sweet beauty
A sweet sweet beauty, but stone stone cold
posted by FencingGal at 5:07 AM on August 29 [3 favorites]


The first time I heard Only the Good Die Young was when a priest played it for my catechism class as we prepared for our first communion, almost a decade after it came out. I remember having absolutely no idea what he was trying to accomplish, but thinking it was a pretty good song. Because I was 7.
posted by uncleozzy at 5:09 AM on August 29 [1 favorite]


Curiously enough, Billy Joel never gives the narrator of Only the Good Die Young a pronoun. In my head canon, this means the narrator is a lesbian and all of the going on about Catholic girls starting much too late means that they’re late to come out of the closet or even realize that they’re attracted to women. I don’t know if that makes it less creepy or just differently creepy, but that’s my read.
posted by ActionPopulated at 10:00 AM on August 29 [6 favorites]


"You might've heard I run with a dangerous crowd/
We ain't too pretty, we ain't too proud."

And, later,

"Come out, come out, come out/
Virginia don't let me wait."
posted by box at 10:22 AM on August 29 [1 favorite]


As much as most of his music does nothing for me, at best, I do love The Downeaster Alexa

Haha, that's the one song of his I really hate! Mostly because I think the narrator is a whiny ass whose wife probably has to keep the whole family afloat with two minimum wage jobs while he's out there keeping his tragic fisher boat dream afloat in the fishless seas.

As a non-American Gen X-er I actually like WDSTF because it gives me a peek into the kind of white American view of history, and it's catchy and fun to sing. "Boomers" is not an issue outside America, I'd never considered that view.

Also, I always misheard the lyrics as "trouble in the sewers", which I thought for sure meant alligators. Everyone knows alligators in sewers are a big problem in America!
posted by Omnomnom at 11:44 AM on August 29 [4 favorites]


And the C.H.U.D. Alligators and the C.H.U.D.
posted by They sucked his brains out! at 1:39 PM on August 29


"Heavy metal suicide"

Take it easy with the Satanic Panic propaganda there, piano guy.

My mondegreen with the song was hearing -- for decades -- "Bernie Goetz" as "burning beds." Given that Midnight Oil's "Beds Are Burning" was still getting lots of airplay at the time WDSTF came out, I guess it seemed to make sense: "Sure, there are probably beds burning somewhere, maybe it's a AIDS metaphor."

I think I was giving him too much credit there.
posted by mandolin conspiracy at 2:20 PM on August 29 [2 favorites]


Billy Joel may be cringe to some folks, but he's a champion to me. Billy Joel Doesn't Know Why More People Aren't Cracking Nazi Skulls
posted by spinifex23 at 4:01 PM on August 29 [10 favorites]


I stayed up way too late the other night going through a bunch of his other The Number Ones articles. He's really good about giving interesting background about the songs, the artists, the times, the other songs by that artist and then almost completely separately telling you what he thinks about the song. Thanks, Foaf. It's not your fault I stayed up too late.
posted by straight at 6:52 PM on August 29 [3 favorites]


Gen X music ends before 1999. In fact it ends very precisely in 1996: MC Hammer announces bankruptcy, The Ramones split up, Tupac dies, Slash leaves Guns and Roses, and The Squirrel Nut Zippers have an album go platinum. It's all millennial music after 1996.

(It is also the great year of Space Jam, JavaScript and Netscape 2.0 / IE3 -- the year the internet definitively won and the culture permanently shifted into *waves hands* this whole .. whatever)
posted by ead at 11:59 PM on August 29 [4 favorites]


In fact it ends very precisely in 1996

Okay, I'm not totally sure this is the case. Because: The Spice Girls. Admittedly, their first big single was in mid-1996 but their influence went on and on. I feel like the 1990s were split - there was the post-eighties/grunge nineties which went up through about 95/96, then there was the sleazy/mod/Britpop/tiki nineties which went through the end of the decade and which was very Gen X in its general sensibility which would, mercifully, not fly today. Also Britpop generally.

And my final, crushing argument: Belle and Sebastian's first album came out in 1996 and they really broke big in the US in 1997. Stuart Murdoch, god love him, is 53. And Belle and Sebastian is old people music. Certainly very good old people music, at least the first few albums, but music for the Olds.

I'd say that there's a transitional period in the late nineties - like, Britney Spears is millennial music - and then it's millenials all the way down after Y2k.

~~
(I mean, how could you have Gen X music end in 1996 and Austin Powers come out in 1997? If there were ever a Gen X sensibility movie, for good or for ill, it's Austin Powers - late Gen X people are the last ones to have any real sense of the stuff it's mocking, and even for us it's a bit hazy and received.)
posted by Frowner at 6:34 AM on August 30 [1 favorite]


I think there isn’t a clean divide, but a staggered one. Pop music is passed on to the millennial generation in the mid-to-late 90s, but mainstream rock probably not until after 2001. With indie music it’s even later. Probably with the rise of poptimism in the mid 2000s. Film is possibly even later than that, maybe not until Iron Man comes out.
posted by Kattullus at 7:39 AM on August 30 [1 favorite]


uncleozzy: I’m a huge Billy Joel apologist, but I really do loathe We Didn’t Start the Fire.

Honestly, I like Billy Joel, too. And again, I also don't like this song.

I hate "Captain Jack" and "The Down-Easter Alexa." *shrug* The guy produced tons of music, in a bunch of styles, across several decades, and there is as much good stuff as rubbish in there.
posted by wenestvedt at 9:10 AM on August 30


Belle and Sebastian and the Spice Girls are totally millennial. I think you're failing to understand that millennials are old now as well.
posted by ead at 9:19 AM on August 30 [2 favorites]


Say, johnofjack, has your boyfriend heard the song "My Humps"? Matthew Baldwin's wife hadn't, and re-reading the short story about that 15+ years later still makes me laugh.
posted by wenestvedt at 9:24 AM on August 30


And Belle and Sebastian is old people music. Certainly very good excellent and profound old people music, at least the first few albums and their recent turn to disco was underrated, but music for the Olds.

(Just setting the record straight.)

Most if the people on Sinister were born in the 1970s and early 1980s, but I went to a picnic once and someone was wearing a boater, so I don’t think any generation wants to claim them.
posted by betweenthebars at 9:59 AM on August 30


In re Belle and Sebastian and Gen X: I'm not especially a fan of much after the first few albums but the first few albums are about a Gen X experience that no longer exists - mooching around with nothing much to do except indulge your feelings and create music because you are on benefits or have good university funding as existed prior to the late nineties. Stuart Murdoch, IIRC, could not work for seven years due to post-viral syndrome. What exactly would have become of him in the post-2000 benefits landscape? It looks as though the program for unemployed musicians that gave rise to Belle and Sebastian is gone, too, which doesn't surprise me at all.

Like, the difference between me and a millennial is that I went to a good college and...mooched around having experiences. I was not driven and did not need to be; I did not have internships, I did not wear business clothes, I had lots of time to take walks and make stuff and go places. And I worked about eighteen hours a week - I didn't have a full time job or a serious side hustle, I had an easy little retail job at a store in town and picked up a couple of shifts a week in the school cafeteria. In fact, I thought careerism was pretty grotesque - what counted was experience and political activism. And while I was on the less-motivated/more experience-oriented end of the campus spectrum, I wasn't some kind of bizarre, spoiled outlier - I was doing my work pretty well and graduated with a Phi beta kappa key.

And I mean, lots and lots of people had to work hard to attend college, people did have full time jobs and struggle to find childcare and all of that, but believe me, it was much easier on average back then. The world is a worse and meaner place economically, college students are treated worse and have it worse.

That world is so far gone that it might as well be, like, 1950. Millennials may be getting old, but you did not live in that world with its tremendous amount of space for interior life.
posted by Frowner at 12:21 PM on August 30 [8 favorites]


All Star vs One Week vs What's Up ? Gen X's radio music was terrible.
posted by The_Vegetables at 1:04 PM on August 30


All Star vs One Week vs What's Up? Gen X's radio music was terrible.

Maybe, but if you put on 4 Non Blonds right now and turned it way up at least by halfway through the song you would get people all bellowing along all "And I say, heyyyyyyyyyyyyyy-eyyyyyyyyyyyyy-ey..."
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 1:10 PM on August 30 [5 favorites]


Billy Joel's music was very important to me as a child in the early 80s, as a perpetually uncool Jewish kid who played the piano and got made fun of a lot. Billy Joel was one of us. Yes -- An Innocent Man and everything that came after it is pretty bad, but Joel is hardly the only artist to put out brilliant music in the 70s and shit in the 80s. "I Just Called to Say I Love You" is one of the worst songs ever, but no one rejects Stevie Wonder for that.

Over a period of six years from 1976 to 1982, Billy Joel put out Turnstiles, The Stranger, 52nd Street, Glass Houses, and The Nylon Curtain, five incredibly strong albums. Yes, there are bad songs on all of those albums, but nobody has a 100% success rate. I've always preferred the deep cuts to the radio hits, and these albums contain amazing songs like Miami 2017, Summer Highland Falls, Vienna, Zanzibar, Stiletto, Rosalinda's Eyes, All for Leyna, Sleeping With the Television On, Laura, and Scandinavian Skies.

I recognize that Billy Joel has a lot of personal issues, and he treated Liberty DeVito and other bandmates terribly. But I think one of the reasons I react strongly to Billy Joel criticism is that no one hates Billy Joel more than Billy Joel.

I'm not here to defend We Didn't Start the Fire - Billy Joel doesn't like it either. But I'll never understand the amount of vitriol that gets directed at his music.
posted by Ben Trismegistus at 1:22 PM on August 30 [6 favorites]


NB: Breihan goes far easier on "I Just Called to Say I Love You."
posted by Ben Trismegistus at 1:34 PM on August 30 [1 favorite]


No denying that Gen X had it easy. Just pointing out that in 1996 the oldest Millennial was 16 and pop music is dedicated more to 16 year olds and younger than 17 year olds and older. By 1997 the youngest Gen X was 18, graduating highschool and rapidly getting out of touch with new pop music.

It is almost definitional that musicians targeting generation N are themselves members of generation N-1. Stuart Murdoch is Gen X, sure, but he performed for Millennials. Just as Axl Rose (like MC Hammer and, tellingly, Douglas Coupland) is a Boomer, performing for Gen X.
posted by ead at 3:18 PM on August 30 [2 favorites]


^ I feel like you've cracked open a nut of mystery to reveal juicy, meaty contents. I keep re-reading the words.. nothing arcane or multi-syllabic and to my knowledge I'm not tripping on anything. Ah well, thanks.
posted by elkevelvet at 3:22 PM on August 30


spinifex, thanks for the heads-up on that Billy Joel interview. The headline refers to Joel's reaction to Donald Trump's saying there were "very fine people on both sides" in Charlottesville. Today I learned that on the night after No. 45 made that horrifying statement, Billy Joel played Madison Square Garden -- and he did it while wearing a yellow Star of David.

In the same interview (with David Marchese of New York magazine), Joel also has things to say about the situation at the southern border:
These children are being ripped away from their parents and now the US can't find them? This is insane. This is the antithesis of America.
Here's the full interview, for anyone who wants to read it. It makes for interesting reading.

Also:

uncleozzy: The first time I heard Only the Good Die Young was when a priest played it for my catechism class as we prepared for our first communion, almost a decade after it came out.

Wow. I wonder how closely that priest had been listening to the lyrics. Did he think "It's a popular song, it has the words 'Catholic Church' in it, the kids'll love it," or was he trying to stir shit up?

I've always liked Only the Good Die Young, probably because I was a fairly naive 13-year-old when it came out. I didn't really grok that it was about a teenage boy pressuring a teenage girl to have sex with him. The first two lines grabbed my attention, as did the fact that people who perceived the song as anti-Catholic made a big and well-publicized push to get radio stations to take it off their playlists. I was a young nerd who read the newspaper every day, and I followed that story quite closely. (The attempted ban backfired, of course.)
posted by virago at 1:31 AM on September 2 [1 favorite]


great post-ost-ost-ost-ost-ost-ost-ost-ost
posted by thelonius at 2:06 AM on September 2 [1 favorite]


Did he think "It's a popular song, it has the words 'Catholic Church' in it, the kids'll love it," or was he trying to stir shit up?

It was 100% "look at this sinful popular culture, everyone hates Catholics."
posted by uncleozzy at 6:51 AM on September 2 [1 favorite]


uncleozzy, thanks for the answer. Sounds like the message was "Stay in the fold, kids! It's safer. You don't know what you're going to run into out there."
posted by virago at 11:51 AM on September 2


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