for when you don't know what else to say

Tuesday, July 25, 2006


For some reason last night, the Billy Joel opus "We Didn't Start the Fire" (WDSTF) came up in a conversation about wedding songs. No, it's not a wedding song and anyone who would choose that for their first dance would probably be some 18 year-old P.A. on the song's video shoot that Joel was getting married to for publicity. Or to have someone to drive him home after his benders, thereby protecting trees and buildings and people all over Long Island.

Where was I? Oh yes, the conversation. We were talking about some typical wedding songs, and "She's Got A Way" came up, and then talk turned to Mr. Joel's career and how many chestnuts he had before he lost his mind and became a victim of historical tourette's syndrome and made WDSTF. See the lyrics here.

Joel has had some great songs, and you know I love "Still Rock & Roll to Me" and "Say Goodbye to Hollywood," among others. No matter what you think of the man, he's got an ability to create instantly memorable, catchy tunes on the fly. That being said, he's also annoying to behold. First of all, he copyrighted his own name so that when his albums are listed in Columbia House catalogs, he's not Billy Joel, he's Billy Joel Circle R. Second, he likes to play dueling pianos with Elton John, which is pretty hilarious, but he won't dress appropriately in shimmering sunglasses and flowing silk and Donald Duck costumes. Thirdly, since 1989 he has tortured everyone in junior high or high school with WDSTF.

WDSTF is a ridiculous rat-a-tat rhyme of random historical events and personnages stung together with an ersatz boppy backing track. Like the crazy man at the train station, Joel just blurts out names and places as it suits his purpose. He doesn't comment on them or try to tie things together. And when he can't make the rhyme fit, he'll end a line with a glib exclamation. Perfect example: "JFK / Blown away / What else do I have to say?" Geeze Billy, I don't know. How's about you mention "Princess Grace / Wrecked her car / Jesus Christ Superstar" or "Don King / Not Tyson's friend / Plastic straw made to bend"?

Like a bizarro, dorky cheerleader on crack, Joel just runs through his routine. And much like the drunken crowd at your average football game, the nation's history and civics teachers ate it up. Not only did we have to learn the lyrics to the song in my history class the year it came out; we also had to the next. Learning is not bad, but spending part of two years listening to teachers talking about Billy Joel like he was the second coming was torture. I still hear of people teaching this song, and referring to its wit and brilliance. Very strange considering it reads like a card catalog.

WDSTF is not a deep statement about anything. It's more like "what stuff from the past can I remember and shout out in a rhyme for three minutes." It's as subtle as an anvil falling on your head. Which is surprising, because the other two legs of his whole social awareness triumvirate, "Downeaster Alexa" and "Allentown" are much more lyrically astute. And now with Sufjan Stevens making intelligent and thoughtful records about the states, WDSTF looks like an even crappier "history" "lesson."


  • Great post! If WDSTF wasn't such earworm material, I'm sure it wouldn't have been a hit at all.

    And another Sufjan fan! Huzzah!

    By Blogger Howard, at 9:08 AM  

  • I love it. I think I like your lyrics better though ("Don King / Not Tyson's friend / Plastic straw made to bend").

    Maybe that's how we'll pay for the wedding. Although Weird Al kind of has you beat.

    By Anonymous spencer, at 10:47 AM  

  • Omigod, I love your lyrics. I just snorted hot tea up my nose reading those. Brilliant.

    Have you ever caught the "Celebrity Secrets" segment on Conan O'Brien, where real celebrities tell odd stories about themselves? Bill Joel was on one night, and one of his bit was something to the effect of "So I see this car tear up onto a sidewalk and take out a bunch of trashcans, and I think to myself, 'Now, that's a great way to stay in the public eye!'"

    By Blogger Merujo, at 2:47 PM  

  • I didn't get to see that, but it sounds like classic Conan. I have some good friends who grew up around the Joel compound, and every time they would return there, I would wish them luck driving the same roadways as the drunken piano man.

    By Blogger kristen, at 6:57 AM  

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