Thursday, October 17, 2013

Billy Joel Meets The '80s ... And He Likes It

When people think about the most prominent artists of the '80s, they probably take a while before they get to Billy Joel. And yet. From the very start of the decade to the end of it, you could not keep that guy off the radio. He took to '80s Top 40 like flies on sherbet. And, he managed to do this without looking all that great or dancing all that well. No small feat.

I might as well admit it: Billy Joel was one of the first artists, after the Beatles, whose entire recorded catalog I ended up acquiring. Well, I didn't acquire it. My older brother bought River Of Dreams when it came out in 1993. Shortly afterward he bought Greatest Hits Vol. I & II, and he couldn't stop listening to it. At first I started to tease him, but sure, I thought some of the songs were pretty good, even some of the ones I hadn't heard before. Over the course of about six months, my brother gradually acquired every Billy Joel album. There are about twelve of them, plus a couple of live albums. It was quite an undertaking. I'd been listening to '60s pop for about three years straight and was getting a little sick of it. I guess my brother's enthusiasm couldn't help but rub off on me a little bit. Eventually, I had to admit that, on some level, I liked every Billy Joel album. I figured he must have been one of those few artists whose whole catalog was enjoyable and worth hearing. I wasn't exactly wrong to think that. But see, what I didn't know is that I would eventually feel this way about, oh, say, 450 different artists. Not just Billy Joel.

Later I learned that there were some rock critics who hated Billy Joel. I mean hated him. I couldn't comprehend it. But he was so good! My brother had all his albums! What were they talking about? Gradually, as I discovered more and more music, I suppose that Billy did begin to slip a little bit. My brother made the natural transition from Billy Joel to Elton John, and so I did. Sure, Billy was no Elton, but he had his own (more heterosexual) style. I mean, just when Elton ran out of gas around 1976, Billy stepped up and managed to fill that piano-based singer-songwriter void. Which would have been a horrible, horrible void.

Later, as I discovered punk, New Wave, post-punk, and alternative rock, I started gaining a different perspective. See, for people like my brother, to whom punk hardly registered as a thing, Billy Joel fit comfortably into the lineage of rock history. For people who saw punk as rock's official "re-boot" moment, artists like Billy Joel didn't really "count." But, damn it, whenever a Billy Joel song would come on the radio, I would still ... like it! According to rock critics, that was bad. I was supposed to like Leonard Cohen or Tom Waits instead. Whatever. Sometimes music simply reminds you of a certain period of your life, and you can't go back and change your feelings about it. Still, I wrestled with the Billy Joel Question for years. Was he just a guilty pleasure of mine, or a worthy member of the rock canon? Was it safe to admit that I still liked Billy Joel, or did I need to keep his CDs in a different drawer? One day, several years ago, I think I was listening to "Uptown Girl," and I finally said to myself, "You know what? Fuck it. He's great."

Here's the deal: Billy Joel's rise to commercial prominence directly paralleled the rise of punk. And to many rock critics, punk established itself as the "legitimate" branch of white late '70s rock. Anybody who wasn't punk was corporate soft rock crap. Except for Bruce Springsteen, who somehow had a "get out of punk free" card (perhaps by hanging out with Patti Smith and the Ramones?). Basically, the new rule was: if you wanted to be angry, you had to be punk. Billy Joel was angry, but he was middle of the road angry. Thus, his success was even more offensive. I think a lot of critics felt like Billy Joel didn't "get it." You can't be angry and make soft rock. Sure you can! Besides, what's more punk than being angry, but not actually punk?

The trick with Billy Joel is that he's good, but he's dorky. He's cheesy. He's not cool. Here's How Chuck Klosterman put it in his highly appreciative but somewhat rambling essay on Billy Joel from Sex, Drugs, And Cocoa Puffs, "Every Dog Must Have His Every Day, Every Drunk Must Have His Drink":
Nobody would ever claim that Billy Joel is cool in the conventional sense, particularly if they're the kind of person who actively worries about what coolness is supposed to mean. Billy Joel is also not cool in the kitschy, campy, "he's so uncool he's cool" sense, which also happens to be the most tired designation in popular culture. He has no intrinsic coolness, and he has no extrinsic coolness. If cool was a color, it would be black - and Billy Joel would be sort of burnt orange.

Yet Billy Joel is great. And he's not great because he's uncool, nor is he great because "he doesn't worry about being cool" (because I think he kind of does). No, he's great in the same way that your dead grandfather is great. Because unlike 99 percent of pop artists, there is absolutely no relationship between Joel's greatness and Joel's coolness (or lack thereof), just as there's no relationship between the "greatness" of serving in World War II and the "coolness" of serving in World War II.
So Billy Joel's not cool. Well you know what? I'm not cool either. And like Klosterman suggests, maybe sometimes it's more important to be thoughtful, responsible, conscientious, or compassionate than it is to be "cool." I love punk, but I don't wear safety pins or a mohawk or anything remotely rebellious. I am the tamest guy around. Maybe if I'd grown up in the late '70s and all those boring kids at my school listened to Billy Joel and Fleetwood Mac and ELO, then I might have gravitated towards punk and thought of punk as "my" music. Well, I grew up in a trailer park in rural San Mateo County in the mid-'90s. All the kids I knew who listened to punk and alternative rock were all the privileged upper-middle class white kids. I'll tell you what was rebellious at my school: listening to Billy Joel.

Which brings me to the task at hand. Not every late '70s superstar managed the transition into the '80s too well (I'm looking at you, Bee Gees). But maybe because, somewhat like Hall & Oates, Billy Joel's music was so firmly rooted in Brill Building pop, doo wop, and McCartney-esque songcraft, he didn't have much '70s in him to shed to begin with. Yeah, he fondled a synthesizer here and there, but for the most part, Bill Joel's '80s music doesn't really sound that "80s," just as his '70s music doesn't really sound that "70s." He always sounds like he just came back from a jam session with Carole King and Neil Sedaka.

For Billy Joel, entering the '80s was like a walk in the park; he was in the midst of his commercial and creative peak. By writing about Billy Joel in the '80s, I am literally cutting his career in half: he released six studio albums before 1979, and six studio albums after 1979. It's kind of an awkward spot to do any sort of division. I suppose I could do a "How Billy Joel Went Yuppie Rock" post, but I would have too much ground to cover. Streetlife Serenade, Turnstiles, The Stranger, 52nd St. ... another place, another time, I'm afraid. No, better to stick to the Yuppie Rock years, particularly those first three albums of the decade (I'm not even sure I want to go anywhere near "We Didn't Start The Fire").

You know what? You want the short version of how Billy Joel went Yuppie Rock? I have two words for you:

Christie. Brinkley.

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