I really cannot stand Billy Joel.
Granted, there are a lot of artists I dislike, but none of their music is as pervasive and unavoidable as his. Billy Joel reaches for both the everyman charm of Bruce Springsteen and the campy virtuosity of Elton John ― however, he misses both marks, falling flat on his face in the middle.
Billy Joel is no stranger to lukewarm critical reception. When asked about the critics in a 1982 interview with Playboy, Billy responded: “What they say has absolutely no effect on me! I really don’t care what they say. It doesn’t bother me. It’s irrelevant!” He has been known to rip up negative reviews on stage during his concerts, which is a great way of showing that you are definitely not mad.
Let’s move to his actual music, beginning with the mawkish piece of work that is “Piano Man”: The narrative is centered around the perspective of a dive bar musician who describes the lonely clientele that pass through on a Saturday night. Like almost all his songs, the central character, in this case the “piano man,” is a hammed-up version of himself. While masquerading as a portrait of the common man, the song does not actually explore the emotional world of the patrons in any way, the only real observation being that they are lonely and dream of a better life. Instead, the narrative turns on how much they all come together to enjoy the music of … Billy Joel. Likewise, any attempts he makes at empathy or insight are painfully banal. Take “The Stranger”: “Well, we all have a face that we hide away forever / And we take them out and show ourselves when everyone has gone.”
A lot of Billy’s stories, much like “Piano Man,” seem to focus on how effortlessly cool he is. In the Playboy interview, he tells this one: “I was in Turin for this press conference and this well-dressed journalist with wing-tip shoes from a left-wing paper asked, ‘Why did you play Israel?’ He was trying to create controversy. I said, ‘I played in Israel for the same reason I played in Cuba — to play for the people. We wanted to see what the people in Israel were like instead of listening to the propaganda we get in our country.’ The people at the press conference stood up and clapped.” This anecdote could come straight from a chain email circa 2005, right down to everyone in room standing up and clapping for him. He tells a very similar story about a show in Cuba as well — his self-aggrandizement is not constrained by petty politics!
Let’s also look at the “A Matter of Trust” music video. It consists of Billy and his backing band performing an open-air basement concert while onlookers slowly congregate, the event eventually turning into an impromptu concert. If this sounds familiar, that’s because it’s almost exactly the same concept as The Beatles’s famous rooftop concert, except Billy Joel is under the building instead of on top of it.
Specifically, his feeble attempts to emulate the irreverent and mischievous public persona of The Beatles come across as arrogant. In regard to his experience with The Beatles, Billy says, “They don’t look like they were manufactured in Hollywood. They look just like me and my friends. I could see this look in John Lennon’s eyes that told me something: They were irreverent, they were making fun of the whole thing. It was this smirk on his face. They were a bunch of wise guys like me and my friends! That’s when it all took shape. I said, ‘That’s what I want to do.’” The problem with this is that Billy Joel, like most people, is much, much, worse at being a wise guy than any of The Beatles.
He paints himself as beleaguered by cultural elites at every turn — he’s just trying to be Billy and they won’t let him! And you know what? He’s not totally wrong. A lot of the criticism of Billy comes from a place of condescension — he is perceived by critics as middlebrow and uncool. This is a correct perception, but such criticism merely feeds into his desire to be perceived as the scrappy underdog who doesn’t care what the haut monde has to say about him. Of course, this image does not square with the fact that he is one of the best-selling artists of all time, has five Grammys, and as of last summer, Jul. 18th in New York state is henceforth to be known as “Billy Joel Day.” Thanks, Andrew Cuomo.
There are plenty of musicians who don’t really offer much of substance but are pleasant nonetheless because they create well-constructed, consumable art. There’s nothing wrong with that! What makes Billy so much more offensive is that a large part of his brand is based on a supposed authenticity, when in reality his appeals to “man of the people” imagery are a cynical, self-serving act.
When asked how he would define rock ‘n’ roll, Billy said, “It’s music that has passion in it, whether it’s a ballad or whatever. There’s some kind of intensity.” Aside from being a terrible attempt at defining rock music, that answer explains a lot of the lurid melodrama Billy shoves into his tunes. Billy is keenly aware of what signifies “meaning” in music and takes advantage of these tropes to create a veneer of poignancy. It is a hollow imitation. It is the Applebee’s of pop music, a tepid microwaved repackaging of actual musical expression, and it deserves little more than contempt.
I do think “Vienna” is a good song, though.