I feel like I semi-insulted Billy Joel in yesterday’s post; the truth is that however you feel about the Piano Man—and I run a bit hot and cold, maybe because I find all of the music he wrote about Christie Brinkley (and man there was a lot of it) pretty thoroughly unappealing, not to mention bitterly ironic of course—the guy has written some of the most interesting AmericanStudying songs of the last few decades. To make amends, here are five of the best, in ascending order of impressive AmericanStudiousness:
1) “We Didn’t Start the Fire” (1989): Joel apparently wanted to be a history teacher at some point in his life, and this song certainly can be read as an attempt to teach four decades of American history (or at least to inspire an interested listener to research the many, many references to those decades contained within it). I don’t know that it ultimately adds up to much, other than an impressive ability to rhyme various historical figures and events, but it’s definitely a lot of fun to try to figure out all the references, and their variety certainly reveal an AmericanStudies-like mixture of disciplines, genres, texts, levels of culture, and more.
2) “Captain Jack” (1973): The least explicitly or overtly historical of these five by far, yet I can’t help but feel that the song’s second-person protagonist represents a kind of bastard child of the drug and counter-cultures of the 60s and the self-centered amoralities of the 70s, a young man trying to figure out what core ideas like identity and family mean at the intersection of those worlds. If that’s true, then without question his story reflects a tragic and cynical take on its moment—but that too could be seen as a post-60s afterburn, contributing perhaps to the malaise that would soon characterize the 70s in America.
3) “The Downeaster Alexa” (1989): It’s true that Alexa is the same of Joel and Brinkley’s daughter, but I can let that slide in this case, since Joel gives her name to the fishing boat of his fictional and very nicely-captured fisherman speaker. Having seen first-hand, over the course of many summers on Martha’s Vineyard, the significant decline of the fishing industry in America (or at least of independent/small fisherman in that region), I can testify to the accuracy of Joel’s depiction of this complex late 20th-century trend. John Mellencamp gets justifiable props for his portrayals of the collapse of independent farming in songs like “Blood on the Scarecrow,” but Joel’s right there with him.
4) “Allentown” (1982): As this and the next song illustrate, 1982’s The Nylon Curtain marked the pinnacle of Joel’s AmericanStudiousness. “Allentown” is probably the more famous of the two, both because it’s a lot shorter and more radio-friendly and (I imagine) because of the horrifically cheesy 80s video (to which I will not link below; search at your own peril). But while I slightly prefer the next song, “Allentown” has much to recommend it, especially its second-generation blue collar speaker’s righteous indignation at what has happened—or, to put it more actively, what has been done—to his city and family’s livelihood, at who has done it, and at what they’ve asked of these factory families in return.
1) “Goodnight Saigon” (1982): I don’t think there’s a better song about the Vietnam War. And yes, I’m even including Bruce and “Born in the U.S.A.” in that conversation. Maybe I’m just a sucker for epics, and man does this song qualify—seven minutes, starts and ends with the sounds of a peaceful summer day being overtaken by helicopter rotors, has a full chorus supporting the key lines, etc. But those epic qualities are matched by lines that capture, both in the tiniest details and in the more crucial and terrifying moments, the life for a Vietnam serviceman better than any other song I know.
In short, if and when we’re all in the mood for a melody about America, we won’t go wrong asking the Piano Man to sing us one. More tomorrow,
PS. Six links to start with:
1) “Fire,” with lyrics: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n-y1-eXjJ_g
3) “Alexa,” with lyrics: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a6qBaaEMlRA
4) “Allentown,” with lyrics: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZV2jvngnvqg
5) “Saigon,” with lyrics: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oZiVhVC5My8&feature=related
6) OPEN: Any great AmericanStudies pop songs you’d highlight?
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