In the Bush Era, cultural critics bent over backwards in perverse contrarian ways to reevaluate the careers of artists who didn’t deserve it:
“In the big picture of pop music, I don’t know if what I’ve created is seen as being that important or that necessary, at least not if you ask the experts,” he says. “I was tagged right after ‘Piano Man’: I was a balladeer, I didn’t write substantive music, my records were overproduced, I played too many ballads. Oh, and of course my favorite: ‘He studied piano.’ I had never realized that one of the prerequisites for being critically acclaimed was not knowing how to play your instrument. That stuff bothered me for a long time.”
Joel’s musical output from 1976 to 1982 (“Turnstiles” through “The Nylon Curtain”) was one of the most successful runs in rock history. But the records he made during that period are consistently maligned by virtually every school of rock scholarship. “Rolling Stone magazine would not say anything positive about me, and they were the tastemakers at the time,” Joel explains. “There were people from the old guard who insisted I wasn’t a real rock and roller. Well, O.K., fine — I’m not a real rock and roller. You got me.”
The reasons for that critical disdain are hard to pin down. There are no lyrics from “The Stranger” as ridiculously melodramatic as the worst lines from “Born to Run” (“Just wrap your legs round these velvet rims/And strap your hands across my engines”), nor was Joel’s public posture any less organic or more calculated than that of the Sex Pistols. But guys like Bruce Springsteen and Johnny Rotten have a default credibility that Joel will never be granted, and it’s not just because he took piano lessons. The problem is that Joel never seemed cool, even among the people who like him. He’s not cool in the conventional sense (like James Dean) or in the self-destructive sense (like Keith Richards), nor is he cool in the kitschy, campy, “he’s so uncool he’s cool” way (like Neil Diamond). He has no intrinsic coolness, and he has no extrinsic coolness. If cool were a color, it would be black — and Joel would be kind of a burnt orange. The bottom line is that it’s never cool to look like you’re trying . . . and Joel tries really, really hard.
. . .
“Movin’ Out,” Twyla Tharp’s $8 million show based on Joel’s songs, will have its official Broadway debut on Oct. 24. But it has already absorbed some of the baggage that Joel has carried for years. When the unorthodox musical opened in Chicago in late July, theater critics described it as “inane” and “cliché-ridden,” prompting major changes to the first act. And though those barbs were mostly directed at Tharp, it’s easy to see how they could strike Joel as well, even though he played virtually no role in the production. The characters in “Movin’ Out” include Brenda and Eddie (the couple from “Scenes From an Italian Restaurant”) and Tony (from the song “Movin’ Out”), all of whom have their lives thrown into chaos by the Vietnam War (illustrated by tracks like “Goodnight Saigon”). Tharp describes it as the story of the entire baby boom generation, a demographic for which Joel has often been tagged as an apologist. “He chronicled the time in which I lived,” the 61-year-old Tharp says.
But there are elements of Joel’s work that Tharp considers timeless. “There is a large component of the loner in all of Billy’s music,” she says. “It’s something, for better or worse, that has been part and parcel of the idea of the artist in the 20th century and 19th century. In our culture, the perception of the artist is that of a loner.”
Oddly, one of the loneliest songs in Joel’s entire lonely oeuvre didn’t make it into “Movin’ Out.” It’s called “Where’s the Orchestra?” and it seems particularly apropos, since it uses the theater as a metaphor for loneliness. The lyrics are one long allusion to watching an alienating, dissatisfying play (“I like the scenery/Even though I have absolutely no/Idea at all/What is being said/Despite the dialogue”), and it doesn’t take a rock critic to see it as a metaphor for the emptiness Joel himself feels. It’s also the Billy Joel song that I have always related to the most on a personal level; in fact, I sometimes tell people that they would understand me better if they listened to “Where’s the Orchestra?”
In the Obama Era, there is no room for Chuck Klosterman-esque rehabilitation:
I’m reluctant to pick on Billy Joel. He’s been subject to withering contempt from hipster types for so long that it no longer seems worth the time. Still, the mystery persists: How can he be so bad and yet so popular for so long? He’s still there. You can’t defend yourself with anti-B.J. shields around your brain. He still takes up the space, takes up A&R advances that would otherwise support a score of unrecognized but genuinely talented artists, singers, and songwriters, with his loathsomely insipid simulacrum of rock.
Besides, some people still take Billy seriously. Just the other day I was reading my old friend Jeff Jarvis’ BuzzMachine blog, and Jarvis (the Billy Joel of blog theorists) was attacking the Times’ David Carr. (Talk about an uneven fight.) Carr was speculating about whether newspapers could survive if they adopted the economic model of iTunes. Attempting a snotty put-down of this idea, Jarvis let slip that he’s a Joel fan: As an example somehow of his iTunes counter-theory, he wrote: “If I can’t get Allentown, the original, I’m not likely to settle for a cover.” Only the hard-core B.J. for Jeff! (“Allentown” is a particularly shameless selection on Jarvis’ part, since it’s one of B.J.’s “concern” songs, featuring the plight of laid-off workers, and Jarvis virtually does a sack dance of self-congratulatory joy every time he reports on print-media workers getting the ax.)
Plus, there’s always the chance we’ll see another of those “career re-evaluation” essays that places like the New York Times Sunday “Arts & Leisure” section are fond of running about the Barry Manilows of the world. The kind of piece in which we’d discover that Billy’s actually “gritty,” “unfairly marginalized” by hipsters; that his work is profoundly expressive of late-20th-century alienation (“Captain Jack”); that his hackneyed, misogynist hymns to love are actually filled with sophisticated erotic angst; that his “distillations of disillusion,” to use the patois of such pieces, over the artist’s role (“Piano Man,” “The Entertainer,” “Say Goodbye to Hollywood,” etc.) are in fact “preternaturally self-conscious,” not just shallow, Holden Caulfield-esque denunciations of “phonies,” but mentionable in the same breath as works by great artists.
This must be prevented! No career re-evaluations please! No false contrarian rehabilitations! He was terrible, he is terrible, he always will be terrible. Anodyne, sappy, superficial, derivative, fraudulently rebellious. Joel’s famous song “It’s Still Rock and Roll to Me”? Please. It never was rock ‘n’ roll. Billy Joel’s music elevates self-aggrandizing self-pity and contempt for others into its own new and awful genre: “Mock-Rock.”
What Ron Rosenbaum misses in all of this though is Billy Joel’s role in ushering in an era of self-consciously “classic” rock music — a Neo-Conservative sort of Segerism that looked to museum-ify rock by self-reflexively noting its “timelessness.” Joel wrote one of the great finger-wagging songs of this era: “It’s Still Rock and Roll To Me,” which appeared on the album “Glass Houses” (now there’s some imagery for you) and was released in March of 1980.
Some might say that “It’s Still Rock and Roll To Me,” with its be-bop piano and bombastic sax, hearkened back to a golden era of rock music. In reality, it is a pitiful example of a namby-pamby middle ground that abandoned the unrelenting conservatism of Segerism (cf. “Old Time Rock and Roll,” one of the most conservative and, frankly, un-Rock and Roll like songs ever) for a mushy I’m OK-You’re OK détente in which “next phase,” “new wave” and “dance craze” all coexist peacefully alongside the Piano Man. Joel’s conciliatory hot-funk-cool-punk-even-if-it’s-old-junk vision was pure big tent: “Everybody’s talkin’ ’bout the new sound, funny, but it’s still rock and roll to me.” Less rock than Las Vegas revue.