Friday, March 25, 2022



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Slate contributing editor Ron Rosenbaum asks rhetorically early in his   hissing 2009 hate – note on Billy Joel about why he should spend a column excoriating the songwriter who's already had his reputation vandalized by critics, snobs and lipless influencers for decades? Well, yes, why another hate jerk off at the expense of the much and justifiably maligned Billy Joel? The author needed something to write about that would less use of brain power and more use   of embedded knee-jerk responses to Billy Joel's name. This wasn't an overview of a bad musician's career; rather, it's an allergic reaction expressing itself with words  instead of hives and welts. Rosenbaum couldn't help himself, Joel is that rash, he was incapable of not scratching.  Truth needs to be told, though. Billy is a bit better than naysayers would have you think. Joel is not the genius he presumably thinks himself to be, but he does merit a measure of defense .  Billy Joel is a mixed blessing. An effective and versatile vocalist, a genuinely gifted writer of not so obvious pop melodies, a frequently maudlin, pretentious lyricist (although he redeems himself when his pop sensibilities rule over his desire to Be Meaningful), a technically proficient pianist, a smarmy ham bone. One may not like him on principle--I don't care for him--but I have to admit he's done some work that merits a second and a third listen. He's a cross between Harry Chapin and Elton John, I guess, with a strong aftertaste of the worst brands of smugness that typifies pop music in general. What sinks Joel is his lack of any ironic sense of himself and the material he writes to address foul matters brewing in the world; despite his working-class roots, the idea of an unfathomably successful pop star sing a catchy--hummable, all so meaningful ballad to the laid off factory workers of “Allentown” informs us that his protest songs are not about the poor nor the destitute, but in making Billy Joel feel good about himself and looking good to the fan base at the same time.Joel's sins of pretentiousness are numerable over a long career , something I noted with his first hit “Piano Man”, a bloated imitation of  Dylan's "Ballad of a Thin Man” , to the point where I stopped paying attention to him altogether with the name-checking orgasm that comprised the hit “We Didn't Start the Fire". The obviousness of his conclusions, the cartoon likenesses of his characters, the clichéd contours of his examples, the barely concealed arrogance of his narrative air are the kind of thing that makes the smart people like you, Rosenbaum and I slap our foreheads and make us desire to grab either a gun or a cold beer. Unlike Rosenbaum, I'm unwilling to muster the indignant heat it takes to do another body slam on Joel's oeuvre . It's a matter that I've done so in print and online repeatedly, and that comes a moment in any writer's career when he or she realizes they're merely rearranging all the old complaints. I'll forgo the oratory and leave my summary judgement on B.J.'s body of work as this, a skilled journeyman with delusions of being something greater. I relate on an emotional level to that status, and I don't think it unlikely that many of us wanted to go beyond our limits and reach for the greatness of giants. The difference , the not-so-sour truth, is that Joel was actually fairly good at putting together a memorable melody and an occasionally astute rhyme. And middle brow as he might be, he got paid handsomely for the effort. 

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