In Defense Of: Billy Joel, and music that makes us happy
Back in January, Ron Rosenbaum wrote a piece for Slate in which he basically declared Billy Joel to be the nadir of modern American music, and although the essay was obviously the most low hanging of traffic-baiting fruit, I could not stop it from enraging me on a number of levels. First, I can’t believe anyone would waste time taking a random swing at Joel when the Pussycat Dolls are still skanking about somewhere. Second, Rosenbaum’s central arguments — that Joel has “contempt” for the characters who inhabit his songs, that he has no business writing about the common man because he is now a big rich rock star — hold less water than the Downeaster Alexa after running aground, in my opinion. Third, I like Billy Joel. I always have. And I am determined to stick up for him.The Billy Joel/Elton John Face2Face tour has been running in one form or another since the mid-Nineties, and the version that hit Anaheim last night was a well-oiled money-printing machine, the only apparent overhead going to the hydraulic fluid powering the risers that glide pianos and drum kits up and down. Otherwise, the show is simply as billed: Joel and John sit at their keyboards, face each other, and play songs. They could be doing this at any piano bar in the world. Dual takes of “Your Song,” “Just The Way You Are,” and a tragically George Michael-free version of “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down On Me” kicked off the night; John then performed a solo set that included “Levon” and the longest version of “Rocketman” in history, and led us in an arena-wide squawk of the “Crocodile Rock” na-na-na-na-nas so aggressively white it would have made David Duke cringe.But where Elton seemed content to stay on his stool and swallow his consonants, Joel at one point wriggled across the tops of both pianos like a gleeful manatee. Once he’s on stage alone, his piano rotates on a turntable so he can wag his pop-eyed grin at every section; he also tells dirty jokes, plays guitar, and flings the mic stand around during “It’s Still Rock and Roll to Me” with Axl Rose-esque fervor. None of this is new — I saw him do it all at Madison Square Garden a couple years ago (and the former New Yorker in me actually felt a little dirty seeing him outside of the tri-state area). But when placed in direct opposition to those of Elton John on this tour, Joel’s songs suddenly leap out, reveal themselves as dynamic, even epic. They’re full of syllables and imagery, alive with the energy of the same idealized metropolis Springsteen is trying to reach in “Jungleland,” strung through with jazz and soul and barroom blues that have been watered down, yes, but never quite washed out. And despite all of Rosenbaum’s bluster about “contempt,” I watched Joel’s lyrics genuinely resonate across the mostly middle-class crowd, from the laid-off grind of “Allentown” to the compulsory singalong of “Piano Man” that sent us home: “He knows that it’s me they’ve been comin’ to see/to forget about life for a while,” sang Billy and Elton, and the fans — who’d spent the past three-plus hours dancing like recession was just something that happened to hairlines — let out a mighty, grateful scream.
Most of all, the night was fun. Which I thought was the point.
I’m stopping before this spins off into oblivion, and opening up the floor to you, Mixers. Anybody want to jump on Team Billy with me? Or should my music critic credentials be revoked forever more because I still know almost every word to “We Didn’t Start the Fire,” and refuse to apologize for that?