What Did Billy Joel Ever do to Him?

Writing in Slate Ron Rosenbaum has a very funny, but very mean, polemic against…Billy Joel. What the aging pop star did to deserve this I don’t know, but for anyone who grew up in the eighties it’s worth a look:

But let’s go through the “greatest hits” chronologically and see how this “contempt thesis” works out.

First let’s take “Piano Man.” You can hear Joel’s contempt, both for the losers at the bar he’s left behind in his stellar schlock stardom and for the “entertainer-loser” (the proto-B.J.) who plays for them. Even the self-contempt he imputes to the “piano man” rings false.

“Captain Jack”: Loser dresses up in poseur clothes and masturbates and shoots up heroin and is an all-around phony in the eyes of the songwriter who is so, so superior to him.

“The Entertainer”: Entertainers are phonies! Except exquisitely self-aware entertainers like B.J., who let you in on this secret.

(Compare The Band’s beautiful, subtle tribute to Dylan’s entertainer insecurities in “Stage Fright.” I love the line in that song, “he got caught in the spotlight”: such a haunting image of a shy entertainer.)

“Say Goodbye to Hollywood.” Hollywood is phony! Who knew? God, doesn’t B.J. ever get tired of showing us how phony the phonies of this phony world are? Could someone let B.J. know he’s phoning it in with all this phoniness at this point? Isn’t there something, well, a bit phony about his hysteria over phoniness?

Goodness! I’ve always liked Billy Joel. When I got my very first CD player some of the first things I bought were a bunch of his albums. Never actually thought to hard about the lyrics…


  1. #1 Rogue Epidemiologist
    January 26, 2009

    “We Didn’t Start the Fire” got me through the AP US Hitory exam way back when. Of course, this is only effective if you know the words.

  2. #2 T. Bruce McNeely
    January 26, 2009

    “What the aging pop star did to deserve this I don’t know…”

    I know.
    He exists.

    When it comes to Billy Joel, Ron Rosenbaum is my soulmate.

  3. #3 James F
    January 26, 2009

    And he left out “Big Shot?”

  4. #4 John Farrell
    January 26, 2009

    I’m with you, Jason. I hardly think there is any contempt in a song like Goodnight Saigon, which even my 70+ year old mother thought was a poignant piece.

    I started listening to Joel about the time Iron Curtain came out (he could hardly be avoided, given all my friends listened to him). And this was even after gagging over his earlier overly popular stuff like “Just the Way You Are”.

    I feel bad for him given a lot of his personal life seems a mess. But I still love his music and don’t think there are many pop stars now who can play the keyboards like he does.

  5. #5 Mike Haubrich, FCD
    January 26, 2009

    I got my first piece of, um, you know, in the front seat of the car while listening to an eight-track of “The Stranger.” I can’t badmouth Billy Joel.

  6. #6 blf
    January 27, 2009

    We Didn’t Start the Fire was what first exposed me to Billy Joel and made me hunt down other albums.

  7. #7 maaz
    January 27, 2009

    There is a site that has examples of aura camera systems at http://www.auracamera.com that prints aura photos. Has anyone experienced this system?

  8. #8 Heraclides
    January 27, 2009

    My first Joel album was “Glass Houses”. Bit hard to see the songs there being described as “full of contempt”. I like some of the “smaller” songs on it, it’s got some interesting tracks.

    (Regards shy entertainers, wouldn’t van Morrison be a better example?)

  9. #9 Annie
    January 27, 2009

    Billy Joel rocks. Who cares about his personal life? I love him. Just don’t tell anyone.

  10. #10 Ian
    January 27, 2009

    In the words of Weird Al Yankovic, “It’s still Billy Joel to me”….

  11. #11 Rev Matt
    January 27, 2009

    It’s been de riguer for cooler-than-thou hipsters to disparage Joel for at least a decade now. Same with Phil Collins, but it’s going on 20 years for him. I think it’s how the ‘cool kids’ demonstrate that they have better musical taste than the unwashed masses. I’m no fan of either Collins or Joel though I do like some of their songs, but this sort of passionate hatred of any artist tells me a lot more about the writer, and none of it good, than it does about the artist being criticised.

  12. #12 Wes
    January 27, 2009

    The only Joel song that I find even remotely listenable is “Piano Man”. Other than that, I can honestly say I have no idea what it is people think is so great about him.

  13. #13 Sven DiMilo
    January 27, 2009

    Best thing B.J. ever did was to give Phil Woods a chorus to blow on “Just the Way You Are.” Second best: getting Freddie Hubbard (RIP) to blow on “Zanzibar.”

  14. #14 Blake Stacey
    January 27, 2009

    For the past several years, I’ve considered Tom Waits’s “The Piano Has Been Drinking” to be the emotionally honest version of “Piano Man”.

  15. #15 John Kwok
    January 27, 2009


    You have to be from New York City to really appreciate Billy Joel. So much of his songs – especially the early material – is rooted in his growing up on Long Island and New York City. But don’t you think “She’s Only A Woman” is a great ballad, or “New York State of Mind” – which Frank Sinatra covered or “Say Goodbye to Hollywood” too (BTW, I think “Say Goodbye to Hollywood” is the best 1970s homage to the Phil Spector sound I’ve heard, period.).



  16. #16 heddle
    January 27, 2009


    Hah! I don’t dislike BJ, but I intensely dislike Piano Man. I can’t get by that unforgivable rhyme: talking to Davey, who’s still in the Navy. That makes me cringe. Dylan he ain’t.

    But as far as pop goes, there are, in my opinion, a lot worse.

  17. #17 Tom Girard
    January 27, 2009

    Billy Joel writes about what he experiences, views or he simply makes it up, i.e. The Ballad of Billy The Kid. To criticize him about fancy cars and limousines? When Billy Joel wrote that song in 1976 he was NOT a big star yet. He did not begin his rise until 1977 with The Stranger. Sure he had a hit with Piano Man in 1971 but he was not a household name until The Stranger. Limousines were far and few.

    Piano Man describes actual patrons, yes losers, who frequented the piano bar that Billy played at in LA under the name of Billy Martin. When is it bad writing to call a loser a loser?? Davey was the man’s actual name and he was a Navy lifer. So be it!

    Billy Joel is a fantastic piano player and a great entertainer. Ron Rosendouche needs to find a different cause. Or at least do his homework. Just because he fills the page with large, pretentious words that no one ever uses does not make his points intellectual or valid.

  18. #18 Antaeus Feldspar
    January 27, 2009

    Rosenbaum’s piece leaves little doubt in my mind that he has some real issues bothering him, and he finds it easiest to project them onto Billy Joel. Reading Rosenbaum’s obsession with Joel’s alleged obsession with “phonies” reminds me of an older, smarter Holden Caufield — one who’s smart enough to displace onto the Other not just his fear of being phony, but his obsession with displacing phoniness onto the Other.

  19. #19 damian white
    January 28, 2009

    i have it on good authority that Billy slept with Ron’s granddaughter.

  20. #20 A. Lurker
    January 28, 2009

    Antaeus – similar reaction to mine. It seems the only reason to insist that there is an objective standard for good and bad music is so you can insist that your taste is superior, rather than just different, from others. Ironic that Rosenbaum’s problem with Joel is that he’s so darned superior.

    I’ve never thought of Joel’s music as a great artist, but his music is enjoyable enough, and was part of the soundtrack of my youth. It’s not that the music I listened to as a kid isn’t crap, but it’s the crap I’m fond of.

  21. #21 Sigmund
    January 28, 2009

    I quite like his early stuff but I have a hard job thinking of anything of his from the past three decades that is comparable.

  22. #22 J. J. Ramsey
    January 28, 2009

    damian white: “i have it on good authority that Billy slept with Ron’s granddaughter.”

    Or maybe Billy Joel tortured him by forcing him to listen to the album Attila. šŸ™‚

  23. #23 Antaeus Feldspar
    January 30, 2009

    It took me a while to figure out just why Rosenbaum’s analysis of “Only The Good Die Young” as “contempt for the Catholic religion” seems so jarringly … wrong. It’s simply this: Rosenbaum apparently thinks that it should be a serious critique of the Catholic religion!

    Ron, OTGDY is about a horny young teenage boy trying to get into a teenage girl’s pants. If he thought the way to overcome her resistance and seduce her was to persuade her out of her current views on, say, the Patagonian toothfish, then he’d trot out the best BS he could cook up about the toothfish — but he wouldn’t be very good at it, because it’s really only an attempt to coax a girl into bed. Why on Earth does Rosenbaum think that it’s some sort of strike against Billy Joel if Catholic girls don’t buy the narrator’s claim that “Catholic girls start much too late”? It only means that teenage girls aren’t as gullible as horny teenage boys wish they were.

  24. #24 John Kwok
    January 30, 2009

    @ Antaeus,

    Your latest post is an excellent assessment of “Only The Good Die Young”, but you may have forgotten that some Catholics were upset with Joel when the song debuted back in the 1970s for the very reason Rosenbaum asserts. I think this is a simple case of Rosenbaum and others reading too much into Joel’s song.

    Appreciatively yours,


  25. #25 Kevin
    January 30, 2009

    you really are an idiot…..

    I see that you are just begging for Jason to ban you.

    ha ha !

  26. #26 kemibe
    January 31, 2009

    I don’t care what Ron says anymore; this is Joel’s life.

  27. #27 Donna B.
    February 3, 2009

    The song that snagged me was “Travelin’ Prayer”. I liked a lot of the other stuff too.

    I went with my daughter, the ballerina turned lawyer, to see “Movin’ Out” several years ago. While she was touched by the dancing and the music, she couldn’t quite understand why I cried. We talked that evening about Vietnam, the sexual revolution, and feminism until the wine rendered us both incoherent.

  28. #28 Terry Moran
    February 20, 2009

    Absolute trash. Calling Billy Joel “the worst pop singer ever” and then not even criticizing his vocal capacities is only the beginning. He never tries to take on Joel’s musical composition skills, yet refers to his songs as “bad music”. He uses twisted logic – like propaganda – to denigrate Joel’s lyrics as if he’s a lawyer trying to convince a jury, or a politician trying to get elected. His sense of his own ‘Lawn Guyland’ inferiority complex is obvious, and his bias is blatant throughout the entire ugly diatribe. Let’s face it, this guy basically just pissed his pants in public and now he expects someone else to clean it up. D-

  29. #29 Maria G
    February 21, 2009

    All this speculation about Billy Joel’s personal life is just so much tabloid garbage. He’s happily married to a beautiful young woman, he’s curbed his excessive booze habit, he tours frequently with and without Elton John, and he’s laughing all the way to the bank. And kvetchy critics like the unhappy sap who wrote that Slate piece don’t put a dent in him. He is as popular now as he was in his heyday.

  30. #30 Rue
    October 2, 2009

    Hey Ron Rosenballs…you’re an idiot. No, seriously quit pointing the finger about the whole contempt/phony idea, you’re only making yourself out to be ‘the man you fear’, I say have a beer and find something significant to write about, like the negative effects of self-projection…hahaha.

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