Well, we’re all in the mood for a melody

All rock music artists, every one of them, have had to deal with harsh criticism.

Even in light of huge commercial success, some bands get raked over the coals by critics who have decided they Just. Don’t. Like. Them. Led Zeppelin famously faced this. So have Justin Bieber, and Madonna, and Nirvana, and U2. God knows The Beatles certainly faced this, particularly when they first appeared and upended popular music.

And that’s okay.

The response to art of all kinds — music, painting, theater, sculpture, literature — is subjective. It’s created, and when it’s put out there for public consumption, it’s liked by some and disliked by others. More accurately, there are those who love it, or like it, or are ambivalent about it, or dislike it, or hate it. That’s just the way it is. It elicits an emotional response, or it doesn’t. There’s no accounting for different tastes.

But let’s examine the rather unusual case of one Billy Joel.

Born in the Bronx and raised on Long Island, Joel has been a loyal New York guy all his life, a composer of some of the most recognizable melodies of the 1970s and 1980s, and a guy who has sold upwards of 150 million records and still sells out Madison Square Garden shows every month for the past six years (until the pandemic). He is beloved by many millions of fans across multiple generations. And yet, through the years, he has had to cope with some of the most scathing critical derision of any artist of his time.

Consider, for example, this withering summary of Joel’s music from a 2019 piece by Jonah Mendelson in The Michigan Daily: “It is the Applebee’s of pop music, a tepid, microwaved repackaging of actual musical expression, and it deserves little more than contempt.”

Even more difficult to swallow is this brutal 2009 assessment by Ron Rosenbaum in a Slate essay entitled “The Awfulness of Billy Joel, Explained”: “He thinks people can’t stand him because he dresses wrong or doesn’t look right. Billy Joel, they can’t stand you because of your music; because of your stupid, smug attitude; because of the way you ripped off your betters to produce music that rarely reaches the level even of mediocrity. You could dress completely au courant and people would still loathe your lame lyrics.  It’s not that they dislike anything exterior about you. They dislike you because of who you really are inside. They dislike you for being you. At a certain point, consistent, aggressive badness justifies profound hostility. They hate you just the way you are.”

Ouch.

This is the kind of “criticism” that is little more than what they call a “hatchet job,” a cruel vivisection of not so much the music but the man himself. It’s not constructive in any way, and says more about Rosenbaum’s shortcoming as a writer of critiques than about Joel or his oeuvre.

It gives credence to Joel’s propensity at various times in his career to cry foul. Despite being advised by contemporaries to let it go and not make a fuss, Joel has complained publicly throughout the decades about what he sees as unfair treatment. One time in concert, he read from a blistering review of the previous night’s show, then tore it up into little pieces. The adoring crowd went wild, of course, but it showed his thin skin in a business that requires a much tougher facade.

Me, I like Billy Joel. I truly love certain tracks, and while I agree he has more than a few duds in his catalog, he has shown a phenomenal musical talent for composing immaculate pop songs that deserve our admiration and respect. He released 12 studio albums of original material between 1971 and 1993, and every one has at least two and as many as a half-dozen songs that, to my ears, belong in the Songwriters Hall of Fame.

My friend Irwin, a professional musician and extraordinary keyboard player, sums up Joel’s skills this way: “I see him as one of the greatest songwriters of all time. There has been no greater melodist since the pre-rock songwriter. His chord changes and stylistic concepts are wonderful. He has the diversity of a chameleon, but with originality. He writes great hooks, a perfect combination of music and words. Take ‘Uptown Girl’ — the same note three times and an instantly evocative two words. That sort of simplicity is much harder than writing fancy shit.”

I’m inclined to agree with all of that. I often felt Joel would have done very well writing for Broadway shows. He has a very New York theatrical flair to his presentation, and his uptempo tunes in particular would have lent themselves well to stage plays and musicals. I hear an over-the-top showstopper like “Big Man on Mulberry Street” from his 1986 LP “The Bridge” and can visualize the choreography and staging for it. Same goes for his jazzy masterpiece “New York State of Mind” from 1976’s “Turnstiles” and the exuberant 1977 hit “Only the Good Die Young.”

The diversity shows up in his quieter numbers. “Just the Way You Are,” one of the best love songs of the past half-century, is a cocktail lounge standard, while his 1980 minor hit “Don’t Ask Me Why” has delightful Latino influences. “She’s Always a Woman” from “The Stranger” album and “And So It Goes” from his later “Storm Front” LP offer instantly pleasing melodies sung with tenderness and sincerity.

Even Joel is willing to concede that he’s not the best singer in the world. “I think, when I hear a bad reaction to my work, I chalk it up to my voice. Hey, sometimes I hear my voice and it annoys me!” My friend Irwin thinks Joel is a horrible singer. “He’s all affectation with no soul. He affects a different person in every song. Imitation is great in pop music but only when you assimilate and distill stuff into your own gumbo. Billy Joel doesn’t do that. He lacks his own vocal identity.”

I’ll concur that his voice at times can be a bit off-putting, with the over-enunciations (“It just may be a LOOOOONatic you’re looking for”) and collateral nonsense he sometimes insists on using, apparently just to be cute (“Working too hard may give you a heart attack-ack-ack-ack-ack-ack”). But he’s capable of singing well when he wants to, so by and large, I’m willing to overlook it.

One of the themes critics have harped on the most is what they see as Joel’s inauthenticity. They claim he hasn’t experienced any of what he’s singing about and is therefore something of a fraud, a con man. It’s all just a show. He didn’t go to Vietnam, so how can he credibly write a piece like “Goodnight Saigon”?

To that, I say “Nonsense.” “Saigon,” in particular, is one of his finest bits of lyrics writing, precisely matching words to musical phrases like in a jigsaw puzzle, and the effect is harrowing and hugely memorable. So what if he didn’t serve? He knew plenty of people who did, and he can deftly tell their stories instead of his own.

His first success, the oft-played 1973 war horse “The Piano Man,” is a fine example of Joel writing his own story of his days playing at an L.A. piano bar, while also offering thumbnail sketches of the people who frequented the place. Musically, it’s repetitive and has suffered hugely from radio overexposure and unmerciful mangling at karaoke bars everywhere. It’s the song that put him on the map, though, and kept him getting bookings as he evolved and experimented with different genres on ensuing albums.

His 1976 album “Turnstiles” was unjustly ignored, stalling at #122 on US album charts (although it later reached platinum sales status), despite the inclusion of quality tunes like “Angry Young Man,” “Miami 2017,” “Summer, Highland Falls” and “Say Goodbye to Hollywood.” Joel did leave L.A. and returned to New York, where he insisted on recording with his touring band rather than session musicians. The great engineer/producer Phil Ramone, fresh off successes with Paul Simon, saw eye to eye with Joel about his band and agreed to run his upcoming sessions.

The result was the 1977 classic LP “The Stranger,” which featured not only a string of four Top 20 singles that turned him into a bonafide headliner but a couple of quintessential gems in “Scenes From an Italian Restaurant” and “Vienna,” which emerged as fan favorites as well. Just as winning to me was “52nd Street,” the 1978 follow-up also produced by Ramone that had three Top 20 hits (“Big Shot,” “My Life” and “Honesty”) and brought some more sophisticated material to the table in the form of “Zanzibar,” “Stiletto” and “Until the Night.”

It was around this point that punk and New Wave styles were making inroads, and Joel, smarting from rock critics who labeled his music as “too soft to rock,” went full out with “Glass Houses,” which sold well but showed (to me) that he wasn’t all that effective as a rock ‘n roll poseur. “You May Be Right” is okay, but “It’s Still Rock and Roll to Me” may be his most annoying hit ever.

The remainder of his studio albums throughout the ’80s reached #1 or came close, with still more smash hit singles, most of them enormously catchy and worthwhile (“Allentown,” “This is the Time,” “Modern Woman” and “A Matter of Trust”). Critics continued to deride his work for the most part, but they found they had to give grudging praise to his amazing 1983 LP “An Innocent Man,” a triumphant concept album paying homage to musical styles of Joel’s childhood, including doo-wop and soul music. In addition to the Four Seasons-ish “Uptown Girl,” there was a Motown send-up (“Tell Her About It”), an a cappella workout (“The Longest Time”) and a tribute to The Drifters (“Innocent Man”), all of which were huge hits.

In 1993, after writing and recording his 12th album, “River of Dreams,” Joel assessed his work and his professional growth and decided he’d reached the end. “I couldn’t be as good as I wanted to be,” he said in a 2018 interview. “I was always trying to feel like there was a real progression in my work, and eventually I realized I was only going to be X good. I didn’t think the quality trajectory was going to continue to go up. So I stopped.

“I remember reading a quote from Neil Diamond where he said that he’d forgiven himself for not being Beethoven. I read that and went, ‘That’s my problem: I haven’t.’ But I did the best I could. I don’t think I coasted. There are artists who continued to record because they felt like that’s what kept them relevant, but I stopped feeling like that a long time ago.”

He’s no dummy, this guy. He may have been naive, getting fleeced for millions of dollars more than once by nefarious managers and business people, but in the 2000s and 2010s, when tour earnings supplanted record sales as the best gauge of an artist’s financial success, Joel focused on live performances instead of writing and recording. He did many dozens of crowd-pleasing shows with Elton John, where they played their own songs, each other’s songs and even a few duets. Since 2014, he has put on the regular monthly concerts in Manhattan, and occasionally schedules special shows elsewhere around the country. His fans eat it up.

In the late ’90s, he began writing classical music, even releasing an album of classical piano pieces, “Fantasies and Delusions,” in 2001, performed not by Joel but by classically-trained pianist Richard Joo. Since then, he has continued to write, but without any intent to release it.

“I have a lot of music that no one’s ever heard and no one may ever hear if I decide not to do something with it,” mused Joel. “It’s really the creative process that’s important to me now, not about having records on the charts or selling a lot of recordings. I just don’t feel compelled to share what I’m doing with the world. It’s for me. I’m learning all the time, and I don’t want to ever stop learning. That’s what’s good about the writing process. You always learn something new when you create.

“But I’m never going to say never. I may come up with an idea that could become a song. I may write a movie soundtrack. I may write a symphony. I don’t know. Anything’s possible.”

Joel said he chuckles as he notices there have been substantive essays written about him in major publications (and in small blogs!) that amount to critical reassessments of him and his contributions to the popular music canon. “I know good music. You can’t tell me everything I wrote was bad. That’s just absurd. So now I just shake my head and laugh when I read some critic say something like, ‘Well, his material is catchy, but then, so is the flu.'”

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6 comments

  1. Sharon E. Cathcart · January 29

    I wasn’t what you’d call a fan up until 1983 … and that came after seeing him live (I went on a blind date to his concert). The energy of his show was amazing, and there was no denying his talent. I’ve come to appreciate him more over the years than I did then, for certain.

    Like

  2. brucehhackett · January 29

    Thanks for writing, Sharon.

    Like

  3. monica berkman · January 29

    Oh Billy, how I love thee. A friend in HS was the consummate Billy Joel fan and had every record. His music was the soundtrack to every after school and weekend moment we spent together. Some of my favorites never made it to the radio- And So It Goes, almost every song on Cold Spring Harbor, his classical album, Lullaby…. I’m less impressed with his later work but Billy’s music will always hold a dear place in my heart Now I’m going to put him on repeat all day today- thanks!

    Like

    • brucehhackett · January 30

      I would say MOST of my favorites never made it to the radio… Deep album tracks always get to me more than the more accessible hits. And So It Goes is a perfect example…

      Like

  4. Philip D Pierce · January 29

    Oh, Hack! What a GREAT read about a GREAT artist and piano legend! Being an old ham piano banger, Billy Joel (along with Elton John) have been my core musicians for all of my adult life, starting back in the teen years (as you may recall). The beauty of the melodies, the unique chord structure, the wonderful melodies (even with less than perfect voice), the special nuances to his playing….oh, man! Piano players, of which there are far too few, are often maligned. Guitar gets much more credos in the rock era, for obvious reasons, but there is something incredible about someone who really knows how to bring the 88 keys to life. I’m talking 88 acoustic keys! Not just electronics.

    Joel and John stand alone at the top of that roster (probably add Keith Emerson for his technical keyboard skills). Elton is by far a more technically proficient piano player, as his many improv videos prove (check out any “Take Me To the Pilot” live videos), BUT he never wrote a single lyric. So, in the strictest sense, he’s not a true songwriter, although I would be the first to defend his ability to produce and perform some of the best music ever.

    Billy, on the other hand, IS a true singer-songwriter. He is about the only true rock piano-based singer-songwriter (again, with the exception of Carole King who was more a balladeer). In fact, Joel is unique among a limited cadre of 1970s singer-songwriters who, for the most part, were guitar based — James Taylor, Jim Croce, Harry Chapin, etc. They each knew how to tell a story! That is the great key to this genre of artists. AND they knew how to use their chosen instrument to put that story into beautiful and memorable context. But, it is the LYRIC which is the heart and soul of those songs, even when the lyric is often ignored or not appreciated by the fans.

    A perfect example, in addition to “Saigon” that you mentioned above, is “Downeaster Alexa” from the 1989 album “Storm Front”, the sad saga of the declining Long Island fishermen fleet, each one a simple hard-working entrepreneur trying to provide for their family:

    But I’ve got people back on land who count on me
    So if you see my Downeaster Alexa
    And if you work with the rod and the reel
    Tell my wife I am trolling Atlantis
    And I still have my hands on the wheel

    Really cool that the boat in the song if named after his daughter! And the music/chords provide a haunting backdrop to the tale. Perfect song writing!

    Joel’s not a perfect person (who is?) and his lack of personal financial acumen and sometimes gruff attitude testify to the fact that he struggles with his problems. But much of his music (the story telling) comes FROM that imperfect life and this is how true fans connect with him. Billy has written a large part of the song track to the lives of people who lived those same experiences. That will always endure, because it reflects ourselves.

    Sorry to have not posted more often, but this one need to be endorsed! Great job and keep ’em coming!

    Duryea

    Like

  5. brucehhackett · January 30

    Wow, my friend, many thanks for the kind words and keen analysis from a personal perspective. It was always struck me as strange that such a talented guy could have so much verbal abuse heaped on him. Good on him for persevering. We’re all the luckier for it.

    Like

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