Saturday, January 24, 2009

You may be right

Ron Rosenbaum is one of those writers who, I think, writes too much. By which I mean both that he writes too many articles and essays, leading him too often to apply his considerable critical skills to topics he's not suited for, and that his individual articles and essays tend to go on too long. So when I see a new Rosenbaum piece at Slate, I go back and forth about whether I should read it: it will almost definitely be too long, and I might end up sorry I bothered. I couldn't pass up the piece featured today, however: When I saw a photo of Billy Joel and the headline "The Worst Pop Singer Ever," I just had to check it out. I'm so glad I did.

Who knew Rosenbaum would be so passionate, so informed, so insightful, about the insulting badness of Billy Joel? This piece is worth reading not because it's saying something that needs to be said -- I have no burning desire to see Billy put down, and bear no ill will toward his fans -- but because Rosenbaum gets it so right, and good critical writing is a joy to behold.

I know people who love BJ. Never understood it, but that's their prerogative. Even Rosenbaum admits to liking a few of his songs, and I can join him in his affection for "The Longest Time." I personally have a soft spot for "Don't Ask Me Why." And back when I was playing the piano all the time, I enjoyed poking through my sister's old Billy Joel sheet music book as a warm-up for my fingers. But Billy Joel the personality, and the phenomenon, has always rubbed me the wrong way, and Rosenbaum expresses it perfectly:
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."

...I think I've identified the qualities in B.J.'s work that distinguish his badness from other kinds of badness: It exhibits unearned contempt. Both a self-righteous contempt for others and the self-approbation and self-congratulation that is contempt's backside, so to speak.
Yes! That's it precisely! That quality comes out in every personal appearance and interview, which only makes the music harder to listen to. Who hasn't heard Billy Joel complain about the burdensome popularity of "Just the Way you Are"? How can you not be annoyed by a songwriter who seems to hold his own fans in contempt for liking the schlock that makes him rich?

This piece, true to form, goes on longer than it needs to, but it doesn't run out of steam. I'm especially happy that Rosenbaum didn't overlook the shallow "contempt for the Catholic religion" that saturates "Only the Good Die Young" -- because seriously, Billy, up yours.

The music itself doesn't get much analysis from Rosenbaum. But it reminded me of a few of the things I've always disliked about BJ the composer. First of all, Rosenbaum quotes blogger Jeff Jarvis, who wrote (in a context too convoluted and lame for me to bother explaining): "If I can't get 'Allentown,' the original, I'm not likely to settle for a cover." Rosenbaum is quoting it to mock the notion that BJ is some paragon of authenticity, and that's certainly true. But to me it's also risible because I've always found Billy Joel songs much more tolerable when covered by other artists. The main reason, as Rosenbaum has helped me to realize, is that cover versions present the music without the thick, unappetizing coating of "unearned contempt" that BJ brings to it. But it's also at least partly because I dislike the production and instrumentation choices on many of Joel's recordings. The cheesy keyboards on "Just the Way You Are"; The shallow tinniness of "Pressure" and "Goodnight Saigon"... Just his bad fortune to be recording in the '70s and early '80s, I guess. But pretty much any re-recording is going to be an improvement.

This leads me to my other valuable insight about Billy Joel, one that is driven home by listening to covers and unavoidable when you're picking your way through his songs on a piano. The man needs a writing partner. He's a McCartney without a Lennon (though he thinks he's got Lennon's "Working Class Hero" attitude down). Or a Lennon without a McCartney, maybe. The point is, his songs don't have the interior tension they need to hold my interest. Put very simply, they almost all have terrible middle-eights. As an experiment, think of any Billy Joel song that comes to mind, and sing it through in your head. Notice how it falls apart when you get to the bridge, meandering awkwardly for several measures until it finally returns to the verse/chorus. Bernadette Peters does a lovely take on "(S)He's Got a Way" (on her album I'll Be Your Baby Tonight), with a delicate piano arrangement backing her up. But the delicacy just makes it more obvious, when she gets to the middle, that the song should have gone through several more drafts: "He comes to me when I'm feeling down, inspires me without a sound..." You've always hated that part, right? Now it all makes sense! Let's try another one: "Leave a Tender Moment Alone." You know the part that goes "But it's not only me / breaking down when the tension gets high..." You don't know what's going on there, but it makes you uneasy, doesn't it? "She's Always a Woman" -- the song starts to go haywire in the "Oh, she takes care of herself" part, doesn't it? Aren't you relieved when it returns to the verse/chorus, the part that feels solid and secure? Even "Just the Way You Are" starts to stumble with "Well, I need to know that you will always be..." "This Is the Time" -- that one has only the chorus going for it. And then there are the songs like "Piano Man" that are nothing but chorus (which is fine, except do you need to go on for five-and-a-half minutes?).

The funny thing about Rosenbaum's article, and my response to it, is that we know all these songs well enough to analyze them in depth. Billy Joel is an indelible part of our cultural heritage. I think he could have been the world's most successful jingle-writer. With a songwriting partner, he could have been a pop-music treasure. With a better attitude, he could have been lovable, at least, like Elton John (before he started writing musicals). But then I guess he wouldn't be Billy Joel.

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