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Billy Joel, Popular Song, PBS, And Needing A Piano

Billy Joel
Courtesy of Myrna Suarez
Billy Joel

I don't know when people started to think they could successfully make fun of you for being a person who grew up listening to a lot of Billy Joel — and perhaps still does — but they can all forget it.

Friday night, PBS is running a special concert in which Joel gets the Library Of Congress Gershwin Prize for Popular Song, and it's great fun, and he deserves it. Somehow the model-dating and perceived rock posturing and rehab have been rolled up into something that makes people feel entitled to write hyperbolic essays of contempt that bubble over with bizarre levels of anger at the music itself (while, in that case, choosing "The Longest Time" and "An Innocent Man" as the man's only defensible music, which I personally find the height of hilarity from a self-proclaimed tastesplainer). And, too, where even thoughtful defenses are kind of grudging and "with friends like these"-y. Somehow, people who hate Billy Joel are very, very sure that their critiques are devastating to the people who like him — they are comforting the afflicted (with Billy Joel) and afflicting the comforted (by Billy Joel).

As a longtime listener, I respectfully can say only this: I don't care.

Here's the scoop on Billy Joel, whose music I listened to unrelentingly from about age 10 to about 25, not an unusual length for a fandom that begins in youth: Some of his music is good. Some of it is bad. Some of it is dumb. Some of it is wise. Some of it would be good if it weren't really strangely and badly produced, such that it benefits from being revisited and rearranged. Some of it really sticks with you. Some of it is really hard to play on the piano. He really wanted to be a rock star, but some of his best stuff is pretty, hymnlike or lullabylike. He is not a symbol of either everything good or everything bad in the world. But yes, in those records, there is plenty to justify a position as a celebrated writer of 20th century popular song.

The special is, as these tribute concerts often are, a bit all over the place. It seems a little on the nose to send out Boyz II Men to sing "The Longest Time" (a song I've always considered pretty disposable, if charming in the attempt). I wanted LeAnn Rimes to take it easier with "Lullabye (Goodnight, My Angel)," which is pretty and simple and does not need to be sung quite so hard. And if I agree with detractors on anything, it's that I don't need "It's Still Rock And Roll To Me," particularly, sung by Gavin DeGraw. And Josh Groban singing "She's Always A Woman," while I think it's pretty, is not going to win over the people who have written the whole thing off as A Thing For Uncool People.

On the other hand, Natalie Maines has a lovely take on "She's Got A Way" that does bring out the musicality of it nicely (though the third-personing of the song so that the "me" is a "him" seems strange and unnecessary). And "New York State Of Mind" does indeed, when sung by Tony Bennett, sound utterly timeless and classic.

I don't know what to say about the all-hands-on-deck performance of "Piano Man." You have to see it. I will say this: It's not my favorite song of his. I know. But this performance, particularly the way it starts, is ... something.

So yes, it's a little up and down. But I think if you watch the clip of Joel singing "Only The Good Die Young" in Russia, when he was young enough to stand on the piano and jump off it like a goof, and where people stretched their arms toward him, and when he sweated and high-fived them, and you can't understand the appeal of it at all, that's not necessarily an objective, level-headed appreciation of the line between shlock and culture so much as it is an expression of the natural variance in the things people like, which I understand makes for a much less interesting piece than "WHY THIS MUSIC IS TERRIBLE EVEN THOUGH MANY PEOPLE LOVE IT."

The special, the performances, didn't do all that much for me. But the performance clips — the early ones and then the footage of him performing in the concert special itself, where he's in better voice than I've sometimes heard him in recent years — sent me directly back to the music, which is still good. (A clip with Paul McCartney is a good reminder that even the most revered songwriters have their ups and downs.) It's worth listening to the ones that aren't from his radio-pop history: He plays "Vienna," which he's long been known to like very much — as do I — despite the fact that it never was a hit. Same with "Miami 2017," which I consider a high point in cheeky apocalypse pop. (And nobody sang "And So It Goes," which is tragic. That's so pretty.)

Yes, this will show you a lot of awkward-looking people in fancy clothes singing and clapping. That's what I would have been doing had I been there. Even those of us without our own kids ultimately become the people who listen to what becomes defined against our will as Music For Parents. It's all very, very unfashionable if that's the eye with which you look at music. I get it. I accept it.

I don't care. I wish I remembered how to play the beginning of "Vienna" the way I once could. Perhaps that's the best thing you can take away from giving this particular guy a listen: that finger-twitching feeling.

I should get a piano.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Linda Holmes is a pop culture correspondent for NPR and the host of Pop Culture Happy Hour. She began her professional life as an attorney. In time, however, her affection for writing, popular culture, and the online universe eclipsed her legal ambitions. She shoved her law degree in the back of the closet, gave its living room space to DVD sets of The Wire, and never looked back.