Sunday, February 8, 2009

Billy Joel: worst pop singer ever?

The Worst Pop Singer Ever
Why, exactly, is Billy Joel so bad?
By Ron Rosenbaum

Saw this on the Slate a week or so ago. good analysis, and something I've been asking myself my whole life. Ron Rossenbaum does a song by song breakdown from a greatest hits record as well. Below an excerpt; click on title of this post for entire

...I'm reluctant to pick on Billy Joel. He's been subject to withering contempt from hipster types for so long that it no longer seems worth the time. Still, the mystery persists: How can he be so bad and yet so popular for so long? He's still there. You can't defend yourself with anti-B.J. shields around your brain. He still takes up the space, takes up A&R advances that would otherwise support a score of unrecognized but genuinely talented artists, singers, and songwriters, with his loathsomely insipid simulacrum of rock.

..there's always the chance we'll see another of those "career re-evaluation" essays that places like the New York Times Sunday "Arts & Leisure" section are fond of running about the Barry Manilows of the world. The kind of piece in which we'd discover that Billy's actually "gritty," "unfairly marginalized" by hipsters; that his work is profoundly expressive of late-20th-century alienation ("Captain Jack"); that his hackneyed, misogynist hymns to love are actually filled with sophisticated erotic angst; that his "distillations of disillusion," to use the patois of such pieces, over the artist's role ("Piano Man," "The Entertainer," "Say Goodbye to Hollywood," etc.) are in fact "preternaturally self-conscious," not just shallow, Holden Caulfield-esque denunciations of "phonies," but mentionable in the same breath as works by great artists.

...I decided to make a serious effort to identify the consistent qualities across Joel's "body of work" (it almost hurts to write that) that make it so meretricious, so fraudulent, so pitifully bad. And so, risking humiliation and embarrassment, I ventured to the Barnes & Noble music section and bought a four-disc set of B.J.'s "Greatest Hits," one of which was a full disc of his musings about art and music. I must admit that I also bought a copy of an album I already had—Return of the Grievous Angel, covers of Gram Parsons songs by the likes of the Cowboy Junkies and Gillian Welch, whose "Hickory Wind" is just ravishing—so the cashier might think the B.J. box was merely a gift, maybe for someone with no musical taste. Yes, reader. I couldn't bear the sneer, even for your benefit.

...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...

(click on title of this post for the breakdown)


Anonymous said...

The Slate magazine piece attacking Billy Joel is so hackneyed and loathsome that it essentially commits journalistic suicide. This is obviously a desperate subscription-drive tactic by a failing publication that nobody reads and no one will miss when it folds. Pathetic, nauseating and transparent. Flush after reading.

spacejace said...

guess it hit a nerve. is this Lee by any chance? I know you like Billy Joel, thought you might weigh in; but I don't think you'd be anonymous, weighing in. Perhpas it's someone else. Well, Slate is a great blog, and this writer and piece is dead on in my opinion. Obviously, you're fan; perhaps you can write somethign in a bit more detail actually stating your case for Billy Joel, and I'll post it here on the blog. Regardless, thanks for reading. You can continue to like him, I can continue to think he's fucking terrible like I always have.

Lee said...

no, but my "defend billy joel" comment has been on my list for a while now. in fact, here's where i'm at on the list:
612. write letter to joe torre about pizza recommendations in brooklyn
613. finish 80's funk rock mix
614. comment on billy joel entry
615. boil/sanitize lj's diaper changing pads

anyway, us long islanders have a soft spot for billy joel. he was a huge part of the whole l.i. renaissance of the 80's, you see. along with the ny islanders, rakim and debbie gibson, billy gave us all something to REALLY be proud of. most of us still are.

as for bj's songs, they speak for themselves. the guy disses "piano man"... what's next-- "happy birthday"? he's a good (not great, but good) songwriter and an honest musician, so what's wrong with him being successful? as far as taking other artists' advances goes, HE SELLS FUCKING RECORDS! HE'S SUPPOSED TO GET GOOD ADVANCES FOR THAT!

spacejace said...

good stuff Lee. Hilarious.

Anonymous said...

F.Y.I. - Billy Joel hasn't gotten an advance from Columbia Records for a new recording in almost 16 years. Why? Because he hasn't handed in a new studio recording in almost 16 years. This Rosenbaum schmuck is so stupid, he doesn't even know how the music-biz works. The truth is that one of his rock and roll heroes is responsible for bankrupting the Columbia Records A&R department by signing a 100 million dollar contract-renewal deal which resulted in the firing of dozens of employees, the dumping of peripheral artists and the inability to promote or sign new artists to the label because of a lack of budget funding. That is not the fault of Billy Joel. In fact, his entire premise is flawed. You can't separate song lyrics from the original musical context that they were originally composed in and then try to dissect them as if they were prose or poetry. Take a popular painting - now remove the color, the shading, the spacing and the singular brush technique of the artist. Now critique what's left - a skeletal outline of the subject matter itself. Is that a fair analysis of the entire work? See what I mean? He never takes on Joel's musical and compositional skills. Why? Because he's obviously musically illiterate. Rosenbaum is a frustrated, angry failure in his own life, therefore he vents his rage on a successful guy from his own 'hood -Billy Joel. His own 'Lawn Guyland' inferiority complex is so palpable that it's embarrassing. What a waste of cyberspace. D-