The awfulness of Billy Joel, explained.

Scrutinizing culture.
Jan. 23 2009 7:23 PM

The Worst Pop Singer Ever

Why, exactly, is Billy Joel so bad?

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I'm not saying, by the way, that contempt can't make for great art. Dylan's "Positively 4th Street," for example, is one of the most contemptuous songs ever written, but it redeems itself through the joyfulness of its black-humored eloquence and wit. And Springsteen lost something when he lost his contempt and became a love-for-the-common-people would-be Woody Guthrie.

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?

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He can't even celebrate his "New York State of Mind" without displaying his oh-so-rebellious contempt for "the movie stars in their fancy cars and their limousines." You think Billy Joel has really never ridden in a limo?

"The Stranger": This is B.J. lifting that great Beatles line about Eleanor Rigby "wearing the face that she keeps in a jar by the door."*  You should see the heavy-handed mask featured on the expensive two-disc "legacy" reissue of "The Stranger" album. So deep! Yes, B.J., you've nailed it: We're all phonies hiding our true faces! Everyone wears a mask! Who woulda known it without B.J. to tell us?

"Scenes From an Italian Restaurant": I can't stand it, but at least this is one of B.J.'s tributes to "the little people" that—although it's annoying and clichéd to the max—doesn't completely hold its characters in contempt.