The Worst Pop Singer Ever
Why, exactly, is Billy Joel so bad?
This may seem an odd moment to bring up the subject of Billy Joel. But the recent death of the painter Andrew Wyeth revived a long-standing debate over whether his art is respectable or merely sentimental schlock. (Say it: good or bad?) It got me to thinking about the question of value in art and whether there are any absolute standards for judging it. It indicates the question is still alive, not relegated to irrelevance by relativism.
And then I picked up The Art Instinct, a new book by Denis Dutton, the curator of the Arts & Letters Daily Web site. The book strives valiantly to find a basis for judging the value of art from the perspective of evolutionary psychology; in it, Dutton argues that a certain kind of artistic talent offered a competitive advantage in the Darwinian struggle for survival.
Which brings me to Billy Joel—the Andrew Wyeth of contemporary pop music—and the continuing irritation I feel whenever I hear his tunes, whether in the original or in the multitude of elevator-Muzak versions. It is a kind of mystery: Why does his music make my skin crawl in a way that other bad music doesn't? Why is it that so many of us feel it is possible to say Billy Joel is—well—just bad, a blight upon pop music, a plague upon the airwaves more contagious than West Nile virus, a dire threat to the peacefulness of any given elevator ride, not rock 'n' roll but schlock 'n' roll?
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.
Besides, some people still take Billy seriously. Just the other day I was reading my old friend Jeff Jarvis' BuzzMachine blog, and Jarvis (the Billy Joel of blog theorists) was attacking the Times' David Carr. (Talk about an uneven fight.) Carr was speculating about whether newspapers could survive if they adopted the economic model of iTunes. Attempting a snotty put-down of this idea, Jarvis let slip that he's a Joel fan: As an example somehow of his iTunes counter-theory, he wrote: "If I can't get Allentown, the original, I'm not likely to settle for a cover." Only the hard-core B.J. for Jeff! ("Allentown" is a particularly shameless selection on Jarvis' part, since it's one of B.J.'s "concern" songs, featuring the plight of laid-off workers, and Jarvis virtually does a sack dance of self-congratulatory joy every time he reports on print-media workers getting the ax.)
Plus, 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.
This must be prevented! No career re-evaluations please! No false contrarian rehabilitations! He was terrible, he is terrible, he always will be terrible. 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."
And the badness of really bad art is, I believe, always worth affirming, since it allows us to praise—and to examine why we praise—"good" or "great" art.
Therefore, 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.
And I think I've done it! 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. Most frequently a contempt for the supposed phoniness or inauthenticity of other people as opposed to the rock-solid authenticity of our B.J.
Ron Rosenbaum is the author of The Shakespeare Wars and Explaining Hitler. His latest book is How the End Begins: The Road to a Nuclear World War III.
Photograph of Billy Joel by Henny Ray Abrams/AFP/Getty Images.