Santayana, Goodbye: Billy Joel’s Imperfect Nostalgia

Everything bad happened after 1963.

What I find particularly glaring about the final section of the song is not just that he crams so much time into it, but also what he chooses to reference. The last section, on average, has more of what I will call “negative references” or bad events. For the sake of this essay, I’ve decided to break down all the references into three categories: positive, neutral, and negative. This was also done as objectively as possible. While I consider Catcher in the Rye to be a literary travesty, it is not in and of itself a negative reference.

Through the first four sections, the breakdown is as follows:

  • Of the 97 references made in the first four sections, I count 23 of them as being negative. That’s about 23.7%.
  • Meanwhile, in the last section, a whopping 16 of the 24 references are what I would deem negative. That’s two thirds of them – 66.7%! Perhaps ever more telling, the final nine references are all negative, if you count “heavy metal, suicide” as negative, which in this case I do.

So what does this all mean? Why so many more positive and neutral things early and so many negative things late? Well, I think it has to do with a heaping dose of nostalgia and Joel’s unhappiness with the world was an adult. The fulcrum of the song, the JFK assassination, happened when Joel was 14. So not only are many of these things from his childhood, but obviously the JFK assassination had a big time emotional effect on people at the time. Plus, we are less world wise in our youths.

Meanwhile, as an adult he’s been well aware of what is happening in the world, and these things clearly have had a bigger impact on him than anything positive has really. Also, he mentions Wheel of Fortune, a clear sign he has put away childish things and is getting old. That very negative end stretch starts in the 1980s, when Joel was already in his 30s. He may have released a song called “Angry Young Man” in 1976, but by 1989 he was a bitter old(ish) man.

7 Comments on “Santayana, Goodbye: Billy Joel’s Imperfect Nostalgia”

  1. Clio #

    So I hate to be “well, duh” about this but …

    I thought it was fairly widely known—it certainly was when the song came out—that Joel dated the start of the song from the year of his birth. The couplet-per-year structure ends in 1963 because the entire point of the song is to demonstrate that the chaos and tumult of the world is not the fault of baby boomers upending culture in the 1960s. He uses the pop culturally-accepted “starting point” of the 1960s as the Kennedy assassination. Hence, “We Didn’t Start the Fire”—”we” are the boomers (as Joel was born in ’49); and his final statement is that the “fire” will go on after the last boomer finally dies out. In a sense, it’s a facile, melodically uninteresting version of David Halberstam’s book The Fifties. It seems like a silly point to make now, but in Reagan’s America the idea was that everything was AWESOME in the universe until those damn lefties showed up with their ideas about free speech and rights for everybody, and if we could just go back, America would be AWESOME again.

    True, the post-1963 portion of the song is pretty random, but the events selected are pretty typical for a boomer bitching about the 80s, when they were just beginning to lose their hold on popular culture.


  2. Matthew Belinkie OTI Staff #

    I was always amused that the song ends with Cola Wars, and Billy screaming “I can’t take it anymore!” 40 years of history, and the thing that makes him throw up his hands in despair is the Cola Wars. (Yes, I know it just happens to be the most recent thing when the song was written. But it still sounds like the Cola Wars just completely shattered this man’s will to continue.)


  3. Phillip Anderson #

    Uh, a simple search on Wikipedia, Amazon, or dozens of other sites – or maybe pick up the CDs themselves – would have shown you that “It’s The End of the World…” came out two years before “We Didn’t Start the Fire.” Ergo, “We Didn’t Start the Fire” is the bastard, intelligible rip-off attempt by a mainstream artist of a song by a band that was still mostly unknown but starting to get airplay of a crappy song called “Stand.”


  4. Lara #

    Perhaps the pop culture references decreased because he became one of them? Maybe it didn’t seem right for him to mention things that were fairly equivalent to his own work, as being of historical significance.


  5. Jon Eric #

    Mr. Morgan, when I saw “Billy Joel” in the subject line of an OverthinkingIt post, I shuddered. I’m a big Billy Joel fan myself (does it show in my music?), but I’m well aware of the pop-culture ridicule of which Joel is often the butt. And frankly, he’s often difficult to defend.

    However, this article is actually very well-thought-out and largely neutral in tone (even going so far as to give the man credit for inspiring an REM song released two years before “We Didn’t Start the Fire” came out!). Speaking as someone who’s spent a lot of time listening to Billy Joel’s music and to his interviews, I’d say that your analysis of his song does mesh with the personality he projects out to the world beyond his music. He’s a crotchety old man, disappointed with what all these kids have done with the world.

    To play the devil’s advocate, though… Don’t you think it’s possible that Joel had to condense the last verse of the song due to the fact that most of it was so recent that it became difficult to tell what would be important and what wouldn’t? If you asked a group of someones today to catalog what they thought to be the most important historical and pop-cultural events of the last 14 years, and then ask another group of someones in the year 2030 to compile a similar list with the same scope (1995-2009), you’d probably get vastly different lists, partly because proximity tends to ruin focus.

    And hey, what’s with the hating on that music video? Its execution may be dated (a sad trend running through literally EVERY Billy Joel video), but its concept was clever enough… as well as befitting the subject matter of the song.


  6. Ben #

    ” If you’re gonna have a hit, you gotta make it fit, so they cut it down to 3:05..”


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