Santayana, Goodbye: Billy Joel’s Imperfect Nostalgia

Everything bad happened after 1963.

Ain't no such thing as halfway Coke.  (image c/o

Ain't no such thing as halfway Coke. (image c/o

I also find it intriguing that the final lyrics (before the last chorus, at least) are “Rock and roller cola wars, I can’t take it anymore!” It’s strange he would make that the final thing noted, and also allow it to be the thing that pushes him over the edge. Then again, if Falling Down taught as anything, it’s that sometimes it is something simple that pushes you over the edge. That’s what happens in that movie, right? I only partially remember it due to watching it with people who wouldn’t stop yapping. This is why I no longer watch movies with people.

Of course, it must be noted that he didn’t write this song simply from his memories. I don’t think Joel was much into George Santayana when he was three. However, my point about seeing what Joel deemed significant for the time period is not devalued at all. Additionally, he still put the focus on his youth, and he still mentioned plenty of positive and happy things. Oscar Levant may have known Doris Day before she was a virgin, but in films such as Pillow Talk and The Tunnel of Love she was pure as the driven snow. In a way, she is as such the epitome of the memories Joel wants to have of his youth, and the kind of things he seems to have no time for as an adult. His early stanzas are littered with pop cultural stuff. Marilyn Monroe, Joe DiMaggio, the Dodgers winning the World Series. The last section, again one that is covering 1964-1989, only mentions Woodstock (and does that even count?), punk rock (which is, generally, quite angry) and the aforementioned Wheel of Fortune. Clearly, and sadly, Billy Joel has stopped making pop cultural memories. Or at the very least, they’ve stopped being significant to him.

So now, perhaps you will see Billy Joel’s “We Didn’t Start the Fire” as merely a collection of a bunch of stuff that happened. To me, it is a song in which Mr. Joel is saying, “I’m surrounded by sad, negative things as an adult and I miss my childhood.” While I myself am not one for nostalgia, given the tumultuous life Billy Joel has had, most notably the time he drove a car into a house, a moment which was lampooned endlessly on Late Night with Conan O’Brien. Additionally, this is a man with a confirmed suicide attempt and who, from what I gathered reading the book Chuck Klosterman’s IV, is indeed quite bitter.

So, to me, “We Didn’t Start the Fire” is quite a sad song, and a deep look into the psyche of Billy Joel. Or maybe he did just pace himself poorly and had to cram a bunch of time into one section of the song and I’m an asshole for reading this much into it. The important thing is that we can all agree the music video is dumb. That is what will bring us together.

Chris Morgan, to ensure he can spend all his free time watching television, is a huge sports fan, and you can find his writings on the Detroit Lions and the NHL over at

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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