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Low Culture

Outsider Music: Megan Nolan On The Joys Of Billy Joel’s The Stranger
The Quietus , November 16th, 2020 10:03

In the third of our subscriber-exclusive Low Culture essays, writer Megan Nolan describes how The Stranger was the soundtrack to life-changing times in New York and asks: why does everyone hate Billy Joel?

There are two things in this world which can make me laugh aloud with sheer pleasure. Pleasure, mind you, not mirth. I am speaking about a feeling of joy and wonder so irrepressible that it can’t be experienced only internally which comes out of you, surprising yourself as well as those surrounding you, as you do your groceries or look out the window. One of these things, for me, is the experience of remembering really great sex with somebody you’re falling in love with; suddenly shy before yourself, and smug, and incredulous at the good luck. The other thing is listening to the Billy Joel album The Stranger.

I came to Billy Joel only recently, and in the least credible way imaginable. The hardcore Joel fans will have my head for admitting it. I was watching the silly Ryan Murphy Netflix show The Politician in September last year, in which Ben Platt plays Payton, an ambitious teenage wannabe future-president. The first series ends with his boyish determination quashed and him decamped to New York to hang around piano bars getting pissed and belting out tunes.

To be honest, the whole plot point of Payton being a lovely singer and pianist doesn’t really have enough to do with the rest of the show and was presumably shoehorned in because of the smooth, Disneyfied perfection of Platt’s singing voice. But whatever. He sings ‘Vienna’ and it’s lovely.

I had heard of Billy Joel before seeing this of course, not being new to planet Earth, but had only experienced his music through it being lampooned, or as cheesy covers, or via snippets of ‘Piano Man’ or ‘She’s Always A Woman’ appearing in adverts or films. I’d never before, impossible as it now seems, listened to a Billy Joel song in its entirety. I looked up the original version of ‘Vienna’ once the episode was over and added it to my regular rotation, but it would be spring 2020 before I fell for The Stranger wholly.

My father and I used to fantasise about going to New York together when I was a small child. He was there as a young man when a play he had written was being performed off-Broadway. His lighting designer, who had grown up in the same small estate as my dad back in Ireland, turned to him as they smoked outside the theatre, taking the city in, and said: “Not bad for two boys from John’s Park.”

We still haven’t made it over jointly, but the unapologetic sentimentality ingrained in me about it as a destination meant that on my first time there, for a brief work trip in 2018, I burst into tears emerging from a subway out onto Broadway while Sinatra played in my headphones. I am very in favour of this kind of totally unsubtle and uncool on-the-nose soundtracking. In March this year, I was on my way back over for a long-awaited three-month sojourn, and asked my friends for New York song recommendations. My old pal Conor went a step further and made an exquisitely paced, thematically relevant playlist, and it was from this that I really fell for Billy Joel.

Fourth on Conor’s list was the song ‘Movin’ Out (Anthony’s Song)’. It is a moreishly obnoxious banger, a scathing rejection of the American Dream and all its attending disappointments. The song’s protagonist, Anthony, is working all the hours under the sun so that he can eventually have a house in the suburbs. Later, a Sergeant O’Leary is looked upon pityingly for working a second job to afford a flashy car he barely has time to drive. Is this a brashly condescending way to regard working people who want material comforts, from the perspective of a man like Joel, with great wealth and no need to engage with questions of work-life balance? Certainly. Is it also impossibly invigorating and fun? Absolutely. And for a habitual singer-along-to like me (that person you hate who wanders about tunelessly accompanying their headphones), it was irresistible. The delightfully emphatic nature of his enunciation mean that lines like “Who needs a house out in Hackensack? Is that all you get for your money?” become strangely empowering to accompany, despite a lack of literally any personal relevance in their content.

In New York, I walked around listening to ‘Movin’ Out’ feeling so exhilarated that I kept bursting into laughter; that it was Billy Joel making me feel this way, who I had known previously only for being a first-dance-at-an 80s-wedding cornball, made me laugh all the more. It wasn’t that I couldn’t see all the ways in which he was bombastic and comic and excessive, only that it didn’t matter at all because of how it was making me feel. I had recently exited a happy, stable relationship before I left for America because of some indefinable feeling I had that even the best version available of monogamy and settled domesticity - which it would have been with my wonderful ex - was not going to be enough. I knew somewhere inside of me that I could sacrifice a lot of things, like comfort and security and permanent possessions, in exchange for flightiness and freedom. And so it made sense that it was ‘Movin’ Out’ that was making me feel so absurdly happy, this snide but exciting commitment to city living. (The second song on Conor’s playlist which made me feel this way, incidentally, was the magnificently absurd Ace Frehley song ‘New York Groove’, which I would play on repeat while nervously walking to dates - as with Billy Joel, the absurdity was part of why it was so good. I sincerely loved it, but I knew it was silly, and that knowledge made me love it more.)

Then, of course, the world suddenly closed and I dashed to leave. On the aeroplane to Ireland I took a bunch of beta blockers, hyperventilated beneath my mask, and listened to The Stranger on repeat. I spent two weeks in isolation by the sea in a state of disbelieving shock, sure that it would all reverse any moment if I could just hold on to the recent pre-Covid past firmly enough. I drank a lot and spoke on Zoom late at night to a couple of guys I had been dating in Brooklyn. One of them messaged me that he was going to take me on an unofficial Billy Joel tour of New York when I came back to the city, and I burst into tears that someone was speaking as though such a return was guaranteed. I listened to literally nothing else for that fortnight. One day I fell on the kitchen floor doubled over with sobs, an overly cinematic gesture made more laughable by the fact that the pretty, patronising ‘She’s Always A Woman’ lilted softly in the background.

The Stranger is tantalisingly brief, only 42 minutes in length. The final track, ‘Everybody Has A Dream’ could be cut off without me minding much; he’s affecting some voice that isn’t fully his own, angling toward someone else, sounding almost like a soppy Bowie in a few parts. There are others I am less than completely devoted to. ‘Get It Right The First Time’ and ‘Only The Good Die Young’ both get left on during my playthroughs, but don’t have the same ability to get me giddy or maudlin as the rest. I couldn’t call it a perfect album, even if you did chop off ‘Everybody Has A Dream’, but it is the only album I regularly listen to from start to finish and whose existence I currently respect as a whole rather than as a series of individual tracks. I listen to it start to finish several times a week, as I do with no other.

Then it was later in the year, summertime, London, the worst of lockdown over - for the moment at least - and life feeling possible again. I had started to date. Miraculously, everyone I met was remarkably attractive and funny and interesting, and more miraculously, fancied me back. In karmic retribution for my prematurely cut-off slut phase in New York and the long dry months that followed, I was suddenly, vividly in a moment of sexual supremacy where it felt as though I could have more or less anything I wanted. I was in one of those rare moments in life where you haven’t made any choices or commitments and can briefly see all the dazzling options stretching out before you. You know it can’t last, wouldn’t want it to even, but what a feeling while it does. Walking through Peckham the day after a second date with someone I liked well enough that I could feel they would take some of my options away and I would want them to, I listened to ‘Scenes From An Italian Restaurant’, that romping ode to teenage romance which eventually slides into a cheerfully morose shrug at the inevitability of romance souring. At 2:48 when he starts wailing in a shrill, giddy piano solo I burst into laughter and got tears in my eyes at the same time, and I thought, “I do not care how stupid this is.”

It amazed me, the continued ability of this album to create such happiness despite its silliness. After the lines, “They started to fight when the money got tight/ and they just didn’t count on the tears”, he nonsensically yelps “...and rock and roll!” The couplet, “That’s all I heard about Brenda and Eddie/ I can’t tell you more cause I told you already” is just filler. And yet nothing had ever managed to wring a more instinctive feeling of joy from me since I was listening to music for the first time as a teenager. I know this is true of a great many other people. I’m a member of an intimate 10,000 strong Billy Joel fan page on Facebook in which people recount not only the number of times they’ve seen him play and their extensive merch collections, but the specific times in their life he brought them some kind of profound happiness or comfort. Why, then, does the world hate Billy Joel so?

Look for critical response to The Stranger or to Joel more broadly and you will quickly come across a cottage industry of writers producing articles titled things like “Why I Loathe Billy Joel” and “The Worst Pop Singer Ever: The Awfulness Of Billy Joel Explained”, and then a spate of corrective ripostes arguing for his value, and this reactive mess endlessly feeds itself. Those who hate him seem, to me, inexplicably angry about it, but then I didn’t grow up in America, where I understand his ubiquity is dully pervasive. Those who hate him and who love him seem to have a point in common in their divergent conclusions, which is the broadness of his appeal. For his haters, the extraordinary success is a mark against him in itself, and against a culture which hungers for the anodyne and bland. Meanwhile his fans note the same facts and become teary-eyed at the sheer number and variety of people he brings pleasure to.

I don’t have sophisticated or particular enough taste in anything to have guilty pleasures, so Billy Joel is not one for me, but that doesn’t mean I don’t see why people loathe him, and why his grandiose popularity irks them so. That he can often be schmaltzy is undeniable, and the trite sentiment in even the songs I love is completely apparent. His perspective on women in The Stranger is patronising and paternalistic. ‘Just The Way You Are’ and ‘She’s Always A Woman’ (about his then wife and manager Elizabeth Weber) both have lines that raised my eyebrows on first sing along.

Telling your partner not to change and that you don’t need her to provide you with clever conversation is a questionable basis for a romantic overture to say the least (“Don't go trying some new fashion/ Don't change the color of your hair/ You always have my unspoken passion/ Although I might not seem to care”), as is praising her for the alluring combination of being a bitch and also vulnerable (“She can kill with a smile, she can wound with her eyes/ And she can ruin your faith with her casual lies/ And she only reveals what she wants you to see/ She hides like a child, but she's always a woman to me”). His enjoyable recounting of ordinary American lives is part of why he is so beloved, but certainly his observations can rankle a little bit when you bear in mind his own status (in ‘New York State Of Mind’, when he sings “I've seen all the movie stars/ In their fancy cars and their limousines” are we to think he doesn’t live like them?). I’m not ignorant of these things as I love him, but they don’t seem able to chip away even a little at my outsized enjoyment.

What is it that makes us able to wholeheartedly enjoy things that we know to be, on some level, bad? And does the ability of so-called bad things to produce pleasure make them, on some level, good? When there is an enormously popular cultural product that I think is bad but which nevertheless does seem to bring pleasure - if not joy - to a great many people, why is it that I can continue to consider it bad? It seems a little hypocritical for me to hold that stance if I maintain, as I do, that The Stranger is good, and not bad. Perhaps it’s this: when, say, a Transformers film makes people happy but I can feel it to have been produced cynically, by a marketing committee, it’s easy for me to think of it as bad. But I don’t believe Billy Joel to be cynical. I don’t think he was faking it. Which is not to say he can’t be crass, or misogynist, or deluded. His identification with ordinary people may be materially false, but I think he felt it. I think The Stranger is sincere, and meant, and that’s part of why I love it so much.

Billy Joel is, of course, a New York artist, and The Stranger for me is now bound together with my brief time in that place. I think his appeal, or lack thereof, corresponds with it too. It’s easy and in a way right to hate something so bloated and capitalist and disproportionately popular. But there’s a reason, too, why such things are what they are, there’s a reason people keep coming, a reason they mean so much - that endless well of compromised but undeniable, exuberant joy that goes on and on.

Megan Nolan's debut novel will be published by Jonathan Cape on March 4, 2021