Monday, January 26, 2009

The Curious Case of William Joel

If music be the food of love, play on,
Give me excess of it; that surfeiting
The appetite may sicken, and so die.

Twelfth Night

High seriousness too shall pass. Like many others of my generation, I first came to know popular music in the form of Top 40, early 1980's material; I have spent the quarter century since trying to work through that aesthetic trauma. It took impressionable years merely to realize that there was much more in heaven and earth than such eminently ephemeral acts as Asia, Toto, and Tears for Fears. Shakespeare may be right in writing, above, that music can go from intoxicating to cloying in an instant, but all the same Ron Rosenbaum's dyspeptic diatribe against Billy Joel in Slate cannot go unanswered.

Why bash Peter Parker for not being Bruce Wayne, or Agatha Christie for not being Virginia Woolf? It is possible to enjoy high, middle, and low modes of music as with anything else. In my mind I tend to place Billy Joel on a soft-to-rugged continuum comprising Elton John and John Mellencamp; all three were distinctly middlebrow even in pop-musical terms, alternatively earnest and bombastic (as if bombasm (?) has no place in the arts). All three were derivative and impossible to take seriously, until one couldn't stop humming their irresistible, irrepressible tunes; the fact is that all three in their prime were inimitable composers of that contemptible genre, the pop song. They scampered amid the looming colossi of Dylan and the Beatles, but they couldn't help that.

From Piano Man in 1973 through An Innocent Man in 1983, Billy Joel generated a series of albums as good as any during that time; if that damns with faint praise, then so be it. To some degree, of course, he suffered from his own success--if Pink Floyd and Fleetwood Mac could be ruined through radio overplay, then how much more vulnerable would Joel's sometimes hothouse concoctions have to be? He could be saccharine (the execrable "Just the Way You Are" does not improve upon the hundredth hearing), and he could be crass (the, I suppose, forthright "Sometimes a Fantasy" from Glass Houses). He often came across as self-righteous and self-absorbed, but he was a pop star, for goodness sake.

Sure, some may find "Say Goodbye to Hollywood" more pompous than anthemic, but one could say the same of Dylan ("Idiot Wind") or Springsteen (pick any song). But Joel could flat out come up with tunes, and his voice was strong and pure. If one can find no affection for "Piano Man" or "Scenes from an Italian Restaurant," then one doesn't like Joel's genre, for he perfected it in such pieces. The chip on his shoulder could be off-putting, but his "Honesty" was refreshing at times.

I would rank Turnstiles, The Stranger, 52nd Street, and the superb live album Songs in the Attic at Joel's apogee, such as it is. By The Nylon Curtain the strain was starting to show ("Pressure" indeed), and An Innocent Man was a charming late spate of creativity that pretty much exhausted his musical ideas. Everything since has been unfortunate. Every now and then an artist, like Rossini and Salinger, lapses into long silence after extravagant shows of genius; they are outnumbered, alas, by the many who should follow their example but don't.

In my opinion music critics, logocentrists as they would have to be, tend to overemphasize lyrics of songs--their "message" or "statement"--far more than is warranted. Vocal music is not poetry that happens to have a tune; it is music first and foremost, and that's why we go to it. Similarly, the experience of opera is not primarily about plot. To be sure, the greatest operas have librettos that are of interest in their own right, but one needn't spend every moment with the greatest.

I am also convinced that musical affinity and aversion are intensely subjective; at times one is attracted or repelled by something for no rational reason. For instance, I tend to like introspective, countercultural female singer-songwriters; Joni Mitchell is reputed to be a great example; I should like her music. It does nothing for me. I could intellectualize about why that is, but I'm not sure it would have any wider validity.

This is not to say that criticism has no place in music. Musically and culturally, Joel is no Dylan, and Rosenbaum's article points out some reasons why. But on a more visceral level, for better or worse, he just doesn't "get" Joel's music; that's fine, but he needn't rain on the whole parade. Granted, my soft spot for Joel developed at a susceptible age; I rarely listen to him any more, and he wouldn't be on my desert-island ipod, could do worse. The world would be poorer without Joel's music; in the grand scheme, not very much poorer, perhaps, but poorer nonetheless.

So: three cheers for Piano Man, right?


Anonymous said...

oh it's harsh...especially the last paragraph--still funny.

I wonder what's more influential in shaping musical taste - culture/environment or nature/personality?

I think some tastes that seem inexplicable and completely irrational are actually very subtle throwbacks to some other poignant emotional-aesthetic conjunction from your past, or they just subconsciously remind you of something (music or otherwise) you really do like.

Anonymous said...

Well put, Novalis. I like many of Joel's songs but I think you're right that at some point he sort of went off the boil. The blend of music and lyrics was less compelling than before. Will be interested to see if he can recover some of that early style. But some artists just fade away.