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In Defense of Those Who Need No Defending

By Brian | January 27, 2009 | Share on Facebook

My friend and occasional commenter, Mike Starr, knows I am a big Billy Joel fan – both as a listener and a performer. So when he saw a Slate article by Ron Rosenbaum entitled The Worst Pop Singer Ever. Why, exactly, is Billy Joel so bad?, he sent it to me with a one word review: Harsh.

Having read the article, I will add my own review to Mike’s: Ignoramus.

(ED. NOTE: My review refers to Rosenbaum, not Mike, of course…)

I choose the word “ignoramus” because it allows me to combine the two words that came immediately to mind upon reading the article – “ignorant” and “doofus,” while continuing the one-word review meme that Mike unwittingly began.

“Ignorant” comes to mind because Rosenbaum clearly did very little research for this article, short of buying some Billy Joel CD’s, listening to the songs and ripping them to shreds. He appears to be under the impression that Joel wrote all one hundred and eighteen of his (album-released) songs simultaneously, and all of them after becoming one of the most successful musicians/performers in American music history.

Piano Man, for instance, shows “contempt” for “the losers at the bar he’s left behind in his stellar schlock stardom and for the ‘entertainer-loser’ (the proto-B.J.) who plays for them.” Rosenbaum is clearly unaware that Piano Man was written in 1973, while Billy Joel was living in Los Angeles and playing at a piano bar under the name of “William Martin,” almost entirely devoid of stardom, shlocky or otherwise.

The Entertainer is, according to Rosenbaum, about “phonies . . . except exquisitely self-aware entertainers like [Joel], who let you in on this secret.” Again, he is clearly unaware that the song was written in 1974 as criticism of the Wolfman Jack, Friday Night Videos, turn-rock-music-into-a-variety-show dynamic that Joel felt was ruining rock music at the time. He’s also unaware, quite obviously, of the rather significant push-back Joel received from the music industry for making such statements at the time.

About Say Goodbye to Hollywood, Rosenbaum says, “Could someone let [Joel] know he’s phoning it in with all this phoniness at this point? Isn’t there something, well, a bit phony about his hysteria over phoniness?” Similarly, New York State of Mind gets this: “He can’t even celebrate his ‘New York State of Mind’ without displaying his oh-so-rebellious contempt for ‘the movie stars in their fancy cars and their limousines.’ You think Billy Joel has really never ridden in a limo?” Once again, Rosenbaum seems blissfully ignorant of the fact that these were written in 1976 when Joel actually did “say goodbye to Hollywood” and move from California to Highland Falls, New York to kick start his fledgling music career (which he did the following year by releasing a little album called The Stranger, by the way). I’m not sure how an autobiographical song can be described as “phoning in phony hysteria over phoniness.” As for New York State of Mind, he wrote it, as the lyrics suggest, on a Greyhound bus on the Hudson River line, which was taking him to his new home in Highland Falls. It is widely considered one of the most heartfelt love songs to New York ever written. Has he ridden in limousines? Sure. Had he in 1976? Probably not too many, or he wouldn’t have been taking a Greyhound bus from the airport, now would he?

I could go on (the re-issue of The Stranger has a mask on the cover? Did he even bother to look at the original, which has the very same mask?), but I think I’ve made my point. I’m sure it’s hard to be a columnist and to write for a deadline. Heck, I post regularly here at I Should Be Sleeping, but if I don’t have anything to say on a given day, I have the luxury of not saying anything. Ron Rosenbaum obviously had a thesis in search of supporting evidence, and figured he’d make it up with a few lyrics quotes, rather than actually doing, well….research on his topic.

As to the other word that came to mind, “doofus,” the rationale goes like this:

Mr. Rosenbaum – you’re criticizing Billy Joel for being elitist and judgemental, and you’re doing it by telling all of us, the hundreds of millions of people who have made him one of the most successful artists in the history of American music for almost four decades, that we’re all devoid of musical taste. Only you, good sir, have the finely tuned sensibilities to tell us what is good and what is “sentimental schlock.” Now who’s the phony, exactly?

Look – what makes music great is it’s subjectivity. There’s an audience for almost any kind of music, from classical to jazz to hip-hop to rock to Russian Balalaika. I’ll argue the factual inaccuracies in Mr. Rosenbaum’s article all day long, but I wouldn’t dare try to argue that he should like Billy Joel’s music. That’s entirely up to him. In fact, given what he’s written, I’d suggest he save some money and never buy a Billy Joel track or concert ticket ever again.

In closing, I think these words (written by some phony, elitist rock star back in the ’70s) sum up my feelings about Mr. Rosenbaum and his article pretty well:

Give a moment or two to the angry young man,
With his foot in his mouth and his heart in his hand.
He’s been stabbed in the back, he’s been misunderstood,
It’s a comfort to know his intentions are good.
And he sits in a room with a lock on the door,
With his maps and his medals laid out on the floor-
And he likes to be known as the angry young man.

I believe I’ve passed the age of consciousness and righteous rage
I found that just surviving was a noble fight.
I once believed in causes too,
I had my pointless point of view,
And life went on no matter who was wrong or right.

Topics: Words about Music | 7 Comments »

7 Responses to “In Defense of Those Who Need No Defending”

  1. Jeff Porten says at January 27th, 2009 at 9:36 pm :
    For the record, I skimmed that article and about 1/4th of the way in, decided that its content wasn’t worth forwarding on to you.

    Also for the record, I own a cassette tape of Russian balalaika music titled, “Oh, You Snowball Tree.”

  2. Ilya says at January 28th, 2009 at 9:24 am :
    That article looked too obvious an example of “I have to be scathing even when I have little idea of what I’m talking about”, because scathing sells in blogosphere. I normally tune those out without much of a second thought.

    On a different tangent, Jeff, I cannot imagine a Russian translation that makes sense for the title of your tape. You haven’t used BabelFish to produce that from Russian title, have you?

  3. Terry Moran says at January 28th, 2009 at 10:38 am :
    Rosenbaum’s rant only proves this: He doesn’t like Billy Joel. Misinterpreting lyrics and accusing Joel of co-opting other artist’s music without a shred of musical substantiation is empirical evidence of nothing. The irony is that this writer has no idea that his hero, Bob Dylan, is a longtime admirer of Billy Joel’s music. Other iconic artists who have expressed their respect for Joel are Brian Wilson, Paul MacCartney, Bruce Springsteen, Tony Bennett, Frank Sinatra, Ray Charles, Leonard Bernstein, Stevie Wonder, and Sting – among many others. Whose opinion, then, should we consider?

  4. Kisintin says at January 28th, 2009 at 3:53 pm :
    Since I had little to do today. The Snowball tree is how Kalina (Viburnum) was translated. Why? I don’t know.

  5. Frank Drebin says at February 9th, 2009 at 3:58 pm :
    Billy Joel has contempt for everyone because he had a hard time of it in the music industry for almost ten years, then when he finally acheived success, everyone decided to hate him because of it. He tried to fight back, sometimes not in the right way, and because of that, people like Rosenbaum have more dirt on him. You can tell he didn’t do enough research, seeing as how he didn’t even point out “Everybody Loves You Now”, perhaps Joel’s most “contemptuous” song of all.

    I love Dylan, Springsteen, almost all singer-songwriters, and Billy Joel is the man who started my interest in music as a whole. He deserves just as much respect as all the rest. He made me realise why I’d been playing the piano for seven years, so don’t tell me he’s not worth a damn, Rosy.

    Basically, the only thing I see in Rosy’s article is that he hates Billy Joel because he is in the mainstream. Shroud it in as much “justification” as you want, but in the end, you’re just like those people who booed Dylan when he went electric. HOW DOES IT FEEL?!?!?!

    Speaking of the mainstream, how successful were the Beatles? Try telling anyone they’re the worst band in history.

  6. Brian says at February 10th, 2009 at 1:17 am :
    Amen, brother!

    You’re Keepin’ the Faith!!!

  7. Tony says at August 2nd, 2011 at 7:34 pm :
    I’ve tried contacting Rosenbaum on Facebook to ask him about the article but no response was forthcoming.


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