“I have met only a very few people—and most of these were not Americans—who had any real desire to be free,” James Baldwin wrote in The Fire Next Time. “Freedom is hard to bear. It can be objected that I am speaking of political freedom in spiritual terms, but the political institutions of any nation are always menaced and are ultimately controlled by the spiritual state of that nation. We are controlled here by our confusion, far more than we know, and the American dream has therefore become something much more closely resembling a nightmare, on the private, domestic, and international levels.”
James Baldwin was right. I know, because I saw the great American nightmare—the vapid confusion, the spiritual decay—in Madison Square Garden last week. Its name was Billy Joel.
The singer’s profound awfulness is hardly news. Ron Rosenbaum was being charitable when he crowned Joel “the worst pop singer ever,” and I myself have spent more time than an emotionally stable person should musing about Joel’s solipsistic and soulless schlock. And I might’ve let him walk gently into the good night if my friend and former Tablet colleague Adam Chandler hadn’t enticed me to go and behold Joel in person, and if that concert hadn’t taken place just a month after the inauguration of Donald John Trump to the presidency of the United States of America, and if I didn’t come to believe, cowering in the arena among the mid-aged boppers who were there to give “Uptown Girl” one more stroll down memory lane, that Billy Joel is not an individual artist but a symptom of more or less everything that is wrong with America today.
That suspicion struck me soon after the set began. This being Joel’s 38th of a 42-night residency at the Garden—the biggest! The greatest! The most spectacular tour ever, as large canvases hanging over the metal detectors at the entrance to the Garden cheerfully informed us—the show was a straight-up string of the 33-Hit Wonder’s greatest hits. He chuckled through “My Life.” He pounded his way through “Pressure.” And then came the banter.
Playing “You’ve Lost that Lovin’ Feelin’” with all the tenderness of a Vegas lounge singer on the afternoon shift, Joel belted out a few bars of the classic before stopping to berate its original performers, the Righteous Brothers. Don’t you just hate it, Joel asked his admiring audience, when nostalgia acts keep on touring and drag their old hits onstage?
Before I even had the chance to bask in this small flame of human warmth—Billy Joel, of course, was in the midst of an interminable nostalgia act of his own, so his quip had to be an attempt at self-deprecating humor, right?—Joel pivoted. He sang a few more bars in a grotesque baritone, which sounded nothing like Bobby Hatfield or Bill Medley. Nor did he acknowledge that the song was written by Phil Spector, whose own catalog of hits makes Joel’s feel like a poorly attended inauguration. With a smirk on his face, the Piano Man looked up and declared his virtue: At least, he said, he had the decency not to try and come up with any more original music and instead serve up only the lukewarm tunes of yesteryear his audience had loved since they heard it on the car radio en route to soccer practice three decades ago.
He didn’t put it quite like that, of course, but the message was the same: In a sea of shysters, Joel’s the only hack who knows he’s a fraud. He knows how the system works. He knows pop is rigged, which, somehow, makes him the most honest person in the arena.
Sounds familiar? With each old song, with each bit of banter, the similarities between the president and the Piano Man became clearer and more terrifying. Like Trump’s neverending campaign, Joel’s, too, is one part bullying—at some point, and for some reason, he burped out Elton John’s “Your Song” before stopping at the line about John not having much money and mocking the singer’s spending habits—one part self-aggrandizement—all those signs about Joel’s tour being very, very huge—and one part pandering. The latter appeared most cloyingly toward the end of the show, when one of Joel’s band members took center stage to sing “Nessun Dorma” from Puccini’s Turandot, a treacly treat that, naturally, led right into Joel’s “Scenes From an Italian Restaurant.” It was the musical equivalent of a gold-plated toilet, an ostentatious declaration of intent that would’ve been embarrassing if it weren’t so laughable.
But what of it? The tens of thousands who packed the house were having a good time, and, to be honest, at rare intervals, so was I. Is Joel really that bad?
The answer, sadly, is yes, and for two main reasons.
First, because Joel really is singularly awful. It’s not uncommon for our graying lords of rock to embark on long tours for old times’ sake, but if you spend some time with these strumming septuagenarians, you see the old soul flickering. The old soul is there when Pete Townshend plays guitar and reminds you, for a moment, that even though the boys in the Who never felt anything deeper than a sudden rush of blood to their cocks, that feeling was exhilarating and life-affirming and it’s still there, sometimes, when the old man picks up his old guitar and plays “Baba O’Riley.” The old soul is there when Paul McCartney treats his audience to a three-hour sing-along that is dotted with the singer’s touching and candid stories and that leaves you feeling as if the man onstage was your kindly uncle who only wants you to be happy, not the co-founder of the world’s most famous band. The old soul is even there when Bob Dylan takes the stage, which he does almost every night of almost every year, and informs you rudely that he’s mainly interested in doing his thing and that you’re welcome to come along but if you’re there for some sappy oldies, you can suck it. These artists are all true to their flames, however bright they still burn. Billy Joel isn’t.
In an exquisite 2014 profile of the singer, Nick Paumgarten captured Joel rehearsing for his Garden gig. He was playing one of his most beloved numbers, “Just the Way You Are.” Before long, Paumgarten writes, “at the sound check, he began substituting bawdy lyrics: ‘I just want someone . . . to have sex with’ and ‘Now you know I’m . . . full of shi-it.’ ‘I couldn’t have loved you any better, unless . . . you grew some bigger tits.’” Try and imagine Leonard Cohen doing that with “Hallelujah,” or even Neil Young with, say, “Cinnamon Girl,” and you realize that Billy Joel is so nefarious precisely because Billy Joel was given great gifts—his songs, as Bruce Springsteen correctly noted, are masterworks of musical construction—and yet chose to squander them in the service of nothing but his own lust, vanity, and insecurity. You can tell just by looking at him: While Dylan’s face is still a mask protecting him from having to deal with emotions, and Young’s face is a topographical map of misfortune, Billy Joel, bald and glistening, looks like a big, smooth stone, as if the years and the sorrows, like so much water, simply polished its surface but failed to penetrate its core.
If that sounds overly moralistic, or plain ridiculous, consider the second reason that Joel’s awfulness matters: It matters because James Baldwin was right, and our crisis isn’t political or even racial but spiritual. It matters because what we need now aren’t just stronger institutions or smarter officials but better and braver artists, the kind who drag a mirror to the middle of the room and force us to look at what we’ve become. American Jews used to produce these men and women in disproportionate numbers because American Jews used to live just enough on the fringes of culture and when they butted in they sounded like Lenny Bruce or Saul Bellow or Lou Reed or Gilda Radner or Joey Ramone. Now they’re more likely to sound like Billy Joel.
“From the very beginning,” Alana Newhouse wrote recently in Tablet , “there was a tacit agreement made between this country and its Jews: You, America, give us liberty and freedom from the extreme degradation and oppression we experienced everywhere else and, in turn, we Jews, will gift you with our … Jewishness. With Jewish thinking, and Jewish reflexes. With the ideas and impulses, honed over thousands of years, that could help a country create an unmatched economy, unparalleled creative industries and artistic and literary cultures, social and civic organizations, and more. America, at least so far, has kept its side of the bargain. But we have not.” Instead, we’ve practiced passing, an insidious art few have mastered more than Joel himself. When asked—in Germany, of course—about his Judaism, this is what the lyricist had to say: “I had the snip and I had nothing to say about it. I’m still a little pissed off about that.”
A more mindful artist would spend more time thinking, about his own identity and about America’s. And more mindful artists are what we need, desperately, right now. Our greatest peril, in art and politics alike, is empty nostalgia that yearns for some imaginary and idyllic past; nostalgia, in George Steiner’s unimprovable phrase, for the absolute. We may not so easily eject the president, but we can start by rejecting the culture that made him possible by finding no fault with his cruelty, his disdain, and his disregard for all but himself. We can start by saying no to the Piano Man.
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