Jewish Conversion: The Billy Joel Experiment
Part I: “Rosalinda’s Eyes”
Just a few weeks ago, I faced a truth I wasn’t ready to handle. It turns out that my Tablet colleague Liel Leibovitz HATES Billy Joel. Despite the fact that Liel is a man with whom I share a steadfast love of many important musicians, when it comes to the kid from Oyster Bay, Long Island, Liel is not just indifferent or agnostic about Billy Joel or simply annoyed by the Billy Joel saturation of east coast life, he outright hates the man’s music.
Among Liel’s gripes: Billy Joel’s music lacks emotional depth and technical savvy, shows contempt for humanity, and is witless, criminally insincere, and shlocky. To clarify his position, he sent me the venerable Ron Rosenbaum’s hilarious scorched earth fusillade against Billy Joel from a few years back. (A warning: If you’re a Billy Joel fan, even one with a sense of humor, reading this is like time-traveling back a few decades only to have someone swiftly kick you in the shin upon arrival.)
But Mr. Leibovitz is a reasonable man and so he grudgingly allowed me the chance to convert him. I submitted a few songs (without commentary) for his consideration. And since it’s hard to roam the New York terra without hearing a song from one of Mr. Joel’s THREE greatest hits albums, I was careful to choose strictly from a list of songs that you’d have to dig a little bit to find.
Over the next few days, I’ll be featuring the songs I chose, my explanations for choosing them as well as Liel’s responses to then. I’d love your comments to help advance the dialogue along the way.
First up: “Rosalinda’s Eyes” from the 1978 album 52nd Street.
I chose this song first for a few reasons. The first is that it doesn’t sound like any recognizable Billy Joel song. “Rosalinda’s Eyes,” in both title and sound, is a light 1970s jazz song that you’d quickly change if it shuffled up in the company of friends. In this way, the song is (despite being New York-themed) the spiritual opposite of the standard Billy Joel tunes you’re accustomed to hearing blasted at baseball games and tristate relief concerts.
To boot, the instrumentation is tacky as hell: There are some vibes, a nylon string guitar, and a marimba. If that doesn’t qualify it as muzak then also consider that “Rosalinda’s Eyes” has–and I’m not joking–a 21-second-long recorder solo!
Aside from making a cameo in the soundtrack of the short-lived Judd Apatow series Freaks and Geeks, this is not a particularly well-known song, subtly squished on the second side of 52nd Street, an album that features the famously outsized, contempt-filled hits “Big Shot” and “My Life.”
Unlike those anti-paeans, “Rosalinda’s Eyes” is about a lovestruck, self-conscious musician who is anchored by the woman he is enamored of. The song also seems to be about a guy who has hustle to make his life happen at the inevitable expense of someone that he hopes will wait for him.
In the song, Joel alternates the verse endings between cloying affection:
I can always find my Cuban skies / In Rosalinda’s eyes
And delusional ambition:
I’ll return before the fire dies / In Rosalinda’s eyes
It’s a hopeful, earnest song about being doomed. For context, it seems worth mentioning that Joel’s mother’s name is Rosalind and that Joel’s father was a classical pianist. The two divorced when Joel was 11 and his father subsequently moved to Vienna.
And here is Liel’s response:
This is a truly terrible song. First, we run into the same Billy Joel problem, the narcissistic-solipsistic nexus that seems to define his very being. “Hardly anyone has seen how good I am / But Rosalinda says she knows.” At the risk of sounding like some spineless grad student sniffling about oppression and patriarchy, this is an offensive hymn to one man’s bloated ego at the expense of all around him, seen not as human beings but as generic blots. To wit:
“I play nights in the Spanish part of town.”
Can you imagine Springsteen writing this line? He wouldn’t. First of all, because he knows it’s not about him. Second of all, because he knows that there’s no such thing as “the Spanish part of town.” There’s a neighborhood, and it has a name, and that name deserves to be mentioned. Joel doesn’t care: being soulless, he just wants to convey his point quickly and effortlessly, the point being that he’s a cool cat slumming it with the pueblo.
The same awful generic attitude is replicated in his pathetic decision to roll his Rs so as to sound more caliente, and also in the music, which borrows just enough Latin motifs but never bothers to actually explore other musical traditions, as even the insipid Paul Simon had the good sense and the humility to do.
It’s the same attitude all over: “all alone in a Puerto Rican band / union wages / wedding clothes,” for example, is another dick line. All alone in a band? Why? Because they are not white geniuses like you but just working folks? This is how Billy thinks, and he needs Rosalinda to objectify; she–grad school warning again–is the prism through which his greatness is reflected, and not, God forbid, a fucking human being. Absolutely revolting.
Swing and a miss. Check back tomorrow for part two.
The Worst Pop Singer Ever [Slate]
Plus Ellis Island still remains closed after Hurricane Sandy