Culture

You May Be Wrong about Billy Joel

Billy Joel on stage at Madison Square Garden in 2006 (Reuters photo: Brendan McDermid)
Billy Joel’s music and his popularity are undiminished by the critics’ snideness.

This is what happens at a Billy Joel concert at Madison Square Garden: Thousands of gyrating white people from the suburbs have a wonderful time, and one or two frowning music critics (also white, also probably from the suburbs) grind their teeth, roll their eyes, and fill their notebooks with disdain.

There isn’t a lot to argue about when it comes to music: Either you like it or you don’t. Try as you may, you probably won’t be able to change someone’s mind about whether he likes a song. Frustrated music writers tend instead to take lazy swings at other listeners, and Billy Joel’s fans are a big, soft, Dockers-wearing target. A recent, tiresome example of writing about music by way of mocking a musician’s fans — ad hominem at one remove — popped up in The Atlantic, where writer Adam Chandler spends a couple of thousand words being baffled about why Billy Joel continues to sell out MSG many times a year despite not having released a new album since 1993. The answer seems obvious enough: Joel is immensely popular, with 33 hits to his credit, and is known to put on a raucous, fan-friendly spectacle.

At MSG during a show, Chandler sniffs at how Joel’s fans are a 19,000-strong “racially homogenous” [sic] cohort who “all dance, terribly and euphorically, to ‘Uptown Girl.’” Chandler takes note of a mom who “tries to cajole her reluctant young son to twist with her to ‘Only the Good Die Young.’” Nearby “three 20-somethings on a ladies’ night out shoot a Boomerang of themselves swaying to ‘Scenes from an Italian Restaurant’” and “a sexagenarian in business attire uses a lull . . . to crush some work emails on his BlackBerry Priv.”

It’s a restatement of Homer Simpson’s take on white people after watching a hack nightclub-comedy routine: “It’s true, it’s true! We’re so lame.”

I’ve been to Billy Joel concerts from Shea Stadium to Frankfurt, and I can confirm that pretty much all of his ticket-buying fans are white. But so what? So are Bruce Springsteen’s. So are Bob Dylan’s. For that matter, there were more black people on the stage than in the audience when I saw Hamilton. For white culture writers, resorting to racial bean-counting is a doubly lazy gesture: It is the most minimally demanding way to showcase superior social enlightenment (Hey, I’m not like these other white people, I like having people of color to provide my personal backdrop), and the allegedly regrettable nature of white-people preferences is the laziest possible, Comedy Cavern shorthand for “uncool.”

Music writers, like high-school girls, are especially obsessed with whether they are perceived as members of the cool clique or not, and alignment with the tastes of ordinary Americans could cause revocation of one’s cool card. Chandler’s clique is pop-music critics: They don’t like Joel, have even “steadily dismissed [his work] as middlebrow and ersatz-pastiche,” and he thinks their opinion ought to dampen Joel’s ticket sales. As though pop-music critics have any impact whatsoever. (Quick, name three of them you never miss.) The pop-music-criticism industry is about as vital to American culture as phrenology.

Music writers, like high-school girls, are especially obsessed with whether they are perceived as members of the cool clique or not

Billy Joel is the sixth-best-selling musician of all time, according to the Record Industry Association of America, behind only the Beatles, Garth Brooks, Elvis Presley, Led Zeppelin, and the Eagles. Brooks and Joel are the only acts on that list who are alive and intact, so you would be unsurprised to learn that demand for tickets to their shows would be enormous. Moreover, that Joel hasn’t released an album since 1993 makes his concerts more, not less, attractive: Fans know they won’t be made to suffer through untested and inferior material simply because it’s new. The steep decline in recorded-music sales means better concerts in general: Both Springsteen and U2 are now organizing their concerts around beloved older material instead of pushing new discs that aren’t going to sell anyway.

Chandler posits that the Garden shows are popular in substantial part because the concert venue is located atop Penn Station, which serves the Long Island and New Jersey suburbs where all those lame white people live. This is a bit silly; MSG may be accessible to Hackensack (on a good day, anyway), but it’s even more accessible to Brooklyn. Any cool, young urban artist performing there has a huge potential fan base nearby. None can match Joel’s reach, though.

Perhaps more than any other art form, music pulls us back to our youth — whatever music you loved when you were 17, you tend to love forever. Yet as you notice who else likes that music, or doesn’t, you may find yourself dismissing this or that old CD as a “guilty pleasure” — the curious term for which we reach when we like something but fear others might disagree or even disapprove. It’s sad, really, to feel the urge to run your pleasures through someone else’s disapproval matrix, to lack the courage of your own taste. Billy Joel fans know the way to approach music is the way they — we — greet the guitar lick that opens “Big Shot” or the chorus of “Pressure” — with heedless abandon. If it sounds great to you, it is great.

— Kyle Smith is National Review’s critic-at-large.

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