Don’t Wait for Answers
One of the few pleasures of growing older, from the perspective of cultural criticism, is watching America mythologize itself. Sometimes you have the enjoyment of seeing this happen just as it develops, as H.L. Mencken spotted in his observation of the immediate aftermath of the Dempsey/Carpentier fight; other times, it rolls out slowly, like how everyone in the 1990s pretended to like the Velvet Underground from the very beginning, or how every white guy today pretends to have liked hip-hop in the 1990s. The reverse can happen as well: America develops cultural amnesia all the time, and can today not recall ever having liked M. Night Shyamalan, Dane Cook, or Pamela Anderson. As the generations pass and new waves of critics and writers crawl their way into the bright sun of a national audience, they figure out new angles to express old opinions, while all the while having to experience the same stuff we elderly folk have already gone through in a completely different context. Thus we regularly receive dispatches from a world where yacht rock is appreciated both ironically and non-ironically; the Rolling Stones were never relevant, dangerous, or exciting; and the co-option of black music by white musicians is a fresh outrage rather than the literal foundation upon which all modern music is built. Live long enough and everything will seem both old and unfamiliar at the same time.
The latest diktat from Yegg Central concerns the public image of Mr. William Martin Joel, a pop crooner of some small renown. Despite his millions of dollars, vast international fame, massive numbers of chart hits, and legions of adoring fans, despite his multiple stages of ubiquity (first on rock radio, then on MTV, and finally in the offices of dentists and general practitioners across America), Billy Joel — a man whose attitude towards his fans has usually been one of petulant contempt — feels underappreciated, and he has somehow managed to sell this gross egomania to a generation of music journalists and culture writers. Mistaking his self-pity for a lack of appreciation, they have attempted a downright Soviet attempt to rehabilitate his reputation: and, indeed, it is reputation that is at the heart of the matter, which is the most frustrating aspect of the whole shameful show to those of us who think that Joel is an overexposed and undertalented embarrassment who should no more be celebrated in this day and age than Leo Sayer or Gino Vannelli. It is nearly unthinkable that he could be wealthier, more famous, more popular, or have more hit songs; it is only that he has failed in the one single aspect of creation in which he will always fail — winning the respect of critics and the reputation that goes with such praise — that frustrates him, and he has passed his frustration down to a surprising number of people who ought to know better.
When I was younger and scrappier, I thought I had dealt with Billy Joel in a more or less definitive manner, but it is more fitting for Jesus to think he had a chance at ridding the world of sin than for a mere scribbler to think that he might convince a single pair of ears to reject the works of Billy Joel. So, like some kind of mixed metaphor consisting of a whack-a-mole game populated by zombies who sing “Scenes from an Italian Restaurant”, just when you think he is dead, he rises again to begin a residency at Madison Square Garden and to convince hapless pop-culture writers to come to his defense, as if he is R. Dean Taylor and not Billy Joel. This week alone has seen the emergence of not one but two separate articles attempting to convince their peers that Joel deserves a place at the table occupied by the Lou Reeds, Joan Jetts, and Elvis Costellos of this world. They do not base their arguments on simple longevity, however; convincing as it might be to simply report that since Joel has been going strong after almost 50 years, he’s got to have something going for him, they eschew that approach, since it might place them in sympathy with other widely known hacks who enjoy a loyal audience but not a reputation as someone whose music is worth listening to. Instead, they focus, particularly in the New Yorker piece, on the fabulous notion that the reason Billy Joel is not respected by the critical establishment is because he isn’t cool.
Of all the egregious bogosities foisted on the pop-listening public, the idea that reasonable people avoid the songs of Billy Joel like they would avoid alone time with a rabid badger because Joel is a square-seeming schnook who wears tan jackets with the sleeves rolled up instead of a Johnny Cool-Guy with a slick haircut and punk rock clothes who sings about how much he hates The Man has got to be #1. #2 is the equally bizarre notion, advanced in the AV Club article, that Billy Joel’s fans, far from a throng of tens of millions who have seen the object of their affection become culturally ubiquitous, earn huge amounts of money, and dominate the pop charts for two decades, are to the contrary some sort of oppressed minority, cowering in fear at the reprisals of a conspiracy of the hip who have been engaged in a years-long struggle to guilt them out of liking a man who deserves to sit on a throne made of melted-down platinum records with we unappreciative rabble kissing his Florsheim-clad feet. Since I made the shocking discovery a few years ago that taste is personal, artistic success is largely arbitrary, and that the public will swallow one load of horseshit while spitting out an identically flavored load, I have no dog in a number of rock-crit fights, and I don’t really care that America has embraced such an obvious nudge as Billy Joel; what continues to baffle me is why he, of hundreds of other popular but cruddy pop singers, keeps on inspiring these pouty think-pieces in which it is imagined that he is a prodigal son banished from his rightful homecoming feast by a cabal of snobby haters, and that his fans, who number enough to have given him dozens of top 40 hits, continue to believe that they are under the smug Doc Marten heels of a hipstertariat who will not recognize his genius.
This whole pretense that nobody could possibly not like a beloved performer because he is self-evidently great and anyone who feigns to dislike him is affecting a cool-kids pose is ludicrous, as is its twin, the pretense that nobody could possibly like a less popular kind of music because it clearly sucks and anyone who pretends to like it is just putting on airs to be different. Let’s not mince words: I think Billy Joel sucks, and it has nothing to do with a too-cool-for-school rejection of well-crafted pop; I idolize ABBA, for goodness’ sake. But I’m also old enough to have lived through Joel’s first wave of radio omnipresence, and I can also read Billboard charts, so I’m incapable of swallowing the lie that he or his fans are some kind of outsiders. This kind of conspiratorial thinking, where you are both a triumphant and discerning listener unafraid to admit to the obvious genius of this titanic songsmith and a put-down minority who cannot peacefully enjoy the simple pleasures of your humble crooner because of the cruel barbs of others, is better suited to Tea Party types.
To be clear, while I think Billy Joel is genuinely awful, I don’t think the people who love him are delusional, except insofar as their feelings of guilt are probably not instilled in them by people like me, but may rather come from within on the sneaking suspicion that Billy Joel is as awful as we say he is. I’m never going to demand that Joel’s fans give up their love of him and embrace the joy of making fun of the puffy old hack. What still flips me, though, is that his fans — at least the cult-stud division of same — are unwilling to just accept that there are just a rump of ne’er-do-wells who just happen to have noticed that Billy Joel sucks. They have to invent a reality where Joel is only separated from Leonard Cohen by a thin red line of uncoolness, that there is a fifth column of snipers drunk on haterade who are determined not to admit the truth of his greatness; they have to keep ignoring his flaws, accepting his disdain, and attributing to him depths that he clearly does not possess in order to maintain the fiction. Look, Billy Joel fans: by pretty much every objective measure, you won. Your guy is rich, famous, celebrated, awarded, praised, and in possession of success by almost any metric the world of music can devise. Isn’t that enough? Can’t you just bear with grace the fact that some people think he’s a clown, or must you keep up this Bieberesque masque of oppression? Remember: you can dance and still look tough!