Michael B. Duff

Lubbock's answer to a question no one asked

Why does the Internet hate Billy Joel?

Why would anyone need to defend Billy Joel?

Billy Joel is like a rainbow or a sunset or a ray of sunshine on a cloudy day.

Billy Joel doesn’t need your pity. Billy Joel just is.

Until I got an Internet connection, I didn’t think it was possible to hate Billy Joel. It’s like hating puppies or french fries or Christmas trees. But if you put the right words in Google, you can find people who hate those things, too.

I’ve spent an inordinate amount of time defending Billy Joel this week, arguing on various message boards, trying to explain the difference between the way normal people consume music versus the way critics consume music.

The Internet is home to a certain kind of critical personality, the pop culture antagonist who likes to explain why popular things are not actually worthy of your love.

It started with this review by Ron Rosenbaum, published last week in Slate Magazine. The review is titled: “The Worst Pop Singer Ever: Why, exactly is Billy Joel so bad?

The worst pop singer ever? In a category that includes Britney Spears and Katy Perry?

Rosenbaum sums it up: “I think I’ve identified the qualities in B.J.’s work that distinguish his badness from other kinds of badness: It exhibits unearned contempt. Both a self-righteous contempt for others and the self-approbation and self-congratulation that is contempt’s backside, so to speak. Most frequently a contempt for the supposed phoniness or inauthenticity of other people as opposed to the rock-solid authenticity of our B.J.”

Rosenbaum says Piano Man is a masterpiece of contempt, the contempt of a lounge singer for his loser audience and the false self-contempt of the proto-B.J. who sold out.

I think Ron is missing the expressions of sympathy in Piano Man — the essential humanity captured in these snapshots of ordinary people. I don’t see this as contempt; I see the lounge singer as one of them — an ordinary guy with the potential for greatness, just like the real estate novelist or the movie star stuck behind the bar.

But all of this misses the point.

The real conflict here is the critical context versus the context of ordinary people.

Anyone who looks at music objectively can find reasons to hate people like Billy Joel, but for most people, music is not consumed in a critical context. Music is consumed at awkward high school parties and in the back of hand-me-down cars.

If you grew up in the 80’s, odds are your early contact with the opposite sex happened while Billy Joel was playing on the radio. The advent of your first crush or first breakup almost certainly had Billy Joel mixed in there somewhere, simply by virtue of him being played on the radio every 15 minutes while we were growing up.

Normal people can’t separate their perceptions of the music from the power of those events.

Those who can become critic personalities like Ron Rosenbaum, who adopt an elitist set of cultural values to put themselves eternally above the herd.

Ciaran Daly blames it on irony. Here he is, in a comment from the Fimoculous music blog: “I think the problem people like Rosenbaum have with Billy Joel is that he’s not artificial enough for them. He’s a guy from the working class talking directly and naturally to the working class in their own language, on their own terms. They see something duplicitous in him that isn’t there because they can’t imagine being that direct without being ironic.”

I think he nails it with that last word. There is nothing ironic about Billy Joel. There is no ironic distance between Billy’s music and the emotions he is trying to reach. Billy Joel really is a creature of the 70’s and 80’s, a musician forged in a time before irony, when a songwriter could lay his emotional cards on the table without being pithy, ironic or protected by a thin layer of self-loathing.

Raw expressions of love, hate and longing seem arrogant to us now, like a guy in a Hawaiian shirt trying to attend a funeral. Taken out of context, Joel’s music seems raw, cheap and tacky to modern ears. But the 80’s were a tacky decade, and I wouldn’t trade it for anything.

In most cases, attacking a celebrity is pretty safe. To paraphrase Cintra Wilson, we’re just a gaggle of peasants throwing rocks down here, so when one of these people responds to us, we win.

When Edward Champion called “A Matter of Trust” a musical atrocity and accused Joel of using a pitch corrector to sing the national anthem, someone claiming to be Billy responded to him directly:

“The representative melody notes you wrote in your ‘constructive criticism’ were wrong, your theory regarding what kind of radio format the song was intended for were wrong, your description of the vocal performance was wrong, (I was actually trying to sing like Robert Palmer – although I probably failed miserably), your inability or your refusal to follow a simple lyric pattern is symptomatic of either a mental disorder or a hearing defect, and your accusation that I used an ‘Auto Tune’ device is an outright lie. I’ve never used a pitch-corrector and I never will.”

Joel denied using a pitch corrector and blamed television producers for altering his performance during the show.

Was it the real Billy? We’ll never know.

But you’d be surprised to see how many celebrities have taken to the Internet to defend themselves — neatly bypassing agents, publicists and common sense.

Most celebrities come out poorly in these exchanges. Being nasty on the Internet is a skill, a highly refined and specialized form of argument. You can’t just jump in and expect to win one of these things. You might have God, country, common sense and reams of documentation on your side, but the game is rigged, and being “right” counts for nothing at all.

Billy Joel comes off great in this exchange. So well, in fact, it’s probably too smooth to be written by him. But you never know. B.J. has been sparring with critics since before I was born; he’s probably got it down by now.

Billy Joel doesn’t need me to defend him, but he makes a great rallying point. I’m hoping that as we get older, my generation can get over itself and make its peace with the gods of irony — to stop running everything through a critical filter and allow themselves to love the things they grew up with.

Billy Joel was the soundtrack of my childhood and my memories don’t need an excuse.

Written by Michael B. Duff

January 28, 2009 at 09:46

Posted in Music

14 Responses

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  1. […] here to see the original: Why does the Internet hate Billy Joel? | Tags: Celebrity, come-out, come-out-poorly, defend-themselves, internet, many-celebrities, […]

  2. I would not want to even imagine a world without Billy Joel when I was growing up….. He said the things that we wanted to but couldn’t or for whatever reasons, wouldn’t. Those “critics” can take a long walk off of a short pier


    January 28, 2009 at 10:33

  3. To coin a paraphrase, “Those who can, do…those who can’t, critique.”

    I’m guessing that Billy Joel has sold a few more records than Edward Champion or Ron Rosenbaum.

    Boss of Bass

    January 28, 2009 at 12:00

  4. I love Billy Joel. Always have. Always will. You know who else I like? Springsteen. No irony there, either really. But I like earnest music. Sometimes we all feel earnest. And the difference is that the earnestness of “Tell Her About It” or “Dancing in the Dark” is that even when things are terrible, there is purpose, direction, hope.

    And as the last election taught us, hope can be a powerful motivator.


    January 28, 2009 at 12:21

  5. On a trip to New York this summer, I met a guy on the plane who used to manage a comedy club in Manhattan. For some reason I happened to mention Billy Joel, and his whole mood immediately changed for the worse.

    He told me that Joel had come in regularly, rang up huge tabs, and never once tipped any of the waitresses; that he was inordinately difficult; and that without going much into it, could not find a single nice thing to say about him.

    According to this guy (the one I met on the plane) and the friend he was with, that’s pretty much Joel’s reputation all over New York. Suffice it to say, those are just the opinions of two guys from Long Island. And who knows how long ago that was – maybe Joel has changed a lot since the days at the comedy club.

    But anyone associated with the music business can tell you just how political the whole industry can be. Tick off enough of the wrong people, and it doesn’t matter how good you write or sing, you’re not going to get a lot of good press. Music critics have a tendency sometimes to inject a lot of personal feelings and baggage into their reviews that have nothing to do with the actual song or album they are supposedly reviewing.

    I like Billy Joel’s music. Not my favorite, but he’s got some good songs. I’ve got a couple of his greatest hits albums, and “River of Dreams” was one of the first cds I ever purchased. But my guess is that his personal life has given the critics a lot of fodder over the years. Fairly or not, that might be one of the biggest determining (and underlying) factors when it comes to them evaluating his legacy.


    January 28, 2009 at 12:21

  6. That WAS Billy Joel responding to Edward Champion. And Billy Joel only ever went to a comedy club – ‘Catch A Rising Star’ in Manhattan once in his life. He was polite and left a nice tip as he always does. Don’t ask me how I know – I just do. Those who form opinions about other people based on second-hand information, gossip and innuendo don’t really know much about anyone. And Ron Rosenbaum’s rant about Joel only proves one thing : Ron Rosenbaum hates Billy Joel. An obvious personally biased misinterpretation of Joel’s lyrics, and accusations of Joel co-opting other artist’s work without providing a shred of musical substantiation are empirical evidence of nothing. The irony here is that this critic is amusingly unaware that his hero, Bob Dylan, who Rosenbaum tries to use over and over as a whip to beat Joel with, is actually a friend and an admirer of Billy Joel’s music, as are many other iconic musicians. And I’m pretty sure that at this point in his life, Billy doesn’t give a damn about the ravings of Ron Rosenberg.

    Terry Moran

    January 28, 2009 at 13:02

  7. Ok, well, apparently I don’t know much. Sorry to report some bad second-hand information.


    January 28, 2009 at 13:55

  8. Wonder if a guy (or gal) could make a living bashing critics! Seems like it would only be fair considering they can by bashing someone elses work! NAh, I guess I don’t wanna. No one listens to them. Why would anyone do the same for me?


    January 28, 2009 at 17:24

  9. Mr. Rosenbaum 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.

    My response, including the history behind some of the songs he so wrongly criticizes is here:


    Brian Greenberg

    January 29, 2009 at 09:32

  10. Please try not to break anything this week at BarPM


    February 2, 2009 at 09:47

  11. Most people have to be drunk to cause that kind of damage.

    Michael Duff

    February 2, 2009 at 10:06

  12. Let me highjack to ask a question. The internet loves me, Elvis,Buddy,Joe, and Lubbock! Look at what I have done with the Internet in a couple of weeks. How would I do a search that showed all the web sites my article appears on???? I have been posting my very positive, pro-Lubbock history entitled Elvis Presley, Buddy Holly, Joe Ely, and the Cotton Club on web sites in Austria, Australia, Argentina, Brazil,China, England..several, Ireland, Germany, Mexico, Scotland, Sweden, New York, L.A., London, Austin, and many more. I knew as I wrote it that Truckin’ from New York, that is picked up by 30 or so sites would use it. I knew that my all-time favorite site to promote Lubbock musicians http://www.virtualubbock.com would use it. I am surprised that all these other sites are using it. It is now being stolen often, a very good sign.

    The new Internet thieves are the modern critics. Unlike critics of Kerns’ stripe, they are only in it for the money. However, these thieves also have good taste.

    It is that ol’ Buddy Holly magic! I am on big Elvis sites in three countries. The politically correct thing to say it “Elvis’ alleged death.”

    Now get this! I went out to Buddy Holly’s grave yesterday to see what the tourists left. There was a pinwheel blowing in the wind, a baloon, letters, drawings, several guitar picks, lots of plastic flowers, and one large arrangement of yellow roses! That is what Elvis Presley sent to Buddy Holly’s funeral in 1959. I
    wonder if Elvis might have been here or if his estate has them sent, or who sent them???

    Johnny Hughes

    Johnny Hughes

    February 5, 2009 at 11:42

  13. I will always remember BJ saying “don’t take any s— from anybody” and if he was still bothering to be at war with his critics (like during the time of GLASS HOUSES) he probably would say more. Somehow this thing smells more to me of folks demanding he come out and do stuff again, despite the criticism. But his Famous Last Words song really is just that. I rate him as more important than Costello, McCartney (and the Beatles), Springsteen, Nirvana and anything else down the pike since then. Even stuff like COLD SPRING HARBOR can be appreciated for it’s — dare I say it — honesty.


    March 13, 2009 at 22:14

  14. Rosenbaum is a dithering idiot. And you can even tell him I said so.

    Brett Singer

    April 26, 2009 at 20:00

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