Monday, July 8, 2013

Piano Man by Billy Joel

All iconic artists have a signature song.  Elton John has “Your Song,” Springsteen has “Born To Run,” and Billy Joel has “Piano Man.”

One of the things that many American, and some artists whoa re not American have done with a their music is to define the American experience. Billy Joel does this in a similar way that Springsteen does with working-class characters and deep nostalgia from times that came before while also acknowledging the flaws of the past, like Joel sings in “Keeping The Faith,” “the good old days weren’t always good and tomorrow ain’t as bad as it seems.”



Joel’s music has always had a harsher edge and a more cynical almost punk rock aesthetic. “It’s Still Rock And Roll To Me,” sounds bitter and “She’s Always A Woman,” has a strange almost sarcastic feeling to it (which I wrote about in this earlier post).

It shouldn’t come as a surprise that Joel’s signature song has a similar feel. “Piano Man,” is a song about dreams unfulfilled. It’s about people dealing with regret and trying to escape their the reality of their lives. When described this way, “Piano Man,” seems like a bleak and joyless song, but when you listen to it, you realize that it is something very different.

I’ve never been to a bar that had a piano man like Joel playing at it, but he paints such a vivid picture of the bar that you feel like you are part of that world. There’s depth in all of the descriptions of his characters that help you imagine deeper stories like in a good fantasy story.

The whole song swirls and rallies around the song itself. The chorus is the chorus of the people in the song and as we sing along to this song we become one more person sitting in that bar, with all of our own worries and fears, simply wanting to be lost in a song.

In many ways this is what Joel has done his entire career.  When I watched him perform in Wrigley Field last summer, I could feel how much he wanted his music to be a participatory event and how much that he wanted to take the audience away.

Joel is much more of a realist and his bitterness and anger reflects the “angry young man” in all of us in ways that pop music from previous generations did not. He worked through the pessimism of the 1970s and the cynicism of the 1980s with a song in his heart.

We demand the piano man to sing for us, because we need him to forget about life a while. He put into song the desire we all have for escape and provides that escape at the same time. “Piano Man” is the definition of great pop song. It’s specific enough to relate to our own lives but ambiguous enough to appeal to mass audiences. It melds styles of music together in subtle and unexpected ways and as good as it feels to listen to, it reaches a higher level of meaning when you let go and sing along.

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