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Ron Rosenbaum on why Billy Joel blows

Ron Rosenbaum really, really hates Billy Joel. The acclaimed essayist/author, a frequent contributor to The New Yorker and The Observer, among others, spends an entire Slate column railing against the egregiousness of Joel's work. While Rosenbaum's attack is aesthetic in nature, he has a personal stake in the subject too; he states that as a native Long Islander he has long resented the fact that Billy Joel is his home's musical ambassador to the universe, so he finally went so far as purchasing a Billy Joel box set for the purposes of analyzing its perceived awfulness in detail.


Be warned, if you harbor the slightest soft spot for the ol' Piano Man, Rosenbaum's assault will get your goat. A few sample descriptions, just for flavor: "...a plague upon the airwaves more contagious than West Nile virus...," "...loathsomely insipid simulacrum of rock...," "...contemptible crap..." did we mention that he really, really hates Joel? We'll let you dig into the details of Rosenbaum's assessment by reading the extremely entertaining piece yourself, as you either nod in agreement or gnash your teeth in outrage, depending on your relative level of Joel-friendliness.

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Billy Joel

I'm no Billy Joel fan, but I think he missed the point. He keeps quoting Joel's lyrics. Joel's lyrics are the least of his problems. Joel's problem is that he's attempted to marry his highbrown classical piano trainging with rock music and come up with muddled ideas in the process. Others have done this successfully -- like Joe Jackson and Neil Sedaka -- but Joel's music sounds like "fake rock," or "recording studio rock." It sounds like the Old Folks combo at your mom and dad's wedding anniversary party trying to "rock out."

/site_media/uploads/images/users/tsclafan/moi image.jpg tonys

What a load of rubbish. Billy Joel's success and popularity speaks for itself. He continues to sell albums and sell out stadiums and arenas around the world. It's one thing to not like the man or his music, but to say this is because it's contemptible crap is just wrong. Obviously the author is entitled to his opinion, but that's all it is - and a minority one at that.


Wow, you got it all wrong Tony. Joel's music composition is actually his strong point. And I'm astonished to see you write that Joel hasn't successfully fused the keyboard with rock. If you could site some actual examples of his muddled ideas, I might be able to take your critique a little more seriously.

You obviously don't know much about Billy Joel when you refer to his "highbrow classical piano traning." Sure he took lessons back in day when he was a kid, but what rock pianist didn't? The truth is he would make up music to fool his mother when she checked to see if he had been practicing. Moreover, he would take a classical piece, say Beethoven, and jazz it up. Boy if I could only take you to school for a day, you'd be astonished to see how many other artist have borrowed classical ideas. Try listening to more of his catalogue before making an analysis. At this point, I'm thinking that you're someone who has only listened to Piano Man, the only Billy Joel song that most people know.


I think there's a lot more than Ron Rosenbaum mere dislike of Billy Joel's music. Besides, there are MANY singers and bands out there that are a lot worse than BJ, what about those Ron? Guess its a free Country for ones opinion, however, like the other guest stated, BJ's laughing all the way to the bank.

John Shiles

Bryan: I would not have criticized Billy Joel if I didn't know his music well. I like his music, but find it flawed. I'll give a few examples.

Let's take "Scenes from an Italian Restaurant," one of my favorites. The "Brenda and Eddie" story is moving, but the musical surroundings, I feel, detract from the song -- the overly long intro, the bloated structure and the "whoa whoa" chorus tag that's stolen from the Beatles' "Sexy Sadie."

"She's Always a Woman" would be a better song if the arrangement were stripped down; instead Joel's classically-inspired flourishes steer it into Muzak territory.

Many of his rockers, from "Big Shot" to "A Matter of Trust" to "It's Still Rock and Roll to Me" simply don't rock -- and I'm not sure if that's because Joel's roots are in classical or because Phil Ramone's production is too clean.

When Joel is at his most inspired, he's often channeling other artists: Bob Dylan in "We Didn't Start the Fire," Paul McCartney in "Don't Ask Me Why" and the Four Seasons in "Uptown Girl" (I know that was a deliberate tribute, but it proves he was a great mimic at least).

Often, his overly theatrical singing undercuts (or unintentionally satirizes) the meaning of a lyric - like on the chorus of "Captain Jack."

It's not really fair or mature to have thrown out an accusation claiming I didn't know the guy's music. I'll give you this: when he's not doing singles (which often seem too self-conscious) he can toss of some heartfelt LP tracks. Some of my favorites in this respect are "All for Leyna," "Half a Mile Away" and "Zanzibar."

/site_media/uploads/images/users/tsclafan/moi image.jpg tonys

Ron Who? The man is clearly a ass.


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

The entire premise is flawed. You cannot separate lyrics from a song and dissect them without analyzing the musical context they were composed in. Take a painting, for example. Now remove the color, the shading and the brush technique of the artist. All you will see is an outline of the subject. Now critique that. See what I mean? Joel's music is essential to his songs, and Rosenbaum doesn't touch his music with a ten-foot pole. Why? Probably because he is musically illiterate. His self-righteous thesis has no merit whatsoever.

Dennis M

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