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The Piano Man and Nostalgia: On Listening to the Words We Sing

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Growing up on Long Island in the 1970s, my rock and roll musical awareness was limited to the Beatles and Billy Joel. My parents listened to some classical music, and the Carpenters seemed to own the 8-track tape player in the station wagon (the one with the rearward facing back seats). But until my adolescent alienation of the mid-1980s and my discovery of the New Wave (including The Smiths, The Cure, and early U2), all I knew were the Beatles and our sort of local, Long Island hero, Billy Joel.

Finally, after about three and a half decades of listening to his music, I saw and heard Billy Joel perform live recently at Fenway Park. Even though it was a stadium show, the sound proved stunningly sharp. His voice was strong and the lyrics quite clear.

The audience, however, puzzled me.

What really struck me was the audience members singing along the words to Piano Man, one of Joel's iconic songs. Now, I admit, generally I am no big fan of audiences joining in to sing. I attend concerts to hear the singer or group perform the songs, not my fellow attendees. I recognize that audience participation can enliven a show, but still, the singing along is not my ideal.

Part of the problem is that people join in on the songs they know and remember well, I imagine as a kind of nostalgia--regardless of the nature of the song. People smile and sing and dance, seemingly oblivious to the actual lyrics.

So back to the Piano Man. People sang happily, presumably out of nostalgia, but were they listening to the very words to which they gave voice? Piano Man is actually a profoundly sad song. It is about loneliness, alienation, dead-end jobs and dead-end lives, about being stuck, unable to escape an unfulfilling, provincial life:

They're sharing a drink they call loneliness
But it's better than drinking alone....

It's a pretty good crowd for a Saturday
And the manager gives me a smile
'Cause he knows that it's me they've been coming to see
To forget about life for a while.

There is no joy or redemption at the end; there is music and alcohol to provide a temporary eclipse of the pains of life and living.

Indeed, if one listens carefully, many of Joel's songs echo such sentiments. Movin' Out (Anthony's Song) runs through a number of characters in similarly desolate situations, with the narrator seeking to escape. Allentown laments the closing of factories and the passing of better times. Joel sings, "I won't be getting up today." His closing song of the encore and concert, Only the Good Die Young, remains a rather cynical song (whether or not it reflects Joel's actual views).

Now, please do not take my observations as a critique of the Billy Joel songbook. To the contrary, he is brilliant at capturing these tones and moods of sadness and alienation, failure and loss. These are powerful feelings and experiences in our lives. Especially when linked to the frequent alienation and melancholia of adolescence, they touch and no doubt imprint our hearts. After the Fenway concert, I appreciate Billy Joel no less. If anything, more so. In a world where so much pop music is about boys and girls and relationship problems and break-ups, Joel's music and lyrics tell stories, draw characters, and evoke deep feelings.

I remain puzzled, though, how fandom and nostalgia can blunt the power of the music and words, replacing them with a fleeting happiness. Perhaps I misunderstand the situation, but would we not better honor the musicians by paying greater attention to the words they sing?