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Billy Joel and boomer critical hysteria

January 27, 2009 |  2:17 pm

The worst singer ever?

The race for 2009's prize for Weirdest Piece of Music Writing already has a clear front-runner, courtesy of the ordinarily reasonable Ron Rosenbaum's attempt at a scorched Earth takedown of Billy Joel in Slate. In this 95 Theses of derision on the pride of Long Island, Rosenbaum breaks the tape at just under 2,000 words in parsing the fine hairs of why, exactly, Joel is the worst artist in pop music. OK, fair enough; he obviously hasn't heard Brokencyde yet, but that's a supportable barroom argument. Yet rarely has such a lengthy piece of criticism warranted such a tidal, nay, tectonic shrug of confusion as to why the essay needed to exist at all.

This Pop & Hiss lackey is no stranger to the business end of accusations of, say, concocting the worst piece of music scribing in 2008, and we love us some evergreen beard-stroker essays and attempted critical assassinations around these parts. Rosenbaum's written much better sonnings in the past, but this attempt to somehow time-peg the perennial terribleness of Joel to the death of suburban foyer favorite Andrew Wyeth is a feat of unlikely rhetorical acrobatics worthy of Thomas Friedman.

Joel doesn't have a new album, his tour with Elton John doesn't start until March, and he hasn't otherwise been in the news lately. So the rationale for this essay has a faint, manic whiff of boomer self-loathing to it, a kind of reverse "you-kids-get-off-my-lawn" sentiment. Timely or not, this cow isn't even sacred. If Rosenbaum really wanted to take down an icon of Dad Rock, we hear Bruce has a new album and a little club show planned in the near future. Rosenbaum feels such a deep and abiding need to prove he's so totally not a washed-up old Joel fan that, in researching this piece, he buys an album of Gram Parsons covers just so the Barnes & Noble clerk doesn't laugh at him for simultaneously buying a Billy Joel album. Feared Solomonic paragons of the avant-garde, those B&N clerks are. The only thing more obvious than boomers slavishly lauding boomer rock is taking pains to prove they loathe it. (That said, we'll surely be doing the same to Animal Collective in 30 years while trying to hop onboard the inevitable Soulja Grandson bandwagon).

Rosenbaum's line of reasoning as to why Joel is the worst artist in pop has such a weird self-conscious jujitsu to it that he tries to invent whole songwriting motivations for Joel out of thin air, just so he can disagree with them. Rosenbaum's portrait of Joel as an artist incessantly mocking his subject matter, coupled with a healthy smattering of misogyny and blowhard arrangements, sure seems about the most unappetizing combination in music. But is the "unearned contempt" that Joel supposedly has for his subjects really the key to his badness? There are no nice-guy credits one cashes in for the right to write "Blood on the Tracks," you just, you know, do it. So, is it just a question of not doing it well enough, as Dylan or Lou Reed did? Is tasteful contempt a more earned contempt? Is anyone still shocked that Joel wrote lyrics with hackneyed, obvious sentiments? What does this all have to do with cadaverous media critic Jeff Jarvis, of all people? There are plenty of reasons to hate Billy Joel that make semantic sense, but this isn't it. The essay feels like it's far more about Rosenbaum's needs for his own taste and critical vantage point than about any particular crime of Joel's -- numerous and well-documented as they may be.

See, then, the whole meta segment at the end where he tries (about six years too late) to preemptively rebut some odd strain of anti-rock criticism. After supplying a straw man rebuttal to his essay ("Aren't you just being elitist?"), he then breaks his arm patting himself on the back for so neatly delineating why, to paraphrase that standby snake-pit of snark, that Joel is bad, but not for the reasons you thought. It turns out, while we think we dislike Billy Joel for wearing bad clothes, we actually dislike him for being mean, in song. Next up: why Jimmy Buffett's appropriation of pirate imagery displays unearned contempt of actual pirates. Any re-assessment that knocks the AOR era down a peg is a worthwhile endeavor, but Rosenbaum's need to find a yet-unexplored ethic to Joel's awfulness says more about generational anxiety than any needed re-evaluation of "Piano Man."

Is this the future of post-Rolling Stone criticism of Boomer Rock, where writers start eating their young (or not so young) in a kind of desperate riposte to past crimes of idolatry? Whether or not Joel is actually the worst artist in pop (and we're not even really disagreeing there!), this is still an interesting Rorschach Test of a particular generational hysteria over what constitutes proper taste, and the flip side of the same mentality that still cranks out five-star reviews of bootleg Dylan answering-machine tapes in current magazines.

-- August Brown 

Photo of Billy Joel by Paul Kane/Getty Images

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