Slate contributing editor Ron Rosenbaum asks rhetorically early on in his hissing hate note on Billy Joel about why he should spend a column excoriating the songwriter at length after the artist has been maligned by critics and snobs alike for decades already? Well yes, why another hate jerk off at the expense of the much and justifiably maligned Billy Joel? The author needed something to write about that would less use of brain power and more use of embedded knee jerk responses to Billy Joel's name. This wasn't an overview of a bad musician's career, it was an allergic reaction with a vocabulary. Rosenbaum couldn't help himself, Joel is that rash he was incapable of not scratching. Truth needs to be told, though. Billy is a bit better than naysayers would have you think. A bit better, not a whole lot better.
Billy Joel is a mixed blessing. Effective and versatile vocalist, a genuinely gifted writer of not so obvious pop melodies, a frequently maudlin, pretentious lyricist (although he redeems himself when his pop sensibilities rule over his desire to Be Meaningful), a technically proficient pianist, a smarmy hambone. One may not like him on principle--I don't care for him--but I have t admit he's done some work that merits a second and a third listen. He's a cross between Harry Chapin and Elton John, I guess, with a strong after taste of the worst brands of smugness that typifies pop music in general.
What sinks Joel is his lack of any ironic sense of himself and the material he writes to address foul matters brewing in the world; despite his working class roots, the idea of an unfathomably successful pop star sing a catchy-hummable, all so meaningful ballad to the laid off factory workers of "Allentown" informs us that his protest songs are not about the poor nor the destitute, but in making Billy Joel feel good about himself and looking good to the fan base at the same time.
Joel's sins of pretentiousness are numerable over a long career , something I noted with his first hit "Piano Man", a bloated imitation of Dylan's "Ballad of a Thin Man" , to the point where I stopped paying attention to him altogether with the name-checking orgasm that comprised the hit "We Didn't Start the Fire". The obviousness of his conclusions, the cartoon likenesses of his characters, the cliched contours of his examples, the barely concealed arrogance of his narrative air are the kind of thing that makes the smart people like you, I and Rosenbaum slap our foreheads and make us desire to grab either a gun or a cold beer. Unlike Rosenbaum, I am simply unwilling to get up the steam needed to pillory Billy Joel yet again. I will forgo the oratory and leave my summary judgement on BJ's body of work as this, a skilled journeyman with delusions of being something greater.