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“We Didn’t Start the Fire” was among the hottest songs of 1989. It reached the top of the Billboard Hot 100 and was nominated for a Grammy. The song still gets regular play on 80s stations where styling gel, swatches, and hammer pants cling to life. And of course, history teachers love it. Billy Joel’s rapid-fire list of the major historical events of his life provides a lesson plan with a melody, a historical scavenger hunt for the post-war era.
Of course, not everybody likes the song, though. Blender ranked it 41st on its list of the “Worst Songs Ever” (right in between “I Want to Sex You Up” and “The Sounds of Silence”) and said that it resembled “a term paper scribbled the night before it’s due.” Rolling Stone also said the song missed the mark. Rather than really exploring his past, Joel simply read off “a shopping list of celebrities, events, and popular culture icons without the benefit of context or conclusion” (Rolling Stone, 14 December 1989). Even Joel says he’s not all that proud of the piece. He has referred to it as a “novelty song” and suggested that it doesn’t "really define me as well as album songs that probably don't get played.”
The criticism seems fair. In 1989, anyone with an almanac could have come up with the lyrics. Today, a simple Google search would flesh out a verse for 2010:
Oil spill in the gulf, health care, Time Square scare
Blagojevich, Big Ben, Conan’s gone then back again
Wikileaks, iPads, Lindsay’s back in rehab
Bristol’s dancing with the stars, Tiger’s bustin’ up his car
Beyond placing his headlines in chronological order, Joel did squat to provide context or commentary. It’s not as though he doesn’t know how. Another track from the same album, “Leningrad,” illustrates the more satisfying possibilities when Joel digs beneath the headlines. Inspired by a clown he met while touring Russia, this song compares their Cold War lives, recalls the cataclysmic relief when the Cuban Missile crisis ended—“when the Soviets turned their ships around”—and laments the sad fact that this did not bring lasting peace—“And I watched my friends go off to war, what do they keep on fighting for.”
But for some reason, Joel didn’t offer this sort of commentary in “We Didn’t Start the fire.” In fact, rather than comment, he passed the buck. Don’t blame his generation for all the crud in the world, he seems to say—“we didn't start the fire.” If anything, his generation tried to clean up some of the mess it inherited—“we didn't light it, but we tried to fight it.”
In other words, Joel’s argument is pretty typical of the notoriously thin-skinned musician. More than once he’s lashed out at a music critic on stage; one journalist said he was “always pissed off at someone” (Rolling Stone, 7 August 2008). In fact, Joel’s own account of the song’s origins suggests he can indeed get as bristly about his generation as he does his music. Having just turned 40, he was irritated by a younger person’s remarks. “This guy was saying ‘It just seems like the world is a real big mess and it’s never going to get resolved,’” Joel said. To the rest of us, this might seem an innocuous comment, but Joel read it as a rip on people his age, and “We Didn’t Start the Fire” was his response. “It’s not meant to sound preachy,” he noted. “What I’m trying to get across is that we didn’t start this stuff, we inherited it” (Rolling Stone, 16 November 1989).
While Joel’s comment doesn’t exactly ooze responsibility, it’s a valid point. Most of the problems that make up Joel’s laundry list were legacies of earlier events. The multiple Cold War references can be tied to policy decisions made by the American and Russian leaders going back to the 1920s. All of the names and phrases linked to the Middle East can be tied to an even older history. The lines tied to American Civil Rights conflicts are part of a historical chain America has been dragging since the 17th century.
Joel is also willing to acknowledge the positives within the legacy he and his fellow Baby Boomers inherited. Even though his chorus emphasizes history’s “fire,” not all the names and events making his list are hellish. “Davy Crockett, Peter Pan, Elvis Presley, Disneyland”—how empty would life be without coonskin caps and the Thunder Mountain Railroad?
Which raises the real issue about Joel’s list: it’s pretty selective. It may provide some important historical names and events, but it doesn’t come close to summarizing history between 1949 and 1989. Joltin’ Joe is here, but say hey, where’s Willie? He’s got Sugar Ray, Marciano, Liston, and Patterson—but how could he leave off Clay/Ali? Little Rock makes the cut, but Montgomery doesn’t; Ole Miss is referenced, but not Kent State. Buddy, Elvis, and Chubby are all acknowledged, but great balls of fire, where’s Jerry Lee? He mentions Sputnik but not Laika, Psycho but not The Birds, Woodstock but not Altamont, Wheel of Fortune but not America’s favorite quiz show, created by Merv Griffin in 1964 (“What is Jeopardy?”).
Obviously, Joel couldn’t mention everything. And let’s cut him some slack; he’s a songwriter and musician, not a historian. But is he really any different than the “real” historians that record the past? Are they any less selective and incomplete than high school dropout Joel?
It’s easy to identify the enormous errors historians fed their students in the past. For decades, students were taught that slavery was a positive good, that it rescued Africans from their barbaric homeland and provided the “docile, child-like race” with a caring home and the soul-saving teachings of Christianity. For decades, students were taught that the West was gloriously won, that its all-but-empty plains were rescued from “savagery” by noble, civilization-bearing pioneers.
It’s easy to identify the big mistakes, deliberate falsehoods, and story-changing omissions made by historians in the past. The tough part is identifying what’s missing or wrong in the stories we learn today. If history is any guide, fifty years from now people will look back at our textbooks and say, “Can you believe what these kids were taught?” ::insert Shmoop’s secret political ideologies here:: ::insert maniacal laugh here::
It’s a sobering thought (and one that creative students might recognize as a license to blow off their homework), but the real point is not that there’s no point in studying the past—it’s just that we need to approach the subject with a healthy dose of skepticism. Whenever we try to piece together any story that we haven’t lived, there’s room for error (Billy Joel did live through that stuff, and he still missed some major events). Every child who has played telephone knows that, when stories pass through other people, distortion and mistakes happen. The best students of history know that they are never getting the full story; something is probably missing, and there’s a possibility that the whole thing is wrong. The best we can probably ever do is sort of mosey around the general vicinity of “the truth” in the hopes that we get close enough to take the right lesson moving forward. Billy Joel may not be the best historian, but he gets this.
Joel said that the ultimate purpose of the song was to neither provide a complete account nor pass blame; what he really wanted to do was help young people realize that there are lessons in the past that might help us work through the present. That may be why he somewhat curiously included George Santayana in the song. The Harvard professor stated, "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." Joel phrased it a bit less poetically; “No matter how much you try,” he said, “the world is going to be a mess. All you can do is the best you can and maybe make the world immediately around you a better place.” Huh, and here we were living life as if only the good died young.