Billy Joel Critical Essays

Introduction

Billy Joel 1949–

(Born William Martin Joel) American songwriter.

Joel is best known for his songs about urban/suburban life. His first hit single, "Piano Man," is based on his experiences as a lounge singer in Los Angeles. The song is noted for its stirring characterizations of the "losers" who patronize such bars, searching to fulfill their unrealized dreams.

Joel's vision is often despairing, although an ironic sense of humor is sometimes evident in his lyrics. His socially acute vignettes are frequently laced with anger, especially when he urges his listeners to grow up and face the strangers within themselves and loved ones or to come together and support each other. Joel gained mass popularity with his 1977 album The Stranger. The songs deal mostly with leaving home, and critics praised Joel's honest commentary on everyday life. The tone of Joel's work sometimes seems hypocritical, but even his detractors agree that he is able to depict people as he sees them without condescension.

On The Nylon Curtain Joel went farther afield than the streets of suburbia for his subject matter. "Goodnight Saigon," about the Vietnam war, and "Allentown," about the demise of the once-prosperous Pennsylvania steel town, are considered the outstanding cuts on the album. Joel's songs about the working class succeed because he presents his stories without sentimentality or melodrama.

(See also Contemporary Authors, Vol. 108.)