Billy Joel Don Shewey - Essay

Don Shewey

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Joel has always been an easy target for his arrogance, pretentiousness, hypocrisy, and on 52nd Street he's still showing them off. He talks tough to get the Warren Zevon fans ("Big Shot") and acts out his laughable misogyny ("Stiletto"), but he also wants to sweet-talk the teen-screamers ("Honesty"). And here he pretends to be this street-hip cat in with all the jazz players—"I've got a tab at Zanzibar," he boasts—but the all-important love interest intrudes—seems he's interested in the waitress…. No, you can't dig in too deeply. Whatever illusion there is of truth, beauty or significance, underneath it's only product.

But good, sometimes great product. There's nothing on 52nd Street as silly as "Angry Young Man" or boring as "Scenes from an Italian Restaurant" or hokey as "She's Always a Woman" (but never a gerbil to me?)…. [On] the whole, the friction from Joel's pretensions clashing with his accomplishments makes for more excitement than the smooth surfaces of the likes of Stephen Bishop. It also produces "Until the Night."… Like a cross between the Righteous Brothers' "You've Lost That Lovin' Feeling" and Springsteen's "Incident on 57th Street," it is a majestic confrontation between heart-rending passion and inevitable tragedy, 6:39 of thrilling emotional turbulence!

That something as powerfully moving as "Until the Night" can come from an artist as essentially shallow as Billy Joel doesn't conflict with the notion that such heavy-duty pop stars are mere imposters fashioning trinkets to sell. In fact, it explains why we keep buying.

Don Shewey, "Billy & Bish: Love or Money?" in Feature (copyright © 1979 Feature Publishing Co., Inc.; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), No. 92, January, 1979, p. 63.∗