Billy Joel’s most frequent moniker is ‘Piano Man’, but ‘The Stranger’ might be more appropriate. Just who is Billy Joel? Despite over 40 years in the business, 13 studio albums, and countless millions of records sold, he remains inscrutable, even by the standards of mega-rich celebrities who live their entire lives behind electric wired fencing or guarded by security details.
So The Stranger interests me as a tacit admission of the artist’s ultimate unknowability – that eerie, nonchalant whistle of the title track’s motif, which recurs at the end of the album, seems to be asking: “Who is the man behind these ridiculously catchy tunes? What is his ultimate purpose – is it benevolent or sinister?” Whistling is so often a mindless activity, a mysterious endeavour in which tunes long forgotten can suddenly burble up from one’s subconscious. It seems to comment on a person’s mood and the inner workings of their mind. But then again, maybe it doesn’t; maybe it’s just a random occurrence. And that same conundrum is raised by The Stranger. Just how personal is the album? Does it reveal anything about Billy Joel’s inner being? Or is it just a load of random words, casually attached to some awesomely catchy music?
This confusion partly arises from the fact that the album’s a series of narrative vignettes that seem, at first, to bear no autobiographical relation to the singer himself. But do they? “Movin’ Out (Anthony’s Song)” is explicitly from the perspective of Anthony, a man seemingly irritated by working-class people’s aspirations to accumulate wealth and buy Cadillac-ack-ack-acks – but does this upward-mobility annoy Billy Joel himself, a man who after all has reaped the many benefits of material wealth? “Scenes From an Italian Restaurant” collects together some short stories of ordinary people gathered in a restaurant – but does Billy Joel foresee that Brenda and Eddie’s rushed marriage and divorce, for instance, exposes the sentimental lie of “Just the Way You Are”, which was written for his first wife Elizabeth Small, whom he later divorced in 1982? Just who is that “crazy child” who needs to slow down in “Vienna” – could it be Billy Joel himself?
Because of all of this narrative distancing, and his slightly aloof singing style, Billy Joel remains very much ‘The Stranger’, even after listening to the album many times.
Which you will want to do, because the album’s a pop triumph. Despite numerous misgivings, it keeps on calling me back. I can’t stand the soppy synths on “Just the Way You Are”, but just about every other musical touch is moderated and supremely well-executed. His concision can be quite remarkable. It’s the very definition of MOR rock: easy to listen to and quietly accomplished, with Joel’s ever-accessible piano and acoustic flourishes, strings and lounge jazz sax solos, choruses that are softly sung, and a generally unthreatening demeanour.
This in 1977, the year of the punk explosion! Yet The Stranger works on its own terms, as soft rock, because the melodies keep on coming in ceaseless waves – and they stick with you. Punk music was vitally necessary, of course, but well-produced pop music predated it, and would actually outlast it, so let’s not sneer at Joel’s clean production techniques or his oh-so-sincere singing. We can enjoy his professionalism alongside the innovations of The Clash and The Sex Pistols. Modern music has always been a broad church, thankfully, and Joel deserves his place in the ’70s canon.
It does concern me, however, that the two catchiest songs here are also by far the most uncomfortably dated in subject matter. “Only the Good Die Young” bounces along cheerfully enough, and if you can shut your mind off to the lyrics then it’s easy to get caught up in all the bubbly effervescence. But there’s no escaping the fact that the song’s subject matter is about a creepy attempt to persuade a Catholic girl, who clearly doesn’t want to, that she should sleep with the narrator. “You Catholic girls start much too late” may be one of the cringeworthy come-ons in all of pop history, and although Joel later pointed out that the girl doesn’t actually put out by the end, that doesn’t rectify the fact that he clearly identifies with the overly pushy male voice in the scenario. If a girl doesn’t want to have sex, then leave her alone, Billy.
Straight on its heels comes “She’s Always a Woman”, easily the prettiest tune on the album, with incredibly satisfying piano runs and an acoustic guitar that really sounds like heart strings being plucked. It sounds impossibly cute, as a production, but then you start catching the misogynistic clichés being sung by Joel and realise it’s not cute at all: “she can ruin your faith with her casual lies”, “she steals like a thief”, “she’ll carelessly cut you and laugh while you’re bleeding”. This is a man who shows no real understanding of women, the sort of man who Cyndi Lauper’s “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” was later written to educate. Because of this, ‘she’s always a woman to me’ comes across as far from a cute line, in fact it sounds downright condescending. Come on, Billy, she’s not just a woman, she’s a person.
Yet I keep on coming back to The Stranger, despite these lyrical horrors. And that speaks of a contradiction that goes to the very heart of pop criticism. From the early days of American folk ballads, in which jealous husbands were often murdering their wives, through AC/DC and heavy metal to Dr. Dre and gangsta rap, appalling attitudes to women have plagued popular music. Criticising these sexist attitudes is important, whilst also acknowledging the influence and musical success of the same acts.
So I wouldn’t want to go and have a beer with Billy Joel – his views on women throughout his career, not just on The Stranger, have been confused at best and horribly misguided at worst (check out “Big Shot” on his next album 52nd Street, one of the nastiest misogynistic diatribes I’ve ever heard). But I still find myself wanting to spend time with his music, The Stranger in particular, because of its craftsmanship and high entertainment value. And that’s a contradiction that unnerves me, but that anyone who listens to and enjoys this album ultimately has to reconcile themselves with.