Electronic Thesis and Dissertation Repository


Doctor of Philosophy




Dr. James Grier


The failure of music critics to recognize Billy Joel’s tendency towards writing songs about issues greater than himself, issues such as the Vietnam War, the Cold War, struggling American industries and the effect of mass media on popular culture, particularly on two albums, The Nylon Curtain and Storm Front, has led to a pronounced lacuna in serious scholarship on Joel and his music. Relegated to adult contemporary radio stations due to the success of romantic pop ballads such as “Just the Way You Are,” “She’s Always a Woman” and “Uptown Girl,” and derided as a drunken egomaniac by many reviewers, Joel has thus far been largely ignored by the academic world. The greater part of Joel’s oeuvre supports these assumptions, as the majority of his creative output focuses on his life, both romantic and professional. Careful analysis of six songs, however, three from each of the aforementioned albums (“Pressure,” “Goodnight Saigon,” and “Allentown” from The Nylon Curtain and “We Didn’t Start the Fire,” “Leningrad,” and “The Downeaster ‘Alexa’” from Storm Front) reveal Joel, for perhaps the only times in his lengthy career, placing the priorities and needs of his audience before his own. The result is a pair of albums (and three pairs of songs) that stand out from the remainder of his output in terms of social relevance. In these six songs, Joel adopted new roles, roles that he had previously eschewed. In “Pressure” and “We Didn’t Start the Fire,” Joel becomes a sociologist, commenting on the societal effects of pop culture. “Goodnight Saigon” and “Leningrad” address the two great wars of Joel’s lifetime, the Vietnam War and the Cold War, while “Allentown” and “The Downeaster ‘Alexa’” provide narratives on the decline of the Pennsylvania steel industry and the North Atlantic fishery, respectively. Joel’s evolution as both a songwriter and a global citizen becomes apparent through close examination of these six songs and the albums on which they appear, and their respective videos, revealing Joel’s songwriting powers at their peak and his groundbreaking approach to the art of video-making.

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