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Billy Joel- Recognizing the Dying Art of Songwriting

Updated on October 20, 2012

What Is Music Anyway?

Victor Hugo is accredited with saying, "Music expresses that which cannot be said, and on which it is impossible to be silent." My personal opinion is that music has, in a large way become something different than that, and unofortunately so. I honestly believe that music at its origin was precisely what Victor Hugo defined it as- a vehicle of self-exression. However, we see that it has evolved tremendously into something new, and I think money is the reason why. It doesn't matter anymore if the music you sing means something to you, personally, or even if you write it at all, if you can make money with your voice.

All About the $$$

This is a tragedy, in my opinion because as soon as money becomes a primary motivation factor, the genuineness of the singer will often turn south. Why write or sing about something with meaning to you as person when you can make more money whilst writing or singing to please the masses? But it doesn't stop there- the population does not seem to appreciate quality songwriting as much as it did in years past. You can tell this by noting the emphasis of concerts and shows. I've seen and heard crowds go wild time and time again over songs with poor, one-dimensional lyrics and unoriginal melodies and rhythm structures (often mirrored in the band or singer's other songs).

Why? Why does nobody care about the quality of the song? Because the emphasis is no longer on meaning. People are too lazy to think about the words of a song and consider what the song is communicating, you see, they simply want to be entertained. This leaves the emphasis on the show. People want a show, a display of fanfare- they want to be entertained by a display, not share an experience or emotion through a quality song. Apparently, it's too much work to identify with a songwriter and his or her words and the emotion expressed in their music. Listeners have become increasingly selfish and shallow, so the artists and mucisians have simply accomodated over time to give the masses what they want.

A Legend- and Rightly So...

With this in mind, I appreciate songwriters like Billy Joel more and more. Joel has dazzled crowds, audiences and fans for many years, not with showmanship, fanfare, or parade, but with songs. That's right, songs. He connects with his listeners by creatively expressing real human emotion from real human experiences. You can say some of his performances might've been spirited and upbeat, and I'd agree with you. However, the drive of his music is, indeed the music itself. He did not rely upon performance to compensate for a lack of creative songwriting- he didn't need to. He could captivate just about anyone with simply his voice and a piano. If you compare the vast majority of current artists and songwriters to him in this manner, very few can compete. No auto-tuning, just your voice, your talent, and your creativeness. Now I'm not bashing auto-tuning or recording music. But I do find it interesting that a musical "artist" can nowadays pretty much "buy" a fan base if they have enough money to market themselves and get seen, and then be under no pressure whatsoever to produce high-quality music since the public is only interested in being entertained by means of a flashy performance that has little to do with the music itself.

How Did He Do It???

Like any true songwriter, Billy Joel's songs are about things and people in his life, things he thought about or experienced. You can get a glimpse into his life by simply listening to his songs. In "Piano Man", he portrays the disappointment that every person is sure to experience in one form or another. In my opinion, his love songs are some of the best ever written. One of my all time favorites is "Always a Women to Me". I've heard some say that Joel is complaining about a woman in his life, or even all women in this song. However, if you listen to the words, he's not bitter or angry, he's in love- it's a love song:

"But she'll bring out the best and the worst you can be

Blame it all on yourself 'cause she's always a woman to me"

Her characteristics are not portrayed necessarily as faults, even the ones that may sound evil- Joel is pondering her in his mind and is more amazed and enamoured with this woman than he is critical of her. He seems to come to the realization that he is satisfied with her as she is, despite the appearance of her actions to others:

"And the most she will do is throw shadows at you

But she's always a woman to me"

This is a prime example of excellent songwriting because so much meaning can be derived from what might be deemed as "simple" words at first. There are so many little things that one can relate to and identify with, if you simply take the time to listen to the song and think about the words. Why does the singer love her? What is it about her that infatuates him? It takes a skilled and creative writer to convey such questionable-sounding traits without portraying the person in a dark light- to communicate complete and utter unconditional acceptance. You see that as a consistent theme throughout the song- Joel mentions the woman's action that would seem to qualify her as a horrible character, but then concludes to view her as merely a woman, and accepts her behaviour since he is in love with her. To me, the writer of this song is quite biased toward his love. But who can't identify with that?

As you can see, I am a little biased. I do not mind contemplating over the meaning of the words of a song, and I do find it a tragedy that so many people care little or nothing about the actual content of a song. I think a very valuable aspect of songwriting is slowly being lost to make way for a momentary performance that is all about flash and crowd-pleasing. I hope that the day never comes when music is fully transformed into a vehicle that simply procures wealth and fame. I hope it retains at least some of its original purpose- to express what words alone cannot and on which it is impossible to remain silent.

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