Billy Joel on the “only other co-writer I was able to work with”

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One of the most enduring conversations in the music industry is the meaning of art. Does something always have to have a meaning? Can something be created without any real substance? These questions depend on how you define art. One songwriter who has grappled with the idea of meaningless art is Billy Joel.

Joel isn’t known for creating meaningless music. His career is built on producing songs with deep significance, whether it’s the political themes in “We Didn’t Start the Fire” or the controversial messages in “Only the Good Die Young.” Joel’s writing is also very personal, often preferring to work alone rather than with collaborators.

While it’s unclear why Joel rarely collaborates with other musicians, there was one notable exception. Joel faced a severe case of writer’s block and needed external help to overcome it. He was struggling with a song, knowing only the general theme but not the specifics of what he wanted to say.

The song, “Code of Silence,” was about the concept of silence, but Joel found it contradictory to write about silence while needing to talk about it. “I’m writing about silence and I have to talk,” Joel told Sirius XM in 2016. “There’s a conflict there already. A code of silence, I’m not supposed to talk about it, so why the hell am I?”

During this time, Cyndi Lauper was working on her album “True Colors” in the same studio where Joel was working on “The Bridge,” which included “Code of Silence.” Seeing Joel’s struggle, Lauper offered to help, leading to an unexpected and successful collaboration.

Joel, who usually works in isolation, was pleasantly surprised by Lauper’s contributions. He openly praised her in an interview with Howard Stern, calling her “the only other co-writer to be able to work with because she did all the work.” Despite also crediting Ludwig van Beethoven for a sampled piece, Lauper remains the only musician he felt comfortable collaborating with.

Joel typically works with others only if he is sure it will be beneficial and not harmful to his career. Perhaps the unexpected nature of his collaboration with Lauper was what made it successful. Sometimes, the best results come from the most surprising partnerships.

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