Billy Joel, the acclaimed singer-songwriter, is known for his iconic hits like ‘Piano Man’ and ‘We Didn’t Start the Fire.’ Despite his status as a songwriting hero, Joel has remained refreshingly self-aware about his own work. In a candid interview with The Los Angeles Times in March 2023, he admitted that there are songs he wishes he could erase from his discography, including ‘When in Rome’ from his album ‘Storm Front’ and ‘C’etait toi (You Were the One)’ from ‘Glass Houses.’ Joel went as far as estimating that at least a quarter of his body of work is worth forgetting.
Surprisingly, Joel’s self-criticism extends even to his chart-topping hit ‘We Didn’t Start the Fire,’ released in 1989. The song gained attention for its rapid-fire lyrics referencing major events from 1948 to the time of its release. Joel revealed that the inspiration for the song came from a conversation with a young friend of Sean Lennon’s. The friend remarked that being 21 was a terrible time, to which Joel replied by recounting his own experience at 21, highlighting the challenges of the era including Vietnam, drug problems, and civil rights issues. The conversation sparked the initial idea for ‘We Didn’t Start the Fire.’
Addressing the song’s focus on the Cold War, Billy Joel mentioned during a talk at Oxford University that it was coincidental that the Soviet Union dissolved soon after the song’s release. He saw a symmetry in the fact that the song covered the 40 years of his life. However, when asked about a potential follow-up covering the subsequent momentous years, Joel dismissed the idea, stating that he didn’t consider ‘We Didn’t Start the Fire’ to be melodically strong enough.
In a 1993 interview with documentary maker David Horn, Joel openly criticized the melody of ‘We Didn’t Start the Fire,’ describing it as “terrible” and even mimicking the melody on the piano with a comical dance. He admitted that the song started as a different idea, originally rooted in a country style. However, when taken alone, Joel found the melody lacking and compared it to a dentist’s drill.
Joel’s candid assessment of his own work showcases his self-awareness and willingness to scrutinize his creations. Despite the song’s success and cultural impact, he openly acknowledges its shortcomings in terms of melody. This self-critical approach highlights Joel’s commitment to his craft and his constant pursuit of musical excellence.
In the end, Joel’s ability to critically evaluate his own work demonstrates the complexity of the creative process. Even legendary artists like Billy Joel are not immune to self-doubt and are willing to acknowledge areas for improvement. This level of introspection adds depth to his legacy as a musician and allows fans to appreciate the honesty and vulnerability behind his art.