This song was cut from the ubiquitous video version of CATS, leaving it slightly more obscure among the younger generation of fans whose exposure to the show was largely limited to that video. The most obvious reason for this is that this number is presented as a flashback to Gus the Theater Cat’s glory years, and it is traditional for the actor playing Gus to play this role as well. In the video, they had famed British actor John Mills playing Gus for the sake of the obvious real-world parallels, and obviously Mills could never have pulled off such an athletic and vocally demanding part as Growltiger at his age. Other factors might have been that it is the only number in the show that requires an extra set beyond the junkyard background that serves in the rest of the show, or that it comes across as rather politically incorrect to a modern audience. The Siamese Cats are portrayed fairly respectfully from a character perspective, given that they are essentially the heroes of the story, but there is a lot of stereotypical language used in connection to them…at one point the word ‘chink’ is even uttered, although truthfully it wouldn’t be all that hard to neutralize this problem with some slight rewrites (if “It Depends on What You Pay” from The Fantasticks can be salvaged, surely this song can too). In any case, its deletion from the video is a real shame, because it really is one of the highlights of the show’s already marvelous score. The poem it is based on goes through several extreme changes in mood while sticking to one very simple meter throughout, making it inherently difficult to turn into a song, but Webber was up to the challenge. He managed to create a dark, stormy sea chanty, an exquisite lyrical ballad, an eerie Eastern-inflected theme for the Siamese, a Puccini-esque opera spoof, and a glowering march for the finale out of the same simple repeating melody. This was, of course, something that Webber had to do throughout CATS, since the T.S. Eliot children’s poems he was working with generally featured simple, repetitive meters, but nowhere is it more impressive than in this elaborate narrative set piece. In the original London production, the song also included an interpolated setting of an unpublished Eliot poem, “The Ballad of Billy McCaw”, and while this song has disappeared from future productions (it was replaced with the aforementioned opera parody), it is as exquisite as the rest of the sequence, and deserves to be better known among the show’s fans. This sequence as a whole constitutes one of Webber’s greatest achievements, and an impressive testament to his skill both as a melodist and a musical dramatist, and despite its relative obscurity, it stands as one of the show’s most magnificent moments.
Archives for March 2016
This song is as much a pervasive meme as a popular hit, and has received so many parodies and homages that doing so has become a cliche in itself, but unlike most songs that fit that description, it has actual substance, which is why its memetic status has lasted twenty-plus years while most memes almost by definition disappear after a few months. This is one of Billy Joel’s most sophisticated constructions…indeed, there is a song from the legendary off-Broadway cabaret piece Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris called “Marathon” that is all but identical to this piece save for the particular decades it covers…and frankly, “We Didn’t Start the Fire” is a more satisfying song than “Marathon”. A surprising number of people have missed the point of this song…I’ve actually heard people complain about its device of placing pop culture trivia next to historically crucial events. But what these people miss is that this is exactly how history feels while you’re actually living it, with things that will be remembered forever side by side with transient pop culture and both receiving about the same amount of exposure and saturation, and the song does an uncanny job of capturing in song how the rush of human history actually feels in the moment. While Billy Joel has always been proud of the lyric, he himself underrates the achievement of the song’s melody, which, while not the prettiest thing Joel ever wrote, has the sheer driving force to capture the relentless forward plunging of human history and the helplessness we often feel in being caught up with it. Interestingly, the song’s chorus serves simply as a respite to allow the listener to periodically catch their breath (because being too accurate in capturing the desperate headlong plunge of human existence, which offers no such chances, would have made for an impressive but not very enjoyable song), while the music of real importance is heard on the song’s rushing verses. So you see, what seems at first glance like little more than an unusually well-crafted novelty song is actually much deeper and more complex than it appears on the surface, and it stands as one of the greatest testaments to what Billy Joel is really capable of as an artist.
Verdict: Better than even its admirers generally give it credit for.
Of all the Jazz-Pop vocalists labelled ‘Lounge Singers’, Wayne Newton is the only one where I can actually understand why people find him so irritating. Indeed, Newton seems to embody all the negative stereotypes about ‘lounge music’ that seem so ingrained in people’s consciousness, but that actually apply to so few of the singers generally grouped under that label. And I’m sorry, but Wayne Newton’s falsetto is one of the most annoying voices in all of popular music…it’s like the jazz equivalent of Peter Cetera’s voice, only somehow even more irritating. This song in particular brings out Newton’s unpleasant qualities, with a sappily sentimental lyric set to a tune that clearly doesn’t believe a word of it. The modern song it most reminds me of is Thomas Rhett’s “Crash and Burn”, in that the bland and callow melody just makes the sentiments of the lyrics seem blatantly insincere. So, you know all the stuff I wrote about ‘Lounge Music’ on my editorial on the subject…well, Wayne Newton is the exception to all that, and probably has a lot to do with how the negative associations I discussed there got started to begin with.
Billy Joel is widely despised by Rock snobs, even the ones who are willing to give a pass to his most immediate peers like Elton John. This is, if nothing else, consistent with their other stupid biases, since one of the unmistakable marks of a Rock snob is a blind hatred for anything that suggests Broadway musical theater, and Joel’s gift for melody and his exceptional talent for writing character songs make him sound far more reminiscent of a Broadway composer than conventional Rock, even the Soft Rock acts he is generally grouped alongside. This song in particular seems to draw the vitriol of the Rock snobs, especially given that it is based on Joel’s time as a literal Lounge singer, and ‘Lounge Music’ (which is, after all, closely linked to Broadway) is another extremely popular target of the Rock snob set. The song itself, of course, is one of Joel’s greatest masterpieces (there’s a reason it became his signature calling-card as a singer), with an immortal and explosively moving melody and an ultra-characterful lyric that finds in the small details of the lives of the patrons at a piano bar a kind of microcosm of the human condition. I have a sneaking suspicion that the real reason they hate this song so much is that, due to its clearly spectacular quality and direct links to both Broadway and ‘Lounge Music’, it sets off the insecurities that lead them to denigrate these genres in the first place to a particularly high degree. After all, if Rock snobs had to acknowledge the validity of the theater and Great American Songbook music that proceeded them, they’d essentially have to acknowledge that those genres’ longer legacy and far greater sophistication give them a certain seniority…perhaps even an overall superiority…compared to the relatively young and simplistic genre of Rock, and lord knows that admitting that the pre-Rock generations actually knew something goes against everything Rock snobs have trained themselves to believe. Granted, any given Frank Sinatra song would prove the same point at least as well if not better, but because “Piano Man” is technically Rock, the Rock snobs actually have to listen to it on their own Rock stations and be reminded that everything they believe about music is essentially manifest nonsense. Given this, their professed contempt for Billy Joel in general and this song in particular seems ultimately more like a desperate defense mechanism to avoid facing up to the inherent absurdity of there being such a thing as a ‘Rock snob’ in the first place.
Verdict: An indisputable masterpiece, and if you think otherwise you might want to question your musical worldview.
People who hate Billy Joel love to point to this single as evidence of his supposed worthlessness…a pathetically wimpy, intensely annoying Soft Rock ditty that sounds like a commercial jingle, and it has the audacity to be a dissertation on the entire genre of Rock. But as a longtime defender of Billy Joel’s reputation, I myself have an entirely different reason to resent this song’s existence (I mean, apart from the fairly obvious fact that it’s not very good). You see, the album this track comes from, Glass Houses, was Billy Joel’s attempt to prove that he was more than an Easy Listening balladeer and that he really could rock. Granted, like the Eagles, even Billy Joel’s attempts at Hard Rock always had a bit of a Soft Rock quality to them, but on most of that album, he rocks harder than he ever did anywhere else, creating the most intense Rock album of his career. Even the one other clinker on the album, “C’etait Toi (You Were the One)”, where Joel attempts to sing in very bad French, can honestly be said to rock. And after Joel releases this album that should have proven to the world his worth as a legitimate rocker, what becomes the breakaway hit from the album? The wimpy little pseudo-rock tune with the presumptuous-sounding lyric. The result is that all the good work that album should have done for Joel’s reputation was undone by this song, as generally only his fans have ever heard anything else from this album. So whether you’re one of Joel’s detractors or one of his fans, there’s plenty of reasons to hate this song to go around, and given its actual quality, I’m not sure it needed the help in the first place.
I get what Beyonce was going for here…the I Am…Sasha Fierce album was all about experimentation, and experiments, by definition, have the potential to fail. In fact, part of me respects her for trying such a daring sonic experiment as this one on such a high-profile Pop album. That’s not to say that this is a good or even redeemable song, though. For one thing, even if everything else about the song had worked, it would have failed on the music alone. With one of Bangladesh’s standard vertigo-inducing beats and one of his trademark fragmentary, insanely repetitive choruses, Beyonce couldn’t have salvaged this song even if she had been in top form, which she kind of emphatically wasn’t. I’ve wondered why her more recent attempts at rapping were so much more successful than this, and I’ve concluded that the pose she was striking on them (that of an utterly confident star at the top of her game, powerfully sexual but in complete control) is exactly what she actually is, so she came across as natural and convincing. But what Beyonce definitely isn’t is ‘The female version of da hustla’, and so her attempts to portray herself as a credible gender-flipped thug are just risible, even without the awful music.
Verdict: You have to acknowledge the courage it took to try this, but bad.
I think the accusations Beyonce gets of being a misandrist can all be traced back to this one song. True, she’s always specialized in kiss-off singles, but there’s a difference between delivering a well-deserved putdown to a cheating ex-boyfriend and the kind of sweeping generalizations on display here. For the record, I have a great deal of respect for most of Beyonce’s output, and I’m aware this particular complaint…that sexism can work both ways…is often exploited for spurious trouble-making, but you can make a serious case that this song, with its ugly generalizations about the entire male gender, does go a bit too far. I get what Beyonce was going for here, because I’ve seen it done correctly many times, in Christina Aguilera’s “Can’t Hold Us Down” and in many of Beyonce’s own songs, but this kind of thing seems to be more suited to proud, declarative anthems than it is to this kind of bitter, brooding ballad. There’s no pride or defiance here…just a song from the point of view of a bitter, angry woman who’s decided that all men are scum because one man broke her heart. The fact that this song is probably at least mildly offensive isn’t really the main point here…I’m more concerned with the fact that its pervasive bitterness makes it a spectacularly unpleasant listening experience. Yes, the tune, like all those on the first disc of I Am…Sasha Fierce, is pretty, and Beyonce does convey the character she chose for this song very convincingly, but neither factor is enough to save the song. While Beyonce would certainly release worse songs from the Sasha Fierce album (“Diva”, “Video Phone”), no other song would ever do as much damage to her reputation as this one, and as much as I like most of her music, I have to say that this song was not one of her better decisions.
Verdict: Bad enough to do genuine damage to Beyonce’s well-earned positive reputation, which is no mean feat.
This classic standard is often given sanitized, inoffensive performances, but in reality, the disturbing elements that everyone likes to point out now as though they’re being clever at the expense of a song from their grandparents’ time that many people still love, were almost indisputably completely intentional on the part of the songwriter (who was, by the way, the great Frank Loesser, the man who gave us Guys and Dolls). It wasn’t quite as nightmarish at the time as some people find it these days, since the concept of ‘date rape’ (more specifically, the idea that manipulating a girl into bed is no different from taking her by force) hadn’t really been introduced into the public consciousness yet. Still, this is a rather dark, predatory tale of a ‘couch artist’ (what we would now call a ‘Playa’) aggressively putting the moves on a not entirely willing girl, and that would have seemed sketchy and unwholesome at best even to audiences of the time. That’s why the best renditions have always been the ones that don’t sugarcoat the song’s vaguely creepy elements, like Ray Charles’ deeply unnerving duet with Betty Carter, or Norah Jones and Willie Nelson, who nicely emphasized the song’s predatory subtext simply through the obvious age difference between the singers. The reason so many performances try to distance themselves from the song’s real implications can probably be chalked up to the song’s inexplicable transformation into a Christmas standard simply because it takes place in winter, and I suppose that sexual coercion, however subtle, is not something you want the kiddies to realize they’re singing about. But in reality, this is a sly, cynical piece of innuendo in the tradition of much of Cole Porter’s work, and it deserves to be acknowledged for its dark wit rather than being dismissed as either just another squeaky-clean Christmas novelty, or as some horribly dated relic of its time that has become unspeakably offensive now, like Al Jolson’s blackface routines.