Friday, June 8, 2012

Uptown Girl: An Unlikely Love Story

When I was in elementary and junior high school, we didn't have good cable. We had the cable that skipped from channel 24 to 52, and no matter how much I sobbed and begged Dad to upgrade so we could get Much Music, I would be well into my mid-teens before my cries were answered.

Without channel 33, I was unable to watch shows like S Club Seven and 2Ge+her, let alone the Much Music Countdown. Even after hours of sitting and slowly, agonizingly twisting the TV in the hopes of getting even a glimpse of pre-While You Were Out Evan Farmer through the snowy screen, I was left settling for the second-rate Much More Music. MMM played mostly videos from the late '70s and '80s, obscure Canadian indie music (before indie was a thing), Rock and Roll Jeopardy, and, if you watched for at least 12 hours in a row, one or two songs that were currently on the radio.

"Son, can you play me a memory?"
Much More Music was pretty awful for a pre-teen like myself who, even at the tender age of eleven, desperately wanted to be in the know of all things pop culture. However, there was one saving grace to this abysmal channel: Pop Up Video. While there were some occasional pop hits on the show ("As Long As You Love Me" by The Backstreet Boys being the most notable), mostly it was songs from the 80s and early 90s that I would never have otherwise known or cared about. But Pop Up Video appealed to the part of me that loves history and useless trivia, and so I watched faithfully, loving every "blip" noise that coincided with a new thought bubble of information.

It was while watching this show that I stumbled across the man who was to become my one true music love: the great American singer and songwriter, Billy Joel. Because MMM had pretty limited programming, Pop Up Video episodes repeated themselves fairly frequently. I remember seeing the quintessential "Piano Man" several times and being struck (as much as one can be at the age of 12) by the black and white video, sombre repetition of the melody, and the sad story being told by this down-and-out music man. Something about it was simultaneously both catchy and sad to its very core.

"And now she's looking for a downtown man. That's what I am."
Although I was affected by "Piano Man," my true love affair with Billy didn't begin until one fateful afternoon when Pop Up Video played the only other Billy Joel song they've ever done: "Uptown Girl." For those who haven't seen the video: it's awful. Poor quality, poor acting, poor dancing. Even the lyrics aren't great, and - let's face it - neither is the melody. But something about "Uptown Girl" got to me. Maybe it was the "woah woah woahs" at the beginning, maybe it was the jumpsuits, maybe it was the way that none of the lyrics really repeat themselves in the same rhyme schemes. Whatever it was, a romance was born that day.

I remember telling my dad that night that I loved Billy Joel and wanted more of his music. Ever happy to encourage a music passion that wasn't The Spice Girls or Hanson, my parents got me Billy's Piano Man and The Stranger albums. I remember buying the 2-disc set of "The Essential Billy Joel" and listening to it exclusively for close to a year. It was in the car, my CD player in my bedroom, and my discman at school. I turned the CD on as soon as I woke up and fell asleep listening to "Lullaby", absolutely unable to get enough of my newfound (elderly) love.

As I have explored Billy's repertoire in more recent years, I've realized that his hits and best-known songs don't really showcase the kind of songwriter he is. Sure, who doesn't love singing along to "Only the Good Die Young" and feel temporarily like a bad-ass? There's nothing more satisfactory than nailing every word in "We Didn't Start the Fire." And I don't care who you are, it is impossible to not sway and/or snap along with "The Longest Time."

But Billy is so much more than just jazzy tunes. He is the master of juxtaposing jingle-like melodies with meaningful storytelling. He addresses real moments in history that are heartbreaking or challenging. The songs "Allentown" and "The Downeaster Alexa" are about the changing environmental and economic landscape in post-WWII America, and how everyday Americans are struggling to make money and find meaning once their livelihoods are taken away.

He also introduces a completely new musical style with every record. I suppose his music is all centred around a man with a piano, singing a little ditty, but if you look at the overarching feel from each record to the next, there's always a different sound. From Doo Wop to soul to jazz, he doesn't conform to a particular genre very well.

I read an essay once by the great music critic Chuck Klosterman (I can't remember if it was in his book Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs: A Low Culture Manifesto or Chuck Klosterman IV: A Decade of Curious People and Dangerous Ideas) where he he wrote that Billy Joel was not a cool musician, and never will be, because he is sad. And it's true. Even Billy's love songs have a melancholy feel to them. "Just The Way You Are," one of the most popular wedding songs (a fact I just made up, but I'm sure I saw it on a movie once), has this super sad jazz saxophone melody that almost sounds sorrowful, like Billy knew that his promise of loving this woman forever wouldn't last.

I've often said that Billy Joel is the only man I've ever loved. Sometimes it bothers me that he's not better known among my peer group, because I feel that people are missing out on a great artist in their music collections. But part of me is also a little bit glad that he belongs to me. He's sort of my little secret. I can hum along when I hear one of his songs playing softly over the speakers at a cafe, or I can blast him from the speakers with a car full of people and drown them with sound.

It's a lovely way to write mine and Billy's love story.

Jillz

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Number of books read in 2012: 9
Current TV series: The Last Enemy
Today's nail colour: Essie's "Bikini So Teeny"

1 comment:

dogluvr22 said...

Yay for Billy Joel!!!