Let’s get real, guys, we can’t know everything. The things we can learn, even if we remember it all and research every day, are finite because time is finite. You think I’m kidding? Billy Joel, your favorite drunk uncle, would like to reinforce this insecurity.
“We Didn’t Start the Fire” is basically the musical equivalent of historical CliffNotes. Joel rattles off important events and figures from the end of the second World War up through the 80s. History mingles with pop culture throughout the laundry list, as it is wont to do in the post-TV era. There is very little commentary to these events: we don’t know what Joel makes of anything from “Red China” to “British Beatlemania,” so much as that they’re all symptoms of the long-term state of affairs. What we do know, however, is that every person, place, thing, or event that Joel mentions was important, at least at the time it happened. We see countless controversies, conflicts and scandals: this seems to be the major point, that we have been fighting, literally or figuratively, for good and ridiculous reason, since time began. Certainly there was no shortage during the perceived “Good Ol’ Days” that the song’s history focuses on. Through the song’s experiment, however, we get a primer on the highlights. If you have an exam on postwar American history, this is as good a place to start your studies as any.
The fact is, though, that for the average listener, there will be references they’ll never get. I don’t even have an inkling as to what “Panmunjom” represents, and some of the laundry lists of personalities and politicians are riddled with names I can’t associate with actual people and their actual deeds (I’m looking at you, Malenkov and Syngman Rhee). Older listeners would have somewhat better luck, as they lived through much more of it: my life begins somewhere in the final verse. Even so, “Liston beats Patterson,” for however important it may have been at the time, was still a single sporting result, however unprecedented. It’s a reference which is going to fade quickly for all but the most avid boxing fans. The difficulty in the rapid fire delivery means that most of us are going to forget most of what Joel mentions in the course of his five minutes with us, unless it already resonates with us. It’s easy to recall the lines he emphasizes, because they stand out: a fan of the song will always remember there was trouble in the Suez, not to mention Belgians in the Congo. The rest, however, comes to memory in snippets at best. This is just a song, remember, five minutes of lyrics, with a melody to help us along, and we can’t remember all that history. How can we hope to recall the actual stories?
This, then, is the paradox of “We Didn’t Start the Fire,” and ultimately what makes it so memorable: the music should make the lyrics easier to remember, and the lyrics themselves are simply a list of things that happened. This is the sort of thing teachers use all the time (think Schoolhouse Rock for the ultimate example). Still, how many of us know anything that is actually contained in the song? Its fame and notoriety come from being an impossible song to remember, and therefore an impossible song to sing. It’s the same reason cramming for exams works so poorly; Joel fills five minutes with forty years, and it’s simply too much to memorize at that rapid-fire pace. So not only do you realize you don’t know about the fall of Dien Bien Phu, but you don’t even remember it being in the damn song. It’s humbling, especially if you pride yourself on knowledge.
The best way to prove it to yourself? There’s a quiz on Sporcle, the internet time-sink of choice many years back, which asks you to name as many events in “Fire” as possible. To me, the rules are simple: press play and good luck. I even allow a single listen to the song prior to starting the quiz. They cite 120 references. I don’t think I’ve ever gotten more than 50%.I go back every couple months, though, to see if I’ve improved. I always remember new ones and forget old ones. I also, without fail, throw in things like “poodle skirts” or “vietnam,” neither of which are mentioned (at least not in such simple terms). I am now passing the ball you. Press your luck. Find out how much you’ve retained. Challenge your short term memory. Billy Joel is challenging the belief that the problems of our society are new, that they come from a turning from values or such. That’s just not the only challenge he brings to the table.
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