Great or Awful: Billy Joel’s We Didn’t Start the Fire

Billy Joel’s tune We Didn’t Start the Fire is an earworm of the highest sort. It certainly has that effect on us, with the chorus running on repeat in our heads. 

But whether it’s a great song or an awful one is a debate that’s been going on since Joel released the number in 1989.

If you’ve never taken the time to delve deep into the background of this lyric-heavy hit, now’s your chance. 

Let’s dive in!

Tell Me More About Billy Joel

From an early age, Billy Joel lived up to his nickname, The Piano Man. At the age of four, he started taking piano lessons and showed a natural skill for playing the instrument. 

Born William Martin Joel on May 9, 1949, in the Bronx, New York, he would spend his early childhood in Long Island, New York. His family moved there when Billy was a year old. 

Joel’s parents played a big part in his interest in music. His father, Howard, was a classical pianist. Rosalind’s mother urged her son to take piano lessons early on. 

Throughout his teens, Joel’s two passions were playing piano and boxing. He learned to fight as a way of defending himself. Joel fought as an amateur boxer in 24 matches, winning 22. But he gave up boxing after an opponent broke his nose.

At 16, Joel decided to put all his focus on playing music. After watching the famous Beatles’ performance on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1964, he knew that’s what he wanted to do. Joel said, “That one performance changed my life…Up to that moment, I’d never considered playing rock as a career.”

We’re happy Joel decided to follow music rather than boxing! His songwriting, composing, and singing contributions are appreciated worldwide. 

Billy Joel is a hitmaker. A prolific songwriter, Joel writes nearly all his songs. In fact, 33 of his Top 40 songs Joel wrote himself.

Joel’s induction into both the Songwriters and Rock and Roll Halls of Fame proves his musical prowess. While he hasn’t released a studio album since 2001, he tours extensively worldwide. Billy Joel is a true performer and loves entertaining live audiences. 

What Was Billy Joel’s Creative Process for the Hit?

The idea for the song stemmed from a conversation he had with a friend of musician Sean Lennon. At the time, Joel was 40 years old, and the young man was 21. 

He told Joel, “It’s a terrible time to be 21.” Joel replied that when he was 21, the Vietnam war and civil rights problems made everything seem awful. 

Lennon’s friend said, “But it’s different for you. You were a kid in the fifties, and everybody knows that nothing happened in the fifties.” Joel’s reply included references to various historical events from the time, including the Korean War. 

This discussion laid the groundwork for the various events and political figures included in We Didn’t Start the Fire. Joel decided to start the historical references in 1949, the year of his birth.

Joel included 118 significant politicians, cultural, and sporting events from around the world. The song starts with Harry Truman’s election as US President.

Harry Truman, Doris Day

Red China, Johnnie Ray

South Pacific

Walter Winchell, Joe DiMaggio…

And it ends with the rock and roller cola wars, referencing the heated battle between Coke and Pepsi.

AIDS, crack, Bernie Goetz

Hypodermics on the shores

China’s under martial law

Rock and Roller cola wars

I can’t take it anymore

Billy Joel Isn’t Even Impressed with We Didn’t Start the Fire

According to Joel, the lyrics for We Didn’t Start the Fire came before he composed the music. Typically, it’s the other way around for him. In an interview for the book In Their Own Words, Joel recounts his feelings about the song. 

Regarding the music, he said, “It’s like a mosquito droning. It’s one of the worst melodies I’ve ever written. I kind of like the lyrics, though.” 

We Didn’t Start the Fire hit number one on the US Billboard Hot 100 chart.  Additionally, it became a huge success worldwide. The song received heavy rotation on radio stations and became one of his well-known tunes. 

However, not everyone loved it. In 2004, Blender Magazine released a 50 Worst Song List and listed We Didn’t Start the Fire at number 41. They likened it to “a term paper scribbled the night before it’s due.”

Blender Magazine also felt Joel trivialized the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre. It’s mentioned right before the Rock and Roll Cola Wars.

Not surprisingly, yes, parodies and derivations exist of We Didn’t Start the Fire. The first came in 2002 on the popular series The Simpsons. In an episode called Gump Roast, they sang a song called They’ll Never Stop the Simpsons to the tune of Joel’s hit. 

Then, in 2013, as part of YouTube’s Comedy Week, comedian Dane Boedigheimer created another parody called We Didn’t Start the Viral. The audio ended up being completely replaced due to a copyright claim. 

The Tonight Show host Jimmy Fallon created his own parody in 2019. His version highlighted significant events and characters in the Marvel Universe films, from Iron Man to Avengers: Endgame. 

Cast members from the Marvel movies, including Robert Downey Jr., Chris Hemsworth, and Jeremy Renner, provided backup vocals.

In 2021, hosts Katie Puckrik and Tom Fordyce began a podcast called We Didn’t Start the Fire. Each week they take a subject from the song in chronological order and discuss its historical significance. 

So, Was We Didn’t Start the Fire Great or Awful?

Whether We Didn’t Start the Fire is great or awful seems up to personal taste and opinion. Since it remains one of Joel’s most famous songs, it can’t be entirely terrible, right? Agree or disagree, it sure seems to have some lasting power. 

How do you feel about We Didn’t Start the Fire? Let us know in the comments!

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