Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Billy Joel and Local Natives

'We Didn't Start The Fire' - Billy Joel, 1989.

'We Didn't Start The Fire' by Billy Joel was released in September 1989 with its inspiration emerging from Joel turning forty. Retrospectively, we now know that the song was released in the final year of the Cold War Era, with the song proving to have emerged at an appropriate time. Joel acknowledges that he gained inspiration for the song by looking back at the key events which had occurred over the first forty years of his life: 'I started doing that as a mental exercise. I had turned forty. It was 1989, and I said, "Okay, what's happened in my life?"' [Bill DeMain, In Their Own Words: Songwriters Talk About the Creative Process, p.119]. The lyrics are hard to follow, but no one could fail to notice the vast amount of references to historical figures and events from the forty years up to 1989. Our interest here, of course, concerns events in the 1980s and this song's significance as a "1980s song." That said, to gain an awareness of the themes and events eluded to, and therefore the song's message, some key details are listed below:
- 1949: Harry Truman is inaugurated as U.S. president after being elected in 1948
- 1950: Studebaker, a popular car company, begins to enter financial difficulties
- 1950: Television begins to become popular, and subsequently the most effective advertising medium
- 1959: Buddy Holly dies in a plane crash, having a devastating impact on the country and youth culture
- 1963: John F. Kennedy's assassination in Dallas
- Mid-1960s: Birth control ("the pill") first goes on the market
- 1974: The Watergate Scandal, which eventually led to Richard Nixon's resignation
- Mid-1970s: The Punk Rock era of music began

The song is now seen by many to act as a defiant rebuttal to criticism of Joel's "Baby Boomer" generation. The "fire" in question is taken to represent conflict and social turmoil, with Joel asserting that developing problems should not be blamed on his generation alone -'we didn't start the fire, it was always burning since the world's been turning,' The generation in question has been characterised as the most selfish generation in the history of the country, with them also being blamed for financial and political turmoil, through, for instance, the persistent protests, riots and what is seen to be anarchic behaviour. Matthew Paull, for instance, notes that Baby Boomers 'taught the world that much good can come from organizing groups in support of causes for the greater good. Somewhere along the way, the greater good has been ignored, while organizing for self-interest continues to have great success. The information age has made it much easier to organize, influence, and empower narrow self-interest groups' [,1 ]. Accompanying this, Abby W. Schnachter feels that '[t]he real problem is that these [...] selfish individuals are about to bankrupt the nation because they will be drawing on Social Security at a time when that program is nearly bankrupt, and the number of workers paying into the system is declining' [ ].

The song, of course, also makes reference to events from, and issues arising in, the 1980s:
- Wheel of Fortune has been the highest-rated syndicated programme since 1983.
- Sally Ride became the first American woman to enter space.
- 'Heavy metal suicide': The 1980s saw several bands such as Judas Priest and Metallica being brought to court by parents who accused the musicians of hiding subliminal pro-suicide messages in their music.
- 'Homeless vets': Many Vietnam War Veterans were reportedly left homeless and not looked after, with some viewing this as continued evidence that the country still had not accepted the fact the country failed to be successful in the conflict.
- AIDS epidemic
- Crack cocaine use increased markedly in the 1980s and came to be synonymous with the decade
- 'Hypodermics on the shore': Medical waste was found washed up on beaches in New Jersey after being illegally dumped at sea, which has been cited as one of the turning points in popular opinion on environmentalism.
- 'Rock-and-roller cola wars, I can't take it anymore!': Soft drink giants Coke and Pepsi each began running high profile marketing campaigns using rock & roll stars to reach the young adult demographic.

By referencing many topical issues, the song can now been seen as something of a critique, working to make reference to events that dominated the decade. What was history to Billy Joel in 1989 is still history to us now, giving the song a distinct air of timelessness. It is still relevant today, with many references in the song still in the psyche of the American (or even Western) population today, whether they lived through all (or some) of the events, or not. It invites reflection, and can work to encourage people to ask questions about American culture, criticise it where necessary, and find out more. The last year of any decade always invites reflection. America has a new President, the Cold War era was coming to end and this song does seem to have come at the juncture between, potentially, an "old" and "new" world, symbolising a shift in mindset as the 1990s approached.

'Airplanes' - Local Natives, 2010.

Finding a song that epitomises contemporary culture unsurprisingly proved to be difficult. I chose 'Airplanes' by Local Natives as it is a personal favourite, I can relate to the lyrics and it embodies things concerning music, which I hope shall continue to be taken forward.

Songs which we now deem to be "classics," songs which represent and speak of the era in which they were released are only fully realised retrospectively. When choosing a song, therefore, that I would like to think would be well-received in the future, I chose one from a band, potentially not overly well-known, who are writing songs purely because they enjoy writing them. In other words, the genre of music of recent times which I personally tend to favour, originates from artists who seem to remain "under the radar." There has been a resurgance in recent years of artists either not using conventional ways to diffuse their music (using YouTube to gain a fanbase, rather than sending a demo tape to a producer, for instance) or preferring to perform intimate gigs, and those who do not buy into the music industry as a corporate business. Thankfully, there does seem to have been a shift away from producing music (in certain areas of the domain) which fits a certain "ideal" to shift records and rank highly in the charts. Finding artists in a more traditional, yet modern, way is now also seen as "normal" - in other words, finding music from peers' suggestions and networking, rather than buying into generic, corporate, glossy, polished performers who have been pushed into the spotlight for financial gain is now preferred amongst a notable percentage of, especially, the younger consumers of music.

Local Natives are an indie rock band based in Silver Lake, Los Angeles, with their music being described as 'glimmering Afropop-influenced guitars with hyperactive drumming and hooky three-part harmonies' [ ]. A shift away from "normal," expected music genres, such as rap, pop, rock, in favour of taking inspiration from a variety of influences is notable here. Something of a "folky" sense can be heard, promting the view that genres of music that seemingly lost favour decades ago, can be reborn and open to new audiences. Local Natives were initially recognised after playing a couple of gigs at a few local festivals/county fairs and receiving positive reviews from peers and soon-to-be fans.

The songs' subject matter, also, can now be more nuanc├ęd, subtle, or even unknown - songs which can be analysed and questioned are now okay. Songs which provoke multiple interpretations are also okay - regimented, one-dimensional songs (where the artist may not perform live, or the focus seems to be more on the "performance" and image rather than the music) now have competition. It is this positive, principle focus on the music that I hope will continue, and I feel has re-emerged over the past couple of years, thanks, in no small part, to technological advances.

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