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Worst Song of All Time?: “We Didn’t Start the Fire”Turns 30

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Nighttime radio host and soother of broken hearts Delilah once remarked that the No. 1, No. 2, and No. 3 requests she got were, “ ‘Wind Beneath My Wings,’ ‘Wind Beneath My Wings,’ and ‘Wind Beneath My Wings.’ ” Ubiquitous though it is, Bette Midler’s pop anthem from Beaches spent only a week in the top position on the Billboard charts in June 1989.

Six months later, another song outmatched it, a song routinely ranked among the worst of all time: Billy Joel’s “We Didn’t Start the Fire.” Exactly 30 years ago this week, that agglomeration of nostalgic Cold War particles was the most-played song in America — and 30 years ago next week, too. What the fuck?

It’s a bad song. You know it; I know it. It feels like it would pack the dance floor at this club, and its acquired awfulness looms over Joel’s reputation, practically eclipsing the maudlin “Piano Man” that otherwise defines him as a, a troubadour from one notch up the socioeconomic ladder from New Jersey’s far sexier Bruce Springsteen. Billy Joel’s entire pop career, roughly spanning the 20 years between 1973-93, is like an arm-wrestling match between bitter irony and schmaltz, and although you can make the case that 1977’s The Stranger is practically a greatest-hits album unto itself, “We Didn’t Start the Fire” is the all-purpose rebuttal, a “Yeah OK, but” trump card with limitless applicability.

Billy Joel knows it, too.

Let’s enumerate its numerous sins. Above all else, the melody is weak — indefensibly so — yet somehow catchy. Bookended by an inane, overblown chorus, the lyrical references are, by and large, pat. It’s overproduced, too, as in the curdled violins from the famous “shower scene” that overdub Joel’s mention of Psycho. Perhaps aware of his reputation as a adult-contemporary crooner, the song’s gradual transition from singing to lite-growling seems to say, “I’m 40 and the geopolitical landscape is shifting, so that has to mean something, right? By the way, I still got it, baby.”

It’s almost never fair to quote lyrics, but good Lord. Exclamations like “JFK blown away / What else do I have to say?” might almost work if the song didn’t actually contain several verses with plenty more to say, while on the insipidness scale, “Rock-and-roller cola wars / I can’t take it anymore” actually exceeds that reckoning with the end of Camelot. 

“We Didn’t Start the Fire” is also tilted heavily toward the 1950s. The first three verses cover 1949-60 or thereabouts, the fourth covers 1960-63/64, and the last one starts with a reference to birth control — presumably the 1965 Supreme Court case Griswold v. Connecticut and not the introduction of the Pill itself, which was earlier — and barrels at warp speed toward 1989 and the end of history. The ten years from 1969-78 are dispatched with “Moonshot, Woodstock, Watergate, punk rock.” That’s it? Was Billy Joel even alive during the 1970s? Based on the cover art to 1973’s Piano Man, maybe not, since he looks more like a vengeful ghost who you have to show someone a videotape of in order to escape.

This chronological pile-up suggests that there were originally six other verses, but Billy Joel thought twice. To give him some credit, he drops some obscure-but-not-pretentiously-abstruse names, like Malenkov (the Soviet premier who briefly succeeded Josef Stalin), the serial killer Charles Starkweather, and Toscanini — as in Arturo Toscanini the philharmonic conductor. Joel has always had a strong appreciation for classical music, which has occupied the bulk of his time since 1993’s River of Dreams.

Many others fizzle out. If you’ve ever wondered what the line “hypodermics on the shore” means, it’s a strangely parochial reference to Long Island in the summer of ’88, when illegally dumped syringes and other medical waste kept washing up and closed the beaches. It was as if some urban myth about razor blades in Halloween apples came to life, but not exactly a galactic emergency on the level of Tiananmen Square — “China’s under martial law” — which Joel pairs it with. Also, “Bernie Goetz” refers to a would-be Travis Bickle on the New York subway who … never mind.

The video is really no better, shot around an impractically enormous suburban kitchen that gets redone every decade, with stock characters like a ’50s housewife and a flower child. Only two of them really catch the eye: a kid wearing a truly disturbing Richard Nixon mask and a glam-frosty late-’80s power-domme who definitely out-earns her husband. (Those earrings!) Looking Roy Orbison-esque in all black, Joel hangs around the kitchen through the decades, like an omniscient deity or the Ghost of Christmas Past. 

The rest of the video consists of him in front of a backdrop of historical Life magazine-style photos, with plenty of fire. It’s the kind of low-burning flame controlled by a wall switch like you might find in the lounge at an upscale ski resort, and it almost appears as though Joel’s playing the keyboards — but then you realize he’s just drumming on a Formica dinette. A draft card burns, in keeping with all the historical pyromania. So does a bra — but it’s over the sink, not at a consciousness-raising rally.

If this fire is fueled by anything, it’s not so much boomer navel-gazing as a fatberg of residual sludge accumulating at the bottom of that cottage industry once Diner and Peggy Sue Got Married really got the ball rolling earlier in the decade. Even on the same album, Joel put out the far superior “Leningrad,” a sophisticated comparison of life in the West versus life behind the Iron Curtain. That’s been on his mind as far back as 1982’s portrait of blue-collar America in decline, The Nylon Curtain.

The internet teems with hate for this song, which Joel himself “called one of the worst melodies I ever wrote” after screwing it up on stage during a 2014 performance in Toronto. It’s a total joke that’s on list after list of the worst songs of all time. Carrie Brownstein said it’s “a horrible, horrible song that takes itself very seriously that will get in your head.” Wikipedia’s “List of music considered the worst” dryly observes that “very little consensus can be achieved” when a song or album jockeys for attention among its comrades in shittiness — but for something to achieve escape velocity, it has to engender a reaction that far exceeds the scope of the music itself. It has to become famous, and then huge numbers of people must hate what it represents. For two weeks in December 1989, Billy Joel achieved just that. But let us never forget that the song that “We Didn’t Start the Fire” dislodged from Billboard’s no. 1 spot was none other than Milli Vanilli’s “Blame It on the Rain.”

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Peter-Astrid Kane

Peter-Astrid Kane

Peter-Astrid Kane (they/them) is the Communications Manager for San Francisco Pride and a former editor of SF Weekly.

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