by Carolyn Main
One of the reasons I love Billy Joel so much is the same reason so many people hate him: because he’s super fucking catchy. You’d know him as the Piano Man, since it is on the radio half of all the time. Failing that, if you still listen to the radio, you can switch stations to catch “Uptown Girl.” Keep tuning the dial until you are sure you Did Not Start the Fire. Yes, the Beej is inescapable pop culture. I get it.
Still, you may be missing some of his best works, which also happen to be the most feminist ones. And that’s the other reason behind my adoration: Markedly unlike most mainstream music, Billy Joel’s works are never misogynist. They love women. As does he, with almost as many hits (33) as marriages (4).
Even more than that, Joel came of age in an era that was arguably more sexist than our own. One need look no further for the gold standard of ’70s gender politics than boot-faced old Charles Bronson’s Death Wish (1974), wherein his wronged daughter is spraypainted in the butt by Jeff Goldblum, basically to death. Well, it’s more of a catatonic vegetable state for life. But because of a spraypainted butt. That’s, if possible, somehow even more insulting.
Joel, though, bucked sexism of the decade to write and record some of the smoothest sax-positive songs in America. During the current election cycle, it’s really easy to feel crazy and also to hate old white men. But good news: If you ever need to listen to a boomer who you don’t hate, and who doesn’t hate you back even harder and more irrationally, just take a listen to this, the Billy Joel Feminist Playlist:
Billy Joel will not allow anything to compromise his desire to please. Why would he? So, just ask. It’s not a problem. He’s so into you, and so over the judgment of society, that he’ll do pretty much whatever weird shit you like. Craft store? Yes. Cunnilingus? Sure. Both at the same time? He’s open to it. Featuring Cyndi Lauper’s vocals (YES) and frequently covered by Garth Brooks (shrug).
“And I’m changing, I swore I’d never compromise
But you convinced me otherwise
I’ll do anything you please”
Billy’s comfortable with a woman on top. Perhaps to a fault. Is this an unhealthy relationship, or does she just get in the best one-liners? (Along with the knives/stabbing heels entendre, over and over.) Either way, he’s stuck, and he’s loving it.
“She cuts you hard, she cuts you deep
She’s got so much skill
She’s so fascinating that you’re still there waiting
When she comes back for the kill”
4) “Only the Good Die Young”
Every day is another potential assault on a woman’s sexuality; politics, the patriarchy, and religious propaganda try to control a pussy and put it behind lock and key. Fuck the stigmas that would keep a woman from the power and pleasure of her own sexuality. And once you have thoroughly dismantled that nonsense, would you please consider bringing your heat to Billy Joel’s meat? Well, it doesn’t hurt to ask. There’s a reason this song was so controversial to the Catholic Church, as it makes the case for fucking instead of going to mass. There’s pretty much no comeback to that.
“Well, they showed you a statue, told you to pray
They built you a temple and locked you away
Aw, but they never told you the price that you pay
For things that you might have done”
(The video above is a cover by Melissa Etheridge, who makes it much more suggestively lesbian-tastic and hot hot hot.)
3) “Code of Silence”
Just like a sea witch, what’s the first thing the patriarchy would steal from you? Your voice! (Because from there, they can strip away everything else.) As a woman, you are being diminished from all sides and are taught that there’s no one can hear you. So, you’re expected to just tamp it down and try to move on with a slit throat. But look. Billy Joel is ready to dismantle those blocks in your throat chakra and encourage you back to an authentic person who speaks their truth. He’s ready to listen. Also featuring Cyndi Lauper, YAY, who should have done even more songs with Beej. And maybe they should have probably had a baby.
“So you can’t talk about it
Because you’re following a code of silence
You’re never gonna lose the anger
You just deal within it a different way
So you can’t talk about it
And isn’t that a kind of madness
To be living by a code of silence
When you’ve really got a lot to say”
2) “Modern Woman”
This is an all-out doo-wop-style 1980s feminist anthem. It’s bordering on corny, but it’s still somewhat shocking when you think about it, since how many other mainstream dudes of the era would say such a thing? Name one. I’ll wait. Because if they exist, I would really like to hear more of these. BJ was born in 1949, and he formally recognizes outdated the gender norms he’s grown past. He’s totally ready to embrace and celebrate his empowered paramour. She’s not his uptown girl; she’s a grown-ass modern woman.
“She looks sleek and she seems so professional
She’s got a lot of confidence, it’s easy to see
You want to make a move
But you feel so inferior
Cause under that exterior
Is someone who’s free.”
(By the way, this song was featured as Bette Midler’s workout montage in the ’80s flick Ruthless People. Fun! But Bette, FYI, you don’t need to diet or work out, tho. You’re fine Just the Way you Are.)
1) “She’s Always a Woman”
Billy’s most direct response to misogyny, he wrote it for his wife-slash-manager at the time, who was much maligned by every passing sexist in the music biz. Because she was powerful. Of course, Bill had no problem with that.
Even though their relationship would turn out to be doomed during this album, as evidenced by the title track, “The Stranger,” this creamy balled endures. Here, Bilj loves his woman, and he tells the dudes who wanna hate her that that’s just their problem. This came out in 1977, for godsake; music should be way, way more advanced by now. Mike. Drop.
“She is frequently kind
And she’s suddenly cruel
She can do as she pleases
She’s nobody’s fool
But she can’t be convicted
She’s earned her degree
And the most she will do
Is throw shadows at you
But she’s always a woman to me”
Isn’t his ’70s perm amazing?
Billy’s hair, like that marriage, has since fallen away. However, unlike too many iconic pop stars of late, Billy Joel remains, still playing to sold-out audiences. Via helicopter. And he reserves the front rows, not for the 1 percent who game Ticketmaster, but for the fans who he likes to perform for the most: women. Thereby proving to the world that even if you’re a worldwide musical legend (who happens to be a dude), you don’t have to be a misogynist sell-out to rock ‘n’roll.
Carolyn Main is a cartoonist and writer in Portland, Oregon, who is in the process of releasing her own card game, Pitch Please. She has tickets to see Billy Joel at Shea Stadium for the first time, and she is hecka pumped. You can check out more of her art at www.carolynmain.com.