Billy Joel’s Piano Man and the Big Lie

All pop music plays into the Big Lie. Hitler famously coined the term, and the general idea is that if you can tell a big enough lie and position it at the heart of a propaganda campaign, people would believe it purely out of the assumption that no one could possibly state something so untrue. And naturally, if they believe that part of the propaganda, then the rest of it follows suit.

That’s the theory, anyway. In practice—and there’s little doubt that this is already in practice—the Big Lie isn’t anything as simple as one single untruth that cows everyone into believing moronic things. It isn’t, for instance, the idea that we didn’t go to the moon, as comedian Owen Benjamin has expressed over the past year. It isn’t that we live inside a simulation, whether it’s of the Matrix variety or the sort of dumbed-down scientist drivel that Alex Jones has repeated from the pages of Popular Mechanics.

However, the Big Lie does, in a certain sense, permeate the world around us as a simulated experience, but not one broadcast onto reality by holographic projectors or injected into our cerebral cortices via LAN cable. It’s one made up by ideologues, but manipulated, sustained, and nourished by every facet of modern society. From the simulation of money, as our economic system is founded on usury which requires people to believe in the concept of fake currency, to the simulation of pleasure, as our culture is inundated with fake sweeteners added to our foods and fake sexual stimulation added to our entertainment. French philosopher Jean Baudrillard—the only one of the post-structuralists worth giving a read—had a name that partly described this phenomenon: hyper-reality.

The perniciousness of this Big Lie is that it has no material originator. There’s no dictator pulling strings or cabal of individuals who have meticulously created this Truman Show of a world for us all to live out our lives in. To be sure, individuals and cabals have had their role to play, as we know for certain of various conspiracies throughout history that shoved down our throats unpopular and unwanted social, political, or economic revolutions. We know there was a conspiracy to establish the Federal Reserve, for instance, and we know there’s a conspiracy uniting most of the media-entertainment complex together to push homosexual-friendly LGBT agendas on us. But these are only partial manifestations of the Big Lie; they themselves aren’t progenitors of it.

So for today, we’ll take a look at one of the best, most recognizable tools that the Big Lie has at its disposal: popular music. We’re not going to go the super-easy route and point out how, say most of Katy Perry’s music and stage imagery are outright satanic, because anyone with two eyes in their head can already see that. We’ll be taking aim at fruit hanging only slightly higher off of the ground: Billy Joel’s classic hit from 1973: “Piano Man.”

Piano Man”

It might be worth noting that I hate this song. By and large I dislike most popular music, and I don’t mean that in the hipster sense. At some point, I turned my back on music as a whole and, for the most part, I haven’t looked back. The only music that deserves to exist is most classical music—specifically the choral works—the music made by the family in the home (i.e. legitimate, actual music of the folk, and not this faux-folk music played with acoustic guitars and pushed by record producers from LA), and that music which serves the Tridentine Mass. Kurt Vonnegut’s ridiculous insistence at the beginning of Slaughterhouse Five that all music is sacred is the sort of frivolous appeal to a vague, secular, humanistic authority that falls apart under even the briefest consideration. No one could seriously argue, even at the time Vonnegut wrote that, that something like “Na Na Hey Hey” was sacred.  His work, too, was part of the Big Lie.

We won’t be doing a line-by-line exegesis of the song here, in part because there simply isn’t that much to it, but also for the sake of brevity.

The song is a snapshot of life at a bar at prime time in LA, told from the point of view of Joel’s self-insert character, the eponymous Piano Man. As the lyrics make clear, it’s a lonely life and one littered with passers-by, regulars, and rejects all alike. The first verse depicts a drunk old stereotype of a man, “making love to his tonic and gin,” as the story goes, as the musical accompaniment picks up into a forte as the man requests a song from his early days. He isn’t asking for a song, however, but for the very days that past him by—he wants the Piano Man to play him an image of nostalgia. The music doesn’t matter to him at all. He just wants to escape.

So character number one in this place is a melancholic drunk desperate for times so far gone that he can’t even formulate the memory of them. All that’s left of the memory is the imprint of a feeling. Keep this in mind as we continue.

We get the first recitation of the chorus here, after a short musical interlude. The chorus affirms Joel’s character as the Piano Man, and ends with “You’ve got us feeling alright.” Maybe the rest of the bar is feeling alright, we’ll assume, since poor Gin and Tonic here clearly isn’t.

Now character number two is introduced: John at the Bar. “He says ‘Bill, I believe this is killing me,’” Joel exclaims, repeating the crescendo from the previous verse; “I’m sure I that I could be a movie star, | If I could get out of this place.” Where Gin and Tonic’s problem was a self-indulgent melancholy that had lost its anchoring, John at the Bar’s problem is, quite clearly, a delusion of grandeur. Here’s another stereotype: the friendly, happy-go-lucky bartender who secretly hates himself out of some sense of having failed to live up to whatever standards he’d had set. Again, although the motives are slightly different, the past haunts him as it haunts our friend Gin & Tonic.

The third verse shotguns a series of characters in brief detail: an unmarried real-estate agent with dreams of writing the next Great American Novel, a navy man without expectations of retiring, a waitress arguing about political events, drunk businessmen—it’s an overview of the bar’s patrons from the piano’s seat, all of whom are “sharing a drink they call loneliness,” Joel admonishes, “But it’s better than drinking alone.”

Even the Piano Man himself isn’t alien to the incessant reminders of a wasted life. He listens to the patrons as they send tips his way and ask, “‘Man, what are you doing here?’” He’s keenly aware—or perhaps, taking the words of drunks too seriously—of some talent that deserves better than a speak-easy at on a Saturday night. Whatever legitimate talent he has isn’t the point here: what matters is who’s speaking to him and his present state of mind. He, like the rest of the patrons, is looking for something to alleviate what at first seems like a mere inconsequential loneliness.

The song closes with the chorus repeating once more:

“Now you’re all in the mood for a melody,
And you’ve got us feeling all right.”

But not one is feeling alright. Everyone is alcoholic, psychotic, or depressed. Everyone is missing something, from the man at the bar to the waitress. None of them feel alright. The piano man himself lurches through another day to make another dollar, glad perhaps to be of service but gladder still to have the bread, yet even he finds no consolation in the tips he rakes in by the end of the evening. It’s all hollow and empty, because the life being lived in this song is dumb. This chorus is repeated as a mantra not descriptively, but prescriptively: you’ve got us feeling alright is a wishful thought that carries an implicit demand of the Piano Man. Make us feel alright, because anything is better than this.

Notice also that the chord progression of this entire song maintains the same chord progression during the verses as it does during the chorus. The only reprieve from the repetition comes during the interludes, which last all of twelve bars a piece. This makes the mantra repeated during the chorus more desperate than the words might first imply, and it also underlines the position the Piano Man is placed in by this crowd of desperate, lonely losers.

The Rest of the Lie

The characters depicted here aren’t suffering from a brief or arbitrary loneliness you get when you break up with a girlfriend or bury your dog. It’s an existential one that lives at the heart of the modern soul. The implication behind each characters’ speech and actions in the song is the notion that however things are now, it isn’t how they were supposed to be. I don’t deserve this. This is most obvious with the bartender’s story in the second verse, but you see it written across each character’s depiction. They’re glumly putting up with a life that they’re clearly not all that in control of.

So how does this play into the Big Lie? Where even is the Lie?

The Lie is that any of this is normal or that it should even be considered normal. The loneliness at the heart of the modern soul is where Pride has taped over the window that lets in God’s light. The Lie is that the endless melancholy that requires such frivolous escapism is an unfortunate side-effect of living, when the reality is that it’s a very fortunate side-effect of neglecting the interior life.

Life lived without prayer is life lived in total darkness. Even those who validly receive the sacraments, who are baptized, who possess the spirit of life within them—if they do not pray, they are resigned to a blindness more opaque than mere sensory deprivation, since it’s a blindness of the soul. Anything that is comprehensible to their mind is such arbitrarily.

Billy Joel is not lying to his audience, per se. He isn’t telling his audience a lie by singing his song about depressed patrons at a bar in LA. Rather, Joel’s work plays into the Big Lie in that it accepts the basic premises of the world that the Lie wants you to believe. Life fundamentally has no meaning. Actions are more or less arbitrary. Things just sort of happen. Success is measured by how long you live and how much stuff you acquire, and by how many people you meet. You’re the sole arbiter of your own truth. “Piano Man” has nothing to say about any of these things, but the song doesn’t have to, the emotional impact of the song dries up the moment you recognize that any of this is nonsense. Those that embrace loneliness embrace themselves at the expense of what is real.

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