1976, Music

Turnstiles (1976) by Billy Joel

I have trouble putting into words how much I hate Billy Joel, especially late ’70s Billy Joel. Basically I don’t like anything about his music, though occasionally there will be something redeeming. And I’m getting to that point where I should be inured to him, where the animus should be wearing off. But it’s not.

I don’t like plenty of big acts from the ’70s: Elton John, Stevie Wonder, Steely Dan, Cat Stevens, James Taylor, the Doobie Brothers, and on and on and on. (See a theme there?) But with all of the artists I’ve just named, actually going through their albums is slowly making me appreciate them, if not actually want to actively listen to their music. (That’s particularly true of Elton John.) That has yet to happen with Billy Joel and I’m on album six. That’s usually around the point where I start feeling some kind of appreciation. I don’t hate this as much as I hate The Stranger but it has many of the same issues I have with most if not all of Joel’s music, especially of this era.

Joel is very much a pastiche songwriter, he regularly writes songs in the styles of his idols. “Say Goodbye to Hollywood” is perhaps the most obvious example of this tendency on this album, but it’s something he nearly always does. He seems to me to do it more than most songwriters of his fame. Of course, lots of people do this, but there are two relevant distinctions for me: Billy Joel mostly likes music that I don’t like and he walks this line where he wants to do the pastiche but also commit to being this bloodless piano rocker. What’s extra hilarious about the latter is how much of a temper he had. It’s so funny imagining an “Angry Young Man” who just wants to make soft rock. Won’t you please let him?

Which brings me to the biggest problem I have with Joel on nearly all of his records I’ve heard: his taste is just awful. Everything is professional to the point of having the life squeezed out of it. Even when he tried to go “punk” in the early ’80s, it was the safest version anyone has ever heard (well, prior to Blink maybe). People say the punks were rebelling against prog rock. And that was true to some degree in Britain. But I have to imagine that many of the American punks were rebelling against AM radio and MOR. Billy Joel may not believe he’s MOR, but that’s what I hear when I hear him.

There’s just nothing for me here: a bunch of somewhat catchy songs that often sound too much like their influences, with an aesthetic that seems like it is designed to offend literally no one, which is why it offends me. I’m six albums in and I still don’t understand how a man with so much talent – an excellent pianist, a pretty fine singer – can be so goddamn boring and safe.


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