Billy Joel, "The Piano Man"

Billy Joel has a number of timeless classics that make him one of the best selling artists of all time. You don’t win six Grammy Awards without excellent music. Is “We Didn’t Start the Fire” one of his best though?

Its one of his most easily recognizable songs, but it gets criticized constantly. The song is a social commentary on how the baby boomer generation isn’t responsible for the world’s problems, but even some of Joel’s biggest fans and the Piano Man himself don’t care for it.

“I only wrote stuff I wanted to hear. If it turned out to be a hit, it was pure dumb luck. I didn’t even pick the singles. The record company picks what’s going to be a single. I hand them an album of a bunch of songs,” Joel said in 2021 on a podcast about the song’s history.

He admitted that he hates the music because it doesn’t mesh well in a song with such catchy and creative lyrics like “We Didn’t Start the Fire.” He’s also downplayed his own mastery in big hits “Piano Man” and “Captain Jack” in the past. 

Countless adaptations of “We Didn’t Start the Fire” have been produced, especially since generational conflicts have raged once again with a polarizing political landscape in the United States and a worldwide pandemic. Most of them mock the original song.

“We Didn’t Start the Fire” provides some thought-provoking nuggets about historical events of the 20th century, but the lyrics don’t have great depth. Joel more so just lists the events without any further explanation.

The real reason this catchy earworm became so widespread is because Billy Joel rattled off the lyrics in such a unique way (for better or worse) that made 10 memorable lines pop out and stick with listeners forever.

Most of them are just dramatically screamed before the chorus.

  • Eisenhower, Vaccine, England's got a new queen

    One of the easiest lines to recite comes in the first verse.

  • Marciano, Liberace, Santayana, goodbye!

    The last line of the first verse sets the tone for the screamed lyrics before each chorus.

  • Brooklyn's got a winning team

    The Brooklyn Dodgers won the World Series in 1955, towards the beginning of the time frame Joel sings about. In most versions, you can hear a slight cheer from a stadium crowd in the background.

  • Bardot, Budapest, Alabama, Krushchev

    At this point in the song, you realize the rhymes are really creative.

  • Princess Grace, Peyton Place, Trouble in the Suez!

    Billy Joel sings the tongue twister so impressively and emphatically.

  • Chubby Checker, Psycho, Belgians in the Congo!

    Another screamer leading into the chorus

  • Pope Paul, Malcolm X, British politician sex

    Rising the intensity to lead right into the most easily remembered line of the song…

  • JFK blown away, what else do I have to say?

    The John F. Kennedy assassination was an appropriately impactful event to emphasize at the end of a verse.

    Even if “We Didn’t Start the Fire” isn’t his best song, Joel’s knowledge of 20th century history was clearly present.

  • Foreign debts, homeless vets, AIDS, crack, Bernie Goetz

    At this point in the song, you’ve gotten the idea of the intensity of its lyrics. This was the perfect leadup to the last line of the final verse.

  • Rock and roller, cola wars, I can't take it anymore!

    We didn’t start the fire
    It was always burning, since the world’s been turning
    We didn’t start the fire
    But when we are gone
    It will still burn on, and on, and on, and on, and on, and on, and on, and on

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