Outside Reading — Harry Truman, Doris Day, Red China, Johnnie Ray edition

Even Billy Joel Mocked ‘We Didn’t Start the Fire.’ I Loved It. by Lindsay Zoladz

The Number Ones: Billy Joel’s “We Didn’t Start The Fire” by Tom Breihan

This was quite a week for new writing about Billy Joel’s last chart-topping single. Tom Breihan’s wonderful series spotlighting every Billboard #1 single reached December 1989, when the lead single from Storm Front displaced Milli Vanilli’s “Blame It on the Rain” as the nation’s top song. Breihan excoriates the song. A few days early, for no real stated reason, Lindsay Zoladz saw her own piece published. While acknowledging the song’s dismal reputation — and hinting that her music critic side helplessly agrees with the assessment — Zoladz is far more appreciative. She comes at it from a place of specific nostalgia, claiming “We Didn’t Start the Fire” as her first favorite song. (For the record, my first favorite song was “Good Vibrations” by the Beach Boys.

I was in my first year as program director at my college radio station when Storm Front came out. We were more open to album rock than most student-run stations, so Joel’s record got some airplay. I still remember our faculty advisor looking at the song’s quick initial rise on a copy of Billboard in the station’s offices and confidently, and accurately, predicting a peak atop the chart was inevitable. One aspect of the song’s success that both Zoladz and Breihan allude to without fully getting is that the song had a built-in challenge to it, inviting music obsessives of all ages to master the parlor trick of accurately reciting the litany of references contextualized only by chronology.

Although a regular defender of the artistic merits of the man who can make a crowd feel all right when they’re all in the mood for a melody, I’m not prepared to make a strong argument in favor of “We Didn’t Start the Fire.” I’m amused it endures, and there’s something weirdly appropriate about this gimmicky piece of pop rock standing as the penultimate chart-topper of the nineteen-eighties. Also, let’s be real, rhyming “Starkweather homicide” with “children of thalidomide” is some death-metal shit.

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