Fault in Fire

At first glance, the ideal of the middle class appears to be utterly boring. It is founded on the stubborn belief that hard academic and professional work will yield material wealth as well as on the just as stubborn belief that the comfort of material wealth is desirable. However, that is only part of the story – the complete middle-class-utopia not only consists of a well-paid job, a house and a car, but also comprises a loving and caring family, which adds all the spark to the otherwise rather non-appealing picture. Unfortunately, the life-style of the middle-class has countless further flaws in addition to being boring, which is why it is very easy to “rebel” against it – however, it also is easy to forget that it is just as able as alternative life-styles to offer a setting for meaningful relationships.

The video to Billy Joel’s 1989 “We didn’t start the fire” impressively portrays vignettes of such deeply affectionate relationships, for example in minute 1.17, where the father first pats his son on the head and then gently “kicks” him very carefully out of the door, presumably off to school. A few seconds later (1.21), the mother smiles at the same son appreciatively and full of genuine affection as he dresses up in a graduating outfit to get his picture taken by the father (of course, you could complain that the kid is merely getting loved for following the middle-class-path that his parents have chosen for him, but that doesn’t change the authenticity of his parents’ feelings for him):

It is useful to keep in mind that the affection that the family members feel for each other is something worthy of preservation. Unusually for a pop song, it is based upon a rather depressing realization. Billy Joel says that he wrote the lyrics before the music. I can actually imagine him being all excited about his thrilling insight that no matter when you enter the world, it always already is a mess. To illustrate this, he then randomly assembled his list of newspaper-headlines. The chronological sequence of events doesn’t seem to reveal any dramatic pattern: interesting events (Dylan) are followed by deplorable events (Berlin (Wall)) and vice versa. No direct link is established between the succeeding taglines, even though it presumably would not be difficult to link some events to each other over time, showing that one “fire” led to the next and so on.

Even though the lyrics suggest a notion of monotony, this is in contrast to the musical progression: Each verse on its own dramatically builds up towards the chorus by condensing the words in a staccato-like way as well as emotionalising the inflection of the voice. Additionally, every new verse is even more dramatic than the preceding one. This is established by adding various instruments (synthesizers, electric guitars, drums, violins (or violin-like synthesizer-sounds)) over time that play melodic fragments. At the verse “Brooklyn’s got a winning team”, you can hear a cheering crowd (1.15). The movie “Psycho” is beautifully referenced by the signature violin screeching in minute 2.07, with the video depicting a violin a few seconds beforehand (2.00).

During the verses of the song, the video portrays the life of a middle class family, as Billy Joel progresses to list his 120-something events from 1949 until 1989. Most of these events do not seem to have any direct effect on the lives of the family members, however, the time era that these events evoke is reflected in the video via the changing clothing- and hairstyles as well as in the interior decoration of the room and the various gadgets and toys used over time. A Hula Hoop features (1.56) just a few seconds before the lyrics mention it (2.00). Billy Joel himself is always present, yet none of the family Members ever notice him.

During the choruses of the song, a more direct link is established between the lyrics and the video: the “fire” that Billy Joel claims to have not started is already burning the edges of sometimes rather gruesome pictures related to some of the “fires” listed in the verses.

However, the element of fire actually also is brought up continuously throughout the verses: the mother burns food twice: in the oven in minute 0.37 – she doesn’t seem to care much, and in minute 1.56, where she drops the pan. Contrary to the lyrics, some of the family members consciously light politically motivated fires: There is bra burning in minute 2.27 and the burning of a “Draft Card” in 2.50. In between a cigarette is lit (2.35). Perhaps these events could be interpreted as “trying to fight” the fire with fire.

Yet it is only in the final scene that the same kind of fire from the choruses spills over to the scenery of the verses: the boy pulls out a burning can from the refrigerator, and the surroundings of the house are revealed to be burning as well, while Billy Joel asks “But when we are gone – Will it still burn on and on and on and on…?”. In the unansweredness of this question, he brings the song back to its depressive and tragic roots. By the end of the video, the family is unable to keep out the fire that until then had never managed to spoil their family life, even though it was burning continuously and dangerously.

While the “fire” is depicted graphically throughout the video, this cannot be said of the “fire fighting”. Perhaps the life-style of the middle-class itself is their attempt of fighting the fire? However, the video suggests that it is not enough that the middle class restricts its meaningful, loving, and caring relationships to its own immediate family members. The disinterest of the family members with most of “fires” presumably actually plays a major part in perpetuating these fires – regardless of who started them. If the disinterest is an attempt to “fight” the fire, it doesn’t seem to be working. The attempts of the family to fight fire with fire – by burning bras and draft cards doesn’t seem to be sufficient either. Finally, even the consumption of artistic products such as music of the Beatles or Hula Hoop hasn’t stopped the fire.

The ingenuity of the piece lies in its vagueness. The song can both be interpreted as a defence of the middle class as well as an accusation of the middle class. In combination with the convincing anthemic arrangement of the catchy tune the great flexibility of the lyrics presumably aided its sellability, making it a Number 1 hit. As a listener, you can choose to just realize that you’re not at fault and lean back and enjoy the music. Or you can realize that you’re not at fault, but you still have to fight the fire – and the music video is there to remind you that pursuing middle class goals is not sufficient to accomplish that goal – it’s up to you to deviate from this life-style in order to prevent your surroundings to burn away. That you’re not at fault may or may not make things easier for you – but it doesn’t change anything about the fact that the fire has to be fought.

Don’t start a fire this week,

Eric

PS: A variation on the idea of indistinctively listing items across time is the listing of items across space – for example real and make-believe Caribbean Islands across the Atlantic Ocean, as the Beach Boys do in their mystical 1988 evocation of “Kokomo”: