These days baby boomers, especially women, are in something of a panic. Demographically, professionally, financially and sociologically, theyâ€™ve been dominating American culture for nearly half a century now, while succeeding generations have waited, often impatiently, for them to get the hell out of the way. This summer, however, boomers confront the reality that whether they look to the left or the right, neither candidate for the highest office in our land represents their generation. One guy is old enough to be their dadâ€™s little brother; the other guy wasnâ€™t even out of kindergarten when Martin and Bobby were killed. Should Obama win the presidency and hold it until Generation X is fully ascendant in the political realm, the boomersâ€™ entire presidential legacy will likely rest on the shoulders of Bill Clinton and George W. Bush.
I note this fact not (merely) to rub the boomersâ€™ presidential mediocrity in their faces, but because Iâ€™m so sick to death of celebrating political and entertainment milestones that perpetuate the boomersâ€™ vision of themselves as the most culturally significant batch of malcontents ever to walk the planet. The most recent of these is among the most egregious: last weekâ€™s release of a â€œ30th-Anniversary Editionâ€ of Billy Joelâ€™s breakthrough album The Stranger. The release is timed, no doubt, to coincide with Joelâ€™s pair of sold-out shows this week at the soon-to-be-torn-down Shea Stadium, a facility that (like Joel himself) has been sitting fat and happy on Long Island for far too long. This coalescence of events resulted in a lengthy, at-times humorous profile of Joel in the New York Times yesterday â€“ an article whose accompanying photograph by Damon Winter revealed the full measure of Joelâ€™s advancing age, in a manner similar to Richard Avedonâ€™s iconic image of a dying Humphrey Bogart.
Donâ€™t get me wrong â€“ I donâ€™t really have anything against The Stranger, or Joel in general, and a fresh digital remastering is almost always nice. But if The Stranger is going to be offered up as the latest boomer nostalgia trip, then letâ€™s really think about its significance.
Jason Hare will be the first to tell you that â€œJust the Way You Are,â€ the albumâ€™s leadoff and biggest hit, is one of the touchstones of â€™70s Mellow Gold; in retrospect, it stands in the memory with certain other artifacts of middle-class pop culture in 1978 â€“ The Goodbye Girl, say, or perhaps Barry Manilowâ€™s Even Now album â€“ as anecdotal evidence of a generation starting to go soft. Meanwhile, â€œViennaâ€ reflects the boomersâ€™ â€™70s-era shift from changing the world to an â€œIâ€™m OK, Youâ€™re OKâ€ self-help mentality, and â€œThe Strangerâ€ (apart from sounding like a perfect theme song for Eyes of Laura Mars or Looking for Mr. Goodbar) seems to warn against the very emotional openness engendered by boomer trends from Flower Power to disco.
Then thereâ€™s â€œScenes from an Italian Restaurant,â€ which, while one of my favorite Joel songs, betrays (only 10 years after the generationâ€™s heyday) a boomer tendency toward mythmaking about oneâ€™s brilliant, lost youth â€“ a tendency that inevitably results in things likeâ€¦30th-anniversary editions of The Stranger, perhaps. One could easily argue that the still-wonderful â€œOnly the Good Die Youngâ€ reflects that same tendency, as its protagonist cajoles a Catholic schoolgirl to surrender her virginity and give in to free love; though the song seems very much of its time, its sentiments really are more reflective of shifts in attitudes toward sexuality that peaked a decade before it was written.
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The ethnic specificity of those two songs (as well as the excellent “Movin’ Out”) reminds us that the boomers were not a homogeneous gaggle of long-hairs dancing around naked in Golden Gate Park, as some documentaries would like us to think. Indeed, the suburbanites who populate those tracks â€“ along with earlier Joel songs like â€œCaptain Jackâ€ and later ones like the doo-wop homages that dominated An Innocent Man â€“ seem to set Joelâ€™s personal nostalgia on a more mundane level than the standard mythologizing of the Haight, and levitating the Pentagon, and Chicago and all that. (This, above all else, may explain why boomer rock critics held Joel in disdain for years.)
Over the last two decades, as the boomers have aged and the cultural schism that they fomented has continued to permeate our society, a single question has become key to evaluating a politician, an artist, or (really) any other member of that generation: Which side were you on? In 1992, it was the Clintons vs. Marilyn Quayle (and her Republican Convention quote, “Not everyone demonstrated, dropped out, took drugs, joined in the sexual revolution or dodged the draft”). After 1994, it was pretty much down to Gump vs. Jenny (thatâ€™s Jenn-ay to you). Did you play football, go to war, become an entrepreneur and jog cross-country a couple times, or did you turn on, hang out with Black Panthers, striptease, do a bunch of coke, nearly fall off a balcony, and then die from AIDS complications?
Billy Joel, it seems clear, was more of a Gump than a Jenn-ay in the way he lived his life, if not his politics. The Stranger is the nostalgic manifesto of a guy who hung out in the â€™hood, not someone who marched in the streets, and its massive success reflects middle-class boomersâ€™ desire in the â€™70s to leave the previous decadeâ€™s cultural sturm und drang behind â€“ to escape into themselves and to celebrate a type of pedestrian adolescence that could have happened in the â€™40s or â€™50s as well as the â€™60s. (Thatâ€™s OK â€“ Elton and Bruce and even Johnny Cougar were all about escape during the â€™70s; hell, Bruce was Born to Run.) The difference is that during the â€™80s, when much of the rest of the culture â€“ including Bruce and John-not-Cougar â€“ became more comfortable revisiting the issues of the â€™60s and taking on the squabbles of the Reagan era, Billy remained largely apolitical. Apart from â€œGoodnight Saigon,â€ he stayed focused on the internal and left the sloganeering to others.
Sure, he has remained relevant, in the way that anyone who can still sell out Shea Stadium 15 years after his last hit is probably making a relevant grab for cash. Of course, those are hometown loyalists whoâ€™ll be flooding off the #7 train and the Long Island Railroad this week; theyâ€™re Billyâ€™s constituency, and theyâ€™re perpetually in a New York state of mind. But this is a guy whose commitment is so tenuous that he can’t be bothered to record a new album — not since he floated down the frickin’ River of Dreams, anyway. Do the rest of us, we who don’t need our New-Yawkness celebrated at every turn, really need a hyped-up reissue of The Stranger to remind us of the moment when boomers stopped being so damned interesting?
I’m actually a fan of The Stranger, and of Joel in general, but as cultural touchstones go I think Iâ€™ll just bide my time. The inevitable 35th-anniversary, 10-disc set of Born to Run is right around the corner.