He’s Always a Pop Star to Me

At 52, Billy Joel Writes His Opus 1

In his first foray into classical composition, songster Billy Joel has proved himself a master of second-year college harmony. His aptly titled CD Fantasies and Delusions (Sony), its cover tricked out to resemble the standard G. Schirmer cover for classical sheet music, contains his "Opus nos." 1 through 10, all played by pianist Richard Joo. The pieces—"Reverie," a Fantasy, three waltzes, an Invention in C minor—sound like the product of some musicologist-comedian's P.D.Q. Debussy, ranging in style from Bach to Chopin to Rachmaninoff and back, frequently changing harmonic idioms several times within one short work. From its near-perfect replications of Chopin chord progressions to its naive supposition that composers still use opus numbers, it's pretty amusing. We're all in the mood for a melody, right? Especially if it sounds like one we've heard before.

Equally entertaining have been Joel's public statements about the disc. Interviewed recently on National Public Radio, he admitted that critics were dismissing his music as imitations of Chopin and Rachmaninoff. "They thought they were putting me down," Joel laughed, "but hey—those are pretty good guys to sound like!" He also provided a defense for attempted plagiarism: if you're going to write "melodic music," he explained, there are only so many notes, and you're going to end up sounding like someone. "Even Beethoven knew that—his early music sounded like Mozart!" Well, OK. I hope Joel remembers that, and declines to litigate, when I come out with my new pop song next month that happens to sound suspiciously like "Piano Man." Hey, I've got to end up sounding like someone.

It's a cheap shot, making fun of someone's first compositions, even if they are on a Sony CD that's stayed no. 1 on Billboard's classical chart for 12 weeks now. One could be forgiven for wondering what higher cultural purpose NPR is serving by turning down dozens of really interesting new-music composers for interviews every month and then promoting this drivel in their place. But what intrigues me more is the evident envy that such exalted pop musicians like Joel and Paul McCartney (who wrote the Liverpool Oratorio) have for the prestige of the poor classical composer—and the ease with which they think it is achieved. In the classical world it's widely acknowledged that writing a good pop song is a hell of a lot harder than it looks. But while a composer who writes a pop song still has the marketplace to battle with, a pop star with an oratorio gets to coast to undeserved success on mere name recognition.

The optimistic view is that any mass-media attention awarded classical music brings benefits to the field. If you like Joel's ripoffs of Chopin and Rachmaninoff, one is tempted to argue, then you'll really love the real thing—and we get a vision of millions of pop fans running off to buy their first recording of the Chopin Nocturnes. According to Fran Richard at ASCAP, one of the music world's greatest and most generous powers-that-be, these occasional "classical" offerings by Joel, McCartney, and their ilk indicate to fans that the stars take classical music seriously, and this in turn makes it easier to justify ASCAP's and BMI's perennially embattled commitment to their rosters of low-earning "serious" composers.

But I have my doubts. Joel's inability (or, more generously, refusal) to follow one idea through the duration of a work is probably part of his charm for unsophisticated listeners. To follow the unity of even a brief work by Chopin or Debussy already entails certain expectations about one's attention span, an ability to enjoy a sustained working-out of an idea and a delayed gratification. Likewise, listeners who slurp up the sentimentality of Joel's music won't find a similar syrupiness in Chopin or Debussy, though they might occasionally get it in Rachmaninoff. I imagine pop fans listening perplexedly to their new Chopin Nocturnes and finding them duller than Billy Joel.

Of course, a certain audience that only likes 19th-century music will find their prejudices vindicated by Joel's slavish return to that style: not much reassurance there, either. Meanwhile, these periodic pop-star instrumentals flash through the classical best-seller charts like meteorites, mistaken for more permanent or meaningful phenomena. Uninterpreted statistics suggest the ludicrous conclusion that Joel and McCartney write better (at least, more successful) classical music than the classical composers themselves. For all the respect that Billy Joel may intend to express for the ancient art of composition, the weight of even his ephemeral, name-brand-triggered success pushes the true music of our time even further out into the margins of society.

 
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