The Number Ones

December 9, 1989

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

Stayed at #1:

2 Weeks

In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.

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If there’s anything worthwhile about Billy Joel’s loathsome and maddening “We Didn’t Start The Fire” — anything at all — it’s that the song captures a certain feeling of overwhelm. We all know that feeling. You’re looking at some timeline or other, and the sheer intensity of information gets to be enough that you want to curl up in to a ball with your eyes shut and your fingers in your ears. It’s too much, all the time.

Plenty of us would love to flatter ourselves and imagine that we’re among the first people ever subjected to this constant barrage of names and events. We’re not. Every generation feels like the world is ending. Every generation is overwhelmed. Billy Joel wrote “We Didn’t Start The Fire” in a very different historical era, but he still felt that way. Translating that overwhelm into music, Joel made an eternal touchpoint, a thing that can be referenced whenever we collectively can’t take it anymore. Frankly, the overwhelm deserves better.

I hate “We Didn’t Start The Fire” so much. I hate it with my whole being, my entire soul. I hear that nattering keyboard riff and those hyperactive bongos and “Harry Truman Doris Day,” and I become a different being. My blood becomes lava. My teeth become knives. In seconds, I could reduce a rhinoceros to ashen bone with the sheer acidity of my stomach bile. As a song, “We Didn’t Start The Fire” is a cursed and godforsaken work of torment, a towering abomination. Its sheer musical unpleasantness is, in its own way, almost impressive. If Billy Joel had actually set out to create eardrum-stabbing experimental hell-music, he couldn’t have done any better.

To his partial credit, Billy Joel has always understood that “We Didn’t Start The Fire” is a true piece of shit. At various points over the decades, Joel has compared “We Didn’t Start The Fire” to “a dentist drill” and “a mosquito buzzing around your head.” He has said that the ugliness of the song’s melody is the reason he almost never writes lyrics before he writes music. Joel is right about all of this. “We Didn’t Start The Fire” is catchy enough to stick in your head, but in this case, that’s a terrible thing. It’s not fun to listen to. Joel’s staccato quasi-rap delivery, the uptight bray of his delivery, the tortuous plasticity of the production — all of it makes the song a difficult thing to endure. But “We Didn’t Start The Fire” repulses me for reasons that go beyond simple musical shittiness. It’s the arrogance of the thing, the smugness, the sense of being impressed with itself.

Joel has said that he wrote “We Didn’t Start The Fire” after a conversation with young Sean Lennon and some unnamed friend of Lennon. Lennon’s friend had just turned 21, and he lamented that 1989 was a bad time to be 21. This same friend allegedly told Billy Joel, “You were a kid in the ’50s, and everybody knows that nothing happened in the ’50s.” Joel started rattling off names of things that did happen in the ’50s — trouble in the Suez, etc. — and the friend hadn’t heard of any of it. So Joel took this as an opportunity for a writing exercise. Joel had recently turned 40, so he went back through the years of his life and wrote down a bunch of shit that he remembered, then turned that list of shit into a song.

In Fred Bronson’s Billboard Book Of Number 1 Hits, Joel describes the intended message of “We Didn’t Start The Fire”:

Hey, we didn’t start this mess; we certainly did our best to make it better. It’s not something we started, and it’s probably not something we’re going to be able to finish. For the foreseeable future, this kind of craziness is going to go on and on. That’s how life is.

No. Absolutely not. Unacceptable. Fuck that shit. As a child of baby boomers, as someone who inherited a deeply fucked society and who will pass along an even more fucked society to my children, I take violent exception to all of this. “We Didn’t Start The Fire” is an anthem of boomer self-regard, a big shrug. I hear it as Joel explaining to all younger generations that this fucked society isn’t the fault of his own generation. How could Billy Joel and his contemporaries be expected to change the fabric of society when they had to deal with Lebanon and Charles de Gaulle and California baseball? It couldn’t be helped.

The thing that I truly despise about “We Didn’t Start The Fire” is the way Billy Joel holds himself separate from all these constant historical ruptures. It’s like all these things that he namechecks, these lives and deaths and catastrophes and cultural waves, are happening to him, like they’re just some shit that he has to deal with. In the way he crams in all his names and places, Joel reduces everything to vast flatness. China under martial law and rock ‘n’ roller cola wars are just two more oppressive forces competing for the attention of Billy Joel.

I’m clearly bringing my own baggage do “We Didn’t Start The Fire,” but “We Didn’t Start The Fire” is a song about baggage, so it seems appropriate. For years after “We Didn’t Start The Fire,” history teachers tried to use the song as a lesson plan, a way to make past events tangible for students. This, of course, had the hateful effect of subjecting more and more students to “We Didn’t Start The Fire.” It’s still happening now. This year, there’s a new podcast called We Didn’t Start The Fire that devotes entire episodes to all the names and events that Billy Joel reels off. Fun idea. Too bad it couldn’t be based on a better song.

When he made “We Didn’t Start The Fire,” Joel had been a star for more than a decade. “Tell Her About It,” Joel’s previous #1 hit, had been six years earlier. It came from An Innocent Man, an album where Joel got deep into the doo-wop of his youth. Joel’s nostalgia was lucrative. An Innocent Man sold seven million copies and sent three singles into the top 10. Joel followed that with a 1985 double-disc greatest-hits collection, which sold six gajillion copies. (Bonus track “You’re Only Human (Second Wind)” peaked at #9. It’s a 2.) Joel’s 1986 album The Bridge was a relative failure, only going double platinum, and a couple of its singles merely nicked the top 10. (“Modern Woman” and “A Matter Of Trust” both peaked at #10. Both are 4s.)

But if Billy Joel wasn’t the hitmaker he’d once been, he was still doing fine. He’d sold vast numbers of records, he was married to Christie Brinkley, and he was able to do pretty much whatever he wanted. In 1987, for instance, Joel paid about a million dollars of his own money to play a few large-scale arena shows in the Soviet Union. In 1988, Joel played the title role in the Disney movie Oliver & Company, and Disney designed the dog to look and act as much as possible like Billy Joel — an unsuccessful early example of celebrity cartoon stunt-casting, an idea that didn’t fully take off until Robin Williams was in Aladdin four years later.

When Joel recorded his 1989 album Storm Front, he made some career changes. He’d gotten into a court battle with his old manager, and he also fired most of his backing band and split with longtime producer Phil Ramone. Instead, Joel co-produced Storm Front with Mick Jones, leader of past Number Ones artists Foreigner. Even beyond the vile awfulness of “We Didn’t Start The Fire,” Storm Front sounds like an earful of rat piss. Its blaring, synthed-out, personality-free take on late-’80s arena-rock has aged like dashboard milk.

Storm Front was a commercial bounce-back for Joel, and that pretty much comes down to “We Didn’t Start The Fire.” The song gargles dog puke, but the timing was right. Essentially by accident, “We Didn’t Start The Fire” chronicled the entire span of the Cold War just as the Cold War was ending. The song reached #1 exactly one month after the Berlin Wall came down, at a time when plenty of people thought they’d just seen the end of history. (Francis Fukuyama published The End Of History, a book with a thesis that’s aged worse that “We Didn’t Start The Fire,” three years later.) Maybe enough people heard “We Didn’t Start The Fire” as some kind of victory lap.

“We Didn’t Start The Fire” is also a deeply memorable song, one that inscribed itself upon the brains of a whole lot of people who were kids at the time. Just a few days ago, my friend Lindsay Zoladz — at least, I hope she’s still my friend after this — published a New York Times piece about her enduring childhood love of the song. People are constantly making “We Didn’t Start The Fire” parodies. It’s reached that realm of universal reference point. So many of the songs in this column, the dominant hits of their day, have disappeared into mass memory-holes. That will never happen with “We Didn’t Start The Fire.” Its particular form of shittiness lingers.

Storm Front sold four million copies, and it spun off one more top-10 hit, the extremely not-extreme “I Go To Extremes.” (That song peaked at #6. It’s a 4.) Joel went four years without releasing another album, and then he returned with River Of Dreams, which sold even more than Storm Front even though it only had one big hit single. (“River Of Dreams” peaked at #3. It’s a 6.)

Other than 2001’s Fantasies & Delusions, an album of classical piano pieces that he wrote but didn’t perform, Billy Joel hasn’t released an LP since 1993. Since that time, Joel’s life has been plenty eventful. He’s been divorced and then married a couple more times. He’s had rehab stints. He went into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame. He played the final shows at Shea Stadium before it got torn down. He’s played Madison Square Garden more than 100 times; the world’s most famous arena is basically Billy Joel’s house. But Joel hasn’t made records. A couple of years ago, Joel told Rolling Stone that he still writes music, but “I don’t feel compelled to record it. I don’t feel compelled to make myself be relevant.” Good. Salute him, if nothing else, for that. Billy Joel already inflicted one “We Didn’t Start The Fire” upon us. We don’t need any more.

GRADE: 1/10

BONUS BEATS: Here’s the scene from 2012’s The Five-Year Engagement where Chris Pratt sings a “We Didn’t Start The Fire” parody as part of a wedding toast:

BONUS BONUS BEATS: Speaking of Chris Pratt, here’s the scene from a 2015 Parks And Recreation episode where Amy Poehler tortures Nick Offerman by incorrectly singing “We Didn’t Start The Fire” to him:

BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Speaking of Chris Pratt again, here’s the 2019 Tonight Show bit where the cast of Avengers: Endgame sings the plots of past Marvel movies to the tune of “We Didn’t Start The Fire”:

(I’m pretty sure the only one of those fuckers with a Hot 100 hit is Jimmy Fallon. Fallon’s highest-charting single, the 2014 will.i.am collaboration “Ew!,” peaked at #26.)

BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the bit from Adam Sandler’s 2019 comedy special where he sings “Bar Mitzvah Boy,” a sort of personalized version of “We Didn’t Start The Fire”:

(Adam Sandler’s highest-charting single, 1996’s “The Chanukah Song,” peaked at #80.)

BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the bit from a 2020 episode of The Boys where Jack Quaid and Erin Moriarty bond by singing “We Didn’t Start The Fire” to each other:

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