The case against Billy Joel’s 1973 hit “Piano Man”


On lists of the most hated or critically dumped-upon singers, Billy Joel is often thrown into the mix. It’s been talked about ad nauseum, but it has always remained a mystery how Joel has remained so popular for so long. Not least because of Joel’s signature song “Piano Man” from 1973, which has unfortunately went on to define his entire career.

When it comes down to it, the most surface-level reason for disliking the song comes in the first 15 seconds. A tinkling piano intro teases early-period Tom Waits, but it then piles on the crap with the cheesiest sounding harmonica that screams a bland and weak barroom singalong.

Sure enough, the opening line paints the picture that confirms the listener’s worst fears, and the imagery grows more forced and more faux-Harry Chapin with every passing line. Lines like “making love to his tonic and gin” and “I knew it complete when I wore a younger man’s clothes” are not only lyrically clunky in service to the rhyme scheme of the song, but are also remorselessly sentimental.

Perhaps the crux of the argument against the song is Joel’s self-aggrandizing of not just his own abilities as the said “piano man,” but also the pencil-thin caricature of the sad and lonely characters frequenting the bar.

The patrons incredulously ask “Man, what are you doing here?” with particular painful emphasis on the “you,” suggesting a run-of-the-mill barroom singer is too good of a performer to perform in a song that literally is sung along to by most white people in any bar on a Saturday night.

Suffice to say a song that waxes lyrical about the singer’s abilities as a singer, rapper, guitarist or pianist does not include both harmonica and accordion flourishes during the chorus; “Johnny B. Goode” it is not, nor is it a “What’d I Say.”

Joel went on to drop more unpopular tunes like the wedding and Time Life-commercial favorite “Just The Way You Are” and the U.S. history barf “We Didn’t Start the Fire.” While those can perhaps be viewed with a layer of irony or cheese-goggles, “Piano Man” remains infuriatingly, confusingly popular. Hearing it is joyless for all parties involved, yet it remains demanded to be heard to this day by those swept up by its sad imagery and ovrr-wrought sentimentality.


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9 responses to “The case against Billy Joel’s 1973 hit “Piano Man””

  1. What a weak argument and uninspiring article. Doesn’t the author have anything better to do? As Paul McCartney once responded to a writer who was spending way too much time analyzing and criticizing a 1968 two-record Beatles’ set, “It’s the bloody Beatles bloody White Album. Shut oop!”

    Piano Man inspires tens of thousands of people to sing their hearts out while holding hands in a stadium and gets normally stand-offish commuters to share a special singalong moment on an otherwise drab train commute home. Unless you are jealous of this, Jeremy, I see no reason why you don’t just “Shut oop!”

    • What a weak counterargument. If a guy goes up against the Beatles, then maybe there is a little something wrong with him. It is completely valid to say that. But a song that plays off of people’s hopeless lives like “Piano Man” does? And people just go along with it, almost blindly? It gets kind of shameful when you think about it. And there’s no reason why anybody should get so sappy or sentimental over it. But maybe I’m wrong. And maybe you should have checked yourself before you came to post a comment. THis is a website, isn’t it? With dedicated authors? Maybe this guy is down-and-out and he just needs some random and arbitrary thing to talk about so he can get paid this month. Ever thought about that?

  2. Its Billy Fricken Joel, its one of the most recognizable signature songs ranking up there with Frank Sinatra being identified with MY WAY. Your a knob!!!

  3. You are bringing no argument to the table whatsoever. And for a guy who uses the wrong “your” when calling somebody a knob, well, look who’s talking.

  4. Jeremy Gurto, the song “Piano Man” was, and continues to be popular today because not only is it a great song but it reveals the musical skills of Billy Joel. So much of the music of today is so synthesized but his music is real. Not many people can play the piano, sing, or play the harmonica. Yet he does them simultaneously. I like the song and lyrics because they tell a story and create an image in my mind. You don’t like the song and you’re entitled to your own opinion. As for the “what are you doing here?” line, many Artists do similar things like Drake, Started from the Bottom. Yet, that doesn’t seem to bother many people.

  5. Okay, so you don’t like the song. Millions of people do, and where is a song that you’ve written to show Billy Joe how it’s done?

    I have yet to meet a “real estate novelist” (with or without a wife), and actually enjoy about a dozen of his songs over PM, but that just illuminates how incredibly talented he is.

  6. Funny… all these years I have thought that he was paying in a gay piano bar. The only (assumed) female in the story is the waitress. Sure makes sense out of “man, what are you doin’ here?”‘

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