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.