More Bad Music Criticism

A friend showed me this kinda-funny Slate article about Billy Joel called The Worst Pop Singer Ever. It’s cheeky, cute. Here’s a bit:

I’m reluctant to pick on Billy Joel. He’s been subject to withering contempt from hipster types for so long that it no longer seems worth the time. Still, the mystery persists: How can he be so bad and yet so popular for so long? He’s still there. You can’t defend yourself with anti-B.J. shields around your brain. He still takes up the space, takes up A&R advances that would otherwise support a score of unrecognized but genuinely talented artists, singers, and songwriters, with his loathsomely insipid simulacrum of rock.


I’m no great Billy Joel-lover, though I’ll admit to having a few of his songs on my iPod, but here is what bugs me about the article. It contains zero insight on the musical merit of his songs; it is solely about the lyrics in his songs. Yeah, Billy’s songs are kinda douchey. Yeah, his lyrics aren’t always the best. But if you are going to devote an entire article, even if it is purposefully silly, on why an artist is good or bad, you have to criticize their art. The author, absolute standards” of art. Well, I would assume that almost everyone would consider the craft involved in ones art to be one of those “absolute standards”, but the author is obviously completely unqualified to judge Billy Joel’s art in a musical context.

Billy Joel is a pretty good musician. He’s definitely a good singer (or was) and wrote several well-crafted – if rather trite – songs. It’s good 80s pop, not much more. His lyrics can be pretentious, in the case of And So It Goes (although I kinda love it), or dreadful, in the case of Pressure. Usually they are ok. Obviously, the author finds BJ to be annoying. Alright. I can see that. But that is not a valid criticism in and of itself. Here are a couple examples of his justifications:

First let’s take “Piano Man.” You can hear Joel’s contempt, both for the losers at the bar he’s left behind in his stellar schlock stardom and for the “entertainer-loser” (the proto-B.J.) who plays for them. Even the self-contempt he imputes to the “piano man” rings false.

“Captain Jack”: Loser dresses up in poseur clothes and masturbates and shoots up heroin and is an all-around phony in the eyes of the songwriter who is so, so superior to him.

“The Entertainer”: Entertainers are phonies! Except exquisitely self-aware entertainers like B.J., who let you in on this secret.

K, got it, you don’t dig the lyrics. But that does not make you a music critic, anymore than it would make me an art critic be if I decided I didn’t like a painting because I thought it was ugly. It may be fair for me to form that opinion, but it doesn’t make me an authority. And I sure as hell would not be conceited enough to write an article for a major online publication decrying that work of art for being ugly, while being completely ignorant of the technique involved in creating it.

Seriously, they don’t put up with this shit in the art world, why do musicians find it acceptable that utter laymen are the primary commentators on their work?

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