“I have met only a very few people—and most of these were not Americans—who had any real desire to be free,” James Baldwin wrote in The Fire Next Time. “Freedom is hard to bear. It can be objected that I am speaking of political freedom in spiritual terms, but the political institutions of any nation are always menaced and are ultimately controlled by the spiritual state of that nation. We are controlled here by our confusion, far more than we know, and the American dream has therefore become something much more closely resembling a nightmare, on the private, domestic, and international levels.”
James Baldwin was right. I know, because I saw the great American nightmare—the vapid confusion, the spiritual decay—in Madison Square Garden last week. Its name was Billy Joel.
The singer’s profound awfulness is hardly news. Ron Rosenbaum was being charitable when he crowned Joel “the worst pop singer ever,” and I myself have spent more time than an emotionally stable person should musing about Joel’s solipsistic and soulless schlock. And I might’ve let him walk gently into the good night if my friend and former Tablet colleague Adam Chandler hadn’t enticed me to go and behold Joel in person, and if that concert hadn’t taken place just a month after the inauguration of Donald John Trump to the presidency of the United States of America, and if I didn’t come to believe, cowering in the arena among the mid-aged boppers who were there to give “Uptown Girl” one more stroll down memory lane, that Billy Joel is not an individual artist but a symptom of more or less everything that is wrong with America today.
That suspicion struck me soon after the set began. This being Joel’s 38th of a 42-night residency at the Garden—the biggest! The greatest! The most spectacular tour ever, as large canvases hanging over the metal detectors at the entrance to the Garden cheerfully informed us—the show was a straight-up string of the 33-Hit Wonder’s greatest hits. He chuckled through “My Life.” He pounded his way through “Pressure.” And then came the banter.
Playing “You’ve Lost that Lovin’ Feelin’” with all the tenderness of a Vegas lounge singer on the afternoon shift, Joel belted out a few bars of the classic before stopping to berate its original performers, the Righteous Brothers. Don’t you just hate it, Joel asked his admiring audience, when nostalgia acts keep on touring and drag their old hits onstage?
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