History and Pop Culture: Billy Joel

For someone who was so willing to plunk down thousands of dollars (and what felt like an equal amount of hours) into researching and writing a master’s thesis, I have done absolutely nothing since I got my degree. I attributed it to burn-out and to starting a full-time job. Then winter in Ohio came and I endured my usual seasonal depression. Then we moved to New England. It’s been eight months since I submitted that sucker, and I can finally admit that I simply believed the same enthusiasm I had for historical disease research would carry over into my non-academic life. It didn’t. Perhaps I was naive. Perhaps I had shelved my self-discipline. Perhaps I was just tired. I believe, in a way, it was all three. No accountability. The work was done. Now what?

I hoped, however, that being literally surrounded by early American history (even the trees in New England have historical significance) would jump-start my interest once again and send me head first into a topic which, considering my location, would have ample sources to investigate. And that happened, temporarily. First, I came across a local controversy involving a Civil War hero and his horse in a nearby cemetery. Then I discovered Nathaniel Hawthorne’s involvement in creating New Hampshire’s tourism industry and the actual field of trauma tourism. Then…nothing. The spark of light that held my attention petered out just as uneventfully as it appeared – that is to say I hadn’t expected it to come or go, but I’m happy it kept me from being too overwhelmed with responsibilities during my first weeks here in New Hampshire.

Recently I started reading Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea by Barbara Demick. When I think of North Korea, I often think of Billy Joel’s song “We Didn’t Start the Fire.” As a kid, I absolutely adored Billy Joel’s music. I still do. I’m pretty sure my parents had a few of his albums, so his musical presence was nothing new whether it was from inside my house, or coming from my parents’ car stereo. I grew up in the 80s, but more importantly I lived on a military base in Northern Italy during the first half of the decade. I was always keenly aware of the Soviet nuclear threat and the fact that international flights were frequent terrorist targets. By the time the video for “We Didn’t Start the Fire” was released, I had memorized all the words and became ridiculously interested in all of Joel’s historical references. What is a Communist Bloc? Why are children on thalidomide? What IS thalidomide? Where is the Congo? And why are the Belgians there? It would be fair to say that Billy Joel deserves just as much credit as my visit to the Peshtigo Fire Museum and my high school history teacher, Mr. O’Malley, for enrooting in me the near-obsessive compulsion to discovering the who, what, where, when, and, most compellingly, the why in anyone’s story.

Sometimes I have to go back to the beginning to remind myself why I love history so much. It’s not that I forget, necessarily. It’s just that I find myself uninspired sometimes by the negativity of this world, weighed down by the heaviness of our current political climate. Earlier this year I deleted all of my news apps and, coincidentally, Facebook friends (and some family members) who feed the monster that is, in my opinion, besmirching the ideals that a good percentage of Americans from every background had finally started to come around to. Some of you might argue that my past research on biological genocide against native North American tribes or racial and economic disparities regarding Yellow Fever outbreaks is just as negative. I wouldn’t say you’re entirely wrong. But I think the country’s current epidemic of the Orange Fever is dangerous in its own way. Why? Because it’s happening now. Will Trump and anecdotes about his presidency ever make it into a song that also includes the lyrics “Black Lives Matter,” a reference to Childish Gambino’s “This is America,” and the inevitable end of the world? Maybe. And I’d probably love the hell out of it.

For me, there is no reason to study history if I can’t find some way to connect events, from yesterday or past centuries, to the reasons something exists, or doesn’t exist, today. Again, Billy Joel’s song encourages me to do that. He sang about the Ayatollah in Iran and Bernie Goetz, remember? Because of that Ayatollah in Iran, I know what an air raid siren sounds like because I had to respond to them when I was five years old. And because of Bernie Goetz, gun rights enthusiasts and activists can still make a good point in being legally self-armed, decades after Goetz made his.

About that fire, though: Billy Joel wants to know When we are gone, will it still burn on? Probably. Like he said, It was always burning since the world’s been turning. And with that, my fascination with historical trauma events and their affects on the modern world will never be without material. Admittedly, I am a little sad that I haven’t been terribly motivated by anything or anyone in history, as of yet, to start plugging away on the research and the writing. Perhaps I am naive. Perhaps I have shelved my self-discipline. Perhaps I am just tired.

Perhaps I should just write a history book that tackles every single one’s of Joel’s references in the order in which he sings…

2 thoughts on “History and Pop Culture: Billy Joel

  1. You spoke my language when you mentioned the negativity of the world and political climates. I don’t watch TV news or read much of Yahoo/Bing’s news because of the negativity. Why do we give so much press to evil-doers and so little to people who are accomplishing something? Recently went to a restaurant in Atlantic Beach called Poe’s Tavern. The decorating was something else, especially the restrooms. I went scrambling to research Edgar Allen Poe because I didn’t remember much about him.The research was fun because he was a little on the strange side and died at 40. Drank himself to death.

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