Over the last few weeks I’ve said to a few people that “I may be done with A Year of Billy Joel but A Year of Billy Joel is not done with me.”
I’m not complaining about this; last year’s project turned into something greater than I anticipated and it seems as if there is still some words I need to write about Billy Joel.
While I try to figure out what I need to say I’ve been talking to people about what I’ve done and what I’d like to do next. One of those people is my very smart and talented friend Shana who recognized an early Billy Joel song on TV and had this to say about it.
I was out of town last week, so I just watched the most recent episode of Smash last night. Where Nashville ambles along, confusing and charming, Smash gives me whiplash. “Bombshell,” its show-within-a-show about Marilyn Monroe, has pitch perfect period piece musical numbers. Basically everything else is such a mess it almost - almost - makes me want to be one of those ragey recappers that just capslocks WTF?! over still images from each scene.
But crack open my cold little heart and inside every bleeding cell is a musical lover, so I keep watching Smash. (And Nashville. And Glee.) Even when they’re messy, at least people are singing about it, or trying to.
This season of Smash is all over the place in a different way than last year’s trainwreck, but one occasional improvement has been its use of cover songs. The compromise to mix up original musical numbers with contemporary hits was always so jarring and felt like the most glaring of network notes. But though Megan Hilty’s version of “Dancing On My Own” suffered the most obvious Theater 101 staging - who cares, honestly, when it sounds like that?
Then - this past week, buried in the middle of about 14 plots I totally stopped trying to follow, there was that unmistakable sound of a Billy Joel piano intro. The cute gay songwriter - I just had to look it up, apparently his name is Kyle - is out looking for his BFF/secret BF - whose name is apparently Jimmy (Jeremy Jordan - that much I knew, because he’s all Broadway-famous). Anyway gay Kyle is not-at-all-secretly in love with presumably-straight-but-awful-cocktease Jimmy, and on principle I should probably be all tumblr-offended about that storyline except - shocking - I’m NOT, I LOVE IT, there’s so much sad pining and I love all the misery because Julia’s not miserable any more and I apparently need this show to be invested in ruining some good character’s life. (ETA: My wife just yelled at me for not telling you Kyle is played by the excellent Andy Mientus.)
Anyway the Billy Joel intro leads into Kyle singing “Everybody Loves You Now,” and then moves into Jennifer Hudson - who plays a sad, super successful but tragically misunderstood fake-Broadway-famous diva - who has FINALLY learned how to lip-sync and completely NAILS the bridge and last bit of the song.
This sequence delivers everything I demand in a not-strictly-performance-scenario musical number: It uses an unexpected song in a surprising way, it leverages the strength of a character/actor’s skills, and it moves the plot forward (at least a little). It works in the easy way you don’t have to think about, unlike so much of Smash which is creaking and moaning under the weight of so many people thinking so hard about what it all means.
“Everybody Loves You Now” is a sad, lonely bordering on bitter song disguised as a pretty rollicking melody (my favorite), and in under three minutes it made me have to rethink why THIS could work so well when all of THAT - the rest of the episode - was so laborious. It made me ache for little Kyle, staring across at Manhattan and hating all those people who want his soon-to-famous friend and admitting, “but between you and me and the Staten Island ferry — so do I.” And it made me actually care about J-Hud in her gilded cage, condemning herself for getting exactly what she wanted, and ain’t she proud.
I happen to know a bona fide Billy Joel expert, my friend Will, who spent 2012 listening to and blogging about every single one of Billy Joel’s songs. I felt a little less crazy today when I went back and looked up his entry for “Everybody Loves You Now,” because - by his own admission - Will started his Year of Billy Joel with half an idea about this guy from his hometown and all his cheesy hits:
In my head I envisioned that I would listen to a bunch of songs I didn’t like and then talk about why they were bad or maybe why they weren’t as bad as I thought. Then I’d make jokes and we’d all move on with our lives.
Then he heard “Everybody Loves You Now”:
Perhaps I’m just a sucker for a good story about a guy from Long Island but I can’t help but root for the 1971 version of Billy Joel…
Listening to these songs I don’t hear the bland singer and songwriter who I’ve disliked for three decades. Instead I hear a kid from my hometown who sees his chances slipping away and is trying to catch a break. I don’t want his debut album to be mastered incorrectly. I want him to make it big even though I know he will eventually find fame to be more than he bargained for.
Jesus, just what is your game Billy Joel? Are you trying to make me love you just so you can break my heart later? I’m trusting you Billy.
I’ve written and talked a lot about cover songs (like this piece I did for NPR about Glee back in 2009), which in my experience people either love or hate the same way they either love or hate musicals and if you’re on the other side of that divide you just stare at each other in confusion. I think covers are best when they can either capture something totally unexpected on their own - usually with a surprising change of arrangement or even narrator - say, a young gay songwriter instead of Billy Joel. Or, en masse, they can occasionally frame an entirely new story - like in Moulin Rouge, or my all-time favorite musical, Singin’ in the Rain, which is one of the most revered films of all time but started off as a producer’s vanity project to resuscitate his back catalog.
They’re easy to dismiss as recycled shortcuts appealing to built-in nostalgia. But they’re much harder to get right.