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I’m one of those people you look at and think, there’s no way that guy listens to Billy Joel. I even look at myself and imagine a person who doesn’t listen to Billy Joel, but the cold, hard truth is that frankly, I’m addicted to his music. His songs are like precious time capsules for eras that exist partially in fantasy.
He is a character — he’s rock ‘n’ roll’s greatest chameleon — so, it’s only natural that he’d delight in embodying a number of characters both in his songs and videos.
He loves the Golden Age of American cinema and Broadway, he’s a hopeless romantic, and he loves borrowing cues from rock’s more extreme personalities to help sculpt his own — but there’s a lot of kitsch and camp there.
And while his music has certainly continued to touch millions of listeners, I’m not sure the characters he’s personified in his music videos have stood the test of time in the same way. But there sure are a lot of them, and maybe, in some way, these characters have come to define the many roles Joel’s music has played in his listeners’ lives.
Always looking back to look forward in his music, Billy Joel uses humanistic stories both real and imagined that highlight the triumphs of various Davids over those ever impenetrable Goliaths. Yet, sometimes I think he just uses these stories as an excuse to dress up in period costume. Let’s find out.
Serenading Auto Mechanic Billy
In “Uptown Girl,” Joel sings with the intensity of a downtown, working-class hero trying to elevate to the higher social caste of magazine models and luxury-car owners, and he’s joined by a choreographed multi-ethnic Broadway chorus wielding cars, motorcycles, and tools as auxiliary percussion. Well, he must’ve had a pretty great genie, because he actually married Christie Brinkley, who plays this particular uptown girl.
Actual Fire-Starter Billy
You’re telling us you didn’t start those flames, Billy? Really?
High-School Was the Best Time of My Life Why Do I Feel So Lonely Doo-Wop Billy
Joel cruises the halls of his high school after the reunion imagining his old doo-wop group is back together, swinging like the old days. Wait a second… was that boys bathroom really the fountain of youth?
Road-Rambling Protest Bard Billy
Seen here in his video for “Allentown,” a song about the rust belt in middle America and how the decline of American manufacturing affects the working class, it seems like he’s trying to channel his inner Woody Guthrie… or at least cop his image for a while to market the new single.
Cupid’s Favorite Crooner Billy
Again with the black Ray-Bans? Aight. Watch as Joel channels the heartthrob showman archetype, knocking the pants off everyone in this fake Ed Sullivan Show audience.
Jovial Suicide Prevention Hotline Billy
In “You’re Only Human (Second Wind),” Joel helps a suicidal teenager reflect on what he’d be missing out on if he takes that jump, further reinforcing his narrative role as savior of the world, even if he is dressed up like a homeless, harmonica-wielding bozo.
Accident-Prone Playboy Billy
In “She’s Right On Time,” Joel tries to set everything up perfectly for his date, and everything goes wrong. Maybe just don’t try so hard next time?
Sexy Justifiably Delinquent Billy
Mmmkay, so if you’re still with me here, this is where things get a bit weird. In “Keeping the Faith,” Joel is, I guess, on trial in “music court” for what sounds like some foolish misbehaviors of his fantasy past, and he’s trying to justify himself with having to hustle and having “the hunger.”
But maybe he’s really just talking about his IRL music career, and this is some elaborately theatrical attempt to right actual musical wrongs with an honest, catchy slow jam? If so, he doesn’t seem to be making any discernible efforts to move in the other direction when it comes to kitsch. And, again with the Ray-Bans, man?
Troubled Yet Wise Fly on the Wall(tz) Billy
In “Piano Man,” Joel captures the stories of all the regulars at the bar (…of life) and sets them to verse. Sure, he’s got problems of his own, but the man’s a professional. He sucks it up, fills his snifter with some cognac, and chisels some songs of solitude out of ivory.
I mean… he’s just trying to be Bono in this one, right?
Kubrickian Victim of Psychosis Billy
“Pressure” is definitely Joel’s most out-there video, doused in the Pink Floyd flavor of paranoia and featuring some pretty obvious references to the torture sequences of Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange throughout. Pretty trippy. A+.
Devil on His Own Shoulder Double Fantasy Billy
A twisted love triangle featuring Joel, a lonely damsel on the other end of the phone line, and Joel’s devilish alter-ego excited to watch himself get off on phone sex — or is this all just in his head?
The Lower East Side’s Springsteen Billy
And now back to that faithful innocent side! In “A Matter of Trust,” it’s just too dang hot out to rehearse with the windows closed, which leads this little New York garage band to become the city’s vessel for dropping everything and rockin’ out like the Boss is probably doing somewhere on the Jersey Shore.
Sea-Shanty Belting Bay Man Billy
In “The Downeaster ‘Alexa,’” Joel sings the tale of a fisherman coming up and growing old in his trade. Extra points for really leaning into this one and going for the accordion!
Tough Boy Sensitive Soul Billy
And while we’re on the topic of New York City, how about this gritty, West Side Story-type gang persona that Joel takes on before eventually ending up pouring his sensitive heart out in the studio on “My Life.”
However, he gets his bad-boy mojo back in the video for “Big Shot,” which is a continuation of the same “live” studio session.
Shark Fishing, Theatre Rigging, Truck Driving, Union Worker Billy
Joel does a little bit of everything in this video. Maybe he’s the guardian angel of this other dude who seems to be struggling through it all, or maybe they’re just regular old pals reincarnatin’ together, as they do.
Billy Preachin’ from the Barn and Bridge
In “River of Dreams,” Joel takes us on a journey through the countryside where gospel, rock ‘n’ roll, and rhythm and blues meet for some reflective contemplation. Oh yeah, and Ray-Bans.
This is obviously not a complete list of Joel’s videos. So many of them are live performance-based in which Billy Joel is simply playing himself, so I left those out. Basically, all of his scripted videos involve combinations of tropes such as him sitting at the piano, those damn black sunglasses, photos of soldiers, boats, stubble, etc. Despite Joel’s wandering character personas, they’re all actually pretty similar!
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