Dear Rachel –
The irony of this letter is that, while the mix tapes we sent each other back in the day included songs from each of the albums from which I’m referencing, I’m not touching on them at all today. You see, this letter isn’t about our relationship with each other, but our (in the broad sense of each of us as individuals within the overall scope of humanity) relationship with the world at large, and everything going on around us that we really don’t seem to have any control over.
That last qualifier is, in fact, the whole point of the first of these songs. You remember this one, coming out while we were both still in college. While you sent “And So It Goes” to me a few years later (which, in all honesty, fit my attitude toward you better than the other way around, but you were the one who was a true Billy Joel fan), this song was the breakout hit of the album, and for a pretty good reason; it’s catchy, it plays on nostalgia (of sorts), and it makes perfectly clear that ‘we’ (in this case, the Baby Boomer generation that was just finishing its entrance into adulthood – you and I, by contrast, were among the vanguard of what was still known at that time as ‘Baby Busters,’ as the novel ‘Generation X’ was still a couple years away from publication) were absolutely not responsible for what was going on in the world.
Joel’s main point here is that, “Hey, look, crazy stuff has been happening in America – and the world – since long before we got here. What are you blaming us for?” And he’s not altogether wrong. Even the existence of the Baby Boom generation was due to an extraordinary confluence of events that was (since they weren’t there by definition) out of their control; namely, the fact that the war was over, the GIs were returning victorious en masse, and these boys-turned-into-men now wanted to occupy themselves with the more peaceful pursuits of manhood, like starting families.
And boy howdy, did they ever! And they were so happy to be home, and so determined to make sure that their kids would never have to deal with the awfulness they had to, that they wound up doting on those kids to the point where said kids had a cosmology that would make both Copernicus and Ptolemy facepalm. Forget the sun or the earth; each of these kids (unless they had siblings, maybe) learned that they were the center of the universe.
Am I being too hard on them?
I’ve written to you before (and talked to you before your departure) about the defining tragedies of each generation; that moment in time when everyone (or at least, every American) was watching as things suddenly fell apart:
- The ‘Greatest Generation’: Pearl Harbor
- The Baby Boomers: the JFK assassination
- Generation X: the Challenger disaster
- Millennials: 9/11
Mr. Joel could have mentioned the Challenger, as it’s part of the timeline (and three years before he released the song), but that apparently didn’t affect him as much as a ‘rock-and-roller cola war.’ Now, it may be that it’s just the miniscule straw that broke the camel’s back, but the idea that this is what gets him to admit ‘I can’t take it any more!’ suggests a fairly weak constitution, if you ask me.
You’ll notice that I haven’t bothered to mention Generation Z; that’s because when I first came up with the theory, there hadn’t been any ‘defining tragedy’ they’d had to deal with. In fact, I wondered if there would even be such an event, in a world of so many different channels – would there ever even be an event that was common to us all again? Since then, that question has been answered in spades – indeed, there’s almost too much to choose from. The pandemic was just the beginning. Barely a couple months in, we had the George Floyd riots, then the Rayshard Brooks riot, the Jacob Blake riot, CHAZ and CHOP, and whatever was going on in Portland… all of which was perfectly acceptable to the folks in charge, until it happened in their front yard. Honestly, GenZed needs its own Billy Joel to keep track of it all.
And if you think it’s plagiarizing to reuse a tune, how about the fact that it seems like entire songs could be reused these days? Vox Humana (the third installment in Daniel Amos’ ¡Alarma! Chronicles) was about as eighties a collection of music as there could be – come on, one of the songs was literally called “It’s The Eighties; Where’s Our Rocket Packs?” giving it a shelf life of, oh, six years before it would be completely out of date, like Prince’s 1999.
I sent you a couple of songs from there – “She’s All Heart” and “When Worlds Collide,” if I recall correctly – but the one that speaks to the current moment is this one:
…and I dare anyone to say otherwise, particularly the first verse – which was supposed to refer to Afghanistan, ironically, but pretty well sums up Ukraine right now (not to mention our desultory response to it all as Americans). Unlike Mr. Joel, Mr. Taylor and company doesn’t think our detached reaction is proper, even as he acknowledges that escalation would be a Very Bad Thing in its own right.
Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. Forty years, and the only real difference is the location – and the generation dealing with it – although I might just take on the second verse in another letter some time.
Can we handle this better than the Boomers? Probably not while they’re still in charge – and you just know they’ll continue to insist they didn’t have anything to do with it, too.
Keep an eye out for me, honey, and I’ll be talking to you again soon.