Billy Joel: American Kayfabe Master

I think this is one of my favourite all-time tweets:

While I wouldn’t change a single word of the tweet itself, because it’s perfect, I’d still extend it a whole lot further: I honestly think that this is one of the best snarky metaphors for America I’ve ever seen. 

Let’s first start with two true statements, that at first seem to be in conflict with each other but actually aren’t at all:

  1. Billy Joel, the iconic American artist who wrote a lot of good music, is most definitely not rock and roll. Rock and roll is the distilled essence of rebellion; of the individual; of discord; of clash against the system; etc etc etc. Billy Joel is musical theatre: tightly scripted coordination; operatic chorus swells; finger-snapping, easy-singing pop melodies. Not rock and roll.
  2. Nevertheless, it makes a lot of sense that we relentlessly talk about Billy Joel as being rock and roll. Our repeated insistence that Billy Joel is a rocker actually makes his music feel more complete. It’s an essential part of the Billy Joel experience. 

When we talk about Billy Joel as a rock and roll artist, what we actually mean is that his music makes us feel rock and roll feelings. The fact that his music is actually packaged-up clichéd show tunes hardly registers; what matters is how we feel, not what the music actually is. Saying “Billy Joel is rock music” with a straight face is precisely the same as saying “Wrestling is real.” At a literal level, it’s not a true statement. But at a more meta-level, it’s profound. Is Billy Joel’s iconic song “It’s still rock and roll to me” any different from the moved-to-tears wrestling fan who cries out, “It’s still real to me, damn it”? 

Where I’m going with this, of course, is that both of these things are exampled of kayfabe. Longtime Snippets readers will know that kayfabe is one of my favourite concepts. While it comes from the world of pro wrestling, it’s really applicable to just about any situation in the world where people have to both think and feel things. Kayfabe comes in many forms, but its essence is an unspoken agreement between performers and an audience: “We’ll present you with something clearly fake under the insistence that it’s real, and you will experience genuine emotion. Neither party acknowledges the bargain, or else the magic is ruined. Kayfabe isn’t about factual verifiability; it’s about emotional fidelity.” That line comes from one of the best concise kayfabe explainers out there, Nick Rogers’ piece from a few years ago in the New York Times. 

Just like a well-scripted wrestling show can prompt genuine emotion out of an audience (in some cases, even more powerfully than comparable real-life events could), Billy Joel is acting as a kayfabe artist as he sings to his audience of aging Long Island dads: “If I insist to you that this is rock and roll music, and if you all go along, my show tunes can make you feel more powerful rock and roll feelings than actual rock music ever could.” 

Now what does any of this have to do with America? 

So much of the idea of America as this place for rebellious, independent, break-the-mold strivers – the land of the free – is built on the lore of the Jeffersonian Ideal. The individual farmer who builds a life; the small mill town who punches above its weight; the independent publisher who argues their point; this idea of America is built on a theoretical collection of small, independent, rambunctious parts that add up to a mighty whole. The Jeffersonian ideal is of America as land of the unscripted individual; America as land of rock and roll.

The American superpower that came to dominate the 20th and 21st centuries, by contrast, is America: the Land of Show Tunes. The rock and roll myth is strong, but the reality is much more Alexander Hamilton’s vision than Jefferson’s: one of enormous scale and planned, protected coordination, where our day to day lives get manufactured in a kind of abstracted away Heartland, then packaged and shipped to us in bite-sized, pleasing formats that painstakingly recreate the illusion of craft and independence. Whether we’re talking coal, corn and cows or media, culture and politics, most of what we consume as 20 and 21st century Americans comes in this Hamiltonian format. 

Alexis De Tocqueville noticed this a hundred and seventy years ago, when he remarked that the American success story had far more to do with the health of American institutions, large and small, than it did with any particular lore or empowerment of the individual. Yet Americans across the board assign the latter far more credit than the former. (As you might expect, the tech industry has learned this lesson particularly well. Silicon Valley is 1000% the land of show tunes dressed up as rock and roll.) It’s as if we have a deep psychological need to keep the kayfabe going, and keep feeling America Feelings, or else the bargain gets ruined. 

More recently, Venkatesh Rao wrote a great piece about this phenomenon in his essay The American Cloud, which astutely remarked that Americans have a compulsive need to recreate and cultivate these Jeffersonian illusions. “The makeover has been so psychologically disruptive that during the past century, the bulk of America’s cultural resources have been devoted to obscuring the realities of the cloud with simpler, more emotionally satisfying illusions.” Think of the display stands at Whole Foods, painstakingly portraying farm stand dioramas that artfully suggest a single-sourced, farm-to-booth origin story of what actually was a mass manufactured Tangelo that emerged out of the Florida Citrus Cloud. 

Or, for that matter, think of your favourite Billy Joel tune: is it Piano Man? Uptown Girl? We Didn’t Start the Fire? Only the Good Die Young? All of these songs are like a masterfully scripted wrestling show: they’re not rock songs; they’re precisely engineered to make us feel authentic rock and roll feelings in a predictable, faithful way. They are the lovingly crafted display stand at Starbucks; the formulaic but still exciting Prestige TV we adore; they are America. And we love it.

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