Song Review: Billy Joel – “We Didn’t Start the Fire”

“We Didn’t Start the Fire” was the lead-off single for Billy Joel’s 1989 album, Storm Front. The single was released on September 27, 1989. The song ended up spending two weeks at number one on the Billboard Hot 100 chart on December 9 and 16, 1989.

“We Didn’t Start the Fire” is basically a history lesson, with names of historical figures, references to historical events, and pop culture references for the decades that this song covers. The song begins in 1949, the year Billy Joel was born, and goes through 1989, the year the song was written and recorded.

I was in the ninth grade when this song was released, and I thought it was fascinating. Admittedly, there were quite a few of the references I didn’t understand at the time the song was released, but I was still fascinated by the song. Over the years, I’ve come to learn more about the references that I didn’t know back in 1989, and my appreciation for this song has only grown because of acquiring that knowledge.

I’ve always liked the music video, too. Quite a bit of the video focuses on the evolution of a family. It begins with a newlywed couple moving into their new home, followed by the wife’s pregnancy and birth of their first child. There’s a skip in time to the baby, a son, going through his toddler and elementary school years. Then the focus changes to his younger sister, and we see her going from playing with Barbie dolls to being in high school and getting ready for a formal dance, to her burning bras while her older brother burns his draft card. Near the end, we see that the husband has died and then we see the wife with who I believe would be either her adult children or her grandchildren in a demolished house. In addition to seeing the family change, we also see the décor of the house change and the family members’ clothing styles change as the song goes through the various decades that it covers.

Not only did I acquire knowledge about some of the references in the song as I got older, I now understand a visual reference in the video that didn’t make sense to me for many years. At one point, the daughter is playing violin very badly and the mother is holding her hands over her ears. Then we see the mother take out a pill bottle, take a couple of pills, and then she’s playing the violin and looking zonked out. Several years later, I was exposed to the Rolling Stones’ “Mother’s Little Helper,” and I now understand that this is a visual reference to the popularity of valium (diazepam), the mild tranquilizer that was being prescribed to housewives in the 1960s.

Another thing I’ve come to realize about this song is the fact that, musically, it doesn’t really sound that dated. The only thing to truly date the song is the fact that the lyrics ends with references from 1989. “We Didn’t Start the Fire” is a song that I still really enjoy nearly 25 years after its initial release. My kids also seem to like it, too.

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