#70: Billy Joel, "The Stranger" (1977)

70 The Stranger.jpg

It’s almost an internet sport, in a way, to make fun of Billy Joel. He’s one of the last bastions of a very specific iteration of New York, of a very specific type of music—operatic narratives, told with a an accomplished voice and over an expertly played piano, something that could be beautiful if not for the performance of its earnestness. And therein lies what’s so easy to mock—the mawkishness of his belief in the very humanness of his melodramas.

However, even amongst his cruelest detractors, there is no denying that one collection of his songs manages to pull itself out from Billy’s self-created sea of grandiose sincerity, allowing you to wade through its narratives as opposed to feeling drowned by them. Largely considered his magnum opus, Billy Joel’s The Stranger was written, recorded, and released just months after his 28th birthday. It holds some of his most famous and most critically praised songs—“Only the Good Die Young” is a karaoke staple; “Just the Way You Are” is, to this day, amongst the most frequently selected first dance songs of all time; and “Scenes from an Italian Restaurant” is recognized as one of the most accomplished ballads of the century—and yet there’s an air of a wanting for maturity in the album. Joel offers an acknowledgment that he’s not getting any younger, but whereas other artists would chose to focus on impending mortality, the inevitable beginning of a natural decline, he almost always pivots instead spitting in the face of his imminent aging.

The album opens with “Movin’ Out (Anthony’s Song),” a song that is so obviously and aggressively immature about its speaker’s perception of growing up that it’s almost impossible to believe it’s not satire. Yet, as the album unfolds, we are met again and again with songs not about Anthony specifically, but about the messiness of navigating what happens once you’ve moved on out into the real world. What is there to say about The Stranger if not that it’s an assurance that you can obliterate your alleged roadmap? We see this most clearly smack in the middle of the album, with “Vienna” leading into “Only the Good Die Young.”

“Only the Good Die Young” is the kind of song you write when you never really believed that you’ve been close to death. It’s the type of song that laughs at mortality without relishing the irony of its proximity, an anthem of youthful abandon screamed in bars or out of car windows at that age when you really think you just might live forever. This yearning for freedom is an important part of any Bildungsroman, yet it is nothing without a nod to getting older in turn, the absence of which most of the album highlights. Of course, the exception is obvious: “Vienna.”

“Vienna,” as a song, is so accomplished in its role as “rumination on aging” that it was used in the pivotal scene of a movie about aging, 13 Going On 30. The film follows Jennifer Garner’s character, Jenna Rink, as she messily navigates a full adult life—a covetous editing job, a hot boyfriend, a luxurious New York apartment—into which she has been instantly thrust thanks to a fulfilled wish (and some unexplained magic?) at her thirteenth birthday party. As one would expect, Jenna makes a multitude of egregious and seemingly obviously avoidable mistakes along the way, which is what makes this movie comedy instead of a horror film. The contrast of a 13-year-old mentality with a have-it-all 30 year old’s life? Hilarious. Fitting, then, that one of Billy’s songs would be used in the film, as is how Billy approaches aging on The Stranger—all of the markers of having grown up without any of the maturity, the trappings without the rods. We see someone reaching for the adulthood they think they should have earned, and yet find themselves falling, falling, and climbing still.

The pivotal scene of the film finds Jenna having run home to her parents, feeling utterly lost and unmoored by this new adult life in which she has found herself—one she has so desperately longed for, and which has chewed her up and spit her right out. After seeing some carefree teenagers on the train and discovering that her childhood bedroom has been converted into a catchall exercise-room-crafting-studio-storage-space in her absence, Jenna locks herself in the same closet in which she locked herself at her party—the same one which brought her into her thirties in the first place—and begins to break down, rocking herself back and forth and whimpering before rushing into her father’s arms when her parents find her there. The contrast of her adult body and childlike reaction highlights the deep, earnest humanity of the moment, and is nearly soundless beyond “Vienna” playing over the all of it.

I think about this as I walk home from work on a cold autumn night, just before Thanksgiving. I’m taking the long way back to procrastinate packing to go home to my mother’s, even though, for the first time in my adult life, I’m actually excited to be going. The trees are almost bare here now, the wind is cold under the fluorescent moon, and I’ve been putting off washing my winter coat, so I shiver as I walk over a mile back to my apartment where I have lived alone for almost two years—something upon which I outwardly pride myself. In reality, it hasn’t been cleaned in months, not really, and I’ve done such a poor job of caring for that space or myself that I actively avoid going back. Some days, it feels like I don’t remember how to be a person at all, like I’m clawing up the face of Everest just to brush my teeth. I remind myself of this when a coworker tells me that my Instagram is lit, that having the appearance of having everything together is miles away from actually having anything together. I used to blame this inability to be who I needed to be on anything but myself—on my family, on being restricted by the preferences of others, on geography, on age. I assumed that once I’d successfully moved out on my own, I’d somehow magically have the life of which I always dreamed—I’d have all the outer appearances of happiness and togetherness, yes, but because of that, I’d also actually maybe be happy.

I’m walking home and I’m listening to “Vienna” and I’m willing myself to consider what 13-year-old me would make of what she, at 25, has grown into. At times, when I was so, so young, when the house was dark and warm and quiet except for my too-loud pink iPod mini blasting in my earbuds, I didn’t think I’d make it to 25 at all. Other times, when I did find myself able to imagine a future that long, I thought I’d magically be cured of myself—my immature, emotional self—by the time I was this old. It seemed logical to me that I would either die young as a mess or only ascend into adulthood through the merits of maturity. It’s a strange thing to want to die before you want to get older; it’s stranger to realize that, at one time, those feelings meant exactly the same thing.

When I originally volunteered to write on The Stranger, I thought I’d write some witty observational, oh-so-clever thing about how the album moves from “Vienna,” a fear of aging, to “Only the Good Die Young,” a track which revels in knowing youth’s impermanence. I assumed I’d be writing  about the experience of growing up, notably from the perspective of someone who’d already done said growing. I assumed I’d wax poetic about the experience of seeing 13 Going On 30—my first PG-13 movie, and before I was 13, thankyouverymuch—and deeply relating to the melodrama of the scene wherein Jennifer Garner crying back in the closet in her character’s childhood home, and looking back on that scene with a sense of smug superiority that I’d aged beyond it. Of course, I was wrong. Upon rewatching, that moment in the film reads as truly, deeply earnest, underneath the sarcastic and overly-patronizing perspective of Jenna projected in the earlier scenes of the film. It’s a break from the comedy and the caricature, allowing us to see the person, the human, the child we’ve been following all along, and the message underscoring her journey: aging does not an adult make. It strikes me, as “Vienna” plays and Jenna sobs, that maybe we could only laugh at her when we had that distance set by her exaggerated immaturity—her childishness around boys, the aesthetics of her wardrobe, her unadulterated earnestness—all indicators that she has not grown up at all. It’s much harder to laugh at Jenna when we’re watching her visit her parents’ home crying, lost and defeated and overwhelmed by simply living the life around her, realizing that adulthood isn’t all she’d been made to believe it would be. It’s harder to laugh when you know Jenna is real, when you know Jenna is you.

—Moira McAvoy