There’s a goofy, easy, never-not-amusing joke that tends to materialize online as soon as the news cycle turns particularly brutal: As the headlines start cluttering up our screens, someone will inevitably string together a few bold-faced proper nouns, throw in a musical-note or flame emoji, and point out that we are experiencing an IRL redux of “We Didn’t Start the Fire,” Billy Joel’s shout-sung 1989 history lesson, and the tune that’s topped readers’ polls in Overexcitable Social Studies Teacher magazine for more than a quarter-century now. The “Fire” joke has been so used so often that I don’t even know if it qualifies as a joke anymore; it just became a Thing We Sometimes Point Out on the Web, maybe because world events are so tough to deal with head-on. Or, I guess, because rhyming celebs’ names is always funny, or because late-’80s Joel references invariably delight a certain kind of nerd. (And so it goes.)
Yet throughout 2016–a twelve-month Shataclysm full of unimaginable strife and horror and loss–I saw those references to “Fire” appear on my various social and personal feeds more than ever, sometimes even multiple times in the same week. And often, the person invoking the song did so less with tee-hee jocularity, and more with a sense of absurdist despair:
This new version of We Didn’t Start The Fire doesn’t rhyme ? pic.twitter.com/82kFyzjPPF
— Dave Horwitz (@Dave_Horwitz) December 25, 2016
We didn’t start the fire
It was always burning since the world’s been turning pic.twitter.com/9LIb6qbdn8
— JAMWAH but at Xmas (@JAM_WAH) December 18, 2016
at any given moment, the Washington Post website’s “In The News” bar is a terrible version of “We Didn’t Start the Fire” pic.twitter.com/KhGEnIGMiJ
— H. L. Mentions (@ericdharvey) December 20, 2016
If you search for “We Didn’t Start the Fire” on Twitter, you’ll find countless references to this song from the past year. Some of them simply point out that “Fire”-cited folks John Glenn and Fidel Castro died within weeks of each other this fall, meaning that only a handful of celebs mentioned in the song are still alive (a fact that that Chubby Checker and Bernie Goetz no doubt brag about regularly in #GoetzSome, their invite-only Slack channel). Other users tweet requests that Joel record an updated version of the song, or post their own homemade parodies. But the song’s numerous mentions usually hinge on the idea that a numbingly dumb song about our past turned out to be a numbingly spot-on song about our present. With “We Didn’t Start the Fire,” Joel inadvertently predicted what the media would come to resemble in the digital age: A trauma-stricken stock-ticker–full of quick-cut incidents and individuals–that we scroll through 24 hours a day, sometimes with zero context or understanding as to what it all really means.
This sort of brain-draining inundation has been going on for a while now, of course. But the ambient toxicity of 2016–a melee of malaise, from Aleppo to Pulse to Zika and beyond–has made “We Didn’t Start the Fire” more prophetic than ever, a song that reflects the info-claustrophobia that made so many of us want to flip a table this year. Yet underneath all of the song’s noisily accumulating despair, there is a shred of hope–one that might just explain how “Fire” wound up enduring longer than any of us, including Joel, could ever have expected.
He Goes to Extremes
Joel wrote “We Didn’t Start the Fire” in the spring of 1989, around the time he’d turned 40, and not long after a chance encounter with a young man who was lamenting the state of the world. As Joel explained a few years after the song’s release: “[He was saying,] ‘It’s a terrible time to be 21. And I said, ‘Yeah, I remember when I turned 21;’ I thought it was an awful time. We had Vietnam, and the drug problem, and civil rights problems, and everything seemed to be awful.’ And [the younger guy] said, ‘Yeah, yeah, yeah–but it was different for you, because you were a kid in the ’50s, and everybody knows that nothing happened in the ’50s.’ “
Joel couldn’t believe the world-changing events of his youth had been so casually dismissed, and so, in classic boomer-umbrage style, he set off to remind the world about the greatness of the after-the-greatest-generation, writing and recording “We Didn’t Start the Fire” quickly. “The song mostly came off the top of my head,” he told Rolling Stone in a 1990 cover story. “And it got to be a bit of a squeeze play … I said, “Let’s get this record the hell out before anything else happens [in the news].'”That “We Didn’t Start the Fire” was a rush-job likely won’t surprise anybody hearing it today, as it’s a singularly awful song–and I say that as someone who kept Joel’s ill-hatted Rolling Stone cover taped to my Trapper Keeper in eighth grade, and who sang along to “Fire” at Joel’s concert at Wrigley Field earlier this year. “Fire” has graceless phrasing (“Starkweather homicide/children of Thalidomide”), a single-minded melody that even Joel despises, and that hammy “rock-and-roller cola wars” coda. Also, the synthesizers stab your ears like adamantium Q-tips, and the soulless bass-slaps sound as though they’re being played by a funky cartoon walrus.
And yet Joel’s didactic dad-rap remains irresistible, even nearly three decades since its release. “Fire” has earned nearly 40 million Spotify plays on Spotify–more than “River of Dreams” and “It’s Still Rock and Roll to Me” combined–and it’s the first track to pop up when you search for him on the iTunes store (number two being “Piano Man,” of course). Joel has played “Fire” live close to 600 times, and it’s a staple of his recent shows, where photos of the song’s more than 100 historical figures, works, and incidents are depicted behind him on a giant screen behind him.
The fact that a tuneless novelty like “Fire” became such a defining hit must drive Joel crazy–or, at the very least, prompt him to let out a quick sigh on his helipad, watching as his scarf weaves wildly in the Sagaponack breeze. But as its continued presence on the web indicates, “Fire” will last forever, largely because it’s the rare kind of multi-generational hit: Written by a boomer, embraced by then-teenaged Gen-Xers, and apparently still being handed down as a sort of casual-Friday history lesson to junior-high kids. (Guaranteed: for the next two decades, there’ll be some extra-credit-desperate 13-year-old stuck at a computer, trying to figure why Joel pronounces Berlin as “Burr-lin” and wondering whether anyone’s used “Space Monkey Mafia” as the name of a post-hardcore band.) And when Joel passes away, the image of him wearing Ray-Bans while pounding his fists as the flames rise behind him will loop on TV for hours on end–until his death is replaced by the next tragedy, and the next, and the next, until we find ourselves once trapped within the four-walled grief-clink we’ve been living in ever since this wretched year began.
When in Rome
No one needs additional reminders of why 2016 was so psyche-sapping–of the deaths that turned us all into semi-professional mourners; of the violence that was broadcast nearly non-stop; of the election-year contagions that made us all sick and/or stupid. It may not have been the Worst. Year. Ever., but it’s hard to think of a recent period in which our individual self-interests and our sense of collective self-preservation ever felt quite so at odds. In 2016, everyone lost and everyone died. Things got so bad, the Internet even managed to suck the fun out of the word “pizza,” arguably the funnest word of all time. The whole thing just blew.
But it would be a mistake to look at these past 365 days and see only tumult and chaos–in the same way it would be wrong to listen to “We Didn’t Start the Fire” and only hear the struggles of generations past. We invoke that song today because its laundry list of gloom and doom feels so relatable to our increasingly Verhoevenian lifestyle and media metabolism. But once you get past the song’s accounts of assassinations and global crises and cruel leaders, “We Didn’t Start the Fire” also has several reminders that, even in times of great strife, there are ways out of the darkness. They come in the form of joy-spurring art (Lawrence of Arabia, Buddy Holly, Stranger in a Strange Land), or life-changing inspirational figures (Malcolm X, Sally Ride, John Glenn), or maybe just some hula hoops.
The most optimistic aspect of “We Didn’t Start the Fire,” though, might be the title itself. When the song was released at the troubled tail-end of the ’80s, I viewed Joel’s chorus–“We didn’t start the fire/it was always burning as the world’s been turning” and “we didn’t light it/but we tried to fit it”–as a sort of don’t-blame-us cop-out: It’s not the boomers’ fault, pal! Things have always been crazy! Go blame Elton John or something! Now, I see it as far more reassuring–a reminder that, as bad as things are, they have been equally bad in the past, if not far worse. It’s always going to be a terrible time to be 21, no matter what’s going on in the world. Yet we keep enduring all of this terrifying nonsense, and we’ll continue to do so (that is, of course, until the bridge-blowing, mafia-empowering space-riots of Miami 2017 get underway at some point next year).
Is that a goofy, easy reason to remain optimistic? Absolutely. But as 2016 ends and 2017 begins, I’ll take my hope wherever I can find it–and for now, I’ve found it in a long-ago outdated Billy Joel song that attempts to rhyme “Budapest” with “Khrushchev.” “We Didn’t Start the Fire” may be an inelegant ode to our own perseverance, but it’s full of the sort of clumsy uplift we could all use right about now. I dare you to try to fight it.