Friday, August 24, 2007

A Snapshot of Musical Taste at a Suburban NJ High School, 1978-1981, or Was Billy Joel Cool?

So much cooler than Billy Joel

I apologize, in advance, for posting something not film-related on Siffblog, but as an issue of existential concern, I felt compelled to get this off my chest.

On a Slog post last week, Dan Savage revealed his fondness for Billy Joel's 'Only the Good Die Young', adding defensively that he didn't care whether Billy Joel is considered to be cool or not. Leaving aside the question of Joel's present coolness, it made me wonder, was Billy Joel cool back in the day? Well, that's a tricky question to answer. What's easier to answer is whether he was popular at my suburban NJ high school.

From 1977-1981, I attended Dwight Englewood, a prep school in Englewood, New Jersey, right across the river from NYC and a hop, skip and a jump from the GW Bridge. It was a small school, with about 100 kids per grade [alumni include Tony Bourdain, Mira Sorvino and Brooke Shields!]. Aside from having an arbitrarily shifting dress-code, a crappy football team and mandatory lunch attendance for all underclassmen, one of our traditions was the senior page. Basically, each senior got a half-page of the Yearbook to post a decent-sized photo and a couple of quotes. Most quoted Bartlett's variety Shakespeare, Einstein, Emerson and Thoreau, plus lots of Tolkien, but many quoted favorite songs. So, by leafing through each senior page, you can get an interesting snapshot of the musical taste of each class. With this in mind, I've compiled a list of each band/artist quoted by each graduating class from 1978-1981, followed by the number of times each was quoted.

As a caveat, I wouldn't call this list wholly representative. Each page quoted the handful of lyrics that senior found humorous or meaningful, it didn't catalogue every band they liked. For instance, only one student during this period quoted Blondie, but they were popular. Everyone knew them. 'One Way or Another' and 'Heart of Glass' were heavy-rotation radio hits. You couldn't not hear them.
However, certain acts got quoted on a regular basis and, by looking at the heavy-hitters, one can get a good sense of what was 'in'. Therefore it's apparent that, in 1979 and 1980, Billy Joel was among the most quoted, an honor shared with the Rolling Stones, Bruce Springsteen, the Grateful Dead, Pink Floyd and the Beatles. So, yes, in the wake of The Stranger, his first commercially and critically successful album, he was popular, but was he cool?
Well, like Blondie, you couldn't not hear him. Aside from 'Movin' Out' and the title track, I never liked or bought The Stranger [or any of his records, for that matter], but was conversant with practically every song on the album, due to repeated radio exposure [plus my sister had the cassette, which she would play in her car]. So, everyone knew the songs and a few people really did dig him, but he was more like a part of the regional ambience than an artist one truly embraced. As a suburban Jewish kid, who grew up on Long Island, Joel's bridge & tunnel vision of NY was not unlike our own. His 'New York State of Mind' was a TV-friendly version of the city, more Taxi than Taxi Driver, but then, Taxi was a pretty representative portrait in its own right. I'm sure Joel was popular with lots of people in the city as well [somebody was buying all those records], but to me he'll always be a part of the suburban soundtrack; an organic part of the landscape, like toll booths, Carvel ice cream and the Jersey Devil. Asking if Billy Joel was cool, then, is like asking if the NJ Turnpike or the Lincoln Tunnel was cool [actually, make that the Holland Tunnel, the Lincoln Tunnel was cool]. He wasn't cool, he wasn't un-cool, he just was.
Somebody who was cool, was Bruce Springsteen. I never dug him, but I understood why many of my classmates did. It's easy to see why. Like Joel he was part of the landscape, but in a way that seemed a million times more authentic. Now, one can have a huge argument over that, but what's inarguable is that Springsteen was from NJ and repeatedly referenced things in his songs about NJ, and gave a pretty good portrait of youthful yearning in NJ. So, maybe one can see why 'Born to Run' struck a deeper chord than 'Only the Good Die Young'.
As Springsteen noted in his induction speech for Roy Orbison at the Rock 'n Roll Hall of Fame, Orbison was one of those guys you felt most compelled to listen to in your bed-room at night. The same could easily be said of Springsteen. Listening to Springsteen, while lying in bed, you wanted to be him. Listening to Joel while driving on the Palisades Interstate Parkway, you were him. Springsteen represented your inchoate, teenage aspirations. Joel also represented your aspirations, if your aspirations were orchestra seats to Pippin and dinner at Mama Leone's.
Of more personal interest to me, than Joel or Springsteen, are the artists from that era, who are now universally thought to be cool, but weren't particularly popular back then. Despite being a few miles from downtown NY, most of my classmates never bothered to see the Ramones, let alone the Talking Heads, Television or Patti Smith, who was better known as the source of Gilda Radner's punk parody, Candy Slice, than as an actual artist. Needless to say, none of my classmates were fans of the Dictators, the Dead Boys, Suicide, the Contortions or Teenage Jesus & the Jerks. However, I did have classmates, who not only liked the Ramones and the Talking Heads, but also the Dead Boys and the Plasmatics [okay, they liked them in a jokey"ronic way, but still, they were aware of Stiv Bators and Wendy O. Williams!]. They were also conversant with the CBGB/Mudd Club/Danceteria scene, even if they were a little too young to get in to any of those clubs [the legal drinking age back then was 18].
So, the kids at my school certainly preferred the big 70's acts but, interestingly, seemed to have liked them without any gender bias. Girls were as likely to quote Pink Floyd, Jethro Tull and Yes as boys and boys were as likely to quote Carole King, Joni Mitchell and James Taylor.
On a final note, I'd like to say that we at Dwight had our own pop royalty, the great girl-group artist Lesley Gore, class of '64, who recorded 'It's My Party' while a student. Not only did she record a slew of great songs like 'It's My Party,' 'Judy's Turn To Cry' and 'Sunshine, Lollipops and Rainbows' [which always makes me smile when I hear it], but she's also a Jew and a lesbian. Now that, I think, rates a few clicks on the hip-o-meter.
Cat Stevens 9
Beatles 4
Bob Dylan 4
Grateful Dead 3
Jackson Browne 3
James Taylor 3
Paul Simon 3
Steve Miller 3
Billy Joel 2
David Bowie 2
Elton John 2
Joni Mitchell 2
Led Zeppelin 2
Neil Young 2
Pink Floyd 2
Stevie Wonder 2
Yes 2
A Chorus Line 1
America 1
Barbra Streisand 1
Bruce Springsteen 1
Chicago 1
David Crosby 1
Debby Boone 1
Jethro Tull 1
Jimmy Buffet 1
John Coltrane 1
Loudon Wainwright III 1
Pete Seeger 1
Rolling Stones 1
Seals & Crofts 1
Steely Dan 1
The Carpenters 1
The Who 1
Van Morrison 1
Fleetwod Mac 1
Rolling Stones 6
Billy Joel 5
Bruce Springsteen 5
Grateful Dead 5
Pink Floyd 5
Beatles 4
David Bowie 3
John Lennon 3
Led Zeppelin 3
Carole King 2
Cat Stevens 2
Chicago 2
Dan Fogelberg 2
James Taylor 2
Jethro Tull 2
Joni Mitchell 2
Kansas 2
Lynyrd Skynyrd 2
Yes 2
A Chorus Line 1
Al Jarreau 1
Al Stewart 1
Allman Brothers 1
America 1
Arlo Guthrie 1
Aztec Two Step 1
Barry Manilow 1
Carly Simon 1
Frank Zappa 1
Gordon Lightfoot 1
Graham Central Station 1
Jackson Browne 1
Janis Joplin 1
Meatloaf 1
Milton Nasicmento 1
Neil Young 1
New Riders of The Purple Sage 1
Paul Simon 1
Ricky Nelson 1
Stanley Clarke 1
The Commodores 1
The Who 1
Warren Zevon 1
George Benson 1
Grateful Dead 13
Neil Young 6
Billy Joel 5
Joni Mitchell 4
Yes 4
Beatles 3
Bruce Springsteen 3
Pink Floyd 3
The Doors 3
Barry Manilow 2
Carole King 2
Chicago 2
Dan Fogelberg 2
David Bowie 2
Genesis 2
Jefferson Airplane 2
Kenny Loggins 2
Rolling Stones 2
Argent 1
Beach Boys 1
Bob Dylan 1
Bread 1
Cat Stevens 1
Chuck Mangione 1
Devo 1
Donna Summer 1
Fleetwood Mac 1
Frank Zappa 1
George Benson 1
Graham Nash 1
Harry Chapin 1
Jackson Browne 1
Jethro Tull 1
Jim Croce 1
Marshall Tucker 1
Paul McCartney 1
Pippin 1
Rocky Horror Picture Show 1
Led Zeppelin 1
Beatles 9
Grateful Dead 9
Bruce Springsteen 7
Pink Floyd 6
James Taylor 5
Lynyrd Skynyrd 5
Rolling Stones 5
Yes 5
John Lennon 4
The Who 4
Jim Croce 3
The Doors 3
Barbra Streisand 2
Barry Manilow 2
Billy Joel 2
David Bowie 2
Fame 2
Frank Sinatra 2
Jethro Tull 2
Jimi Hendrix 2
Joe Walsh 2
Led Zeppelin 2
Paul Simon 2
Pippin 2
Queen 2
Rocky Horror Picture Show 2
Rush 2
Allman Brothers 1
Art Garfunkel 1
Blondie 1
Blue Oyster Cult 1
Bob Dylan 1
Boston 1
Brian Eno 1
Cat Stevens 1
Dan Fogelberg 1
Deep Purple 1
Elton John 1
Elvis Costello 1
Foghat 1
Genesis 1
Gordon Lightfoot 1
Hoyt Axton 1
Isley Brothers 1
Jackson Browne 1
Kenny Loggins 1
Little Feat 1
Molly Hatchet 1
Outlaws 1
Peabo Bryson 1
Ramones 1
Robbie Robertson 1
Rod Stewart 1
Rossington Collins Band 1
Seals & Crofts 1
Simon & Garfunkel 1
Stanley Clarke 1
Stevie Wonder 1
Strawbs 1
Street Scene 1
Styyx 1
Supertramp 1
Nancy Honeytree 1
Carole King 1
Doobie Brothers 1
Capt. Beefheart 1


  1. awright, who was the wiseguy with the LWIII quote and what song was it? If it was NOT Suicide is Painless, dishing is in order.

  2. The good old days are good and gone now.
    That's why they're good, because they're gone.

  3. If that's a fully"nformative answer, as I suspect it must be, things make a kind of sense, really.