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Never Believe a Dream: The Theme of Billy Joel

Published on December 14th, 2019 at 01:57 am

By Joseph Offenberger

Children often have oversized dreams and are in a frenzied rush to pursue them. Billy Joel’s 1977 song, “Vienna,” is written from the perspective of a wise adult who is trying to temper the wild ambition of a younger child. The adult appears to be worn out and jaded from his own life’s journey and unable to embrace the excitement of youthful ambition. As a result, he wants to save the child from the life he has lived by giving him a more realistic outlook on the harsh reality of growing up. Billy Joel sees himself as the young child in his own song and his audience feels the same. In a review of a Broadway play starring the songs of Billy Joel, Cheryl Tobey wrote that “the first thing [she] noticed… was the age of the audience; there was no one over forty in the entire balcony” (103). Joel’s songs speak to the younger people who need the advice that he desperately needed himself. The song speaks about the human condition of outgrowing old dreams and expresses the reality of the childhood occurrences that lead to the failure of realizing dreams, something that all young people are interested in. Joel begins by using a metaphor to refer to the kid’s bottled-up stress when he writes, “Where’s the fire, what’s the hurry about? / You’d better cool it off before you burn it out” (Joel 5-6). Joel uses fire to symbolize the worries in life that are so great it justifies rushing through and wasting his childhood away. The narrator then uses a rhetorical question to express how there is no “fire” to begin with. Instead, the kid is unnecessarily suffering without any need to, which is exactly what the narrator did all those years ago. If the kid doesn’t take this advice, he will end up just like the narrator — a victim to the human condition without any more dreams left to fulfill. In the middle of the song, Joel references this unneeded stress once again when using antithesis to write, “Though you can see when you’re wrong, you know / you can’t always see when you’re right. You’re right” (Joel 21-22). Joel is expressing the narrator’s understanding of how the boy only sees the negative side of life without ever taking into account all the good he has done. In fact, the kid is doing great and is on route to succeed if he would only realize it. If the kid stops focusing on the bad and starts accepting that he is doing well, then he will not lose sight of his aspirations. At the very end of the song, Joel uses repetition to emphasize an ongoing motif within the poem, the city of Vienna. Here, he writes, “Why don’t you realize, Vienna waits for you / When will you realize, Vienna waits for you?” (Joel 34-35). Vienna is a metaphor for all of the dreams and choices ahead of a person. Joel’s father left him and moved to Vienna to start a new life. “Vienna” is a metaphor for the advice that his father never gave him as a child and just like in the song, the city will always be there for him. Understanding the reason not to rush through life and ruin any chance of realizing a dream is crucial to eventually reach it. Likewise, if the kid takes the advice given to him in this song, he, unlike the narrator, will be able to escape the reality of never accomplishing his dreams.

A few years later, Billy Joel addresses the theme of unfulfilled dreams once again by looking at life’s constant obstacles that prevent dreams from ever coming true. In his 1982 song, “Goodnight Saigon,” Joel uses soldiers’ experiences during the Vietnam War as an example of how dreams can be crushed before life really even begins. Although childhood is filled with hopes and aspirations, some people encounter life-altering events that destroy any thought of fulfilling their dreams. This is the case for many Vietnam veterans who were lucky to return home but still couldn’t escape the memory of their time there. After singing Joel’s “Goodnight Saigon,” a graduate student referred to the song as “sort of a bittersweet anthem of Vietnam veterans, who look back with a feeling of nostalgia and regret… after their experience of war” (O’Neill 423). The only remnant of sweetness was gifted to those who made it out alive. Although they may remember the comradery they gained, veterans cannot help but acknowledge how the entire course of their lives have changed. For better or for worse, it is evident that the Vietnam War was successful in altering the futures of everyone involved. “Goodnight Saigon” begins with Billy Joel’s use of antithesis to starkly contrast the childlike enthusiasm of young soldiers while entering basic training to the hardened, damaged men that returned:

We met as soulmates on Parris Island
We left as inmates from an asylum
And we were sharp, as sharp as knives
And we were so gung ho to lay down our lives
We came in spastic like tameless horses
We left in plastic as numbered corpses (Joel 1-6)

Joel uses consonance to contrast the young soldiers’ eagerness to join the military at the beginning of the war with the devastation they felt upon their return. Many soldiers had wild desires that they planned to live out after the war but were soon made to face the harsh reality of adulthood much before their time. Similarly, everyone has dreams that they want to chase but sometimes these dreams are stolen from them. As seen with these soldiers and people in everyday life, the pursuit of helping others cause people to give up their own desires. Further, Joel uses dramatic irony to describe the confident attitudes soldiers had when first coming to Vietnam, not knowing how unready they really were. This is a metaphor for the ignorance of childhood that everybody faces growing up, thinking they can do anything until they hit the brick wall that is a reality. Joel’s following simile further expresses this childhood ignorance, with soldiers expecting the best and soon facing the worst. Toward the middle of the song, Joel makes a historical allusion to the antiwar sentiment of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s counterculture. He writes, “We passed the hash pipe and played our Doors tapes” (Joel 14). The Doors songs were an anthem of this counterculture, symbolizing the hatred of US involvement in Vietnam as a whole. Soldiers listened to these songs since they hated the fact that they were fighting someone else’s war but were forced to give up their lives anyway. This parallels the thoughts of children growing up, wishing they could be one thing while being forced to go to school and pursue a career they don’t necessarily want. Next, Joel uses personification when writing, “They left their childhood on every acre” (Joel 23). The longer soldiers stayed in Vietnam and witnessed the brutality of war, the more of their innocence they lost. Likewise, as adolescents grow into adults, they come to reality and lose their childlike wonder and faith in what the world has to offer. Joel then shows the soldiers’ apathetic attitude toward the war’s significance when using a hypophora to ask, “And who was wrong? And who was right? / It didn’t matter in the thick of the fight” (Joel 24-25). After a while, the war became about surviving as an individual, not about saving the world from “evil.” Young people are so deprived of creativity that they are forced to adhere to societal norms at all costs, giving up their personal ambitions in the process. The poem ends with repetition in the lines, “And we would all go down together / We said we’d all go down together / Yes we would all go down together” (Joel 35-38). Much like how all soldiers were doomed to suffer a similar fate, no person can escape the human condition that is the disappointment of never conquering his or her dreams.

There is a point in life when a person realizes with disappointment that his or her dreams have gone unfulfilled. Billy Joel’s 1982 song, “Where’s the Orchestra?” is written from the perspective of a man who looks back on his life only to realize that he was never able to accomplish his past ambitions. All people start out with hopes and dreams but often these dreams are cast aside for more practical pursuits. An entire lifetime can pass by and only upon late-life reflection will one realize with regret that all those childhood dreams have gone unfulfilled. As explained in a scientific journal, “Regret is the emotion that we experience when realizing or imagining that our current situation would have been better, if only we had decided differently” (Zeelenberg 3). Everybody has a dream but more often than not, these dreams remain elusive. They only serve as a reminder of the childhood desires that could have been. Joel begins by setting up the song as an allegory for unrealized ambitions.

Where's the orchestra?
Wasn't this supposed to be a musical?
Here I am in the balcony
How the hell could I have missed the overture? (Joel 1-4)

In the song, a musical with a live orchestra is a metaphor for the wonders that children think life holds. Children tend to see only the beauty in the world and have romanticized notions of life just like a theatrical, orchestral play. In reality, life is no musical. Through the use of a rhetorical question, the narrator makes it clear that life has passed him by without any of his childhood ambitions being realized. It is only towards the end of life that the man becomes aware that his dreams are not there. Later on, Joel creates a paradox to emphasize the phenomenon of life passing by without even realizing it:

I like the scenery
Even though I have absolutely no
Idea at all
What is being said
Despite the dialogue (Joel 5-9)

Although the narrator lived a long life, he didn’t make time to take pleasure in the details. He watched the entire play but wasn’t paying close enough attention to notice the small things that gave the play meaning, and then it ended without him ever learning what it was about. He wishes that he could have the opportunity to relive the life in which he wasted just because it wasn’t exciting enough. Similarly, it’s only when one is grown up that the missed opportunities, forgotten dreams, and lost hope become apparent. There are many ways in which dreams can go unfulfilled and sometimes it’s simply for lack of trying. Joel ends the song by foreshadowing the manner in which the narrator’s life will end: alone. He writes, “And after the curtain calls / The curtain falls / On empty chairs” (Joel 24-26). At the end of the day, and at the end of the play, there is no audience. Everybody has their own life to lead and that is the only life that matters. Empty chairs symbolize the fact that people need to be content with how their own lives turned out, regardless of the applause of others, since nobody stays until the end anyway.

Billy Joel’s songs share the common theme of unfulfilled dreams, but express this sentiment from different stages of life. Joel is very introspective of his early ambitions and sympathizes with the common man whose struggles prevent him from fully realizing his dreams. Though Billy Joel was successful, he still never lived out his dreams. Whether it was his dream of being a hometown fisherman or an elementary school history teacher, nobody, not even those who seem the most successful, can do it all. This emphasizes the human condition because no matter how prolific someone’s life is, it will always be a struggle to accept the fact that dreams are just that: dreams.

Works Cited

Joel, Billy. “Goodnight Saigon.” The Nylon Curtain, Columbia Records, 1982.
---. “Vienna.” The Stranger, Columbia Records, 1977.
---. “Where’s the Orchestra?” The Nylon Curtain, Columbia Records, 1982.

Longrie, Michael. “Billy Joel's History Lesson.” College Teaching, vol. 45, no. 4, 1997, pp. 147–149. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/27558859.

O'Neill, Donal. “We Share Something Precious.” The Furrow, vol. 65, no. 9, 2014, pp. 423–427., www.jstor.org/stable/24635920.

Tobey, Cheryl. “‘Movin' Out and Movin' On’: Twyla Tharp and Billy Joel on Broadway.” PAJ: A Journal of Performance and Art, vol. 25, no. 3, 2003, pp. 100–104. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/3246426.

Zeelenberg, Marcel, and Rik Pieters. “A Theory of Regret Regulation 1.0.” Journal of Consumer Psychology, vol. 17, no. 1, 2007, pp. 3–18. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/27609623.