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Conflicts in the Song “We Didn’t Start the Fire” by Billy Joel

Updated August 29, 2021
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Conflicts in the Song “We Didn’t Start the Fire” by Billy Joel essay

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The song “We Didn’t Start the Fire” is based on different conflicts that occurred during a forty-year time period. The composer and singer, Billy Joel turned forty in 1989, and the basis of the song is about different conflicts and events during his lifetime. Joel wrote about 119 different events that took place in that same time frame. Many of these events focused around the cold war, civil rights movements, and other conflicts in the world. The song is not mutually exclusive to conflicts, and mentions cultural events such as “Disneyland,” “Joe DiMaggio,” and “British Beatlemania.”

“We Didn’t Start the Fire” was released on September 27, 1989. The song was composed about conflicts and other events that plagued the world during the four prior decades. Many of the conflicts mentioned in the song had been resolved before the song was composed. Some of the other conflicts were still on going at the time when Joel composed the song. Overall, the song’s main underlying conflict is that of human conflict, which still continues today and will likely do so in the future.

“We Didn’t Start the Fire” highlights numerous conflicts and events between 1949 and 1989. The song did not elevate any one crisis over any others, giving equal time to each event. However, the song was intended to reflect on the events that Joel and his generation experienced during their lifetimes. The artist mainly wrote the song as a commentary on how his generation did not start the conflicts that affect the world. Joel in the song implies that each generation must face the repercussions of events caused by older generations. Overall, the song accomplished its intended propose in reflecting on ongoing human conflicts. After the song was released, it was nominated for a two Grammys and became one of the most popular songs of the year and reached a wide audience. The song connected with Joel’s generation of baby boomers, but also with younger generations. The song was able to resonate with people and challenge them to try and resolve conflicts around them in order to make the world a better place.

“We Didn’t Start the Fire” was able to reach a wide audience with very rapid-fire, simple lyrics that most people could relate to their own lives. The lyrics start with events from the late 1940’s and continues to progress through four decades until 1989 when the song was composed. The song does not include every conflict that occurred during that time frame but includes many of the major issues that plagued the world. After each verse that lists events, the chorus is focus on the main theme and purpose of the song. The chorus start with the name of the song, which references that it wasn’t Joel’s generation who started the fire (or conflicts) of the time. The chorus continues stating that “It was always burning” referencing that there have always been conflicts in society “since the world’s been turning”.

Billy Joel continues the chorus with the title and then finishes with “No we didn’t light it but we tried to fight it.” The last two lines of the song explain a main focal point of the song. They highlight that even though “we didn’t light it,” we as society should try to fight the conflicts that attack our everyday lives. Overall, the song sides with fighting back against the conflicts that have plagued society and conflicts that will occur in the future. Joel also mentions near the end of the song “I can’t take it anymore” showing his personal sentiments regarding human conflict. The song choses to side with the will to try to resolve different world conflicts, even if we did not create the problems, but are all affected by them.

“We Didn’t Start the Fire” uses much more than lyrics to add meaning to the song. The musical aspects of the song are very important in conveying the messages to Joel’s audience. The texture of the song is not complex, but has a simple unique nature to it, even while layered with multiple instruments. Billy Joel himself didn’t like the simple nature of the song, stating that “it’s terrible musically” (Shmoop). In spite of critics’, and even the artist’s own disapproval about the musical components of the song, it was one Joel’s most popular songs.

The texture of the song has a strong simple melody that is mostly rapid-fire staccato as the composer lists numerous conflicts at a fast pace. There are multiple instruments that add to the songs unique sound which gives a different edge and influence on listeners. The instruments used in the song vary by the recording and live performances, but include the following: drums, guitar, percussion, keyboard instruments in piano, organ, accordion, harpsichord, and synthesizer. All these instruments give the song a distinctive sound that is not often found in popular songs of the 1980’s.

The notes in the main harmony song by Joel have a range of only a few notes which gives the song its simplistic nature. The melody is a conjunct motion, with the pitch of the notes staying relatively close to each other through the entire song. The song contains a constant 4 meter and the rhythm of the song can be described as having a very strong, constant beat. The beat that regularly repeats itself as the song progresses rapidly from line to line which adds to the simplicity and likeability of the song.

Overall, the musical elements of the song give it an added meaning and makes the song more noticeable. The lyrics of the song are not completely unique, as they list events that most people could find in a history book. However, with the added elements of the music, fast pace lyrics, and chorus the song becomes more noticeable and different from many other songs.

Conflicts in the Song “We Didn’t Start the Fire” by Billy Joel essay

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Conflicts in the Song “We Didn’t Start the Fire” by Billy Joel. (2021, Aug 29). Retrieved from https://samploon.com/conflicts-in-the-song-we-didnt-start-the-fire-by-billy-joel/

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