By: Natalie Dumonceaux
If you haven’t heard the news, it’s official; the Piano Man is back, right where we left him: at the piano. Billy Joel released his single Turn the Lights Back On on February 1st, his first release in 17 years. His last song, All My Life, released back in 2007 (yes, 2007 was 17 years ago) was a heart-warming love song dedicated to his ex-wife Katie Lee. This new song, however, is for lack of a better term much more of a downer. It’s a soulful piano ballad about trying to salvage a relationship that has already lost its magic. We get to hear the classic Billy Joel “from-the-heart” lyrics in the chorus, where he sings,
I’m late, but I’m here right now
Is there still time for forgiveness?
Won’t you tell me how?
I can’t read your mind
But I see you now
As we’re layin’ in the darkness
Did I wait too long
To turn the lights back on?
Considering the duration of Joel’s hiatus from the music-making scene, I think this song has a double entendre. He laments the spark of a relationship at its prime, but also the prime of his music career. He’s expressing hope that we’ll let him sneak his way back into our hearts with this new single, even though it’s been a while. I’d say this was a mission accomplished. If the goal was to evoke nostalgia with his fans from “the good old days” of his musical career, this song certainly hit the mark. Through and through, Turn the Lights Back On is a Billy Joel Ballad (™). When I listen to it, I feel like I’m being taken back to the 1980s, hearing this record on vinyl (or, more realistically, in the 2010s in the backseat of my parents’ minivan while my dad plays me a Billy Joel CD on the way to school). Don’t get me wrong, I would rather be in either of those places than in 2024 studying for my English Lit midterm, but I think there is something to be said about how unsurprising this new single is.
Now, not to make this all about Taylor Swift, but let’s face it – nowadays, most things are. While she’s undoubtedly made her mark on the music industry and single-handedly built an army of devoted Swifties, Taylor has also received tons of backlash over the years. One of the most frequent criticisms of her music is its lack of originality; that she’s always writing about boys who broke her heart, or that most Taylor songs can be sung over some variation of a C, G, Am, F chord progression. The media loves dragging Taylor for being the Hallmark Movie of pop music.
I don’t think these criticisms are totally unfounded – just google “Taylor Swift songs in the key of C” and you’ll get the point. It’s also absolutely true that Taylor has adopted this sort of “sad-girl-on-her-guitar” musical identity and stuck with it – especially in the early stages of her career. Whenever I get frustrated with the male population, I quite literally have an 18-year long discography of songs about angst and boys making poor romantic choices to choose from. On the flip side of this, well, look at her – there’s clearly something about her recipe for songwriting that bodes well for this pop star. She writes about what she knows and she sings notes that sound good in her voice. There’s nothing wrong with that, and yet so many people seem to have a problem with it.
Now, let’s circle back to Billy Joel. After listening to his new single, which sounded all too familiar to me, I went and searched “sad Billy Joel songs” on Spotify (because I pride myself on researching only the most cutting-edge, hard-hitting evidence, of course). The first three songs on the playlist I found were And So It Goes, Tomorrow is Today, and Piano Man. All piano songs. All in the key of C. And of course, all classics. No one can deny how iconic Billy Joel was, is, and always will be as a musical figure. Rightfully so – his music is authentic, it’s heartfelt, it’s powerful, and it’s catchy. He commits to an unchanging musical sound for all the same reasons Taylor does – because it works and is well received. The only difference is that we’ve come to the consensus that Billy Joel’s work is “iconic” while Taylor Swift’s is “unoriginal”.
All things aside, I do honestly really enjoy Joel’s new release. I do, however, think the double standards that exist within the music industry are worth seriously considering and questioning. So what Billy Joel and Taylor Swift love the key of C, so do I! And as long as they’re here to keep writing songs that sound good for them, I’ll be here to keep listening.