Saturday, September 30, 2006

Seven Songs 7: The Lesson

(This is the last in a series of seven posts, written in response to a meme that asked me what seven songs I held in highest esteem. The first of these posts is noted here.)

We Didn't Start the Fire (Billy Joel)
- written by Billy Joel

Creative media has several goals that it usually wishes to attain. Among them lies the need to attract an audience (because these things aren't really as fulfilling when you're the only person admiring them), the need to provide enlightenment (because these things have to mean something on another level), and the need to be remembered (because these things don't like being conveniently discarded). In line with the latter is the fact that these creations usually wish to leave something with the audience, something that they'll be referencing for times to come.

This, of course, isn't very easy in the music industry, especially in light of the sheer volume of albums released each year. If we would ask ourselves what we like to remember in a song, for example, most of us would mention "tunes" or "lyrics". Those of us who go beyond the obvious would raise the idea of "theme" or "message". Sometimes we can't even identify a specific factor and simply go with "the song itself".

The problem is that each and every one of these points of reference can be overwritten by newer releases, in one way or another. Good music or lyrics can be superseded by works of better music or lyrics. Pieces that express a particular theme or message can be replaced by works that expound on the same theme, or provide the same message in better or more clearer terms. Even classic songs that are appreciated for what they are can sometimes be set aside in favor of new performances, or new artists, or simply by updated versions. (Can anyone remember the lyrics to Elton John's "Candle in the Wind" performance before Princess Diana's funeral, for example?)

And so, with all this in mind, we come to one question: Why is "We Didn't Start the Fire" on this list? It's not a particularly enlightening or meaningful song, and it probably wouldn't make many other peoples' lists, for that matter. In fact, there are more than a few people who vehemently hate the piece.

I figure that "We Didn't Start the Fire" is unique among most songs in that it doesn't strive to be remembered by its music, or its lyrics, or its theme, or its message, or even for itself. It's not the sort of thing that you memorize, much less the thing that you hum in the middle of the street. And yet, despite the fact that the song doesn't have much in itself that makes it memorable, it expresses a batch of concepts that simply sticks to our minds.

We know, for one, that the song is basically a collection of historical people, events, and places. For that matter, we find ourselves intimately familiar with some of the items mentioned in its lyrics: Television. Marilyn Monroe. Einstein. Punk Rock. But some of the other items are inherently unfamiliar to us, those little snippets of history that we inevitably miss or overlook: Rosenbergs. Syngman Rhee. Children of Thalidomide. Bernie Goetz. These people, events and places are all clearly a part of human history as evidenced by their inclusion in the song, and yet few of us know anything about them. Heck, some of us might even be hearing about them for the first time through this very entry.

And the funny thing is that, chances are, we'll probably find it in ourselves to look them up and find out who they are, where they are, or why they took place. It is man's nature to be curious, after all, and some of these things have interesting stories behind them.

Rarely, I think, do you find a song that doesn't call attention to itself as much as it calls attention to the factors behind it. "We Didn't Start the Fire", for all intents and purposes, is one of those rare songs. It's so mundane, I think, that we can barely argue that it attempts to be a memorable piece. But where it fails in terms of memory, it succeeds with regards to the many concepts of human history that it leaves us. That's why it inevitably comes to mind where historical relevance is concerned, that's why I found myself going through it more than once in the course of my readings, and that's why it's the last of the seven songs on my list.


And as a postscript to this seven-part entry, I would once again like to say that I don't make a habit of passing on memes like this. Neither do I, for that matter, recommend that anyone devote seven consecutive days and hours of analysis towards identifying the songs that they particularly like for certain reasons. If you'd like to put something like this up on your blog, though, then you're welcome to do so. I've surely missed a lot of admirable aspects of songs when putting together this list of favorites; Feel free to prove me wrong somehow. :)


Ailee Through the Looking Glass said...

I once attempted to memorize this song. Never did succeed. I always keep forgetting what comes between "South Pacific" and "Joe DiMaggio". Plus all those Russian names. :)

Sean said...

Ailee: That would be "Walter Winchell", the man who initiated the gossip column feature in newspapers. :)

I only remember a few Russian names, though: (Sergei) Prokofiev - composer of "Peter and the Wolf"; as well as Malenkov and Khrushchev - Soviet Russian premiers.

cstiu said...

I quite like this song, as I've liked a lot of Billy Joel's songs (I've mentioned to you in the past, I think). Glad that at least one of them was in your list ^_^

Sean said...

cstiu: I doubt that I would have left it out, really - it's probably one of the few songs that actually gets used in, say, history classes. :)