Forever Alone Together; A Literary Analysis of “Piano Man” Music has been a part of human culture for many years. It is embedded deep in our roots, from Native Americans chanting around a fire, to slaves harmonizing while laboring in the fields, to Beatle-mania, to the Backstreet Boys welcoming the new millennium. The great artists of this industry will forever be remembered for their ability to combine moving, soulful lyrics with enchanting melodies, all while reaching millions of individuals in a unique way.
Billy Joel’s “Piano Man” is a perfect example of this melodic combination.Joel’s inspiration for this song came directly from his own experiences. Early in his career, he played a stint as a piano man for a local bar in Los Angeles, California during the early seventies. This piece was created as a “thank you” message to all of the lost people that inspired Joel to get back into the world and to dream big again after his first single failed miserably. His harmony depicts a typical bar scene, packed with down and out drunks and tired, bedraggled businessmen, all trying to find an escape from their stressful, everyday lives.Billy Joel tries to convey the message that everyone is always searching for something more in life, but no matter how much success they have, they will still be filled with loneliness and desire for something else. In “Piano Man,” Billy Joel uses a simple, straightforward syntax, an indirect characterization, and an informal, bittersweet tone to enforce his theme of disappointment and un-fulfillment.
At a first glance, the simple syntax used by Billy Joel enforces the simplicity of his message.He is trying to show that these people at the bar represent everyday people. They are lost, looking for something more. They feel alone and are sitting at this bar because it is a safe haven of escape. By keeping his lines short and straightforward, it both relates to the lives of the people and ensures that his message is clearly presented to the reader or listener. For example, the line reading, “Yes, they’re sharing a drink they call loneliness/ but it’s better than drinkin’ alone,” (31-32).Billy Joel clearly describes these men or women being sad and alone, but finding comfort in each-others presence.
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Joel is clear in stating how these people feel. The rawness of the lyrics correlates to the lives of these characters. The excerpt “And the waitress is practicing politics/ As the businessmen slowly get stoned,” (29-30) demonstrates this clear-cut and unrefined syntax. Joel is depicting how the waitress may be exploiting herself for the sake of making money and how even businessmen succumb to the stress of everyday life and resort to drugs to try and heal themselves.By putting together two short lines in such a basic form, he is able to ensure that the audience receives his message. By keeping his syntax simple and straightforward, the reader understands that these are everyday, monotonous characters, representing everyday people, all beaten up by life. Also, his simplistic structure backs the simplicity of his message.
When further analyzing the song “Piano Man,” Billy Joel’s intense use of indirect characterization stands out among the other devices in the lyrics.Indirect characterization is defined as the act of creating a character where their traits are revealed either by their words thoughts or actions, by the description of the character’s appearance or background, or by what other characters say and how they react towards this character. As Joel is describing the scene at the bar, he creates very personable, relatable characters by giving a brief insight into the character’s life. For example the lines, “Now Paul is a real-estate novelist/ Who never had time for a wife/And he’s talking with Davy, who’s still in the navy/and probably will be for life,” (25-28).These lines depict a decently successful man (Paul) who has a career, but is alone. His career takes up the majority of his time, leaving none for finding a wife and starting a family. The other character, Davy, is seen as a young man who is enlisted in the navy.
The song describes how he will most likely be in the navy for life. Many people today choose to have a career instead of focusing on family life, like Paul, and these people are most likely feeling the emptiness that this song portrays. The other character, Davy, is also a replica of young men in the armed forces today.They enlist when they are young and feel as if they still have a future, but since the forces are all they have ever known, they choose to re-enlist year after year. The listeners of the song are able to attach themselves and relate to these characters. Another instance where direct characterization is present is in the lines, “ Now John at the bar is a friend of mine/ he gets me my drinks for free/ and hes quick with a joke or to light up a smoke/ but there’s someplace he’d rather be,” (15-18). John is depicted as a typical small town bartender, light hearted and ntertaining.
Again, the audience is able to identify with the characters that Joel creates. They might know a Paul or a Davy or a John, or they might find pieces of these characters in themselves. Having the reader to be able to feel a personal attachment to these characters makes them feel a personal attachment to the song itself. When the listeners become emotionally involved in the lyrics, feeling as if they know the characters, they begin to share the same emotions that the character is feeling.By using indirect characterization to form round, real life characters Billy Joel is able to emotionally instill the central message of the song into the audience. Since Billy Joel is telling the story of maybe his most influential experiences, he uses a very informal, bittersweet tone. The way the piece is written comes across as a man telling a story to his friend.
His in-formalness is shown in the lines, “And they sit at the bar and put bread in my jar/ and say ‘man, what are you doing here’ ” (43-44).This line is very bittersweet as well because it is describing how the people at the bar think that this piano man is capable of much more than hanging out with this crowd, but it also shows how the people at this bar have become almost a family. They all know each other and understand each other better than anyone else. They have bonded over their lost dreams and empty hearts. Again, this idea is shown in the verse, “ ‘Well I’m sure I could be a movie star/ If I could get out of this place,’ ” (21-22). These lines also suggest a man who is stuck in this rut, but knows he can be something better if he could just find a way to get out.The striking truth and honesty in these lines evoke a feeling of sympathy and understanding in the listener.
The bittersweet tone is shown again in the lines, “Well we’re all in a mood for a melody/ and you’ve got us feelin alright,” (49-50). The people in the bar are sad and depressed and feeling alone, they are looking for an escape, and the piano man provides that for them. The tone in which these line are written creates a sympathetic, understanding mood in the audience that enforces the theme of the song. Billy Joel does a fantastic job of pleasing listeners with his soothing lyrics.The thought that other people, represented by his characters, feel the same emptiness many struggle with today is comforting. By using simple structure, an indirect characterization, and a bittersweet tone, Billy Joel is able to enforce the central message behind his song, “Piano Man. ” He tries to explain to the world that we, as humans, are always trying to search for something better, and yet we never reach that something because we are always filled with a sense of loneliness and emptiness that then results in us looking for a way to escape.
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