what's the matter with the clothes i'm wearing?
a study into the wild fashion billy joel describes in his lyrics
I am not a fashion historian, but I tweet a lot about Billy Joel, which is pretty much the same thing if you squint.
Billy Joel has always been there for me. As an infant, my mother rocked me to sleep while singing “Keeping the Faith.” Also, side note, for most of my life, I thought the song my mother sang to me as a baby was “Faith” by George Michael, which always made me laugh, because why would you soothe a baby to sleep with “Well I guess it would be nice if I could touch your body / I know not everybody’s got a body like you”??? Turns out you wouldn’t. No one would do that.
As a late teen diagnosed with Bipolar II, “Summer Highland Falls” and “I Go To Extremes” provided me with the most succinct explanations for how I’d felt my whole life to that point. I would literally tattoo “They say that these are not the best of times, but they’re the only times I’ve ever known” on my face if my local tattoo parlor hadn’t banned me from the premises for asking them to do that.
We’re cut from the same cloth, the Piano Man and I; Jews with mood disorders who like to sing need to stick together. I’ve pitched an essay about that connective tissue all around the Jewish internet, and I’m always met with “you seem like a lot of fun, but this idea isn’t a great fit for our pub right now,” which, fair! MORE than fair.
So instead of writing the “Billy Joel is the only man who understands me” essay, I’d like to introduce you to something I’ve been noticing my entire adult life, which is: no one lyricizes an insane outfit quite like Billy Joel does (or did — he stopped writing pop music in the ’90s, tragically, before he could weigh in on low-rise jeans or balayage).
The idea of my mother singing “Keeping the Faith” to me when I was a baby makes me laugh out loud — not in the same way as the George Michael “Faith” assumption, but in an equally ludicrous way. Imagine trying to soothe a crying baby — one who doesn’t like to sleep, and you have to drive her around in the car for the remote chance that she might doze off — by telling her about your “matador boots” that “only Flagg Brothers” had “with a Cuban heel,” which you paired with your “iridescent socks with the same colored shirt” and a “tight pair of Chinos.”
And you’re like, whoa, Billy Joel/mom. That’s quite a fit! And they’re like, no. Wait. I’m not finished. And then your Billy Joel mom tells you they “put on a shark skin jacket, you know, the kind with the velvet collar.” And you’re a baby, so you can’t really reckon with that at the moment, but in retrospect, as an adult who kind of understands how clothes work, you’re like, DO I know? DO I know the shark skin jacket (the kind with the velvet collar)? I don’t think I do.
I couldn’t find a picture of a garment like that on Google images. He also mentions “ditty bop shades” in that verse, and I can’t figure out what that means, either, but then he talks about how he “combed [his] hair in a pompadour, like the rest of the Romeos wore. A permanent wave,” and I get that from all of the photos of Billy Joel in the ’70s.
This is only the tip of the iceberg, though.
Like I said, I don’t pretend to understand fashion history, and I wish I had access to Polyvore so I could actually put these outfits together in a way we could all visualize. But if there’s one thing Billy Joel loves, other than mentioning Chevrolets, it’s describing outfits I can’t imagine anyone ever wore. I can situate all of the elements of the “Keeping the Faith” outfit in the ’50s and ’60s, but all together it seems like a disaster. What’s going on there? Honestly?
Actually, lyrically, Billy Joel seems pretty insecure about taste in clothes, so I feel kind of guilty about bringing all of this into the open, but if he’s going to tell me about his iridescent shirt/socks combo with his full chest, I have every license to poke holes in his confidence. How can I tell Billy Joel is kinda insecure about his fashion? Listen to “It’s Still Rock and Roll to Me,” a song about how it doesn’t matter if people criticize him because he’s the rock star here (he’s right).
The first lyric of that song is, “What’s the matter with the clothes I’m wearing?” He answers himself, layering the tracks and singing through his nose to sound like a group of someone else: “Can’t you tell that your tie’s too wide?” I hope to God no one ever actually said this to Billy Joel! Why would you ever tell someone their tie is too wide? That’s so mean!
He suggests to the group of himself that he might buy some “old tab collars” and they welcome him “back to the age of jive.” I don’t really know what that means either, but Billy seems to be feeling strange about changing fashions and wondering where his place is in it all.
But then he says, “you can’t dress trashy till you spend a lot of money,” and “all you need are looks and a whole lot of money,” which makes me think about the way we talk about how hot people dress to! this! day! I’ve read a lot of discourse over the years about fashion, racism, classism, homophobia, sexism, and (especially) fatphobia — boiled down, it’s basically, like, if you’re skinny and white and conventionally hot, you can get away with wearing anything and the people will call it “a look.” Fashion is more than physical outfits; it’s who gets to wear them and who gets to be considered successful at wearing them.
Anyway, I hope Billy Joel knows he was hot and could’ve pulled off the “pair of pink sidewinders and a bright orange pair of pants” he mentions later in the song. Also, is anyone else starting to wonder if Harry Styles wakes up in the morning and spins a wheel of Billy Joel fashion lyrics to pick his outfit for the day?
William Martin Joel connects clothing to class, as we all should. He sings about dating girls who are way out of his purportedly working class league: rich girls, ones he can’t afford to buy pearls (Uptown Girl), Catholic girls with a “nice white dress and a party on your confirmation” (Only The Good Die Young), modern women with wild “high top sneakers of Italian design,” and big shots with “fine Park Avenue clothes” and “Halston dresses.”
He also sings about meeting a (rich) girl in the bar of the ritzy Plaza Hotel, and she tells him to “wear a jacket and a tie,” which makes him sweat, because his suit is “stupid” and “old.” She decides that even though he’s a “sad sight,” he “looks so cute,” and she won’t break up with him because she doesn’t “want to be alone anymore.” My theory is that Billy Joel is uncomfortable in the suit because it’s too normal a thing to wear, and he would have gotten a less condescending response from this woman if he’d just been himself and thrown on that shark skin jacket.
What are middle class clothes to Billy Joel? Look no further than the “engineer boots, leather jackets, and tight blue jeans” he sings about in “Scenes From An Italian Restaurant,” the most normal outfit I can find in his lyrics. You can tell he doesn’t believe in normal outfits because the dude who wears the engineer boots, leather jackets, and tight blue jeans is divorced before the end of the song.
And what are clothes that remind Billy Joel of his youth? Let’s talk about everyone’s favorite seven-minute song about being a teenager and smoking weed and reading dirty magazines, “Captain Jack,” and how the protagonist goes downtown to stare at the “junkies and the closet queens” while wearing “tie-dye jeans,” which he must have made himself, right? Let’s take a moment to picture that together. Tie-dye jeans!!! Also, that rhyme! Tie-dye jeans! Closet queens! That’s the seventies, baby!!!
So, to Billy J, clothing is frivolous if you’re a rich lady or you spend a lot of money on it, but clothing is good if it makes you look insane. Me and my zillennial generation of thrift store treasure hunters can certainly relate to that — I recently bought a box of vintage mystery clothes from someone on TikTok who went to an estate sale for a famous accordionist who performed all over the world from the ’60s to the ’80s, so BJ’s stance on fashion really does resonate with me. I got a pretty wild belt.
But I would like to say — “you get more mileage from a cheap pair of sneakers” is not as wise as you think it is, Mr. Joel. I wrote about this when I wrote about growing up lower-middle-class and Jewish, but it’s worth it to invest the money in a good pair of sneakers up front, if you have it, because you end up spending more on sneakers down the line if you keep having to replace them. Just a thought I hope he takes into consideration when he’s fast fashion shopping for his next pair of shoes, a thing I’m sure he does and I’m sure he does for himself now that he’s 72 and a multi-multi-millionaire.
My biggest surprise in uncovering all of this chaos was there’s not a single reference to fashion history in “We Didn’t Start the Fire,” except for that he mentions Davey Crockett, and that could be a reference to the hats as well as the TV show. I need to believe Billy Joel wore one at some point in earnest. Can’t you picture it? With his iridescent socks?
Anyway. I hope Billy Joel is doing well, and I hope he’s ready to tour again, because I can’t wait to go see him in concert for the second time. He was a great college graduation present, even though he doesn’t dress insane on tour. If you look at old photos of Billy Joel, it doesn’t seem like he even really dressed insane back then. But lyrics are aspirations; and, Billy Joel, if you’re reading this, I want you to know it’s okay if you want to break the tie-dye jeans back out of your closet post-COVID. Or not. Either way, I’ll be thinking of your clothes, and, oh, your 2020 FASHION LINE CALLED ‘DOWNEASTER,’ and I’ll be really listening to you as you sing “Piano Man.”
“It’s sad and it’s sweet and I knew it complete,” you always sing, “when I wore a younger man’s clothes.”
I wonder what you’re picturing. I wonder how that’s changed over time.
Coming up next, I have a thing about the Muppets. I know that’s what most of you voted for in my Twitter poll, but I really got into this Billy Joel thing and my mom and I spent a half-hour on the phone going through his entire oeuvre just to make sure I didn’t miss anything big and glaring.
Go see Billy Joel in concert, you freaks.
Venmo me if you liked this and want to support me.