Billy Joel: Allentown [purchase]
My second post for Star Maker Machine, back in 2008, was about the difference between a protest song and a political song. The song then was Deportees, by Woody Guthrie. Like Deportees, Billy Joel’s Allentown is a political song. It attempts to persuade by humanizing a situation and thereby eliciting our sympathies. In this case, the issue was the plight of the steel industry in the United States in the early 1980s. This was the first appearance of what is now the trend called outsourcing. Joel in his lyrics cites the fact that the coal to fire the steel mills of Pennsylvania was becoming harder to find and mine, but it is also true that steel companies were starting to find that they could produce steel more cheaply overseas.
Joel takes for his narrator a generation of workers without work in Allentown Pennsylvania. Because this is a Billy Joel song, his sentimental streak shows up in his idealized depiction of how the generation before the current one lived. Joel contrasts this with the shattered hopes and dreams of the unemployed steel workers at that time. They not only haven’t achieved their own dreams, they also haven’t lived up to the hopes their parents had for them. Joel doesn’t assign blame for this, but he leaves us with the feeling that, whoever’s fault this is, it is not the hard working people of Allentown.
The video also attempts to be socially relevant, but the results are mixed. It begins well enough, although the impact is somewhat blunted by the stylized way the humanity of these unemployed steel workers is depicted. But the year was 1982, and when the song reaches the bridge, all of a sudden we start seeing these dancers doing eighties music video moves. At one point, they appear to be worshiping an American flag made out of Christmas lights. Huh? The dance sequences, in short, are best ignored. Billy Joel was, in 1982, a commercial songwriter and musician, but this song shows that something bigger than himself had moved him. The video shows that his label approved, but didn’t completely understand this.