The Strange Love Affair of Gen Z and Billy Joel

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05-02-2021

There are a lot of weird niches on Tiktok. There’s witchtok, skatetok, kinktok—basically, if you can get your content past the app’s censors, you can create a niche for it. One of the newest, weirdest, least expected niches? Billy Joeltok. 

What do you find on Billy Joeltok? Nothing like what you’d expect, if you, like me, grew up with Boomer parents who still know all the words to “My Life” and “She’s Always a Woman,” and therefore associate Billy Joel with road trips and kitchen singalongs. No, Joeltok isn’t for our middle-aged parents. It’s for young people: Gen Zs like Mack, the creator of the “Zanzibar” dance challenge, and countless young women who posted videos of themselves crying on their floors while a mashup of Meg Thee Stallion and “Vienna” played in the background (“I can’t talk right now. I’m doing hot girl shit.” “Slow down, you crazy child / you’re so ambitious for a juvenile…”).

So: what is up with Joeltok? Why are we suddenly raiding our parents’ record collections for the discography of a septuagenarian soft rocker? The answer might lie in a tweet (that I can’t find right now), which pointed out that the Billy Joel formula is simple: story from old America + jazzy instrumental = bop. The Piano Man regales us with stories of an America long past, where Brenda and Eddie get married and get divorced and stay friends (“Scenes from an Italian Restaurant”), where a Long Island fisherman laments the struggles of life on the high seas (“The Downeaster ‘Alexa’”), where the downtown guy finally gets his uptown girl (“Uptown Girl”). The latter was rediscovered by Gen Z thanks to the memorable dance scene in The Crown season 4, marrying two obsessions of our parents’ generation for new audiences: the drama of Charles and Diana, and, of course, Billy Joel.

After a year that felt like every other day was a chapter in an APUSH textbook, the detached rapidity with which Joel lists every major event of the twentieth century in “We Didn’t Start the Fire” is reassuring. Billy Joel’s music, much like the music of contemporary Bruce Springsteen, is nostalgic by design. It tells of a past that was eventful but no longer painful, the kind of stories you reminisce about with your friends over a beer in the backyard (or over a jazzy sax solo). It’s a Boomer’s version of America that most Gen Zs never have or never will experience, though we crave the stability of it all the same. Maybe we’re all dad rockers at heart. Maybe that’s what 2020 made of us. There is no balm in Gilead; perhaps we’ll find it in Leningrad.

Article and header image by Hannah Lowe.

Images in header (L-R): Tiktok users @kohnk, @maxmith_, @shacrow, @mynameisshaq420.

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