The Billy Joel song "We Didn't Start the Fire" is a rapid-fire rundown of world events, cultural affairs and prominent personalities from between 1949, the year Joel was born, and 1989. The lyrics are a stream-of-consciousness list of 119 famous people, places and things that instantly elicit vivid images from the historical time period that the song's lyrics move through. Released on the album "Storm Front," it was a number-one hit in the United States. In interviews, Joel has given several reasons for why he wrote it.
Structure and content
"Harry Truman, Doris Day, Red China, Johnnie Ray / South Pacific, Walter Winchell, Joe DiMaggio / Joe McCarthy, Richard Nixon, Studebaker, Television / North Korea, South Korea, Marilyn Monroe"
These are the opening lyrics, making up the first four lines of the first verse. The song's five eight-line verses are accented by the chorus:
"We didn't start the fire / It was always burning / Since the world's been turning / We didn't start the fire / No, we didn't light it / But we tried to fight it"
The historical references range in topic from United States and world history to entertainment, sports, politics, literature, technology and pop culture. The 40-year period begins with the inauguration of President Harry Truman in 1949 and flies through the Cold War, the Civil Rights Movement, the assassination of JFK, the lunar landing, Woodstock, Watergate and the Reagan administration.
Just a few years before Joel wrote this song, R.E.M. recorded "It's the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine)." It is another example of the style of song with lyrics that list cultural references in rapid succession.
In 1965, Bob Dylan's "Subterranean Homesick Blues" became his first top 40 hit in the United States because of Dylan's ability to capture the energy of the turbulent times using this forceful lyrical style. The song pays homage to the novel "The Subterraneans" by Jack Kerouac, whose stream-of-consciousness style of writing was a hallmark of Beat Generation literature and had a huge influence on Dylan.
This style also has roots in 1940s and '50s American folk music, "talking blues," "scat" and rock'n'roll in terms of both the lyrical style and the content being about social issues.
Reasons for writing "We Didn't Start the Fire"
One version of the inspiration for writing "We Didn't Start the Fire" has Joel talking to a young person who, after lamenting about the deplorable state of the world at the end of the 1980s, implies that it was the fault of Joel's generation by insisting that "everybody knows that nothing happened in the fifties." Joel therefore took it upon himself to remind everyone about just how many things did happen from the 1950s through the 1980s. The chorus of the song points out that current events are a continuation of events from the past. The fire has always been burning.
According to the liner notes of the 2004 album "Piano Man: The Very Best of Billy Joel," the song was inspired by a conversation with Sean Lennon, the son of Yoko Ono and John Lennon.
In Bill Demain's book, "In Their Own Words," Joel states that he wrote the song because he had become reflective upon turning 40 years old, asking himself, "Okay, what's happened in my life?" He describes the process as "kind of a mind game." He also explains that it is unusual for him to write the lyrics before writing the music, as he did here. So, what is his opinion of the outcome? "It's one of the worst melodies I've ever written. I kind of like the lyric though."