They built you a temple, and locked you away

Best academic overreach of the day:

[Billy] Joel’s treatment of the same Beethoven material [the slow movement of the “Pathétique” sonata, in the song “This Night”] is even more literal than that of [Kiss’s] “Great Expectations,” although he withholds the melodic quotation until the refrain. But the song is shot through with wordplay linking Beethoven’s nineteenth-century practice to that of the self-described “piano man” Joel and to the expressive registers of historical doo-wop ballads that the song references. Indeed, the love lyrics at times seem to suggest the solo pianist’s relationship with the keyboard; distortions of musical time and imaginitive space are effected through the utterance of words that possess meaningful implications outside the conventional subject matter of the song. These include “ready for romance” (code word for nineteenth-century repertoire), “only a slow dance” (the slow movement, outside the context of the full sonata), and the notion of an expressive historical musical continuum delivered at the end of the Beethovenian refrain music (“this night can last forever”). Joel sets up the first citation of the theme when his doo-wop rocker persona admits at the end of the verse that he can no longer “remember the rules,” launching the song into a different registral collection from which the melody and harmony of the refrain are borrowed to create an effectively expressive hybrid.

—Michael Long, Beautiful Monsters
(University of California Press, 2008)

Given that he’s just name-dropped Barthes, I was disappointed Long didn’t hit for the textual-analysis cycle with a “Piano/Man” reference.

We can probably thank producer Bob Ezrin for the Beethoven quote in “Great Expectations,” by the way—the demo has no quotation, and in fact reveals that the melody of the chorus was tweaked to more closely echo Beethoven.


  1. I thought he made a few eyebrow-arching claims in there, too. Also, the link to the book goes to your blog right now.

  2. Somehow he missed out on the fact that: “I’ve been around/Someone like me should know better/Falling in love/Would be the worst thing I could do” is a clear reference to that whole “immortal beloved” thing.

    But seriously, an article like this should make pop musicians run as fast from the academy is possible. (I’m afraid it’s too late for classical music.)

  3. Marc: Link fixed. Thanks!

    Michael: “Aren’t you running from someone/Who’s not over you”—Haydn, maybe?

    Although if good criticism sends you back to the source material, it’s working—I’ve been cranking Billy Joel since this morning. I’d forgotten how seriously awesome some of that stuff from the mid-70s is.

  4. I haven’t read the book, so I don’t know the stance the author takes on the purpose of analysis. But my perspective is that a musical analysis like this is perfectly legitimate as long as the analyst doesn’t try to claim that Billy Joel intended these references. But when the analyst makes inferences like these it can reveal potentially new experiences for other listeners, or new interpretations for other performers. Which I regard as a good thing.

  5. Scott, I'd agree that the analysis is legitimate in a 1st Amendment sort of way, but the inferences seem more like free association than real critical inquiry. And, yeah, free associating can reveal new experiences, but I'd like to think scholarly discourse offers something more substantive. Actually, the unlikely examples of “wordplay” aside, my biggest issue is the desperately scholarly tone of the entire passage – and I would have the same issue if he was writing about Beethoven.

  6. So we have here a version of the old game of citing a fragment of serious argument, whether it be a paragraph from a book or (as the NY Times loves to do) the title of an academic paper, and doing little more than exclaiming “Look at those wacky professors at work!” It seems to give perpetual amusement, though I wish now and then people would ponder some of the anti-intellectual resonances of the exercise.

    But Michael Monroe's issue with the “desperately scholarly tone” of the paragraph is nonsensical. A scholar – a brilliant scholar, I might add (I know most of Long's writings) – writing for a prominent scholarly press shouldn't adopt a scholarly tone?

  7. [t]he song is shot through with wordplay linking Beethoven's nineteenth-century practice… These include “ready for romance” (code word for nineteenth-century repertoire)

    Mr. Long probably doesn't care, but
    Beethoven's Pathetique Sonata was actually written in the eighteenth century, not the nineteenth.

  8. Well, Jeffrey, I certainly don't assume that Matthew agrees with my take, which was admittedly a bit extreme, but I think it's fair to question the usefulness of the connections Long makes. And yes, I find that a sentence like this: “distortions of musical time and imaginative space are effected through the utterance of words that possess meaningful implications outside the conventional subject matter of the song” is more convoluted than it needs to be, but I'll admit it would work better if Long delivered better examples of those “meaningful implications.”

    My point is really a broader one: that scholarly tone is often used to disguise a lack of substance. However, I'll admit I don't know enough of Long's writings to make any useful judgments about his work as whole, and I was careless even to suggest that I'm prepared to make any broader evaluation of this work.

    I don't see how it's anti-intellectual to suggest that an argument lacks merit, whether printed by a scholarly press or not. My first comment about “running from the academy” could certainly be seen as anti-intellectual, although I meant it more playfully than seriously.

  9. Michael Monroe wrote: “My point is really a broader one: that scholarly tone is often used to disguise a lack of substance.”

    I don't agree, but shouldn't the issue be whether there is or isn't substance, not what the tone is?

    And he also wrote: “I don't see how it's anti-intellectual to suggest that an argument lacks merit, whether printed by a scholarly press or not.”

    Of course it isn't. But engaging with an argument is not what I described as being “anti-intellectual”: parodying an argument by shearing it of its context and not engaging with its substance is.

  10. [Apologies for making one last comment.] It was irresponsible of me to use the phrase “desperately scholarly tone” in reference to the short passage from Long, to whom I owe an apology. That's an example of “desperately careless commenting” on my part, forgetting that what feels like a casual throw-away line in the moment is just going to sit there with my name on it. Thanks for calling me on it, Jeffrey.

  11. I don't take issue with the free-association—I love a good far-out close-reading interpretation—but I think there's an uncanny-valley sort of boundary that needs to be acknowledged when the interpretation gets this far-out: some admission that the proposed framework is largely an exercise in intellectual playfulness. (I mean, if you go to the primary sources, Joel himself says the inspiration for the song was dating Elle Macpherson.) I was sincerely entertained by Long's excursion, but I can't tell if he's simply unwilling to relax his rhetorical persona, or if he's really unaware that nobody outside of a particularly esoteric musicology department would ever hear “This Night” in such a fashion.

    Jeffrey raises the spectre of anti-intellectualism, but since when did it become anti-intellectual to judge an argument and find it wanting, or at least amusingly ridiculous? Yes, it's an excerpt, but it's an excerpt that's a self-contained idea, and I responded to it based on my own musical experience. (And believe, me, “An Innocent Man” was a prominent part of my adolescent playlist.) As for the scholarly tone: I admit that I was equally amused, in a book with a blurb on the back cover recommending its “elegant prose,” to have to re-read sentences two and three times in order to discern their point. I'd be the last person to insist that elegant prose is a prerequisite for intellectual greatness—my interest in the work of Karl Marx being Exhibit A—but to me, “elegant” implies making ideas stylistically clear. (Barthes himself is actually someone I admire in this regard: his ideas are often complex, even discursive, but he always adjusts his syntax and style for maximum clarity.)

  12. Matthew wrote: “Jeffrey raises the spectre of anti-intellectualism, but since when did it become anti-intellectual to judge an argument and find it wanting, or at least amusingly ridiculous?”

    Never. My feeling was that the initial post did not do this. It dismissed a long quotation with a headline that pigeonholed (“academic overreach”) and a single-sentence throwaway line afterward.

    Matthew's last reply *does* more fully explain his objections to Long's, and I guess that's all I was hoping for initially: pose serious objections to a serious author.

    And Michael: that's a very gracious last remark of yours. Thank you for taking the time to make it.

  13. I only just saw the June 2 blog about my book, Beautiful Monsters. Sorry to be so late to the party. It’s too bad Mr. Guerrieri was unable to locate the kind of information he was looking for in my brief discussion of Billy Joel. But anyone who has read my book will recognize that the passage ridiculed in this post is extracted from a single example adduced within a broad introductory argument about methodological strategies currently in play in American musicology. I can’t really blame Mr. Guerrieri for not having the patience to follow it all through.

    I’m less forgiving about the critique’s smug pop-snobbism and its implicit claim to a position of musical entitlement and authenticity alien to the experience of dusty academics. This is a tiresome old saw, a thoughtless rhetorical commonplace. In fact it’s something I address in the book. That “Innocent Man” (and other Billy Joel albums) might have provided meaningful cues on the soundtrack of my own life seems not to have occurred to Mr. Guerrieri. In short, the blogger’s insistence on mocking the academic surface of my text signals to me the entrenched old-school elitism of his perspective.

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