Ryan Raul Bañagale ’00, Colorado College associate professor of music and director of performing arts at CC, has co-edited a new book, “We Didn’t Start the Fire,” a first-of-its-kind collection of essays that offers close analysis and careful insight into the ways the work of Billy Joel has impacted popular music during the last 50 years.
The legendary musician has sold more than 150 million records, produced 33 Top-40 hits, received six Grammy Awards, and been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. He was the subject of a scholarly symposium, “It's Still Rock and Roll to Me: The Music and Lyrics of Billy Joel,” organized by Bañagale and Joshua Duchan of Wayne State University. The two-day public musicology conference, which explored Joel’s songs and why they’re so meaningful for so many people, was held at Colorado College in October 2016.
“Joel is a consummate singer-songwriter whose compositions translate larger cultural concerns into accessible and compelling musical narratives, Bañagale said when organizing the 2016 symposium on America’s “piano man.”
Bañagale and Duchan teamed up again as co-editors of “We Didn’t Start the Fire,” published by Lexington Books, authoring an introduction and each contributing their own chapter. The essay collection includes the work of 11 additional contributors, one of whom is Joel.
In the foreword, Joel writes, “Ultimately, I leave the interpretation of my music to others. I’ve said all I can, in the music and the interviews. I’m flattered that the last few years have seen an increase in interest in my music on the part of musicologists and other scholars, seeking better understandings of my songs and their place in American history and culture. If that all continues, great. And the chapters in this book are a very good place to start.”
Extending his own research in a subfield of musicology known as Arrangement Studies, Bañagale’s essay in the volume is titled “My Lives: Greatest Hits and the Arranging of a Career.” In it he considers how compilation albums selectively group individual songs together to tell a particular story about an artist, one that is ultimately controlled by the record label to maintain a musicians place in the marketplace.
The chapters interrogate how popular music frames experiences, constitutes history and culture, and gains importance in people’s daily lives. With the exception of Duchan, none of the scholars featured in this book specialize in the music of Billy Joel. Rather, as was the case at the original public musicology conference, the authors applied their own analytical expertise to the subject at hand. Using such diverse approaches, this volume serves as a model for how any scholar can approach the study of popular music.