There’s a place in the world for the angry young man
With his working class ties and his radical plans
— Billy Joel
The best thing Billy Joel has ever done is not make another album. He has not made an album every year for the past twenty-five years. He stopped making albums after River of Dreams (1993) and never stopped stopping. I envy his temerity.
I used to want to play piano like Billy Joel: something that would never happen when you don’t play by ear, can’t keep time, and refuse to run scales. When you’re a teenage piano man with uneducated ambition and few chops, you will end up recording a lumbering cover of “Scenes from an Italian Restaurant” and posting it on YouTube. You will do this unless you’re fortunate enough to grow up in the 1990s when YouTube isn’t a thing and only the audience of your high school talent show must hear your left hand wobble its way down from G to C as you machine-gun pluck a melody line about teens who peak too soon. I learned to play Billy Joel songs by reading the sheet music alongside my piano teacher: a death sentence for my rock career, although I was too stupid to know it then.
Billy Joel did not go to college. Because he was talented and ambitious, he dropped out of Long Island’s Hicksville High School in 1967 and set out to make music. So here is where the comparison that never began comes to an end. I graduated from Mount Vernon Christian Academy in Atlanta, Georgia, attended Georgia State University, then transferred after two years to the University of Virginia, where I received my BA in English and Political Science (with honors). I then enrolled in the English doctoral program at Indiana University, where my talents as a homosexual and a literary analyst were gradually refined to produce a queer theorist and a Renaissance scholar.
For roughly fifteen years (2002-2017), I figured out what I had to say, then said what I had to say, about the shape of sexuality in Shakespeare’s plays and Milton’s poems. Most of what I had to say went unheard outside an exceptionally small group of likeminded scholars: I unscientifically estimate my readership at one hundred nationally, one hundred and ten internationally. I wrote over a dozen essays and two monographs, both on well-respected university presses. I have co-edited two books and half a dozen journal issues. I secured a tenure-track job at Ball State University, then another, better job at Clemson University. I achieved tenure and promotion at Clemson, then promotion again. Now I’ve thrown in the proverbial towel.
I have not quit my job. I still teach Shakespeare and queer theory. I’m happy to. I have simply stopped writing what I was hired to write about: Renaissance literature. When it comes to the literary criticism equivalent of putting out new albums, I have called it quits.
Why did Billy Joel quit recording albums? He gives versions of the same answer each time he’s asked, which is often. “Some people think it’s because I’m lazy or I’m just being contrary,” he told The New Yorker’s Nick Paumgarten in 2014. “But, no, I think it’s just—I’ve had my say.”
So what did Billy Joel have to say that he stopped saying? That’s harder to say. Joel does not elaborate on his musical raison d’être. He’s a songwriter and a showman. He once wrote a song about himself called, flatly, “The Entertainer.” He’s also a bit of a hack: with songs as enduring as they are derivative. No stranger to bad reviews, Joel arguably only ever proved the best student of mid-century pop and rock, which makes it easy to say he had nothing himself to say.
But in a fun 2009 hate piece for Slate, “The Worst Pop Singer Ever,” Ron Rosenbaum pins Joel’s message down to one of “unearned contempt.” Forget, if you can, the imitations: the shameless lifting from The Beatles, Ray Charles and Bob Dylan. Like the whir of the dentist drill that so often accompanies Joel songs, these imitations would be almost bearable, Rosenbaum claims, were they not dripping with disdain, with scorn for both critics of his work and the working-class folk Joel’s songs often place himself among (“Allentown,” “The Downeaster ‘Alexa’”). According to Rosenbaum, Joel’s oeuvre demonstrates “both a contempt for others and the kind of self-approbation and self-congratulation that is contempt’s backside, so to speak.” Hear Joel sneering at the patrons who put bread in his jar (“Piano Man”). At junkies who masturbate (“Captain Jack”). At police sergeants who bartend so that they can trade their Chevys in for a “Cadillac-ac-ac-ac-ac-ac” (“Movin’ Out [Anthony’s Song]”).
Only I’m not sure I do hear it. Or maybe I just empathize with it. The double gesture of contempt Rosenbaum describes, turned both inward and outward, is not totally dissimilar from how I experienced academia. Have I not held in contempt everyone who, upon learning that I teach English, worries I will correct their grammar? Or, worse (because I do correct their grammar), have I not held in contempt all the members of my family who believe me to be writing a novel like Insert Grocery-Store-Rack-Author-Name Here? Have I not held in contempt every scholar in English Renaissance studies who has written on topics even slightly adjacent to mine but not cited me, much less acknowledged the profoundly influential caste of my life’s work? Insecurity and contempt often go hand in hand.
My husband, a mean but honest person, swollen with contempt for the whole profession of literary studies, says that the most important thing about my life’s work is that it’s not important. Nothing I’ve written about sex in Renaissance literature will ever do anyone anything more than the faintest tinge of tangible good. Almost no one reads it. I masturbate onto the page and send it off for publication in elite venues accessed only by other masturbatory elitists. Both of my monographs sold north of two hundred copies, and most of those to university libraries. Knowingly engaged in his own futile work of churning out legal briefs that have scant hope of securing retrials for murderers and meth dealers, my husband tells me that the most important thing about my work is that it is grotesquely self-indulgent: a project whose “importance to the humanities” I have entirely misrecognized as a function of my narcissism.
Are Billy Joel’s songs important for humanity? Would the world be a worse place without “The Longest Time” or “She’s Always a Woman?” Do such questions, I wonder, even concern him?
Thus, my new ambition: I want to be the Billy Joel of English Renaissance Studies. A quitter. A laurel-rester. A doer of something else for haters and ingrates. And you will all be better off for my success.
In an alternate world, Billy Joel would have stopped stopping. A few years off, maybe, and he would have come back – occasionally turning out post-prime albums like other elder statespeople: Elton John, Bruce Springsteen, Madonna. Or maybe after many years Rick Rubin would have drug him into a room, just him and a Steinway, and pressed record. (Joel told Vulture’s David Marchese that Rubin tried.) Instead, Joel wrote a selection of classical pieces: 2001’s Fantasies and Delusions. He has since written other classical pieces, including an unfinished set on the history of Long Island. But according to Paumgarten’s profile, the “meticulously unproductive” Joel keeps most of these songs stored in his head.
We must acknowledge that Joel quit quitting pop song recording twice: first for “All My Love” (2006), then, with Cass Dillon, “Christmas in Fallujah” (2007). Neither song is good. They confirm Joel’s own words to Paumgarten: “I’ve seen artists on that treadmill, putting out albums year after year, and the albums get worse and worse, less and less interesting, and it’s, like, maybe you should stop.” But I don’t count these singles as relapses. “All My Love” and “Christmas in Fallujah” are one-offs, part of no larger project, barely promoted and performed; tossed out on a whim and left to drift. No one mistook them as signs of a comeback.
Sometimes I wonder what Billy Joel thinks he deserves. Does he want Bob Dylan’s Nobel Prize? Recognition, finally, that “We Didn’t Start the Fire” is lyrically better than whatever the fuck Dylan is trying to say in “The Times They are a-Changin.” (I have always hated that stupid folksy affectation “a-changin”). Joel covered Dylan’s song on his 1987 album Kontsert (live from behind the Iron Curtain!), and the cover — the album’s last track — always struck me as envious and anticlimactic. Leave it off, I would have said. “My Life” needs to be on this album instead.
In an alternate world, I would have gotten what I was sure I deserved: a job at Dartmouth. I placed second for a job there in 2010. Two years ago, a senior member of the Dartmouth English department asked me to apply again for a position there, but I had already decided to quit. I had no new Renaissance project with which to market myself. At the time, I was co-writing a book on the mid-nineties Christian pop-rock trio dc Talk, a project that fit precisely no part of the job description for a senior Shakespearean who was still Shakespearerizing. I also had no desire to play the role of ambitious applicant on the academic job market. I contemptuously declined. I refused to sing for my supper, for I was already full.
Sometimes you hit middle age and realize you’ve already done what you came to do. Billy Joel made River of Dreams when he was forty-five. He is now seventy. That’s a lot of time spent sitting around, not recording, not dying.
Like Joel viewing River of Dreams as one of his best albums that, title song aside, went underpromoted and unheard (a somewhat insane claim he makes to Marchese), I view my last book, Members of His Body, as a labor of love that fell like a tree in an unpopulated forest. I don’t want to do it anymore. I can’t imagine what else I have to say about the Renaissance or sex in the Renaissance. Should I also mention that academic writing puts me in a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad mood? That I once became so fixated on the precision of my argument about Measure for Measure that I screamed at my husband for serving scalloped potatoes rather than sweet? No one deserves that, least of all me.
Google almost any conversation with Billy Joel over the past twenty-five years and you will find variations on the question Why did you quit? It’s not enough to say, as Joel has repeatedly, Because I wanted to. Deadweight, even beloved deadweight that continues to sell out shows at Madison Square Garden, must justify its current non-productivity, which is to say, its continued existence. These interviews, these New Yorker profiles: they are de facto annual reviews of a songwriter who’s declared he no longer has much interest in releasing songs.
I envy Joel’s shrug of the shoulders to this not-so-subtle application of expectative pressure. After all, Joel knows a lot about pressure. He wrote a nervy little masterpiece about it called “Pressure.” (“You have to learn to pace yourself . . . Pressure!”) I don’t know whether the lyrical “you” refers to Joel himself or someone else, but let’s imagine the whole song refers to the expectation on Joel to keep churning out albums, or to a young academic preparing a tenure dossier, or to an aging academic facing the quiet task of writing another book. Joel’s answer to such pressure? He didn’t have one: “Don’t ask for help / You’re all alone.”
My friend and fellow academic Duane reminds me that professional anxieties around publication reduce, in the age of the neoliberal corporate university, to our institution’s governing ideology of ceaseless productivity. We can call this ideology excellence. When I tell him that I once again aspire to be Billy Joel, Middle-Aged Shucker of Publication Pressures, My Idol of Middling Proficiency, he tells me that Joel and I are both products of a system in which human value is predicated upon interminable work. “In America,” Duane adds, “saying ‘I’d prefer not to’ is an entirely incomprehensible articulation.”
Duane diagnoses my professional angst in economic terms because he knows I find the sweeping gesture contemptuous. The whiney anxieties that provoke here my own contribution to the genre of “quit lit” have little in common with labor concerns of the working class, and to place my problems on a scale with those of minimum-wage workers, the chronically un- or under-employed, or the unemployed academics in our glutted PhD market, is to fail to recognize my problems are pure luxury. My angst about ceasing to be a Renaissance Studies scholar is not a symptom of an institution in crisis; it’s a fringe benefit. There are also other, if equally predictable, psychological explanations for my angst: a mid-life crisis (sure), post-tenure-and-promotion malaise (absolutely). And those are so boring. I just want to write Billy Joel’s own words to Paumgarten on my annual self-assessment report: “I look back at [my younger self] and I think, Who the fuck was that guy? He was very ambitious, very driven, and I don’t feel like that anymore.”
Anyway, if I’m being pretentious, it’s less Melville’s Bartleby with whom I empathize in my present idolization of Billy Joel than Colonel Aureliano Buendía from Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude. A leftist revolutionary, Colonel Buendía suddenly realizes that he’s waged war out of a sense of pride. “That’s bad,” says Gerineldo Márquez, Buendía’s friend and fellow soldier, flatly. Márquez means there are greater causes at stake: justice, humanity, the party. But Buendía’s response is mean, honest: “It’s better than not knowing what you’re fighting for. . . Or fighting like you do for something that doesn’t matter.”
Did I ever care about the humanities? Or, as I would have phrased it a few years ago, contributing to the ongoing project of achieving justice for queer people today through the analysis and dissemination of research about sexual difference in the past? No. I’m far too self-absorbed. I was just good at it, and being good at it filled me — like the speaker of any number of Billy Joel songs — with unearned contempt.
At present, I am not deadweight. I’m trying my hand at other things: creative nonfiction, translating Spanish poetry, child rearing. I’ve tried writing poetry, but I write poetry about as well as Billy Joel plays guitar. I am simply stating, for the interviewer who has never asked, that I’m done with Renaissance Studies. The field now bores me, which is not a comment on the field, but an admission that I owe my success in it less to anything I had to say than to a narcissism that transformed me into an academic workhorse.
In his hate essay, Rosenbaum does not ask why millions of people don’t, in fact, find Billy Joel to be the worst pop singer ever; why they, like me, prefer Joel to Bob Dylan or Gillian Welch, both of whom Rosenbaum namechecks as evidence of his superior tastes. (Rosenbaum is kind of a dick.) The question is important to me not only because “Uptown Girl” is far superior to anything Dylan has ever written. The question is important because I think of Dylan — or Leonard Cohen, say — as imagined role models of academia: consistent careerists, familiar product producers. And that is not what I am doing. I am stopping, and I do not intend to stop stopping.
I will probably never achieve being Billy Joel: happily (or so it seems) unproductive. For one thing, I don’t have enough money to sustain the upper-middle-class lifestyle to which I have grown accustomed. My husband informs me that I cannot in fact relinquish tenure and open a goat sanctuary. I also enjoy teaching: performing a conversation with students that, despite how I have always answered the job interview question, has almost nothing to do with my research. If I don’t relapse entirely, I might one day spit out a shitty something like “All My Love” or “Christmas in Fallujah.” But if I remain a Renaissance scholar, I want it to be in the more capacious sense of a Renaissance person: a trier of new things. I want to take the golden shackles tenure has provided me and do something else: something more honest about the fact that I’m in this for my own sake.
Will Stockton’s latest books include Jesus Freak (Bloomsbury, 2018); and Operation on a Malignant Body, a translation of Sergio Loo’s Operacíon al cuerpo enfermo (The Operating System, 2019). He teaches English Clemson University. Find him at willstockton.com.
Marchese, David. “In Conversation with Billy Joel.” Vulture. July 23, 2018. Web.
Márquez, Gabriel García. Cien Años de Soledad. 1967. Vintage, 2009.
Paumgarten, Nick. “Thirty-Three-Hit Wonder.” The New Yorker. October 27, 2014. Web.
Rosenbaum, Ron. “The Worst Pop Singer Ever: Why, Exactly, is Billy Joel So Bad?” Slate. January 23, 2009. Web.