We Didn’t Start the Fire by Billy Joel

The lyrics of this song mention many  people, places, and events that are significant in history. Most of these words bring a negative image to mind. Some examples are, “Richard Nixon…H-bomb…Children of Thalidomide.” Richard Nixon was one of our presidents and he was involved in the Watergate Scandal which led to his resignation. The H-bomb, or hydrogen bomb,  is a device which is far more powerful than the  atomic bomb which was dropped over Nagasaki and Hiroshima and injured many civilians. Thalidomide was a drug that pregnant women took to reduce the symptoms of morning sickness. Consequently, this drug had an adverse effect on their children. In the chorus, Joel mentions a fire that has constantly been burning. He says, “We didn’t start the fire It was always burning Since the world’s been turning…No we didn’t light it But we tried to fight it.” The happenings mentioned above can be considered “fires” that have had a negative effect on the world. The whole world has dystopian occurrences and the people in it are just trying to find a way to live and find happiness in it. In the music video there is a family going through their years and they are affected by many of the occurrences but they also have their happy moments.

7 thoughts on “We Didn’t Start the Fire by Billy Joel

  1. “The whole world has dystopian occurrences and the people in it are just trying to find a way to live and find happiness in it.” – I like that you analyzed the meaning of the song in this way. I never thought of this interpretation before but I completely agree with it. Based on the song and all of the problems Billy Joel sings about, it does sound like this is a dystopia.

  2. I think, the fire is a metaphor for humanity’s evil side. The actions of us trying to put it out is a metaphor for humanity’s valiant efforts to have a better nature, always trying but never able to completely overcome it. The lyrics are significant negative events that affected the lives of the American people but that most of the people didn’t directly participate in. Hence the family in the music video reading the newspaper as the events happen but still living their relatively normal lives unaffected. Also, I think the last scene of the family, when you can see that it takes place on a stage, is supposed to be set in the future of the time the song was written, and America is still trying to put the fire out.

  3. I find it highly impressive that Billy Joel was able to allude to so many historical headliners into this one song. At the same time, it’s shocking that so many negative events have happened in our history! It definitely makes me think about the ways in which different groups may have played intentional/unintentional roles in hurting others to such a degree that they (the hurt) would begin to view things from a dystopian perspective. This song made me realize that dystopias don’t solely exist in novels!

  4. While the song is a compilation of historical events, the video stays with a single family as it goes through change after change. The juxtaposition of the scenes and the word shows how a stereotypical middle class American family looked at various points during the second half of the twentieth century. By the end of the song Joel says he has had enough of history–it seems, but you know what, history just keeps on happening, you can’t just check out. Or, more precisely, in the words of the Eagles, “You can check out any time you want, but you can never leave.”

    Definitely look up some of the events that are mentioned that you maybe haven’t heard of–the song is quite a lesson.

  5. I think this is what life is all about for many people. I went to school two blocks away from the former World Trade Center buildings and watched the events unfold on 9/11- that was my second day of 9th grade! So many negative things happen in the world around us and “we didn’t start the fire”, but we each fight to either put those fires out or co-exist in the flames of the dystopia the life is all while looking for a slice of what we could individually consider a utopia. This song really captures the essence of the pain and suffering happening and affecting each one of us- this forces us all to want some sort of utopia in it all.

  6. This song reminds me of that cliché scenario where an elder is talking to kids, telling them “back in my day, we didn’t have fancy electronics, and everybody had to get a job just to put food on the table…” Everybody likes to think that they’ve worked hard in their lifetime and that they didn’t always have it easy. It’s also human nature to never forget hardships that we were forced to endure, and recalling these can make the past resemble something dystopian. In the song, Billy Joel sings everything that made his generation excited or scared. Remembering all of these gripping news events makes the era seem fast and intense. There’s no room in the song for anything that doesn’t hold shock value, and the lyrics ultimately make us see the past in a dystopian light.

  7. This song gives the same vibe that “We will become Silhouettes”, posted by @cl154571, does– both songs’ lyrics contrasted with its melody and music video.

    The song was listing so many bad historical events showing how people, and the media, focused more on the negative events that happened throughout life. Oddly enough, most of these events were man-made, which contradicts with the tittle “We didn’t start with the fire”. Maybe it’s saying that bad things were bound to happen because it was natural to have bad people who do bad things. ” we didn’t set the fire, no we didn’t light it, but we tried to fight it”. But it’s not our responsibility to right every wrong that was done. I think the song is depicting the limitations to human’s ability, especially when it comes to justice…

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